MACY’S 5017; JANUARY 1951





The Return Of The Honker.

Though the tenor sax instrumental hasn’t completely disappeared over the past calendar year in rock its presence has been greatly diminished after a two year reign as the predominant sound on the charts which had helped to propel the entire genre into the stratosphere.

Whether audiences grew weary from so much hedonistic fun, or the artists ran out of ideas when it came to stirring up excitement, or if the record labels simply had enough of the noise, the absence of such wild songs has been missed.

Apparently Joe Houston thought so as well and with this release he proved he wasn’t the only one longing for a return to the honking and squealing madness that defined rock ‘n’ roll at its most primal.


Remember Where You Came From
You could conceivably have passed off the tenor sax craze as circumstantial, as a recording ban that lasted most of 1948 led to labels racing to cut as many sides as possible in late 1947 to get them through the months ahead with no recording sessions. That this happened just as rock itself was taking off meant that these songs featuring nothing but honking horns which had been easier to stockpile since they were cut on the fly, were the one thing that satisfied the growing needs of this constituency.

When those sides began to hit big throughout 1948 companies defied the musician’s union strike and brought in artists to give them even more of these wild performances and got some massive hits out of their deceit such as when Hal Singer came away with a #1 smash in Cornbread. Not only were the sounds defining rock ‘n’ roll but so was the rule breaking to get those sounds.

When the ban came to an end that December seemingly every aspiring sax gunslinger came to town ready to shoot it out with their rivals to see who the fastest draw on the scene was and so the next year, 1949, saw no slow down in these explosive hits.

Though he was already playing professionally by then Joe Houston had yet to secure a recording contract and so he was forced to watch from the sideline and take notes. Inspired by Big Jay McNeely, a kid even younger than he was, who proved to be the wildest and most dynamic of the new stars on the scene, Houston learned his lessons well. But once he got his chance just before the Fifties dawned he found things had changed, the volume had been turned down and the musical anarchy had been reigned in to a degree.

Apparently he wasn’t happy about that and now, a year later, with Blow, Joe, Blow he set out to try and revive the style single-handedly in order to prove he was every bit as good as those who’d made this kind of rock ‘n’ roll the biggest thing in the land in the first place.


Go, Go, GO!
Though it won’t be a national hit in Billboard, nor his most well remembered honking performance, this is the record that made Joe Houston’s reputation eight months after it was released to little fanfare as the last single issued by Macy’s Recordings just before it closed its doors.

In the interim Macy’s had sold it to Modern Records in Los Angeles and when they reissued it on their own label in late summer it promptly exploded, hitting the Top Five locally and remaining on the L.A. charts into October, as well as scoring across the country from Wisconsin to South Carolina, showing that the appeal of this kind of frantic no-holds barred workout still had no regional limitations.

All along there had been plenty of older musicians who felt this sort of thing was beneath them. That it required little more than lung power and a lack of inhibitions. That those who excelled at this kind of performance were ostentatious and undignified, giving the instrument which was capable of so much more than crude noises a bad reputation.

They were just jealous.

Blow Joe Blow may not be the most intricate song ever performed, but it wasn’t trying to be. What it WAS trying to do was get your heart racing, your feet moving and your body shaking as you lost your mind.

It succeeded and did so in a way that shouldn’t ever be dismissed as cheap and exploitative which suggests that it were easy to do if you wanted to lower yourself to such tawdry displays.

Houston understands what separates merely making noise and creating excitement is your commitment to the act itself. You need to take pride in working an audience into a frenzy and you have be able to tie it in with sound musical theory to make it something that works as well on record as it does on stage, all of which he does here with the passion of a true believer.


Back To Basics
It starts off in high gear, leaping right into the mosh pit, shirt off, sweat already rolling off his back, ready and willing to create a ruckus from the moment the needle drops.

Backed by hand claps and drums, a piano and thudding bass, the framework is simple but the performance is anything but.

Houston blows up a storm as his wife (Marian McKinley on piano) shouts encouragement behind him with Joe’s escalating power becoming apparent early on. He’s repeating riffs to build anticipation and as a result he’s able to deliver a series of payoffs as he goes along. It also means that if one doesn’t quite connect – and there’s a slight letdown just before the minute mark – it can easily be overcome with the next go-round.

Though there’s not quite the amount of intricacies in the arrangement that a McNeely had, it’s hardly missed… certainly not after going so long without a comparable workout in rock. Down the stretch Blow Joe Blow becomes ever more unhinged, the quick circular groove leading to some deeper honks and ear-splitting squeals before winding down in suitable fashion.

This was what rock had first made its name on and though a few years had passed since these sorts of things were everywhere to be found, they hadn’t lost any of their power to get you moving.

Maybe it WAS crude when you got right down to it, but the rock fan needed these kind of indulgent records to work off their energy, their frustrations and to fight back against the sense of indignation that were forever being piled at their feet for wanting to have this much fun to begin with.

The dignified squares who thought so little of rock ‘n’ roll that they had to mock it were the ones who were scraping up bus fare to get to their next gigs.

Meanwhile Joe Houston made enough off this record to buy himself a limousine a few months after he arrived on the West Coast and was able to go cruising past them in style.


(Visit the Artist page of Joe Houston for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)