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 small start-up 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):

(Rouge 105; December, 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)

(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)

(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)

(Freedom 1535; April, 1950)
Weak, ambitionless waste of time dominated by a hapless singer – Julius Stewart again – performing a meaningless song that doesn’t even have the decency to give us a rousing sax interlude to justify Houston’s name on the label. (2)

(Freedom 1535; April, 1950)
Though it’s a fairly generic song with rousing group vocals and a solid guitar solo all the parts fit nicely and it does what it sets out to do, and while the absence of any saxophone from Houston is odd at least he’s starting to get an idea of what is expected. (5)

(Macy’s 5014; November, 1950)
A very focused and efficient sax instrumental that may never go for broke but reminds us of why these things had ruled the rock roost for most of the late 1940’s making this a welcome throwback to a recently passed moment in time. (6)

(Macy’s 5014; November, 1950)
A decent change of pace in that Houston takes a back seat as vocalist Lois Butler delivers the song which is fairly predictable but is admirably handled even if it would’ve benefited from a well-timed Houston solo to give it more character. (5)

(Macy’s 5017; January, 1951)
A surprisingly effective vocal record featuring Joe fronting the whole group as a singer while not even picking up his saxophone, allowing wife Marian McKninley to handle the primary instrumental role playing a slow boogie piano that locks in a tight groove. (6)

(Macy’s 5017; January, 1951)
The kind of no-holds barred wild honking and squealing sax instrumental that had defined rock in 48/49 but had been drastically cut back on over the last year makes a flamboyant return here as Houston proves he was up to the task with a storming performance. (8)

(Mercury 8248; November, 1951)
Though his saxophone is nowhere to be found on this record that features a fairly generic story, it wisely substitutes vocal riffs for the missing sax riffs while Houston and the band are at least modestly acceptable with their vocal approach. (5)

(Mercury 8248; November, 1951)
An underwhelming quasi-instrumental which makes the mistake of trying to awkwardly squeeze other attributes into the mix while failing to give Houston a clear enough structure so that what he’s playing makes more sense. (3)

(Modern 850; December, 1951)
A good idea in having a vocalist try and whip the crowd into a frenzy before Houston arrives to add to the noise, but while you can’t fault their energy the song itself isn’t quite top shelf material and so it’s a lot of energy with no focus. (6)

(Modern 850; December, 1951)
Crude, decidedly unmelodic and containing mostly a series of quick riffs by Houston with a baritone response over a heavy rhythm and some wild cries from the revelers… exactly the kind of thing that rock had done so well a few years earlier making a welcome return here. (7)

(Imperial 5183; April, 1952)
Cut for Freedom Records in November 1949 and bought by Imperial who had just signed Houston and issued this to build anticipation for his new tracks… they shouldn’t have bothered as this is jazz-tinged stuff that wasn’t good enough in ’49, let alone ’52. (3)

(Imperial 5196; June, 1952)
The kind of wild, frantic and exciting sax instrumental that once ruled the rock scene still shows it packs a wallop, with a tight, well-focused arrangement featuring other horns delivering the main riff over pounding drums with Houston’s tenor ramping up the mayhem out in front. (7)

(Imperial 5196; June, 1952)
A solid B-side in that it’s flexible for whatever purpose required… fast enough to offset a slow song, yet casual enough to dial down from something more frantic… while it contains enough of a melody and strong support to distract from not being too memorable. (4)

(Modern 879; August, 1952)
A decent thematic idea turned into a nightmare as singer and songwriter Lois Butler’s overuse of the term boogie woogie in place of any sexual description drives you crazy, all while Houston contributes very uninspired playing behind her weak vocals. (2)

(Imperial 5201; August, 1952)
Though it’s another re-make of a past single, “Houston’s Hot House”, this one tightens the arrangement and ramps up the explosiveness even more in the process making this one re-named song which lives up to its new title and then some. (8)

(Imperial 5201; August, 1952)
This re-worked song makes a little less sense, as they weakened the arrangement by emphasizing piano more and sax less and considering “Worry, Worry, Worry” was a national hit just last winter it’s hard to think this was going to stir new interest. (4)