When Breaking a Record Really Blows

Kenny G, pictured above, is as famous as a saxophonist gets. One of the most successful instrumentalists in recent memory, Kenneth Bruce Gorelick (that’s his real name) has released fifteen studio albums, a bunch of other projects (such as live albums and holiday collections) and has sold nearly 100 million albums total.

But perhaps his most impressive metric comes from a performance you’d not want to listen to — and that’s not intended to be an insult. On December 2, 1997, Kenny G appeared at the unlikely venue of J&R Music World, a now-closed music retailer in Manhattan. He began by playing one note — an E-flat — and, using a technique known as circular breathing, held it for as long as he could. In the end, he played that note for a ridiculous 45 minutes and 47 seconds. We know that because it was a world record — a handful of representatives of the Guinness Book were on-site to time the attempt and to mark it down as the benchmark to beat.

In May of 2017, a musician named Femi Kuti took aim at that record — with success, or so it seemed. Kuti held a note for 46 minutes and 38 seconds, twenty seconds of which can be listened to here. (He’s playing an A.) And with that, he apparently earned his way into the record book and, as the BBC reported, celebrated his newly-earned credential. But that celebration didn’t last long. It turned out that he didn’t actually own the record after all.

In 2000, without notifying Guinness or almost anyone else, another musician named Vann Burchfield topped Kenny G’s mark, coming in at 47 minutes and 6 seconds. Burchfield told NPR “I knew that I had broken the record. I contacted a few local radio stations here in Birmingham, Ala. But just out of respect, I guess, for him, I just let the record stand as it was.”

News, however, got around. Kenny G himself knew about Burchfield’s achievement; in 2015, he told HuffPost that he had booked a flight and was going to attempt to break the record mid-air (but declined to give further details as to when, what flight route, or even with what carrier). Somehow, the news was out; Kuti just happened to miss it. And it wasn’t the only thing he missed. As 47 minutes, 6 second was the time to meet, Kuti was a heartbreaking 28 seconds short. He found out that he missed a day later and was likely quite upset. But he regained his composure and showed some resolve, tweeting that he would give it another go with eyes on achieving the first fifty-minute one-note performance.

That hasn’t happened yet — but even if it does, it still won’t be a Guinness Record. Why not? For the same reason that Guinness perhaps hadn’t recorded Burchfield’s achievement prior to Kuti’s attempt. The record keeper of record retired the category a few years ago — they no longer accept attempts which involve circular breathing.

Bonus fact: Kenny G was born and raised in Seattle and, by the mid-1980s, had amassed a small fortune. He used some of that money to become an early investor in a coffee shop known as Starbucks. A good percentage of his wealth comes from that investment, and he may be responsible for the Frappuccino as well. TIME explains: “In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Mr. G reflected on his early days as one of Starbucks’ first investors when the store sold nothing but coffee. But another company, called Coffee Bean, was selling a sweet ‘blended’ drink had people lined up around the block. He said he would always call up Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and tell him about this great drink that was essentially a milkshake.”

From the Archives: You’ll Never Hear The End of This One: A very slow concert.