One of the more well-known rock saxophone aces of the 1950’s, although ironically more for his later jazz work and his long romance with the top female rock act of the decade Ruth Brown than for his own output as a solo artist during that era.

Jackson was born in 1932 Miami and was still a teenager when he gained notice playing with Cootie Williams’ band starting in 1948. Williams, one of the more acclaimed trumpet players in jazz, was attempting to adapt to a changing musical landscape which now included rock ‘n’ roll and made a legitimate effort to do so, largely using Jackson’s power on sax to accomplish that feat.

It was the 1949 single “Gatortail” featuring Jackson’s blowing which gave him the nickname he’d carry with him forever more, though it was frequently shortened to “Gator” and in 1950 he signed his first contract under his own name for Apollo Records where he cut sides with such luminous sidemen as organist Bill Doggett and drummer Panama Francis, drawing a good deal of acclaim without scoring a hit.

Like most younger sax players Jackson was perfectly willing to honk and put on a show, a fierce competitor in the frequent on-stage “battles” that were a highlight of the chitlin’ circuit of the day, wherein two musicians would go toe-to-toe and let the crowd decide the winner. Even at this stage of his career he took a backseat to no one, even brashly claiming to have bested his idol, Illinois Jacquet, in a highly publicized bout.

By the end of 1950 he’d met rising Atlantic star Ruth Brown, playing behind her – along with Cootie Williams, for whom he was still playing – and he and Ruth quickly became an item. During an era when there was little mainstream acknowledgement of the personal lives of black stars from stage, screen or music, Brown and Jackson were an exception, at least in music circles, traveling together on long tours and as rumors of their romance spread the trade papers played them up.

The partnership fizzled when Brown discovered he was already married but the two later reconciled and Jackson released the bulk of his 1950’s output for Atlantic, including backing Brown on some of her biggest records. In 1955 when a fling between Brown and Drifters lead singer Clyde McPhatter resulted in her pregnancy, Jackson stood in as the father, despite initial protest, and treated the son, Ronald, as his own. The Brown-Jackson domestic union also ended quickly, but the rumors of them being married – which they were not – still persist today.

As for Jackson’s professional life, he was a already pursuing a more diverse sound on record than most rock ‘n’ roll tenor sax maniacs, experimenting with organs and far-flung material in addition to his pure rock output. In addition he remained with Williams until the mid-1950’s, but after he and Brown ended their attempts at a relationship and with his interest in rock diminishing he moved on to Prestige Records in 1958 beginning a long relationship with the noted jazz label, releasing countless albums throughout the next decade which were very well received and elevated his stature well above what it had been as merely a modestly publicized sideman in rock.

In the 1970’s he continued his eclectic output, including a lauded album called Bar Wars but by then the interest in jazz, and saxophone in any style for that matter, were on the wane and in the 1980’s his health began to fail him, at one point even having to sell his horn when he came upon hard times.

However this happened to coincide with the beginning of the career revival of his old flame Ruth Brown while the two, unbeknownst to one another, had been just living blocks apart in New York. When Ruth saw Gator walking along the street one day, thin and frail, she barely recognized him but the two instantly reconnected over shared memories, spending an hour or two together a few times a week sitting and talking outside on stoops or park benches as he was on his way to or from dialysis treatment. Soon after he had a leg removed and it was only a short time later that he passed away at the age of 55 in 1987.

Though Jackson’s solo career had a number of excellent rock singles in addition to being a vital presence on stage and in the studio behind Brown and others for Atlantic during the 1950’s, that period forms just one aspect of his enormous legacy, not the biggest part maybe but surely the most vibrant part in a colorful life.
WILLIS JACKSON DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Apollo 800; March, 1950)
An impressive debut as a rocker for Jackson who after a more sedate start by his bandmates delivers an expertly judged performance, one with great tone, strong melodic instincts and a subtly ominous attitude to make this stand out. (6)

(Apollo 801; March, 1950)
Almost a split record with the first half being basically a jazz track but when Jackson starts to solo at the midway point his furor takes this firmly into the rock neighborhood where it does enough to win you over. (5)

(Apollo 801; March, 1950)
As if the title didn’t give it away this is the wrong material to be tackling as the band heads into big band jazz territory but apparently nobody told Jackson their plans because his parts are perfectly suited for rock, although the compromised aims does it in all the same. (3)

(Apollo 806; January, 1951)
Brilliantly written, arranged and played by Jackson and a solid band, this atmospheric gem is really too avant garde for rock but slips in thanks to a more coarse middle section in which he blows in a more appropriate manner for the genre. (7)

(Apollo 806; January, 1951)
A simpler, more straightforward instrumental better suited for jukeboxes and roadhouses and while it’s lacking the ambition of the flip side, it’s fairly effective with what it’s aiming for as Jackson’s freestyling solo gets the job done. (5)

(Atlantic 957; January, 1952)
A much better concept than execution as the addition of vocals, including Gator’s uneasy turn on the mic, plus the addition of whitebread backing vocalists, can’t pull of the required attitude, but a decent rhythm and Jackson’s sax solo almost makes up for it. (4)

(Atlantic 957; January, 1952)
Opening and closing with a sort of bachelor pad-lite aesthetic we get Jackson’s attempt to court rock listeners squeezed between them, but while both are fairly well-played they don’t compliment each other at all and Jackson’s parts seem to have no destination in mind. (3)

(Atlantic 967; June, 1952)
An interesting sonic palette on this instrumental that starts off with a prominent organ before Jackson’s sax takes over and gets increasingly worked up, pushing the intensity even higher, hampered only slightly by a lack of a distinctive groove, hook or melody. (7)

(Atlantic 975; August, 1952)
A dense arrangement featuring good use of other horns playing a compact riff over an organ and pounding drums while Jackson’s lead tenor handles the improvisational aspects of a song that may not go anywhere but has fun on the way. (6)