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Of all of the recently launched independent record labels who threw their fate in with rock ‘n’ roll rather than sticking with more traditional forms of black music such as the blues, jazz and gospel, none of them seemed more wholeheartedly committed to it than Freedom Records.

Yet somehow they were lagging behind commercially in the field to those labels whose efforts in rock were far more tentative.

So what was Freedom Records to do? Start diversifying their output and trying to carve out a niche with blues and gospel, two styles which might not have quite as high of a ceiling when it comes to hits but which probably had more consistent sales from year to year? Or do you double down on your bet with rock ‘n’ roll and assume that when you’re churning out as much great stuff as they are some of it surely will have to hit big eventually?

To their everlasting credit Freedom Records chose the latter.


Gonna See What My Baby’s Doin’
We probably aren’t violating any confidentiality agreements to tell you that it didn’t work out so well. Their admirable allegiance with cutting edge rock got them little in the way of tangible returns and before long they’d fold up shop. But that didn’t meant their output itself wasn’t stellar, only that the potential consumer was appallingly ignorant as to what kind of high quality material they were putting out.

That’s right, I’m blaming it on you! Or rather our great grandparents for not buying these records back in the late 1940’s when many of them were the target audience for this stuff.

Up to now Freedom’s roster was culled largely from their top notch house band, The Hep-Cats. Guitarist extraordinaire Goree Carter I suppose was signed as an artist first and foremost and merely joined the loose connection of musicians in the studio for whatever session was being cut, though the others all acquitted themselves well when they too got to step out on their own for a release. But let’s face it, that was still a rather limited pool from which to draw from and so the label needed to find other artists to sign who could not only give them more acts to promote, but also perhaps to bring another sonic wrinkle to add to their collective work.

Enter Joe Houston, which considering the location of Freedom Records itself might have you believe he simply took his surname from the city, but in fact that was his given name and he was from Austin, which is a hundred and sixty odd miles away, clear across the dusty plains of Texas.

We’ve met Houston once already earlier this month alongside Big Joe Turner on the romping Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey, a brief partnership brought on by fortuitous circumstance and Turner’s eye for talent.

Houston was young veteran musician, meaning he’d been playing professionally since his mid-teens, and had recently moved to Baton Rouge when he got married to Marian McKinley, a pianist he met on his travels. Though the town was hardly a musical mecca like nearby New Orleans, or even for that matter Houston itself, there was a strong music scene there and when Turner came to town Joe Houston was enlisted to put together a band. The two hit it off, musically, personally or both, and wound up cutting two songs for the Rouge label in town which essentially began and ended with that session.

Both men would then head across state lines to Texas and land at Freedom Records doorstep. The details of just HOW that came about however are a little bit fuzzy.

It has been said that it might have been Goree Carter touring the region who brought Turner to Freedom with Joe Houston in tow, or it could’ve been that two of the Hep-Cats, Allison Tucker the drummer and Nunu Pitts the trumpeter who were sidelining on the Baton Rouge session, suggested they try the Freedom label next, but whatever the case Turner and Houston both soon headed to Houston (couldn’t his parents have been named McGillicuddy instead and made this easier for all of us?).

For Turner, who was tailor made for rock ‘n’ roll but still undecided on throwing in with the style completely, it was a match made in heaven, giving him an environment to firmly situate him in that realm going forward. For Joe Houston, a 23 year old who’d begun as an altoist before having his mind blown listening to Big Jay McNeely and switching to tenor and committing himself to rock ‘n’ roll, it was the perfect place to launch his own solo career.


Make Everything All-Reet
As if all of these machinations about who led who where and when, and why the artist had to have the same name as the city he was currently recording in, we have to deal yet another confusing issue with this record which is the realization that the focal point of the record isn’t Joe Houston at all, because for some reason this is not an instrumental to show off his prowess on the sax as you’d expect, but rather a platform for a vocalist named Julius Stewart.

Who’da thought that???

Now there was a painter named Julius LeBlanc Stewart from Philly who made his name in Paris in the Barbizon movement of the 1800’s but he died in Gay Paree in 1919 which is thirty years before this record was cut so it’s doubtful they were the same guy. Disagree if you want but I just don’t hear either a Philadelphia OR French accent in Stewart’s voice on Waycross Mama.

Instead I hear a nasal voice reminiscent of our old mysterious pal Joe Swift. Not that they’re dead ringers for one another but both show that having perpetually stuffed nasal passages, which you’d assume would be as much of a disqualifier for the singing profession as being an albino would be for a lifeguard asked to sit all day in the sun, was actually a fairly common trait back in the day for journeyman singers.

