BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

Fringe player on the outskirts of rock thanks mainly to his timing, as he came along just as rock was exploding and record companies seeking to capitalize on the perceived passing fad enlisted any musician reasonably suited for the role, particularly those without prior track records, in an attempt to jump on the trend and score some hits. Though Greer succeeded in that regard over time, his style was more rooted in the past and thus he remains more loosely connected to rock than a full-fledged card-carrying member of the fraternity.

John Greer was born in Arkansas in 1923 and was a childhood friend of Henry Glover, a trumpeter whom he played with in the Alabama Collegians while students at Alabama A&M college. Glover’s career took off first when he joined popular bandleader Lucky Millinder’s outfit, not only playing trumpet but also writing charts. When King Records branched into black music they attempted to sign Millinder but since he was already under contract elsewhere he let some of his musicians make records under their own names for King, among them tenor sax player and singer Bull Moose Jackson.

Joining Jackson at King was Henry Glover, who wrote much of his material and was hired as an A&R man/producer, one of the first black men to hold such a position in the record industry of the mid-1940’s. Glover would leave Millinder’s band to devote himself fully to his new duties with King, which expanded rapidly once Jackson’s record, “I Love You Yes I Do”, which Glover wrote and arranged, became a crossover smash just as rock ‘n’ roll was being born. But since it came out during that period before rock was established, and because it was a ballad with pop appeal, Jackson remained outside of rock, though he too left Millinder and formed his own band on the strength of that hit and many more to follow in the same light ballad realm, with a few off-color sly mid-tempo songs thrown in that led to his most lasting notoriety in many quarters.

Millinder needed a replacement for Jackson in the horn section and called on Glover for suggestions who brought him his old pal John Greer, who even looked like Bull Moose to a degree, played the same instrument and also sang in a mild tone that belied his ethnicity. A year later, as the 1948 recording ban was nearing its end, Greer was offered an opportunity to cut records on his own while remaining with Millinder’s band and did so, hoping to have the same success as Jackson had. The difference was in the year since Bull Moose broke through, rock ‘n’ roll had arrived en force and that was what the label had in mind for Greer’s direction.

They slapped the Big John Greer name on him, and titled his first instrumental “Rockin’ With Big John” so as to drive home the point and leave no doubt what field Greer was aiming for. Though it didn’t catch on, they continued undeterred and he proved himself a capable performer in this realm, though like Jackson was usually more at home in slightly more sedate settings. Maybe not surprisingly his biggest hit, “Got You On My Mind”, wasn’t a storming track by any means but rather a grooving ballad that straddled the fence between genres.

Greer continued playing with Millinder, as well as backing others in the studio in between his own sessions, but developed a growing dependency on alcohol which curtailed his career by the late 1950’s. As with his predecessor Bull Moose Jackson, both men were probably not fully suited to rock music in style or temperament, yet the difference was Jackson’s pre-rock success kept him outside of the field, even as he was close to it in many ways, whereas Greer’s later start in the midst of the first rock mania meant he’d always be aligned with rock ‘n’ roll.

Greer died in 1972 at the young age of 48.
 
 
BIG JOHN GREER DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
 
 
ROCKIN’ WITH BIG JOHN
(Sittin’ In With 510; November, 1948)
The attempt to fit Greer in with the sax revolution in rock was initially awkward, as he’s unable to stir the emotions needed with his blowing abilities, though he gets stronger as he goes along, both on this record and in his career. (3)

DRINKIN’ WINE SPO-DEE-O-DEE
(RCA 22-023/RCA 50-0007; May, 1949)
Credible cover of the drunken hit by Stick McGhee delivered with requisite enthusiasm but nowhere near as potent a drink thanks to a slightly mannered approach by all involved. (4)

LONG TALL GAL
(RCA 22-023/RCA 50-0007; May, 1949)
The majority of the record is far too beholden to the past but the saving grace is a brief storming instrumental passage by the appropriately named Rhythm Rockers and although it can’t quite salvage the record it at least gets it to qualify as rock. (2)

