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Being a rock ‘n’ roll saxophonist in 1951 must’ve been a little like opening a bar in 1919 when the 18th Amendment was about to go into effect. You might still be able to eek out a living, but you weren’t going to thrive as you would’ve a year or two earlier.

As a result of the decline of instrumental records over the past year or two a lot of sax players turned to either session work, thereby eliminating their chance to become headlining stars in their own right, or they added vocalists in an attempt to get their records played while trying to steal the spotlight during the extended breaks from the very frontman they themselves had hired.

Needless to say, neither was the best option for remaining relevant but that didn’t mean what these compromises produced wasn’t mildly rewarding in their own right.


Been So Worried, Didn’t Know Just What To Do
You gotta feel sorry for Joe Houston in a way, not just because he missed out on the short-lived sax instrumental craze that lasted all of about two years (1948-1949), but because unlike a lot of those who had capitalized on that period of unhinged musical mania in rock, Joe Houston was actually a fervent fan of all the honking and squealing.

The mostly older guys who’d taken advantage of the need for noise – Paul Williams, Hal Singer, Wild Bill Moore – were those who’d started out in jazz and turned to rock when it proved more lucrative as its standing in the market increased at the same time jazz’s commercial fortunes took a downturn.

Houston though, being just a kid, wasn’t at all beholden to the older styles preferred by the ex-jazz men, he wanted to draw attention to himself and did so quite well… but by then the clamor those records were creating was quieting down and as a result his opportunities to create a racket with himself at the center of it all were also becoming somewhat limited.

But at least Houston still had a recording contract and was releasing records, even if – as with Have A Ball – he had to share the glory with a singer, in this case Lois Butler who is naturally going to garner a good deal of the focus unless Houston goes out of his way to upstage her.

Though that might be the inclination of a disgruntled headliner turned glorified sideman on his own record, Joe Houston seems to feel that his own success hinges not on which of them shine individually, but how their work compliments each other.

A noble thought if not always a perfect recipie for creating musical mayhem.


Gonna Get A Job And Work Hard Every Day
Despite the good intentions in sharing responsibility within the arrangement there are some issues surrounding this record which will lessen its chances for getting a hit starting with the fact that there are a few too many horns riffing away in the intro, giving it a faint whiff of the very jazz mentality Joe Houston had steered clear of before.

It’s not overwhelming by any means, they’re still playing aggressively enough to suffice, but the timbre of the horns isn’t rough enough to convince you this isn’t being played in a seedy barroom or a converted barn for a bunch of drunken kids out for kicks, but rather that it’s being used to try and whip a slightly more mature and outwardly responsible looking crowd of club-goers into dropping their inhibitions.

The second cause for some concern is the quality of Butler’s voice, which likewise isn’t quite robust enough to be convincing as the lead reprobate in this wild party. That’s not her fault exactly, she’s singing with the right amount of energy and a good rhythmic sense, but while she’s got a somewhat manly tone obviously it’s not quite up to par with a guy with scarred vocal chords which would help to prop up what turns out to be a slightly conflicted storyline.

At first the attitude on Have A Ball seems perfect for our visions of debauchery as the initial line Butler delivers has her telling us that she’s going to drink whiskey, which is never a bad way to get us invested right out of the gate. Unfortunately she doesn’t look to increase the revelry, but rather explain the reasons behind it, as she’s excited her fella is coming back, apparently because he’s a lay about who was looking for a sugar mama, something she is now willing to be as she announces she’s going to get a job.

So much for the party!

Thankfully the band is in no way compliant with this sudden move towards responsibility as it sounds as if they’re trying to undermine Butler’s act of contrition by keeping things churning. The entire band work well in unison behind the vocals but the drummer really needs to be credited for delivering a crude but relentless thudding beat that dominates the record until Houston comes in for his solo.

His saxophone sounds fine even if he never works himself up to anything resembling a frantic climax. Instead he grinds out a deeper and more seductive riff early on before increasing the pace while going up the register, building excitement without ever truly exploding.

You can’t fault the effort of any of them, but instead of maximizing their individual potential, they almost seem TOO intent on keeping everyone within reach when it would’ve been better to try and outdo one another and let the chips fall where they may by seeing who among them couldn’t keep up as the bar gradually got raised.

Be Real True
Releasing a credible uptempo rocker with an energetic vocal backed by a band playing with genuine hard-charging enthusiasm is nothing to be dismissive about even if it doesn’t quite go far enough to land us in jail as accomplices for the mayhem we hoped for.

Though it may break no new ground stylistically, it DID clearly have some subversive influence on one of rock’s all-time immortal songs, as Jesse Stone seems to have – perhaps unintentionally – lifted some melodic elements from this for Shake, Rattle & Roll… although since the writing credit was stolen by Jules Bihari we don’t even know who specifically is responsible for it.

But even without that faint connection, there’s still enough to enjoy about this record to Have A Ball while letting it spin at full volume at a house party.

Maybe it’s not a good idea to pay too close attention to the details since it shortchanges the hedonistic title once Butler trades in the reckless behavior she seems to be encouraging for a vow to work hard – though it does close that out with a sneaky-good line about how “I’m gonna be a fool and bring you all my pay” – but at least the record doesn’t ever slow down enough to give you much of a chance to question its commitment.

Sometimes that’s enough to get by and for a sax man who has discovered his best bet for earning plaudits has been cruelly snatched from his hands before it was ever fully in his grasp, this attempt, imperfect though it obviously is, remains a suitable alternative.


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