It’s hard to say a guy making his first record marks a glorious return to prominence but if we’re not talking about the musician and instead are referring to the sound emanating from his saxophone, then we’re on safer ground with a statement like that.

With this record we have two things of note that dominate the story.

The first is the effect of the first generation of rock sax stars from the late 1940’s influencing a second generation who will take root in these next few years. It may have taken awhile for it to come to fruition but it’s a sign that the genre’s roots were strong from the start.

But it also shows for the first time how this music, ignored if not ostracized by the adult WASP culture, grew exponentially by speaking directly to the marginalized segments of the population who, as it turned out, added crucial numbers to the growing movement that would soon sweep the mainstream opposition away.


Back To Front
We need to start by heading backwards – briefly, I assure you – to late 1948 when tenor sax phenom Big Jay McNeely first burst onto the scene with Wild Wig and then in short order topped the charts with The Deacon’s Hop.

This was the culmination of a larger movement towards honking sax instrumentals as played by veterans like Hal Singer who got the chance to record solo specifically to cut rock songs simply because they were unexpectedly selling big during a nationwide recording ban.

The difference was that while those acts were doing so somewhat on demand for commercial reasons, even looking down on what they were playing, or at least not taking it very seriously, McNeely was doing it because he actually liked it! This was his idea of great music – noisy honking, obscene squealing, rapid-fire notes cascading out of his horn like it was weaponry.

Why wouldn’t it be? Young black men in post-war America were tired of being told to sit in the back, avert their eyes and bite their tongue, and while in everyday society their challenges to those racist edicts were likely to be met with vicious reprisal, when it came to music the same adult society looking to “put you in your place” would hardly notice a handful of records being made that essentially gave that revered culture the proverbial middle finger.

Though Chuck Higgins was actually a bit older than Big Jay, it’d be hard for an up and coming musician NOT to notice the reaction around town to McNeely’s wild shows which were causing pandemonium. Not surprisingly Higgins soon followed suit, switching from trumpet to saxophone and enthusiastically picking up on the music that was causing such a stir.

By the time Higgins came out with Pachuko Hop in late 1952 rock ‘n’ roll was irrefutably the biggest style of music within Black America. Here, maybe not for the first time, but certainly the first time it was noted, they found some kindred spirits, at least around Southern California, in the Chicano communities who were even one step lower on the social scale due to the language barrier.

Yet on instrumental music like this, language was not an issue.


Straight From Aliso Village
Jake Porter was one of the few black men who owned his own record label in 1952. The former trumpeter with Lionel Hampton, among others, he moved into the business side of music in 1951 when he started Combo Records out of his house and took on all of the duties other companies had to hire outside help for. He could write, arrange and produce, even play behind artists if need be.

It wasn’t a big label, they didn’t have a ton of steady releases and only a few national hits, but they stayed in operation for a full decade mainly thanks to steady sales in and around Los Angeles. With an ear to the ground he recruited local acts whose appeal to the larger labels in the area was still rather dubious, knowing that if their records sold well he’d probably lose them before long.

Porter’s shrewdest most calculating move however may have been in terms of marketing. He didn’t use traditional sales or promotional tactics like a supermarket or used car dealership would, but instead he targeted the underrepresented Latino community in the city by giving relatable titles to rock instrumentals starting with Joe Houston’s East Side.

It sounds rather shallow and insincere to some I’m sure, but when the country you live in basically doesn’t acknowledge your existence in popular culture – other than in a negative manner, such as the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940’s – then even this small nod in your direction takes on great meaning. As a result the rock instrumentals became the sound of the barrio and with Chuck Higgins’ Pachuko Hop (though Pachuco was misspelled) it really took off.

He was actually the perfect intermediary, for while Higgins was black he had actually lived for awhile in East L.A. where the local guys loved hearing him play “the hop”, a still nameless song he’d based on Lucky Millinder’s 1942 side Apollo Jump, a vital pre-rock record.

When he got the chance to record Higgins knew this was the kind of of thing with the galvanizing power to attract attention and whether it was he or Porter who came up with the name, which street slang describing the Mexican youths of the neighborhood, that term – while later seen by some as derogatory – was a badge of honor for those it now represented.

Musically the record mixes the crude honking these rock workouts excelled at with some slightly more controlled melodic passages to create a nice balance, as it kicks off with the most in your face blowing he’ll unveil to grab your attention before easing back into something to let you catch your breath.

When he does ramp things up again it’s not with the lower range he started with, but instead he keeps climbing the scale until he’s clearly out of breath, almost sounding as if he’s back on trumpet for awhile, squealing like an animal in its final death throes.

After nearly expiring just before the two minute mark, he pulls it together down the stretch when he slides back into his comfort zone as the band, including some great drumming by Joe Usury and Johnny Watson’s nimble piano work, keeps things churning admirably.

Is any of this a testament to Chuck Higgins’ ability on sax?


But he wasn’t trying to make a thing of beauty with Pachuko Hop, just give everyone exactly the kind of thing you needed at a party at one in the morning when you and your buddies are drunk enough to pass out but still fueled by enough adrenaline to keep you awake even as you stagger around the room ready to drop.

It’s in that situation that a record like this will be enough to keep you upright for awhile longer.


The Airwaves Have No Borders
Yesterday we looked at the New York vocal group scene in which neighborhood kids sang acapella on street corners and park benches and spawned an entire movement.

On the other coast maybe the type of music being organically created wasn’t a single concentrated sound like doo-wop, but the cross-cultural blending of tastes and influences made it a very vibrant scene nonetheless, one catered to by radio stations like KFVD which blasted rock ‘n’ roll through the Southern California night with disc jockeys like Hunter Hancock who helped to make Pachuko Hop a big seller in the city and an anthem up and down Whittier Boulevard.

In fact when Combo wanted to put out an album to collect Chuck Higgins’ work, they turned to Hancock whose wife adorned the cover laying on the floor wearing nothing but a necktie, one of the first – and greatest LP covers – in rock history.

By then this single had made its impact among those to whom being considered even second class citizens would actually be a step up from their vantage point. While the music it contained might not have been anything new and innovative, the message its title conveyed served as an invitation from those on the next rung on the ladder to those still looking to climb higher, telling them they were welcome to come up and join them because from the looks of it there was plenty of room at the top and they might as well all get there together.


(Visit the Artist page of Chuck Higgins for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)