Born Joseph Abraham Houston, 11 July 1926, Bastrop, Texas
R&B saxophonist Joe Houston was a honker. "Honking" is described in the following terms by Wikipedia : "The honkers were known for their raucous stage antics and expressive, exhibitionist style of playing. They overblew their saxophones and often hit on the same note over and over, much like a black southern preacher, until their audiences were mesmerized." The style began in 1942 with Illinois Jacquet's solo on Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home" (a # 3 R&B hit in 1943). Other well-known honkers from the 1940s and 1950s were Big Jay McNeely, Hal Singer, Lynn Hope, Wild Bill Moore, Red Prysock, Chuck Higgins and Freddie Mitchell. Belittled by jazz fans ("honking is pure and simple grandstanding aimed at audiences with a limited capacity to discriminate"), these guys, as they walked the bars, fell to their knees, lay on their backs, or led their audiences outside to the street, pied-piper fashion. Honking was predominantly a Los Angeles phenomenon.
Houston studied trumpet in school, but soon switched to the sax. At the age of seventeen, Joe got a steady gig playing alto sax in King Kolax's big band out of Chicago. In 1947 he switched to the tenor sax and spent the next year touring variously with Amos Milburn, Wynonie Harris, Savannah Churchill and Betty Roche. By 1949 he settled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (with his new wife, pianist Marian McKinley) and put together a local club band for Big Joe Turner. Their stint together led to Joe Houston accompanying Turner to a recording session in Houston, Texas, for the Freedom label, and while there he recorded a few sides under his own name (resulting in two singles), as a bandleader, not a saxophonist.
Not until late 1950 or early 1951 did Houston put himself front and centre as a honking tenor sax man. Until the frantic "Blow Joe Blow" (1951), recorded for the Macy label, he was strictly a blues player. That disc set the pattern for most of his subsequent recordings. Subtlety went out the window and Joe just let loose in the studio, usually choosing a climactic note and wringing the hell out of it. "Blow Joe Blow" wasn't a hit, but Jules Bihari got wind of it in Los Angeles, purchased the master and reissued it on Modern 830 in August 1951. This was soon followed by four other Modern singles, recorded at Joe's house in Baton Rouge with portable equipment, but in 1952 (the year in which Houston relocated to Los Angeles) there were also releases on Imperial, Combo and Mercury. The latter label had purchased an earlier vocal blues, "Worry, Worry, Worry", from the Sphinx label in Atlanta,Georgia, and this became Houston's only chart entry, peaking at # 10 on the R&B charts in February 1952.
But the song for which Joe Houston is best remembered is not that hit, but "All Night Long", recorded for the Money label in 1954. It was based on a Rusty Bryant record, but the two versions bear little resemblance to each other. When Bryant was recorded live in 1953 at the Carolyn Club in Columbus, Ohio, his biggest crowd-pleaser was Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train", which led the audience into a vocal chant of "Let it roll, let it roll, all night long", from Lucky Millinder's 1944 hit "Let It Roll". It was originally issued on Carolyn 333 in 1953 (as "Nite Train"), then purchased by Dot and reissued as "All Nite Long" (Dot 15134) in February 1954. Houston heard Bryant's version, but gave it his own interpretation, incorporating a riff from Hal Singer's "Cornbread" and avoiding "Night Train" altogether. Joe's "All Night Long" was and is one of the most exciting honking records ever made and was a huge territorial seller on the West Coast. Though Houston had sold the tape to John Dolphin's Money Records, the recording later showed up on LP's on Modern and Combo, in 1956 and 1957 respectively.
Houston didn't have to change his style to adjust to rock 'n' roll. In the early days of the Big Beat, when a TV or movie producer wanted to portray a rock n roll atmosphere, we usually got to see a scene from a nightclub where a hard blowing, honking and screaming sax player was inevitably heard. So what Joe was playing was rock n roll avant la lettre. All that had to be adjusted were the song titles. And when rock n roll waned in popularity, Joe recorded "twist" and "surf" albums for the Bihari brothers' Crown label that didn't sound very different from what he was doing a decade before. Houston remained active musically, but recorded only sporadically after 1963. Gradually he began to slow down, emphasizing his blues vocal talents, but he would still close most of his shows with "All Night Long" (although not on his back). He was forced to retire from performing after suffering a stroke in 2005. Recently his health took another downward turn and he has remained secluded for the last year or so.
Houston is a discographer's nightmare. He avoided contracts and recorded for whoever would pay cash up front. For that reason, his material came out on over a dozen labels, often at the same time, and he was not averse to recording essentially the same tune under different titles for different companies. Some of Joe's recordings were released by one company, then reissued by another, sometimes under a new title. Add to this the fact that the Biharis (Modern, RPM, Crown) haphazardly slapped albums together without regard to whether the track listings matched the music inside and the confusion is complete.
Houston's music is not for the faint-hearted. I must admit that listening to a whole Joe Houston CD in one setting is a bit too much for me.
More info : http://home.earthlink.net/~v1tiger/jhouston.html
Discography : http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/joehouston.htm
Acknowledgements : Jim Dawson (liner notes for Ace 772), Billy Vera (liner notes for Ace 395), Wikipedia.
Dik, August 2011
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