IMPERIAL 5196; JUNE 1952



It’s good to see that somebody still feels that wild sax instrumentals have a place in rock ‘n’ roll.

The entire style may have peaked three or four years ago, but there has to be some viable afterlife for such an exhilarating approach… doesn’t there?

Things just don’t die out overnight in music like dinosaurs after the meteorite hit, do they? Sure, maybe it’s no longer a surefire money-maker but there’s got to be some listeners out there who want to dance still… I mean, this IS rock ‘n’ roll we’re talking about, isn’t it? A genre of music that was sort of made for hedonistic dancing in the first place, right?

Okay, so then it stands to reason that a song that involves no storyline to follow, no singing, nothing but honking grooves and heart-stopping squeals over a heavy beat was going to have its place in the jukeboxes and house parties, to say nothing of the actual gigs where musicians played and patrons danced as both parties got drunk off the atmosphere alone.

Why then are there so few invigorating singles being made to satisfy this kind of pursuit?


Storm Warning
The label hopping that Joe Houston’s done so far should’ve reached an end when he came to Imperial Records, seemingly an ideal place for him to be.

For starters they’d had success with rock to date so they knew the market and consequently had achieved brand recognition to attract fans of the style and yet they still were in need of something slightly different to off-set their reliance on New Orleans-based acts to give them a little more variety.

Houston was the perfect anecdote for that. He was based in Los Angeles, the label’s own home, where he had developed a pretty solid following, he was not a singer and he wouldn’t be relied on to carry the entire label’s responsibilities in this field… like say Freddie Mitchell had for so long with Derby Records.

All he had to do was to come out with three or four singles per year, the majority of the sides being specifically made to shake your body to, and Imperial should’ve been content with having him balance the stylistic scale for them and viewed the occasional regional chart action as an unexpected bonus, not an expectation.

But companies have a way of measuring their success strictly in terms of hits and when a record like Hurricane couldn’t crack the charts their belief that Joe Houston was a strong asset that should’ve been cultivated seemed to quickly dissipate.

Yet while this might not be a hit, and might not even be the kind of a record that could’ve been a hit in 1952, that doesn’t mean it still doesn’t have its place in rock ‘n’ roll as the backdrop to a thousand and one parties, as a way to get people on the dance floor, as a way to annoy your parents or your neighbors and as a way to definitively state that you as a company were in the business of creating musical excitement, hits be damned.


Maximum Sustained Winds…
There’s a lot of horns here, all creating a backdrop for the primary horn of Joe Houston to romp and stomp over.

Those other horns are your typical mix of trumpets and altos that live in the upper registers, but they’re not jazz-oriented like so many of the records that have relied on them in the past, but rather they’re just around to give this record more noise to whip up excitement.

To that end they’re incredibly helpful but still may not be playing the most vital supporting role in the arrangement. Instead, that would be the drummer who is relentlessly pounding away and making sure that your hips don’t stop moving while listening, establishing a solid foundation while leaving the rest up to the star of the show to take this to a higher level.

Joe Houston’s technique here is very simple and straight forward. For starters he’s going to ground the song early on when the others are riffing up a storm as he contrasts that with some more calm and measured deeper replies. It’s a way of refocusing your attention without depriving you, or the record, of the excitement the others are generating.

His second duty is to introduce a melodic thread to Hurricane so that it’s not merely the circular riff and pounding beat the others give you while risking making you dizzy with its repetition. Houston’s got to make sure there’s something that seems as if it’s got a destination in mind.

In doing so however, he’s got to also gradually increase the energy by playing off the rest of them without clashing. They do that by adjusting the mix so that the others drop back and Houston’s horn moves into the foreground. Again, simple stuff, but crucial in making this work.

The key however remains just what Joe Houston does when he IS in the spotlight. Do the honks, squeals, riffs and manic energy affect you in the right way and get you to give in to your more primal urges the way this kind of music was designed to do at its best?

Yes, for the most part it does. From a a little before the midway point through the end of the record everything we hear is building to a prolonged frenzy even as it remains firmly under control and tightly focused. There doesn’t seem to be much freestyling going on, yet Houston is still diverse in his technique while the others behind him are fully locked in, the backbeat never lets up and the rest of the horns just keep churning away with their riff before all coming together naturally for the conclusion without breaking stride.

Maybe you wish he’d come up with a melodic hook early on that was a little more identifiable for future reference, but the main undulating riff sticks in your head enough that it’s a sure bet you aren’t going to soon forget the animated joy they play with once the record ends.


Assessing The Damage
Though there have been some rock sax instrumentals with the commercial touch in 1952, they’ve tended to be records with more melodic structure than those which rely on a sense of mayhem like this does.

But that’s an inevitable byproduct of rock’s ever growing success.

Early on when this kind of thing was hitting big, audiences were turning to rock to give into that sense of abandon, something that wasn’t as consistently evident in the vocal-based records coming out at the time.

But since the dawn of the Nineteen Fifties rock had become so multi-faceted in its approach that songs like Hurricane, as viscerally stimulating as ever, were naturally getting lost in the shuffle with so many different ways to get off to the music that were now available everywhere you looked.

Vocal group records, be it raucous singing or tender harmonies, were dominating the charts. The soulful male crooners were sharing space with female belters, while other ladies were delivering deep torch songs as the guys were hollering and shouting. Even the instruments being used to accompany them all were incorporating all different sounds and techniques.

Each of them, or most of them anyway, had something – a title phrase, a verbal hook, a timeless melody or a vocal stamp – that was easy to remember even when the record wasn’t spinning, whereas something like this gave off more of a broad impression and required a few looks at the title to even remember what record it was that got you on your feet.

So yeah, Joe Houston was facing an uphill battle now for securing a hit, but hits should be the last thing you – or Imperial Records – were thinking off when the music was causing those who heard it to feel free to lose their inhibitions and their minds for as long as it was playing.


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