Candy Dulfer: Prodigy Turned Pro


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Tomorrow, if somebody tells me that I'll never be able to make albums again, I wouldn't care. As long as I can play live, that's the most important thing.
It's an age-old question—What's the secret of success? For Candy Dulfer, arguably the most commercially successful female saxophonist ever, the answer seems to include first-rate musicianship combined with a healthy dose of stage presence. To those attending their first Candy Dulfer concert, she must seem somewhat of an enigma. When she first takes the stage, tall, blonde, and beautiful, Dulfer seems more fashion model than musician—until she starts to play. Her towering spontaneous solos immediately grab one's attention. Her aggressive and funky style may remind some listeners of the late R&B tenor saxophonist Junior Walker. And when playing something more soft and sensual Dulfer is equally impressive, exhibiting the lyrical delivery of a contemporary Lou Donaldson colored somewhat with the tonal quality of her long-time idol David Sanborn. Her warm and engaging manner on stage is clearly genuine and quickly charms audiences, making them feel more like friends than fans. And Dulfer consistently delivers a show that exceeds fans' expectations, an R&B/jazz tour de force. Her success comes as no surprise to her numerous fans worldwide.

But to more fully understand Candy Dulfer's extraordinary success one must also acknowledge her confidence and desire for excellence—qualities she began developing during her remarkable early childhood. Dulfer was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on September 19, 1969, in a home which was alive with jazz from day one. Candy Dulfer is the daughter of successful Dutch jazz saxophonist Hans Dulfer. "Somewhere between five and six years old, I asked my Dad if I could play his saxophone, just try it, for one note, just for fun. He let me, and that was the beginning of everything. I asked about playing a tenor and he said 'No, I've got something else for you.' And then he took the soprano out." The small horn seemed a good match for Dulfer's own size and, surprisingly, she seemed to be able to play it almost immediately. "But I was just bluffing of course," Dulfer admits. "I'd seen him play, so I knew how to hold the hands and how to act like a saxophonist. I didn't really know how to play. I blew on it and really liked it, but it was more the reaction from my Dad that really got me. He was like 'Wow!' because he heard me play a couple of notes right away. I noticed him having so much fun and I think I realized that it was a great way for us to bond."

Not long afterward, Dulfer's father provided her with an alto saxophone, the horn that has become her instrument of choice. But perhaps the most important thing Dulfer's father gave to her was the experience of being on stage at an early age. Dulfer states that she has never been afraid of the stage or performing before a large audience. "I stood on stage before I knew how to play the saxophone, so every time I'm on stage now I feel like I know so much! So that's why I never have stage fright."

During her earliest experiences on stage, Dulfer felt the constant protection of having her father nearby and she began to develop the confidence she now exudes. "You're standing next to your father, so you're not afraid of anything or anybody. My Dad always let me walk on stage if I wanted. For instance, I would grab a tambourine, or I would sing. Sometimes it could be 30 people on stage, so little kids thrown into the mix wouldn't make a difference. I was so young that I wasn't scared. It was just such a nice way to get acquainted with the stage. [Being on-stage] is still my biggest love! Tomorrow, if somebody tells me that I'll never be able to make albums again, I wouldn't care. As long as I can play live, that's the most important thing."

Dulfer's creativity was also encouraged early on. "In the week that I started playing, [my father] took me on the stage. I said 'Dad, what should I play?' He responded 'Aw, you'll think of something. Just get on there and play!' I'm really thankful to him for that because if you go on stage without knowing how to play, you'll never be fearful again."

But Dulfer did not enter the music scene assisted only by her father. With help from saxophonist and blues vocalist Rosa King, Dulfer played the North Sea Jazz Festival when she was just twelve years old! "Rosa King was a great lady, and she was a great blues singer. She was my 'fairy godmother.' [When] Rosa heard from my father that his little girl was playing saxophone, she said 'Well, let her come by and play.' I played one gig with her and she said 'Okay you can play with me on the North Sea Jazz Festival.'"

