BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

Prolific sax star of the 1950’s who was among the most dynamic performers on the instrument for years and a big draw on stage during the instrument’s heyday despite scoring just one nationally charted hit.

Joe Houston wasn’t born IN Houston, but rather in Austin, Texas in 1926 and growing up had been influenced by a wide cross-section of sax stars from both jazz (Charlie Parker) and the jazz-blues hybrids (Arnett Cobb and Joe Thomas) that reigned throughout the 1940’s. He started playing professionally at 17 with the King Kolax Band but it was Big Jay McNeely’s arrival on the scene in late 1948 which gave Houston someone to emulate.

Though McNeely was even younger than Houston he’d scored two national hits on his first two releases followed by a string of regional hits that placed him at the forefront of the growing rock movement and whose wild antics on stage and equally vibrant playing on record stirred the passions of younger audiences in a way that was intoxicating for an up and coming artist still looking to establish an identity.

Houston increasingly incorporated these more flamboyant traits into his own playing and after he got married and moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana he was enlisted to back Big Joe Turner when he rolled through town on tour in late 1949. Impressed by the band Houston had assembled, and even more so by Houston’s skills themselves, Turner agreed to cut a one-off session with him for a start-label in town and then the two of them traveled to Houston, Texas to sign with Freedom Records where Joe Houston made his debut under his own name.

Making Los Angeles his home base he stuck firmly to the wilder side of rock throughout his career, blowing and honking up a storm on such records as “Blow Joe Blow”, which gave him a fervent following among the thrill-seekers in rock’s young audience, particularly with the region’s many Hispanic listeners who gravitated to the sound in the early to mid-1950’s. Though a veritable star in Southern California, his only national hit was “Worry Worry Worry” from 1952, yet Houston’s most memorable record was undoubtedly “All Night Long” from 1954 which came along relatively late in the honking era.

Because he remained a free agent on the recording scene for years, preferring cash to contracts since he knew those handing out the contracts rarely lived up to them, he probably released more material than most sax players who stayed with one company for extended periods of time, as he’d cut sessions for anyone who was interested at any time. Many of the records are merely variations on a theme but he rarely failed to live up to his reputation and was still cutting exciting records in that style into the 1960’s even as the market for that brand of musical mayhem was rapidly shrinking.

In later years he remained a committed live performer, touring for over a decade with the Defrosterz band while cutting a few albums with them in 1990’s. Houston suffered a stroke in 2005 but returned to the stage in a wheelchair a few years later as irrepressible as ever. Finally when health issues became too much of a burden Joe Houston retired in 2012 and he died in Long Beach, California in 2015 at the ripe old age of 89, a pillar of a style and an era that helped to establish rock’s wild reputation.
 

JOE HOUSTON DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

FUZZY WUZZY HONEY
(Rouge 105; Deceber, 1949)
As sideman… to Big Joe Turner. Both Joes, Turner and Houston, turn in rip-roaring performances on this a hastily written and recorded song for a tiny independent label, providing a stellar showcase for the veteran singer and the youthful sax player. (7)

WAYCROSS MAMA
(Freedom 1526; December, 1949)
Though credited to Houston he once again takes on the role of sideman, this time to journeyman singer Julius Stewart who is energetic enough but doesn’t contribute much more than that, luckily Houston does, giving another strong solo to announce his arrival on the scene. (5)

IT’S REALLY WEE WEE HOURS
(Freedom 1526; December, 1949)
An atypical start to the career of a wild saxophonist as he and his fellow horn players choose to mournfully croon rather than take up their horns in an emphatic statement of their abilities on a modest effort where the most notable aspect winds up being the guitarist.
(3)