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By the fall of 1948, with rock records grabbing an ever greater number of chart entries, and horn-driven instrumentals capturing some of the highest slots, Billboard magazine might just as well have been running ads reading:

WANTED: Saxophonists, tenor preferred, but alto and baritone acceptable if can play with unrestrained histrionics. No experience with rock ‘n’ roll necessary, willing to train qualified persons to honk and squeal! Top pay possible!

If they’d done so the kind of guy they would’ve certainly snagged was Big John Greer.

The (Dividing) Line Starts Here
John Greer was a saxophonist, which probably goes without saying, but his story takes into account a lot of things that I’d hoped to address by now but hadn’t quite figured out how. So… here’s how (settle in, maybe get a soft drink, you’ll be here awhile):

Early on we met a figure by the name of Lucky Millinder, a non-playing, non-singing bandleader who acted as sort of a musical midwife for rock ‘n’ roll. For the better part of the 1940s, and for that matter into the 1950’s, Millinder led what I’ve chosen to call (and am definitely open to better suggestions) a “transitional” band. Not quite jazz, not blues, not even uptown blues, but also definitely not rock. As a result, he, like a handful of other important names have fallen into sort of an historical no-man’s land.

These artists were harbingers of things to come without ever making the jump to what followed, usually by choice, as they were successful in their own style which was still commercially viable enough so there was simply no need, no point in them chasing what in their eyes was shaping up to be little more than a rather noisy fad when it came along in 1947.

Millinder’s band was a proving ground for a good many artists who’d go on to make names for themselves as major players on the national scene and here we meet another in Big John Greer, but first we need to circle back to see how his own career came about and intertwined with two other refugees from Millinder’s outfit (just be thankful you don’t have to take a test on all of this!).

When starting Spontaneous Lunacy the purpose was relatively simple – show the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll from the beginning to the current day. No prologues, no side-shows into other genres with some tangential impact on it, such as blues or gospel. Just rock ‘n’ roll and nothing but.

Easier said than done.

When rock began it contained enough recognizable elements borrowed and adapted (or let’s be honest, stolen) from other genres. Roy Brown’s emotional delivery was decidedly gospel-rooted, yet it was his using that style to sing decidedly secular odes to booze and sex, along with much different instrumental support which took it far outside of the gospel ranks. With no other existing genre that provided any better fit, an entirely new one was formed. Happenstance as much as anything.

The rock songs which followed, especially in those first few months before the impact of Brown’s record had an effect on the way other singers and labels approached their sessions in an attempt to draw from that and build upon it, were oftentimes related by tenuous means. Yet they were rock because – in large part – they had no other musical home to call their own and shared enough characteristics for each of them to fit into this new emerging scene.

But I’ll be honest, a few others might’ve qualified for inclusion on these pages on the basis of that latter reasoning as well. Artists who came along at roughly the same time who also seemed ill-fitting in other genres. Those who tentatively moved forward with their musical excursions would be more welcome, like Joe Lutcher, even if they remained behind the rock curve for the most part. They pursued the rock path, just did so at a slower pace.

But conversely those who would get left behind are the ones who looked back stylistically, even if at times they may very well have been poised to jump right in had the situation they found themselves in simply broke in a slightly different fashion.

The hardest exclusion in that realm and thus the last to get dropped from consideration was Benjamin “Bull Moose” Jackson, a character of some fading renown these days who straddled the eras in a peculiar way and this gives us a chance to delve some into his absence.

Backstory… Backstory… This Blog Has Nothing But Stupid Backstories!
Jackson was perhaps one of the most unlikeliest stars of his era. A violin prodigy as a boy who switched to tenor sax and eventually wound up playing for Lucky Millinder’s outfit (ahh, see, it’s starting to come together… and you thought I was taking you for a trip to nowhere for my own amusement). The shy, reserved Jackson was more than content to be part of the larger ensemble, a small piece of a high class organization, playing good music alongside great musicians.

Then fate intervened, as luckily for us it always seems to do in these stories, when the irascible Wynonie Harris up and quit Millinder’s crew while on tour in Texas in 1944, his ego having grown too large for the salary he was commanding as the featured singer in the proceedings.

As a result Millinder needed a replacement and quick for that night’s show and looking around the bandstand his eyes settled upon…. the gawky, lantern-jawed Jackson (thus explaining the nickname bestowed upon him by his bandmates) who was called upon to fulfill those duties and nervously stepped into the spotlight for the first time in his career and… actually enjoyed it!

Much to his surprise he found himself fairly relaxed and proved himself to be more than sufficient at singing a few numbers. In fact while certainly not the flamboyant charismatic showman that Harris was, Jackson’s vocal abilities were far more nuanced. No, he couldn’t out-shout Harris (few could without winding up hospitalized), but Jackson could do the job well enough, offering more of a wink and a nod at the humor in the lyrics which Harris’s mighty pipes had simply steamrolled over.