The North Sea Jazz Festival is an important gig for any performer, and it was going to be Rosa King's first appearance there. "We were rehearsing and people in the band came to her and said 'Rosa you can't do this. This girl is twelve, and this is a really important gig for you. She shouldn't be on the gig.' But they meant well. They wanted to protect Rosa. And [Rosa] said, 'Candy's gonna play. She's gonna be on the gig and I don't care what you say!' I thought it was just sweet for her to be so protective of me. But now I'm older and I've played the North Sea myself. I fully understand now what a big chance she took having me there. We did the gig and I was fine. But when I think of it now, I get tears in my eyes because I think what a big deal that was."

Candy Dulfer's early experience on stage continued to benefit her. At age fourteen, she began fronting her own band Funky Stuff and quickly gained a reputation as an up-and-coming talent. While still a teen, Dulfer began attracting record company offers and significant media attention. And in 1987, at age seventeen, Dulfer opened for Madonna during the European segment of Madonna's Who's That Girl world tour. "I only did one gig with her, two nights actually, in the Netherlands." Dulfer initially rejected the gig but agreed to do it after some urging from her mother Inge Dulfer, who now serves as her manager. "I was just scared that Madonna's audience wouldn't like me, you know, because it's such a different style of music. It was so good for me. I played before 50,000 people, so that gave me a good confidence boost. But also, because I played for Madonna, I was asked later to be the support act for Prince. And, in hindsight, the audience liked my music, even though it was totally different from Madonna's stuff."

The following year, Dulfer's band Funky Stuff toured The Netherlands and consistently played to sold out venues. It was during this tour that they were scheduled to open for international mega-star Prince. Unexpectedly, Prince cancelled his supporting acts which sent Candy Dulfer into a rage. After receiving an angry note from Dulfer, Prince apologized and invited her to appear on stage during his own performance. Dulfer's performance not only brought down the house, but also impressed Prince and launched a continued association with him. She was quickly transformed into an international sax sensation.

Dulfer describes working with Prince "like being in a class with the strictest teacher. You've got to give 110 percent in everything you do with him. He has this aura where you want to do anything to please him, and to be the best. When you play with Prince, you have to gig at night but you also have to sound check during the day. Sound check is almost like an audition everyday. Although it's just a sound check, he wants you to be totally there. [People like Prince] have such authority that you really want to do the best you can when you're around them.

And when you gig with Prince there's always an after-show, and that will last for three or four hours. When I'm with Prince, I feel like it's the best 'master' class I'll ever get. You get so much information [and] you play with the best people in the world. And in the meantime, there's somebody really looking over your shoulder, every step of the way. That's the only time I get nervous—when I play for him. But it also drives you to become the best. He would [ask] me to play a concert one day before [the gig], and then give me a tape with 63 songs. So on a Thursday I'd be rehearsing 63 songs, and on Friday I'd be playing them. And I would be able to do it, which surprised me! But that's because he has a way to get the best out of everybody."

Candy Dulfer (age 12) on stage with Rosa King.

Dulfer's impressive performances with Prince led to recording sessions with former Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart. This collaboration resulted in the hit song "Lily Was Here" which did extremely well in both the European and American markets. Dulfer's hit with Stewart was followed by her first album as a solo artist Saxuality (Arista, 1991) which was nominated for a Grammy.

A series of performances and recordings with Grammy-winning vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Van Morrison added yet another dimension to Dulfer's career. Although Dulfer acknowledges Morrison's reputation for being somewhat "grumpy," she adds that "he means really well. He has a really big heart. Van Morrison can be difficult with his musicians, but to me and my Mom he was always so sweet. I think he liked having some young fresh blood in the band, and that's why I think he asked me so many times. He always has really great saxophone players; he doesn't really need me there. But I also think he likes the way I improvise and play very spontaneous." Dulfer has been featured on several of Morrison's recordings including his highly acclaimed album A Night in San Francisco (Polydor, 1993) which was compiled from recordings of their live performances.

Candy Dulfer's resume includes extensive experience playing and recording a variety of music styles. She has toured, performed, or recorded with a truly diverse group of artists which also includes Arturo Sandoval, Maceo Parker, Pink Floyd, Aretha Franklin, David Sanborn, Sheila E, Michael McDonald, and many more. One would think that her demonstrated versatility would prevent her music from being stereotyped or placed into one specific sub-genre. However, despite describing herself as primarily an R&B saxophonist, Dulfer is routinely referred to as a smooth jazz artist. "In Europe, we don't have these labels. We have a couple of labels: either it's pop, or jazz, or jazz/rock. Smooth jazz or contemporary or adult, all that stuff, they don't even know that [in Europe]. So I had to really get used to it when I came to the States for the first time. When I do a performance or make an album, some songs will be smooth because I think there should be some relaxed, cool stuff. But there should also be some high energy and some soulful stuff. So it's always weird to have radio stations [focus on only] one style of [my] music.

