Born in Tampa in 1928, Julian Edwin Cannonball Adderley was a prominent jazz alto saxophonist, becoming particularly influential in the 1950s and 1960s. He got his nickname of “Cannonball” from a joke between high school friends, who originally called him “Cannibal” due to his impressive ability to quickly eat large amounts of food. This nickname morphed into “Cannonball”, by those who didn’t understand the joke.
Julian Adderley became a local favorite in Florida, famously collaborating with Ray Charles in the early 1940s. Adderley also taught music classes at a Florida high school before moving to New York City in 1955.
It was in New York that Cannonball Adderley’s career truly began to flourish. He was first noticed when he visited a jazz club with his saxophone in tow, worried that it would be stolen if he left it at home. When a group’s saxophonist did not appear for a show, bandleader Oscar Pettiford noticed Adderley and invited him on stage to sit in on a set. He impressed the crowd and band with his skill and quickly became a well-known fixture in the New York jazz scene.
Adderley formed a band with his brother Nat in 1957, which was quickly signed by jazz label Savoy Records. While the Cannonball Adderley Quintet was not successful, Adderley attracted the notice of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. He joined Davis’s group, where he contributed to Kind of Blue and Milestones. Today, both albums are widely considered to be important parts of the jazz canon. It was also during this time that Adderley met and befriend pianist Bill Evans. The two would go on to record two albums together.
After leaving Davis’s band, Adderley and his brother formed the Cannonball Adderley Sextet. The band would prove to be much more successful in its second iteration, even becoming popular among pop audiences. In particular, Adderley’s song “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” became a hit in 1967 and reached number 11 on the Billboard charts, an unusual level of popularity for a jazz tune. Today, the song is considered a standard and has been famously re-recorded by artists like The Buckinghams and Curtis Mayfield.
By the late 1960s, Adderley began incorporating aspects of avant-garde jazz in his style, recording albums like Accent on Africa, Country Preacher and The Black Messiah. Around this time, Adderley also began playing soprano saxophone in addition to the alto. Adderley also made several cameos in films and television programs in the 1970s, even appearing in an acting role alongside David Carradine in an episode of Kung Fu.
As a band leader, Adderley recorded over 50 albums, appearing on many more as a sideman. Adderley continued to actively record until 1975, when he died of a stroke. He was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame shortly after his death, and will be remembered forever as a Famous Saxophone Player.
To set the record straight, No, the Cannonball Saxophone range wasn’t named after him.