Born Earl Eugene Bostic, 25 April 1913, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Saxophonist / clarinetist / flutist / bandleader / arranger.
Earl Bostic was a jazz and R&B saxophonist and a pioneer of the post-war instrumental rhythm and blues style. He recorded over 400 sides for King Records and sold millions of records. Bostic is best known for his alto saxophone sound, but he also played tenor sax, flute and clarinet on his records. His virtuosity on the sax was legendary. Nobody could play the instrument higher and faster.
Born in Tulsa in 1913, Bostic was introduced to music early on, playing clarinet and alto sax during his high school years. At age 17 he was already a skilled musician, who was active in territory bands (a typical Oklahoma phenomenon). His formal schooling as a musician took place at Xavier University in New Orleans, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music theory in 1934. This is where he developed his skills as a composer and arranger and he would go on to write arrangements for such luminaries as Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Paul Whiteman, Louis Prima, Artie Shaw, Hot Lips Page and Jack Teagarden.
In January 1938 he moved to New York City - a place he would call home for the next twenty years - and formed a jazz combo. Bostic and his band secured a residency at Small’s Paradise in Harlem in 1939. His first participation in a recording session was on October 12, 1939, in New York City with Lionel Hampton’s band. Bostic had been playing in professional big bands on and off since he was seventeen and the experience showed in his full and smooth tone, with a strong vibrato. After playing with Hot Lips Page and Lionel Hampton during World War II, Bostic formed a new band of his own in 1945. The first recordings under his own name were made in November 1945, for the Majestic label, and released on two singles in 1946. Next, Bostic recorded for the Gotham label, scoring his first chart entry in 1948 with “Temptation” (Gotham 160), which peaked at # 10 on the R&B charts. Syd Nathan, owner of the King label in Cincinnati, liked what he heard and bought Bostic’s contract, along with most of his already recorded masters, from Gotham Records in late 1948. Thus began a partnership between Earl Bostic and King Records that would last sixteen years.
Earl Bostic’s commercial breakthrough came in 1951 with the R&B hits “Sleep” (# 6) and “Flamingo” (# 1 for four weeks). “Flamingo” (originally made popular by Duke Ellington in 1941) became his signature tune and his ticket to international fame. With this success, Bostic could afford to take his band on the road and toured across the United States, later also abroad. Though there were no further chart entries, Bostic was a consistent seller throughout the 1950s. Sessions were held in New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles. His groups ranged from small five-piece ensembles, in which Earl was the only horn player, to eleven-piece groups, some of which included a string section. Bostic worked with many talented and important musicians, among them John Coltrane (who has mentioned Earl as his biggest influence), Benny Carter, Benny Golson, René Hall, Bill Doggett, Mickey Baker and Earl Palmer.
The success of “Flamingo” changed his music in a variety of ways. Some critics maintain that in his pursuit of subsequent hits, Bostic softened the raspy, honking edge that made his records so exciting. However, according to most Bostic experts, this criticism is not really valid, in spite of some weaker recordings from 1953-54. The real decline in Bostic’s recordings came when King began flooding the market with LPs in the late 1950s. Beginning in 1958, King worked him at an insane pace. Until then, Earl had been recording about twelve songs a year, but that changed. In 1958, Bostic and his band recorded 73 songs, enough for six twelve-song albums. It got worse. The next year, during marathon three- and four-day recording sessions between January and June, Bostic recorded 154 songs, enough for almost thirteen LPs. That’s nineteen albums in less than eighteen months. Nobody could maintain quality at that pace. To make things worse, Bostic was often given mediocre material to record, much of it no better than easy-listening dross.
As a result of all this, Bostic became the most frequently recorded artist ever on King, though he would later be surpassed by James Brown. After his herculean recording efforts of 1959, Bostic returned to the studio only four more times for King, in 1963 and 1964. His health was failing by that point and he toured infrequently. Earl Bostic died of a heart attack in 1965 (aged 52), while performing with his band in Rochester, New York. He was buried at Inglewood Cemetery in California.
Bostic’s work is often marginalized by critics, especially by the jazz community, written off as commercial or entertainment music. To the R&B fan, Bostic was too much of a jazzman to be a “real” R&B star. But he was always held in high esteem by his peers and deserves to be more famous than he is now.
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Acknowledgements : Owen Callahan, Joop Visser, Jon Hartley Fox, Wikipedia.
Dik, October 2017
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