Furthermore he was much more proficient with ballads than Wynonie ever was, a fact which would wind up playing a bigger part in his success than anyone could’ve imagined. When King Records later came calling on Millinder in the hopes of recording his group to start their new Queen subsidiary label which would focus on black music (prior to that King had been largely country oriented), Millinder had to turn it down for they were already under contract to another label.

However, he agreed to let others in the band individually have a shot at it, keeping his band members happy in a way that didn’t cost him a dime while figuring that any hits under their names would only boost the drawing power of his own aggregation as he’d be able to bill multiple “name” recording stars in his show that way.

Jackson’s first few efforts were good but not hugely successful when suddenly in the fall of 1947 they stumbled upon a winner in I Love You, Yes I Do, a brilliant ballad that was unlike anything he’d really tried before. What might’ve been done as something of an afterthought (considering that the bulk of his sides cut up to and including that session were more uptempo “pre-rock” styled songs) instead became the template for the rest of his career when it promptly took off into the stratosphere. It was the biggest record in the black community that year, crossing over into the pop charts and naturally sending Jackson out on his own (so much for Lucky being lucky and getting to promote another star in his revue!).

The song itself, and its more raucous flip (Sneaky Pete), were among the last cut from the rolls of Spontaneous Lunacy. I’d even written their reviews just in case I changed my mind. But in the end I know I couldn’t use them because they didn’t fit, they simply weren’t rock, even if they were close. Semantics maybe, but important ones. The line has to be drawn somewhere and this became that somewhere.

Jackson was certainly moving in the direction of rock when those were made, even “I Love You, Yes I Do”, had a subtly soulful delivery to it that stood it apart from pop confections, and had he continued to venture further into that realm with subsequent releases then yes, I’d have included them. But that decision was ultimately taken away from him by the powers that be at his label and so as a result Bull Moose found himself on the outside looking in when it came to rock ‘n’ roll.


When “I Love You, Yes I Do” became such a runaway hit King Records was ecstatic and immediately changed course with Jackson’s material. Whereas before he was cutting uptempo slightly suggestive material with a few instrumentals (remember, he was a sax player too – this part will be important for what follows!!!), and just a handful of ballads to balance things out, but from now on he cut almost nothing BUT ballads. Not only that but maybe predictably the label’s eyes got too big for their mouth and having tasted the fruits of the pop charts once with him they naturally, and stupidly, attempted to tailor his later songs, their arrangements and even his delivery into one that was more in line with current POP offerings.

Pop, as in white bread watered-down, soul-less crooning. Gone was the rakish Jackson (especially after the sides still in the can in that vein had been released in the months to come), someone who otherwise MIGHT’VE ventured into rock quite naturally on his own, and in its place was the black version of Bing Crosby or something.

The thing is though – IT WORKED!

Commercially at least. He remained very popular, racking up a number of huge hits (though none crossed into the pop charts after that initial surprise), which I guess is only natural, after all, black folk raised in that era certainly could like mild inoffensive pop music as much as anybody else and here they had their own star in that style to latch onto. But in doing so it took him further away from the rock landscape he might otherwise have explored.

Timing did him in when it came to joining the rock revolution. A few months later and what he had done might’ve been viewed in a different light and led to him being encouraged to ramp up his deliveries to compete with Harris, Brown and the others on rock’s turf. Instead he came along with his breakthrough just as rock was starting, but before it made its first really big national waves and so rather than sail deeper into those still unsettled waters he simply turned back and went ashore before the boat had even gotten out of the harbor.

From time to time he would cut something in a more uptempo risqué style that shared many similarities with rock, and for which he’s probably more remembered today, as a good many rockers have tackled those songs along the way. But they make up – statistically – just a small portion of his output.

Bull Moose Jackson didn’t become a full-fledged rocker simply because he didn’t HAVE to anymore, thus when the line is drawn he remained squarely on the other side of it.

Hold on, kids, we’re getting there!

The other fallout from Jackson’s success was, inevitably, his departure from Millinder’s organization to go out on his own with his own band to play what was by the summer of 1948 a fairly thick sheaf of recent hits. Consequently Millinder needed a replacement to man the saxophone chair and turned to Henry Glover, his group’s former trumpeter who was behind Jackson’s hits, as it also was Glover who was now working for King Records as a producer (the second ex-Millinder figure that fits into this twisted tale).

Glover promptly recommended his boyhood friend, Johnny Greer (see, I told you we’d bring things full circle!). The two had grown up together in the same Arkansas town, then went to Alabama A&M college where they both honed their skills in the Alabama Collegians band.

For Millinder’s crew it seemed to be a perfect fit. Greer even looked a bit like Jackson, a bit burly and bespectacled, and like Bull Moose possessed a rather amiable, light airy voice if need be. That was probably exactly what Millinder was looking for, as in the day before widespread media exposure and certainly visual exposure, few out in the audience would know for sure that it wasn’t Jackson who was up there singing many of his songs. So Greer joined Millinder in the summer of ’48 and was fully expecting to make his debut on record the following winter… playing behind Lucky Millinder!