I'm glad the smooth audience embraced me because I get so many gigs. But every time we play a smooth jazz festival I have to laugh, because we play maybe three smooth songs and seven funky heavy songs. The funny thing is, they seem to like it! I guess the labels aren't all that important, but it's funny how it works. I think you shouldn't label music at all."

Perhaps Candy Dulfer and European jazz fans have the right idea in keeping labels less specific. Placing musicians and their music into the equivalent of a mutually-exclusive caste system not only discourages fans from expanding their musical tastes, but also seems to breed elitism. And it may actually stifle the creativity of artists as well. It seems almost illogical to slice the jazz market into so many distinct categories and potentially create smaller audiences for artists' recordings and live performances.

Candy Dulfer's latest album Candy Store (Heads Up International, 2007) has done very well, reaching #2 on Billboard's Top Contemporary Jazz charts. The album features a sprinkling of techno-style special effects, but it's funk and R&B roots are clear. A subsequent album is already in the works with an anticipated release in Spring 2009. And to the delight of audiences, Dulfer continues to tour extensively, delivering numerous live performances primarily in the USA, Europe, Canada, and Japan. But despite her hectic schedule, she always has time for each of the fans in the long lines that form after her performances. Dulfer routinely stays until the last fan gets an autograph or photo. And on those occasions when she meets a young musician in the crowd, Candy Dulfer makes an extra effort to encourage and inspire them, perhaps in remembrance of her own extraordinary childhood.

Selected Discography:

Candy Dulfer, Candy Store (Heads Up, 2007)

Prince, 3121 (Universal, 2006)

Candy Dulfer, Live at Montreux, 2002 (Eagle Records, 2005)

Maceo Parker, School's In (BHM Productions, 2005)

Prince, Musicology (NPG, 2004)

Jools Holland, Jack O' The Green (Warner, 2003)

Prince, Xpectation (NPG Music Club, 2003)

Candy Dulfer, Right In My Soul (Eagle Records, 2003)

Maceo Parker, Made By Maceo (What Are Records, 2003)

Candy Dulfer, Dulfer Dulfer (Eagle Records, 2002)

Prince, One Nite Alone... Live! (NPG. 2002)

Candy Dulfer, Live in Amsterdam (BMG, 2001)

Candy Dulfer, Girl's Night Out (BMG, 1999)

Candy Dulfer, What Does It Take (N-Coded, 1999)

David A. Stewart and Candy Dulfer, Cookie's Fortune (BMG Soundtracks, 1999)

Blondie, No Exit (Beyond Music, 1998)

Van Morrison, Precious Time (single) (Virgin Records, 1998)

Candy Dulfer, For The Love of You (BMG, 1997)

Hans Dulfer, Dig! (EMI, 1996)

Candy Dulfer, Big Girl (BMG, 1995)

Hans Dulfer, Big Boy (EMI, 1994)

Van Morrison, A Night In San Francisco (Polydor, 1993)

Van Morrison, Too Long In Exile (Polydor, 1993)

Candy Dulfer, Sax-A-Go-Go (BMG, 1993)

Maceo Parker, Life on Planet Groove (Polygram, 1992)

Van Morrison, Hymns To The Silence (Polydor, 1991)

Aretha Franklin, What You See Is What You Sweat (Arista, 1991)

Candy Dulfer, Saxuality (BMG, 1990)

Pink Floyd, Knebworth - The Event (video) (Castle Music Pictures, 1990)

David A. Stewart and Candy Dulfer, Lily Was Here (Anxious, 1989)

Prince, Partyman (single) (Warner Bros., 1989)

Prince, Graffiti Bridge (Warner Bros., 1989)

Rosa King & Upside Down, Too Busy (Pop Eye, 1984)

Dulfer & Perikels, I Didn't Ask (Vara Jazz, 1981)

Photo Credits

Top photo:

Middle photo: Courtesy of Hans and Inge Dulfer

Bottom photo: Courtesy of Hans and Inge Dulfer

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