10 Explosive Cannonball Adderley Songs

The overnight success of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley could quite easily have been cooked up for a Hollywood movie; walking into a New York club in 1955, he was invited up on stage with Oscar Pettiford’s band to fill in for a missing sax player. The next morning, the city was buzzing with talk of the heir to Charlie Parker’s throne!

In this article we chart the rise of Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley – one of the most popular musicians of the post-bop era – in 10 individual songs that he made his own.

Julian Edwin Adderley was born in 1928 Florida to a musical family of teachers, where he soon earned the nickname “Cannonball” (aka cannibal) for his never-ending appetite.

Along with his brother and long-time collaborator Nat Adderley, his early career in music initially mirrored that of his parents – in a school – before the Korean war saw him drafted.

Fast-forward to 1955 and, back from leading the 36th US army dance band, the young altoist decided to move to New York to search for the next step in his career.

He didn’t have to wait long to find it…

Turning up carrying his saxophone at the Cafe Bohemia in New York City where Oscar Pettiford’s band was appearing, Cannonball was asked to sit in for Jerome Richardson who was late for the gig.

Cannonball made a big impression with his performance that night, and the word was out that the heir to Charlie Parker, who had died in March that year, had arrived.

Despite the buzz, his group with brother Nat was not an instant hit. It did, though, bring Cannonball to the attention of a certain Miles Davis, who hired the trumpeter in 1957.

What followed was a two year period that not only provided the saxophonist with a rich education in jazz, but saw him leave his mark on two seminal jazz albums, Milestones and Kind of Blue.

We pick up the story here, with ten songs which Cannonball Adderley undeniably made his own.


From the album Milestones by Miles Davis (Columbia – rec 1958)

Titled ‘Miles’ on the original album and known as ‘Milestones’ on later LP and CD releases, this was Davis’s first modal jazz composition.

The composition uses a dynamic way of creating and releasing tension in the theme, and the structure is retained for the solos.

Adderley is given the honour of soloing first, and it is possibly one of his greatest recorded solos with his phrases bouncing over the modal framework of the piece in a joyful and declamatory outing.

Autumn Leaves

From the album Somethin’ Else (Blue Note – rec 1958)

Miles Davis showed his admiration for Cannonball Adderley by agreeing to play on the saxophonist’s Blue Note album Somethin’ Else in 1958, taking a sideman role for the penultimate time in his career.

Recorded less than a week after Miles’ recording of Milestones, the trumpeter’s influence on the album is considerable. He sets the tone with this considered treatment of the melody, yet its Adderley’s solo, bursting out of the head full of blues, which is the biggest gem.

The world has no shortage of versions of Autumn Leaves, but this one has to be up there with the very best, fully showing why generations of saxophone players have studied the solo.

One For Daddy-O

From the album Somethin’ Else (Blue Note – rec 1958)

Whilst Cannonball was arguably the most successful of the brothers in terms of critical acclaim, many of his most popular songs were written by his Nat.

Dave Brinkman / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous examples is the tune One For Daddy-O, composed for the Chicago radio DJ, Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie.

It’s a medium 12-bar blues which suits the altoist perfectly. His solos here (he gets two!) are real beauties; full of blues phrases and inflexions all delivered with his own distinctive sound.

Work Song

From the album Them Dirty Blues (Riverside – rec 1960)

Yet another Nat Adderley composition, Work Song is one of those catchy melodies that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.

Nat had already recorded the tune for one of his own albums, but the piece really found its place Cannonball’s quintet, featuring the impeccable Bobby Timmons on piano.

Needless to say, Cannonball revels in the blues feel of this piece.

Dat Dere

From the album Them Dirty Blues (Riverside – rec 1960)

Talking of Bobby Timmons, the pianist contributed the funky composition ‘Dat Dere’ for the 1960 album Them Dirty Blues.

Not dissimilar to the more famous ‘Moanin’ that he also composed, the catchy melody combined with Cannonball’s effervescent sound was a favourite of the record labels, helping get radio air play and sell records.

Whilst perhaps not in the A-list of jazz standards, Dat Dere has gone on to feature in the repertoire of many famous jazz musicians, with versions recorded by Mel Tormé, Brad Mehldau, Mary Lou Williams, Woody Shaw and many others.