HEY BRUZ
(Sittin’ In With 518; August, 1949)
Modest and uninspired instrumental effort with Greer rarely rising to the level needed to capture anybody’s interest, though never merely going through the motions either… the best aspect ironically is a guitar solo that diverts attention away from its star. (3)

ROCKING JENNY JONES
(RCA 22-0066; February, 1950)
Another mild effort by Greer who’s still trying to pass muster as a rocker, but despite blowing a good sax he falls short yet again because he lacks the vocal edge needed to make up for a song that doesn’t go nearly far enough lyrically to be convincing. (2)

I’LL NEVER DO THAT AGAIN
(RCA 22-0076; April, 1950)
Though it contains bits and pieces of a potentially acceptable rock song, the overall arrangement and the attitude needed to project this story properly are glaringly absent resulting in another creative miss from someone barely staying on the roster. (3)

BIG JOHN’S A BLOWIN’
‚Äč(RCA 22-0104; October, 1950)
For the first time on record Greer really delivers a powerful performance on sax, ripping through his parts with passionate zeal and power, yet the middle section finds the rest of the horns sabotaging his efforts with terribly outdated parts that drag things down considerably. (5)

I WANT YA, I NEED YA
(RCA 22-0108; December, 1950)
Another honest effort by Greer who crafts a decent enough story for him to wade through with old fashioned horns dragging it down some before he and another tenor man rip things up during the break, elevating this just enough to reach respectability. (4)

WHY DID YOU GO?
(RCA 22-0113; February, 1951)
A very pleasant, and very melodic, record perched midway between rock ‘n’ roll and milder pop, just rhythmic enough to satisfy the former without being too rambunctious to alienate the latter constituency, though that also means it has really strong appeal to neither party. (5)

JUST LIKE TWO DROPS OF WATER
(King 4448; March, 1951)
As sideman… to Wynonie Harris. Though the song has its issues, including being inappropriate thematically for rock, one thing no one can find fault with is the first rate sax work by Greer who livens this up considerably. (4)

CLAMBAKE BOOGIE
(RCA 22-0125; May, 1951)
Finally getting the hang of this, Greer gets a song with a viable story to tell which he delivers with a suitably aggressive vocal while a rousing tenor sax solo by Harry Johnson overwhelms the otherwise staid horn arrangement it’s saddled with. (6)

BIG ROCK
(RCA 22-0137; July, 1951)
An arrangement pulling in opposite directions with Greer mostly sticking to more rock based riffs while the brass section treats it like an early 1940’s big band exercise, means this hybrid effort won’t fully connect with either mindset. (3)

HAVE ANOTHER DRINK AND TALK TO ME
(RCA 20-4293; September, 1951)
Finally the perfect song for his image and his talents, allowing Greer to take on an affable, if calculating, persona in a story that is exceedingly well written with a great plot and characterization, really good lyrics and just enough musical merit to suffice. (8)

EARLY IN THE MORNING
(RCA 20-4305; September, 1951)
As a sideman… to The Four Tunes. Though he’s guested as a saxophonist on other rock artists records before here he is the focal point of the entire arrangement and delivers some scalding playing between the lines and a sterling solo, showing he had the chops for this all along. (7)

GOT YOU ON MY MIND
(RCA 20-4348; October, 1951)
The only hit of his career, and a massive one at that, was well-deserved as it plays to Greer’s strengths as a singer and rides a timeless melody all the way to the bank making this stately ballad with an achingly sad perspective one of rock’s first standards. (8)

WOMAN IS A FIVE LETTER WORD
(RCA 20-4348; October, 1951)
Though Greer’s parts come off fairly well, there’s no real focus in the song, no point to it thematically, and with an intrusive out of date trumpet the musical side is not all it could be despite having the building blocks for something more effective.
(4)

STRONG RED WHISKEY
(RCA 20-4484; January, 1952)
The vocal enthusiasm of Greer in delivering this humorous but straightforward story that’s little more than a celebration of drunken benders is enough to sell the record to party-goers even if the band’s musical contributions are a little watered down. (6)