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FREEDOM 1535; APRIL 1950



For an ambitious young saxophonist coming along in 1950 there were many viable options spread over a variety of musical genres to pursue depending on if you wanted some measure of fame, peer respect or a lasting career.

Unfortunately those three outcomes were largely exclusive to the style you chose. The lasting career option may have been the easiest to achieve but it required being somewhat inconspicuous as a musician once you had established yourself as reliable and capable at your profession. Those were the guys who could always find studio work behind all sorts of pop and light jazz acts, even being called upon to do a rock session now and then, and perhaps a job cutting soundtracks in Hollywood all of which would supplement performing more or less anonymously in bigger nightclubs with established orchestras.

If you craved respect though the smart bet was to head into jazz if you had the chops for it as this was a field where technical virtuosity was held in the highest regard and there was no shortage of opportunity to carve out your own approach on record and especially on the bandstand where you were expected to display your wares nightly and live off the word of mouth buzz you generated.

Lastly however there was the allure of the bright lights of fame which rock ‘n’ roll was seductively promising you if you threw caution to the wind and decided to cut loose and show off. The last two years had shown that no other style of music for a sax player could match the commercial promise of a hit rock instrumental and the more distinctive and flamboyant you were in this style, the more headlining opportunities would come your way.

Whichever of these options you chose however virtually assured you’d be all but cut off from ever being taken serious for the OTHER options and so the choice you made now might wind up impacting your entire career for the next half century.


Just About The Break Of Day
On the surface Joe Houston’s choice seemed obvious. If he was smart he was gonna rock.

He was the right age – just 23 – and had made the right connections recently, cutting sides with Big Joe Turner who wound up being something of a benefactor to the young musician, taking him along with him to Freedom Records where Houston got the opportunity record under his own name.

That of course seemed to be the perfect label for him to wind up on at this stage of his budding career, for their output was devoted to rock ‘n’ roll and in their midst they had the tightest studio band around with which to bolster your sound should you need any assistance.

All of which, you can probably guess, means that Joe Houston chose another less satisfying route with Jumpin’ The Blues, a record which seems to want to hedge its bets and put off that life-altering decision just a little bit longer.

Jump ‘Em In My Own Way
Right away we zero in on the most glaring fault we can find which is the decision to cut a vocal track rather than an instrumental.

Let’s put aside the fact that sax-based instrumentals are still as good a commercial bet as can be found in rock and instead focus on two things which should’ve been fairly obvious to Houston and anyone else in the room…

The first is that if someone else is singing Joe can’t be blowing much which is what he does best.

The second is the guy he has singing can’t sing!!!

I dunno about you all, but that latter point seems to be the first requirement that artists who want to cut vocal records have to pass and one listen to Julius Stewart’s nasal tones and you’d be apt to cut the power to the microphone altogether and call it a technical glitch, then go get Joe drunk as you egg him on that he’d never be able to play anything truly ferocious on his sax… and when you return to the studio after the technical “problem” has been fixed, let him cut loose and come away with something that may melt the terminal.

Instead they let Stewart sing and the result is Jumpin’ The Blues a weak ineffectual ode to a style of music that Houston is not participating in which uses lyrics that sort of misrepresent the appeal OF that style in the bargain!

When he tells you “The blues make you feel sad, then make you feel so glad” you wonder just what he’s been listening to. Most blues songs are sad, not glad, but if he’s stretching the definition to the more boisterous jump blues (which technically is less blues and more jazz or rock, but whatever) it still doesn’t pick a side.

The rest of the lyrics are just as contradictory and you figure if HE doesn’t know what about this music he likes, then why on earth would we like hearing him try and work it out, especially when he sounds as if he’s had a cold for a week and is still feeling its effect, further sapping the energy from this misbegotten mess.

But there’s still Houston’s impending sax solo which will get us to stick around and see if he can crawl out of his sick bed and give us something to at least cure us of OUR ailments as listeners.

Instead he winds up sending us to the hospital for some Vitamin B-1 shots…


Lose The Best Things In Life That You’ve Ever Had
When an aspiring sax star who is saddled with a vocalist who can’t sing has you rooting for him to lay down his sax and let Stewart start singing again you know something is drastically wrong.

Maybe it is wrong because the horn solo sounds far more like somebody blowing a trumpet than a saxophone, though I’m assuming it’s just an alto sax that caught the same virus that is affecting his partner’s vocal chords.

Either way, trumpet or sax, the results are pretty unhealthy, as he blows a winding, mostly directionless, solo that even when it gets a sudden burst of energy in the crescendo is too high and too powerless to feel its effects. To keep the illness analogy going, this is the equivalent of strong cold medicine which takes away some of the more overt symptoms but replaces it with a lightheaded and physically detached sensation that’s not quite real, nor any more tolerable than the fever and wastebasket full of snot-filled tissues had been.

Yet thankfully Houston hasn’t infected the rest of the band who contribute the only things worth much on Jumpin’ The Blues, namely the pretty consistent rhythm carried by horns, piano and drums that forms the underpinning to the entire song which while not very ambitious is at least modestly appropriate for our needs.

Better still are the brief drum rolls behind the rise in the horn solo, but when you’re going out of your way to compliment a secondary feature that far outshines the focal point of the entire record, you know the end results aren’t going to be worth much outside of providing a warning for other musicians conflicted on which direction to head to choose a different route than this.

I Don’t Feel Fine
Maybe if we were to strip away our expectations for Houston heading into this, forgetting about the promise he showed behind Turner on Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey, or even the adequate job he turned in with Stewart on their first effort for Freedom back in December with Waycross Mama, which succeeded (relatively speaking) by allowing Houston to briefly blow up a storm, we might wind up being a little more generous and call this a poorly executed blandly generic rock record. To tell the truth it’s probably just nondescript enough when hearing in passing to bump it up an extra point provided we’re able to move on from it as quickly as possible.

But we’re in no mood to still be granting conditional pardons for artists – and record labels – who should know better by this stage of the game and because of that we have no choice but to express our absolute disgust over such anemic efforts like Jumpin’ The Blues, a song which shows absolutely no effort to be anything BUT nondescript.

If Joe Houston is content to be an anonymous sideman in life that’s his decision, but if that’s the case someone should tell him about the more appropriate option for that career which we laid out in the beginning. We’ll even buy him a bus ticket to go to the major labels, hat in hand, and offer to sit quietly and unobtrusively in the larger orchestras until he’s called upon to blow twelve discreet notes behind Patti Page or Tony Martin, collect his thirty six dollars for the day and go home and play Canasta with the neighbors after dinner, none of whom would have any idea what he did for a living.

But if he wants to earn the lead label credit he’s been given by Freedom Records and have a chance to be a headlining star in rock ‘n’ roll then he damn well needs to get with the program and leave these kind of halfhearted stabs at inoffensive moderation to someone else.


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