RCA 22-0137; JULY 1951



You gotta admire someone who is still in there plugging away at a job that might not be his first choice for a career path but which he’s still taking seriously and attempting to live up to the expectations set out for him.

By now he’s got to know – as does RCA – that he’s not going to ever become a bonafide rock star no matter how hard he tries, but rather than throw in the towel altogether they’ve taken a look at the surrounding landscape and come to the conclusion that a compromised rock artist in the musical environment of 1951 is still a better bet for modest commercial success than bowing out of the race altogether.

They probably aren’t wrong about that, especially since with the demise of the storming rock instrumental over the past year, we could use all of the honking saxophones we can get.


And In This Corner…
As willing as John Greer himself was to try and tear it up on his instrument, he’s got a lot of other musicians sharing the studio floor with him who may have other ideas and naturally they’re the ones who turn this into a weird hybrid record.

Maybe instead of calling it Big Rock they meant “Big Band Rock”, because that’s ultimately what it becomes with a full horn section along for the ride, none of whom seem cognizant of how to play compact rhythmic riffs as opposed to drawn out blaring parts.

So this is really two records – or two musical ideologies – in one group performance which naturally is going to negatively impact what each component is trying to accomplish.

Greer for his part mainly sticks to fulfilling the last word of the title, for after the other horns barge in the door wearing stupid grins on their faces, he shoves them out of the way as he and the drummer – his loyal cornerman in this contest – try and establish a genuinely rocking groove for awhile, with some stuttering riffs accented by those crackling drums.

When he eases off those and brings more melody to the table it starts off well enough but soon wanders into something looking back over his shoulder at a more controlled mindset. He fights this urge the best he can but it’s clearly a struggle at times – the John Greer of Lucky Millinder’s band trying to subvert Big John the rocker using melodic passages that are deviously attempting to hypnotize him into compliance.

But Big John’s not quite that easy to subdue as he comes off the mat to throw a few more viscous rights and lefts which in turn forces the rest of the band to hit harder to keep him off them.

He may never deliver a knockout blow, but if this one goes to the cards he might still pull out a decision.

Protect Yourself At All Times
The reason why we say this isn’t necessarily because we’re all that impressed with Greer’s conditioning, his punching power or his defense, but rather it’s because his opposition is so inept.

Pesky and annoying, but musically effete.

For those not quite up on the weight classifications of this sport, reeds and brass are not in the same divisions. When it comes to the reeds an alto sax might be a lean middleweight while your tenors and baritone saxes are light heavies or heavyweights – bigger punching power, longer reach, stronger chins.

The brass though are much lighter with quick hands who are fleet afoot, but it’s not like a clarinet (the flyweight division) is going to knock out a saxophone in the light heavyweight division and it’d take a lot of trumpets and trombones to mount an assault on a legitimate heavyweight contender.

So what we have on Big Rock is technically illegal under all the known fighting statutes because a bunch of these puny horns are bum-rushing the ring to swarm Greer before the bell rings.

Though there isn’t a single horn among them who could do much damage on their own, together they’re a formidable opponent because they just don’t let up. They make believe they’re on his side during his best stretch early on, lending limited support but then when they see Greer himself start to waver in his commitment to the task at hand they sense weakness and prepare their insidious attack.

We shouldn’t be surprised at any of this, assuming you listened to the other side, an execrable piece of music called How Can You Forget (unfortunately you CAN’T forget it once you hear it) wherein Greer joins them in their plot to turn music into the aural equivalent of slow painful death, crooning a sappy lovesick tune in a way that confirms he doesn’t understand lust, desire or human emotion in any tangible way while the band matches this asexual performance with music that is made out of lace and ribbons.

On THIS side their methods are different but the transparent effect it creates is remarkably similar. Big band music by nature is designed to put on a show, it’s theatrically out-sized in a way that distracts you from the fact that for all of its technical precision there’s no emphasis on conveying any passionate truth about life. They blare away loudly, brashly and yet without an ounce of genuine feeling.

While Big John may fend them off enough to remain on his feet and to his credit he puts up one final offensive to get them off him, but by the time the final bell rings he’s been bruised and battered from the deluge of blows he sustained and staggers back to his corner, exhausted by the ordeal.

We Go To The Scorecard
You really have to feel sorry for poor Big John Greer when all is said and done. Nobody ever seemed to ask him which of these approaches HE’D like to be doing – big band styled songs, crooning ballads or honking rock instrumentals.

Lucky Millinder recruited him to just play sax, then pushed him on stage to sing when he was short a man. Record labels in the late 1940’s saw the commercial promise of sax instrumentals in a new music called rock ‘n’ roll and drafted Greer to give them something that could be reasonably called that.

Now he was trying to balance all types of songs, both for himself and while still playing for Millinder, which only meant he continued to be pulled at from every direction.

Big Rock might’ve been a solid effort with more appropriate musicians behind him playing in the style this song called for rather than one a decade out of date, yet Greer himself wasn’t demanding enough to insist upon it in the face of opposition from the band and the skittish record label still believing that rock ‘n’ roll, while a tempting prize to pursue, was culturally off-putting in its purest form.

As a result this can’t help but show the strain of trying to appease so many divergent views. As he heads back to the locker room after the fight, towel draped over his weary shoulders, I’m sure he can’t help but think to himself that maybe it’s time to hang up the gloves and look to a line of work that isn’t quite so strenuous and painful.


(Visit the Artist page of Big John Greer for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)