BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 


Though stardom eluded him T.J. Fowler nevertheless had a good run in rock’s early years playing behind other stars and releasing a solid string of records under his own name that were prime examples of the type of tight small instrumental combos that set the pace for the musical advances of those years.

Born in Georgia but raised in Detroit since the age of six Fowler, like his siblings, was anointed with just initials. Learning piano at a young age he then attended the Detroit Music Conservatory to finish his musical instruction giving him a sound background in composition and arranging which put him ahead of many future rock artists in theory. However for the purposes of his later vocation as a rocker his real education came playing at his father’s pool hall for the sometimes rowdy clientele and at dances his father also promoted.

Like another Detroit pianist Todd Rhodes who’d go on to greater rock glory Fowler found the local club scene was more than active enough to keep him steadily working without benefit of a recording contract and by the mid 1940’s he was gaining a sterling reputation around town as perhaps the most invigorating piano pounder on the scene. By this time however he was already in his mid-thirties (b. 1910) and with the boogie woogie craze on record winding down it seemed unlikely that he’d get an opportunity to ever record.

But he was unwittingly laying the groundwork for future opportunity when he joined trumpeter Clarence Dorsey’s local band in 1944 where he played alongside saxophonist Paul Williams. Both Williams and Fowler headed off on their own by 1947 but their time together had left an impression on the horn player and when Williams was signed by Savoy to cut his first sides he called in Fowler’s new band to back him in the studio which resulted in Williams first hit, which just so happened to also be the first rock instrumental to make the charts.

Fowler got his own chance for the spotlight when in 1948 he signed with two local labels, Paradise and Sensation Records, but the records those labels released bore little resemblance to rock and were instead a mix of big band derived society cuts and novelty gibberish. However Sensation leased his more rocking sides to the larger National Records and that became the stylistic direction he’d take on record consistently after that.

Featuring a top flight band that included saxophonist Walter Cox playing some scorching rock none of the singles were able to click nationally with audiences. The lack of a vocalist may have also limited their potential reach as did Fowler’s reluctance to leave the Detroit area to tour. In spite of the lack of a certified response Fowler’s group was so good that they still seemed likely candidates to break through as the Nineteen Fifties dawned and as a result Savoy Records signed Fowler when he became available and promoted him fairly heavily. Even though the tracks were still perfectly in line with the rock styles of the day nothing came of it and he eventually drifted back to smaller labels, including one he’d started himself, while continuing to earn most of his accolades in the Detroit club circuit.

After some work behind the scenes for Berry Gordy as Motown Records got off the ground Fowler retired from the music business by the end of the 1960’s and went into other professions successfully before dying in his longtime stomping grounds of Detroit in 1982 at the age of 71. Though Fowler remains largely obscure his body of work shows him to be anything but a small time journeyman his catalog might lead you to believe at a glance and with better luck his name would be far more well known for laying down some truly memorable sides in the annals of rock’s first decade.
 
 

T.J. FOWLER DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

HASTINGS STREET BOUNCE
(Savoy 659; October, 1947)
As sideman… behind Paul Williams.

WAY LATE
(Savoy 659; October, 1947)
As sideman… behind Paul Williams.

THIRTY-FIVE THIRTY
(Savoy 661; December, 1947)
As sideman… behind Paul Williams.

COME WITH ME BABY
(Savoy 661; December, 1948)
As sideman… behind Paul Williams.

BOUNCING WITH BENSON
(Savoy 664; February, 1948)
As sideman… behind Paul Williams.

BOOGIE RIDE
(Savoy 664; February, 1948)
As sideman… behind Paul Williams.

WE’RE GONNA ROCK
(Savoy 666; July, 1948)
As sideman… behind Wild Bill Moore.

HOPPIN’ JOHN
(Savoy 683; January, 1949)
As sideman… behind Paul Williams.

SOUTH PARKWAY HOP
(Savoy 690; March, 1949)
As sideman… behind Wild Bill Moore.

RED HOT BLUES
(National 9072; April, 1949)
Rock ‘n’ roll at warp speed, a torrid performance that holds nothing back with the horn section barely letting Fowler’s piano into the mix, the result is exhilarating and possibly TOO extreme to be safely handled. (8)

HARMONY GRITS
(National 9072; April, 1949)
Unlike the top side where the horns carried the weight and came away with a winner, here Fowler’s piano is the strong suit while it’s the outdated horns who let him down in a song that deserved better. (5)

T.J. BOOGIE
(National 9075; May, 1949)
A fairly run of the mill piano boogie done with no real sense of how to build excitement with a more varied arrangement, as Fowler himself sticks to the more showy treble keys rather than work harder at constructing a groove to ride. (3)