Kenny G on His Incredible Career 'Resurgence' — and Why There Are Some Haters He's 'Cool' With

The legendary saxophonist opens up about his lasting career, dealing with critics and his secrets to fatherhood in this week's issue of PEOPLE

An avid golfer, pilot, baker, and, most famously, the bestselling instrumentalist of all time, with more than 75 million records sold, Kenny G is a man of many talents — and yet, he's never stopped trying to improve.

Since becoming a household name in the '80s with his multiplatinum album Duotones, the musician, 65, has religiously practiced the saxophone for up to four hours a day, every day, and in recent years, he's stayed current through unexpected collaborations with Kanye West and The Weeknd.

"I've been around a long time, so when people like Kanye and The Weeknd are asking me to play on their records, yeah, I do feel like it's a resurgence in my career right now," Kenny G tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday. "I'm not trying to sound egotistical, but I've always thought that when you have something of great quality, you become timeless."

Kenny G's music has indeed been a fixture at weddings and in offices and shopping malls for decades — even as far away as China, where his 1990 song "Going Home" has been played at the end of the workday in businesses around the country since its release.

But his massive success (including platinum and multiplatinum albums like 1992's Breathless, which sold 12 million copies in the U.S.) has made him a frequent critical target.

He's been parodied on South Park and in Wayne's World 2, and his 1999 mash-up of his cover of "What a Wonderful World" and Louis Armstrong's classic 1967 version moved jazz guitarist Pat Metheny to write a scathing essay that went viral. In it, Metheny questioned Kenny G's saxophone skills and accused him of creating "a new low point in modern culture."

Still, even the staunchest of critics — some of whom appear in HBO's recent documentary Listening to Kenny G — can't get him down.

"Why would I listen to some critic writing something about me when Miles Davis himself told me to my face that he liked what I was doing?" he says. "I don't pay attention to the haters, but I always like to see if they've made a comment about me cleverly. A hater who is clever is cool."

Kenny G shot for People
Kenny G. Koury Angelo

Among his "cool" critics is Ben Ratliff, a New York Times journalist who questions whether Kenny G's music is a "weapon of consent" in the documentary.

"I thought, 'Wow, that was really good. I can't believe that you came up with that,'" Kenny G says. "He was at one of the premieres in New York, and I went up to him afterwards and said, 'Ben, let's just shake hands. I want you to know that some of the things you said in the film were so well-crafted. You are a really good writer.'"

Born Kenneth Bruce Gorelick in Seattle to dad Morris, who owned a plumbing supply store, and mom Evelyn, Kenny G found his calling at age 10, after hearing a saxophone being played on the Ed Sullivan Show.

In high school, he tried to emulate famed saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., but "I could never sound like him," he says. "I just sound like me. Eventually that turned out to be a great thing."

Smokey Robinson and Kenny G during 1992 VH1's Celebrity Ski in Squaw Valley, California, United States.
Kenny G and Smokey Robinson. Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

In 1982 Arista Records president Clive Davis signed him to the label. But it wasn't until four years later — when he made a snap decision to play his original tune "Songbird" instead of his popular single "What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)" during his debut on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson — that his career took off.

"Kenny G's success has truly been singular and historic," Davis tells PEOPLE. "He's had to overcome negative critical reviews, but he's been an overwhelming people's favorite musician all over the world."

"He's been able to achieve several hit records in a media environment not at all favorable to instrumentalists," he continues. "Yes, Kenny is not a jazz musician, but he is a very special musician who gets repeated standing ovations at his live concerts and whose song melodies have become pop standards."

As Kenny G's fan base grew in the '80s, so did the legion of detractors.

"I have thick skin because the criticism happened early on," he says, recalling two different experiences playing Duotones at the same upstate New York jazz festival.

"The first year I played, the review came out saying, 'What a fresh new sound!' Then the next year, after millions of my records had been sold, the review came out saying, 'He's gone commercial.' I played the same way!" he says. "I don't think there's an artist who wouldn't want more sales, and if it's commercial, maybe it's because lots of people like it."

Through his highs and lows, Kenny G's constant has been his family.

"I love being a father," he says. "It's been great all the way around."

Kenny G shot for People
Kenny G. Koury Angelo

Though his sons Noah, 24, and Max, 28, with ex-wife Lyndie Benson, are adults now, they can always count on him for guidance.

"One of the secrets of parenting is asking questions," he says. "If my son would say something like, 'I really hate this teacher,' I would go, 'Well, why?' After enough questions, they've answered their problem themselves. My kids grew up with a lot of decision-making power."

One thing he doesn't give them advice on is love. "They think I'm way out of touch," he says with a laugh.

Watch the full episode of People Features: Kenny G on or on the PeopleTV app.

After seeing two marriages end (he split from first wife Janice DeLeon in 1987; he and Benson separated in 2012 after 20 years of marriage), Kenny G is coy about the current state of his love life. "Music doesn't lie," he demurely offers.

Looking toward the future, Kenny G — who released his 18th studio album, New Standards, in December — is excited to say that for the first time he doesn't know what comes next. "It could be a lullaby album, or maybe another Christmas record," he says.

Kenny G shot for People
Kenny G. Koury Angelo

But one thing he's certain about is that slowing down isn't an option.

"Retirement would only happen if something physical were to prevent me from playing," he says. "It's been quite a life, so I'm going to play for as long as I can."

For all the details on Kenny G's career resurgence, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

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