Stewart, like Swift before him, tries making up for this malady with hell-bent enthusiasm and largely succeeds. Sure it was a few steps down from Joe Turner’s booming pipes (okay, a few floors down… like fifty floors or so), but the vigorous way Big Joe sang Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey elevated that song well past what it shaped up to be on paper so apparently Houston was a fast learner and decided that finding a singer who could show they were having a good time was a smart move when you wanted record buyers to have a good time listening to it.

The problem is for all of the effort Stewart puts into this we’re not clamoring to get closer and get high off the electricity he’s trying to give off but rather we’re moving further away for fear of catching whatever flu bug he’s gotten a head start on as the winter of ’49 kicks off. It might not be enough to chase us out the door altogether but we’re keeping our distance, physically and emotionally, all the same.

Of course he’s also not helped by the fairly generic story he’s asked to convey, which has nothing in the way of memorable lines or clever twists. The run-down, in case we’re called on to provide testimony, is that his girl Mary Lee from Waycross, Georgia (how they got THERE, from either Baton Rouge or Houston, I don’t really want to know. Needless to say these guys got around), is proving to be a rather vexing girlfriend. She’s good looking he assures us, and she knows what to do – nothing surprising there, rock artists always had a thing for the hot experienced girls – but he’s worried she’ll dump him, maybe because the long term prospects as a singer usually aren’t very good for guys who would be better off doing Sudafed commercials.

Anyway, he’s got some money and is going to blow it by hopping an early morning bus to check in on her. My guess is that when he arrives after probably not seeing her for six months or so while he was out on the road, she’ll have moved in with the chicken farmer down the street and will pretend she doesn’t know him so her new beau doesn’t turn her into chicken feed, but what do I know? Maybe Julius and Mary Lee will get married and live happily ever after.

Making Good Baby
If there IS a wedding let’s hope they invite Joe Houston who not only gave Stewart his chance to woo her on record but also provides the most compelling section of that record with his frantic blowing… and you thought we forgot all about him, didn’t you?

Actually Waycross Mama starts off rather weak in that regard with a full horn section playing an out of date arrangement on the intro, the usual suspects when it comes to potentially sinking a record in other words. When Stewart rolls in they at least tighten up behind him with the piano and drums giving it a semblance of rhythm that it needs to keep us interested. But things really start jumping when Stewart cries out, “In the morning!” as a dynamic lead-in to Houston’s solo.

Once that happens everything picks up and we can safely say that Joe Houston earns his money and his star billing with some strong, self-assured riffs. He keeps well within the mid-range of the tenor, there’s nothing at risk for drawing shocked stares for ripping off a few notes too low for mixed company and just one brief moment that will disturb more sensitive ears in the audience when he climbs high as he dares, but even while sticking in the instrument’s comfort zone he never fails to keeps things churning. It’s got a coarse sound for much of it, a sandpaper roughness to it that is invigorating and after just two appearances on the rock stage he’s already shaping up to be someone who can command the spotlight.

He then hands off to an electric guitar and of course this being Freedom Records we have to wonder just who is responsible for this interlude. Which is why we’re sorry to report that it’s probably not who we’re all hoping it is. At least it doesn’t SOUND like Goree Carter at any rate. Oh, whoever he is he’s playing well enough, that’s not the problem, but the fleet-fingered style and cleaner high tones aren’t what Carter is known for. Regardless it’s a welcome contrast to Houston’s honking, giving it another texture to set it apart.


Have To Leave So Doggone Soon
But while all of it is well done and fits in with Stewart’s vocal approach we’ve gotten spoiled as of late with much more daring, adventurous and downright raunchy sounds on the best rock sides to hit the street over the past year or so. Even Houston’s recent turn with Big Joe Turner was a much more rousing performance by all involved.

Waycross Mama does everything required of it without managing to surpass any of the now-standard benchmarks we’ve come to expect. In many ways it’s what you might call and “give and take record”, as in what it gives you for positives it takes back in negatives. Slightly underpowered vocally yet delivered with the right attitude… a good sax solo that’s offset by a weak intro to the record overall… a nicely played guitar part that doesn’t quite turn up the heat enough… and lastly an appropriate theme and story which nonetheless is lacking any surprises or extraordinary turns of phrase to really make an impression.

But when you look at it in the big picture this is still a positive development for rock overall, adding to the ever-increasing depth the style requires to ensure it remains entrenched in the musical landscape. Two years ago a record like this would’ve probably stood out a lot more – jumped out is more like it – but today it’s become par for the course. The entire style has become more ambitious with a more diverse bunch of artists plying their trade and so while you may deliver fairly good material it’s now going to take more to get noticed.

For Houston though it at least places him on the major league roster and though his stint with Freedom Records wouldn’t last beyond one session – and one future single that came out of it – at least they too were trying to bolster their arsenal in an attempt to make some noise on the charts and draw attention to what they were laying down.

In this case it may not have done either of them much good but at least you can’t fault their efforts.


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