But a lot had changed in the year since Jackson had found his fortune which precipitated his departure, namely that this new rock music whatchamacallit had broken through commercially. Suddenly there was a demand for records that would suit this growing interest and thus a need for more artists to provide it! So while there may not have been any advertisements on the pages of Billboard magazine or elsewhere trying to recruit a suitable figure to churn this rock stuff out in the fleeting hopes of a hit, that doesn’t mean the opportunities weren’t well known by one and all, record companies and artists alike.

Greer was therefore offered the chance to cut his own sides in the rock realm and he accepted. Though he may not have looked it he was actually a perfect candidate to cut a session in this vein and hope it’d fit in with the rock audience’s aesthetics. He certainly had the technical ability needed (after all, he’d been hired by the demanding Millinder), he was still an unknown who was just starting out, therefore had no previous public image to discard, they could literally create his image from scratch (hence the moniker “Big John Greer”, already trying to give him some instant cachet), and best of all he played the instrument that was currently the hottest thing on wax – the tenor sax.

In late 1948 if you were looking to make a name for yourself in this rock world – as an artist or a label – trying to do so with a sax instrumental was a better bet than most and whatever baubles Sittin’ In With’s owner Bob Shad lured him to the studio with, they were taking their best shot right out of the gate, stating unequivocally with the title, Rockin’ With Big John, the very audience and image they were aiming for.

They promptly missed.


The Record Itself… AT LAST!!!!
Greer for his part tries but fails. The two approaches thus far with instrumentals have been the slower hypnotic groove model and the honking uptempo scorcher. Greer aims for the latter but isn’t quite up to pulling it off. Though a fine technical player, this style of music has different requirements for success and he simply doesn’t have the power, the sheer lung capacity, to sustain his honking and squealing until it builds to a frenzy. He sounds almost asthmatic, wheezing his way through the early stretches, cutting refrains short so he can gasp another breath to start anew.

Furthermore, there seems to be no plan in place as to where to take this once it starts. The best of these types of records built up the action as they went along, escalating the intensity along with the frequency of the notes. Very few of them might’ve written any of it out beforehand but their improvisational skills were such that the results coming from Earl Bostic, Hal Singer and Paul Williams retained a semblance of order amidst that chaos.

Greer on the other hand sounds lost from the start, as if he has no idea which direction to head and so he tentatively starts in one direction only to change is mind and turn back to try another avenue, in the process only ensuring that he gets nowhere. Oddly enough, the aforementioned Billboard staffers found his work here to be quite good, claiming “Passionate tenor sax with mediocre guitar interlude”.

Nice of them to chime in, but they’re only wrong on BOTH counts.

Things actually pick up considerably when Greer hands the reins over to the guitar, which offers not only the surest direction but also the most competent playing heard thus far. It’s a snaky line, not quite menacing but at least offering the hint if something devious and underhanded, which gives the song a bit of character if nothing else.

Perhaps inspired by that, or maybe finally getting his own bearings as he goes along, Greer storms back into the picture, determined to reclaim the song for himself with his most inspired bit of playing.

Here he finally shows that he is beginning to grasp what will be his designated role should he decide to make a go of it in rock ‘n’ roll by attempting to convincingly portray a gaudy, cheap showman, honking unintelligibly at a sustained clip, digging down for some much needed urgency, and at last not seeming to run out of either breath or inspiration halfway through the lines.

Unfortunately just as he gets his feet under him and pointed in the right direction, confident at last to travel down the he’s destined for, the record ends. That he leaves you with the best bit he had to offer might not quite change your view of the entire affair and have you think Rockin’ With Big John is better than it really is, but it may just convince you to drop a nickel in the jukebox the next time his name appears on a record, if only to find out if he learned what he did wrong this time out and managed to correct it.

He’d get plenty of chances to. He’d stick with Millinder awhile longer, playing behind some big names to boot, but more and more even there he’d be asked to cut loose and inject some rockin’ style into their set-lists. Greer too though would go out on his own, yet unlike Jackson he’d see his first allegiance was to rock, not because he was more committed to it musically in his heart of hearts, but rather simply because it’s what was now in demand and, most tellingly, what had got him started on his own.

Timing, they say, is everything. In the end there’s not TOO much difference between Bull Moose Jackson and Big John Greer musically. You could conceivably switch their catalogs and neither would struggle much with each other’s repertoire. The difference though is that when it came time to decide which style to focus on they each had their decision made for them by circumstance as much as intent.

Jackson succeeded with the more refined sides and so that’s what he became by default, a polite crooner with some jovial good humor in the uptempo sides.

By the time Greer entered the studio rock was clearly the style which offered the best potential for breakout success and so, for better or worse, Big John Greer would do his best to be a rocker.


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