Sack o’ Woe

From the album The Cannonball Adderley Quintet at the Lighthouse (Riverside – rec 1960)

Unsurprisingly for an artist of such personality, Cannonball Adderley live albums are a highlight of his discography.

After leaving Miles in 1959, the saxophonist formed a successful quintet with his brother Nat, pioneering what would become known as the soul jazz movement.

Sack o’ Woe, recorded live at The Lighthouse in 1960, was an early example of this. It’s also notable as one of the few hit songs that Cannonball himself wrote.

As he notes in his on-record introduction. it’s a funky piece of music.

The music sums up the classic Adderley style at the time; danceable, hook-driven and grooving.

Cannonball’s alto tone is remarkably full, and his lower register could be weighty enough to be a tenor. His solo is a joyous affair, as is that of brother Nat.

African Waltz

From the album African Waltz (Riverside – rec 1961)

Finally, a Cannonball Adderley song with a big band!

The results, though, are a mixed bag.

The arrangements by Ernie Wilkins are a little too busy and can be lacking in substance; it’ i’s much to Cannonball’s credit that he gets in some good solos.

The title track, if a little pompous and over-arranged, was a surprise hit for Adderley in the US. It also saw the composer Galt MacDermot win a Grammy for the tune.

Know What I Mean

From the album Know What I Mean with Bill Evans (Riverside – rec 1961)

In a case of ‘opposites attract’, the explosive Adderley was paired with the more introverted Bill Evans for the 1961 recording Know What I Mean.

The title track is a lovely composition by the pianist Evans, beginning with a gentle and reflective opening before gradually opening up into a swinging section.

The altoist sounds tentative as he states the melody and is remarkably restrained even in his solo in the swing section.

The empathy with Evans is evident (the two men were both in the Miles Davis Sextet that recorded Kind of Blue a couple of years earlier) and it’s a superb album that is often overlooked.

The Jive Samba

From the album Jazz Workshop Revisited (Riverside – rec 1962)

Jive Samba is the standout track from a live album recorded with a sextet that included Yusef Lateef on tenor saxophone, flute and oboe.

The music was received with much enthusiasm and gusto by the audience in attendance.

Written by Nat Adderley, this is another of the tunes that made the soul jazz sound of the early sixties so appealing. It’s also notable as an early collaboration with pianist Joe Zawinul, whose rolling piano figures support fine solos form Cannonball, Nat and Lateef on flute.

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

From the album Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (Capitol – rec 1966)

“You know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity…”

As the 1960’s drew to a close, the saxophonist was becoming increasingly interested in electric instruments and jazz fusion.

Enter Joe Zawinul, who composed perhaps the most famous Cannonball Adderley song of all time and performed it on electric piano.

It’s arguably Cannonball’s spoken introduction to Mercy Mercy Mercy which makes the song though, whipping the audience into a frenzy in much the way a church pastor might.

Something of a surprise hit at the time, there is more than a hint of funky blues and gospel in Zawinul’s theme, which is played through twice to both build up and ease the tension in the room.

Whilst the focus is heavily on the pianist with his Wurlitzer electric keyboard and catchy solo, the Adderley brothers unison playing is vital.

Still, it’s surprising that arguably the most famous song of the saxophonist’s career doesn’t see him take a solo at all!

More Of The Best Cannonball Adderley Songs

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley died on 8 August 1975 after suffering a stroke.

He is remembered as a jovial and convivial musician who, by all reports, was liked and admired by all who knew him. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of a jazz musician whose playing style better matched his or her personality!

Whilst his discography may be devoid of the number of hit originals that fellow saxophonists like Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane could boast, his highly distinctive sound paved the way for success.

For anyone who appreciates swinging jazz drenched in blues, soul and gospel music, the music of Cannonball Adderley is an essential rabbit hole to dive down.

Looking for more?

Check out our pick of the best Cannonball Adderley albums, or see where he is on our round up of most famous saxophone players.

1 thought on “10 Explosive Cannonball Adderley Songs”

  1. The making of a night club in the recording studio is what brings distinct realism to the Adderly brothers music. Of course Cannonball’s intro is one of the best ever. I also once heard the talented Floridian express much joy playing at the NY club, the HALFNOTE, where the cash register was standing near the bandstand. When asked if the ringing of the machine bothered him, Cannonball explained that it was part of the rhythm section.


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