One of the many musicians known primarily for being an acclaimed figure in Johnny Otis’s vast ensemble, yet who had some noteworthy releases on his own during the tenor sax revolution in rock’s early years.

Born simply James Streeter the young saxophonist got his start in Lloyd Hunter’s territory band in Kansas where he became acquainted with Otis, a drummer in the same region. When Otis headed to Los Angeles in 1944 to join Harlen Leonard’s band Streeter soon followed and when Otis took over Leonard’s gig as leader of the house band for Club Alabam the young sax star became a key component in Otis’s group.

By now he’d altered his name to James Von Streeter, in tribute to silent film director Erich Von Stroheim, giving some indication of his artistic worldliness, since Von Stroheim’s last major film as a director was more than a decade removed and there was no television or home video to keep them in the public eye. He had starred in films as an actor since, most prominently La Grand Illusion, a 1937 foreign film directed by Jean Renoir, and he was still a number of years away from his most memorable role, a self-caricature in Billy Wilder’s immortal Sunset Boulevard.

His interest in classic film was prescient on Von Streeter’s part, as he’d be the first rock musician of any kind to be featured in a motion picture, as his side group, The Wig-Poppers, played a nightclub scene in which their highly visual act was the focal point, though the actual music was dubbed in by ANOTHER rock sax player, Maxwell Davis, thereby accounting for both the first screen appearance by a rocker in Von Streeter and the first rock music to make a soundtrack with Davis.

With Otis’s recording sessions picking up steam in 1949 Von Streeter found himself splitting duties with Big Jay McNeely, who was never technically an official member of Otis’s crew though he frequently sat in with them. That the two big name sax players never recorded together might indicate that Big Jay was brought in when Von Streeter (as he was now calling himself, as in “Von” being his de facto first name to his friends) was unavailable, either due to his own side gigs or perhaps a growing drug problem, though that wouldn’t become a major issue for quite awhile.

In spite of the services of two tenor sax titans Johnny Otis’s relied less on that instrument than many of his contemporaries, as he spread the soloing duties out between guitarist Pete Lewis, pianist Devonia Williams and even trumpeters John Anderson and Don Johnson, along with Otis himself who had moved from drums to vibes. Yet even with fewer opportunities to shine Von Streeter had some memorable turns in the spotlight in the early 1950’s before changing tastes and Otis’s lack of vocalists who were best suited for those types of records which featured torrid sax solos, gradually took the focus from his work.

With the Otis band reorganizing throughout the mid-to-late 1950’s and Von Streeter’s growing heroin habit his tenure with the group came to an end. Just a decade after being a rising star with a major film credit and a featured role in one of the most popular group’s in all of rock, James Von Streeter disappeared from the music scene he’d helped to define. He died in 1984 in Detroit, he was 62 years old.
JAMES VON STREETER DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Scoop 9000 / Coral 65015; September, 1949)
A rousing debut immediately places Von Streeter in high company among tenor sax blowers as this establishes him as one of the more fiery uninhibited players in rock, aggressive and chaotic, a perfect example of organized mayhem. (8)

(Scoop 9001 / Coral 65014; November, 1949)
A discombobulated effort thanks to a poor arrangement featuring Von Streeter’s best playing early on when he clashes with outdated jazz horns but when he gets his chance to solo his inspiration wanes and it’s ironically left to the others to pick him up. (4)

(Scoop 9001 / Coral 65014; November, 1949)
Somewhat chaotic but atmospheric record that gives a pretty accurate depiction of a late night party in full swing, about all it’s missing are the tastes, sights and smells to go along with the aural recreation. (7)