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MERCURY 8248; NOVEMBER 1951

 
 

 

When he first appeared on the scene in late 1949 under the aegis of Big Joe Turner, it looked as if the precocious 23 year old tenor saxophonist Joe Houston might be poised to become the next big thing in the honking and squealing sweepstakes.

Instead the heyday of the ostentatious sax instrumental had already peaked and his opportunities since have been far more sporadic and frequently marred by insufficient vocal turns in an attempt to maintain relevance in the market.

He’s back today after an absence of almost a full year, singing for his supper again rather than blowing up a storm, but at least this time he may have some unexpected momentum in his corner to help him break through.
 

 

Troubles All The Time
Nobody could’ve foreseen the sudden commercial downturn of the sax instrumental in rock at the end of the Nineteen Forties which essentially forced Joe Houston to become a backing musician who just happened to get lead artist credit on a string of records led by anonymous singers ranging from poor to decidedly modest. Yet along the way Houston did manage to release a few good instrumentals which showed where his true strengths lay.

The last of these, the emphatically titled Blow Joe Blow, came out on the small Texas label Macy’s Recordings at the dawn of 1951 where, thanks to limited distribution and promotion, it failed to make much of an impact despite its storming nature and overall high quality.

But after Macy’s folded months later, in stepped the more established Los Angeles label, Modern Records, who picked it up to re-issue in late summer and got a huge regional hit out of it, reaffirming that while the wild sax that had dominated the late 1940’s may have cooled, there was still room enough in people’s hearts for a really great one to heat things up every so often.

So it’s hardly surprising that an aspiring major company like Mercury would pick him up and see what he might come up with to help ease them into the rock field. Yet for some reason they decided that his first attempt wouldn’t be with another rip-roaring instrumental track, but rather a vocal offering which is titled Worry, Worry, Worry without he least bit of irony.

Knowing that, it’s hardly surprising that all three of us – you, me and Joe Houston – are filled with dread that this will be yet another chance that goes by the board because of a bad creative decision.
 

I Was Only Trying To Be So Kind
We might as well head off any wiseguys who are itching to jump into the fray and report that this single was in fact Joe Houston’s only national chart hit in Billboard, therefore validating the decision to record it in the first place even if by doing so it shoved his greatest artistic talent in the background.

But that being said, while it’s NOT as good as his previous – and future – wailing sax workouts, that doesn’t mean Worry, Worry, Worry isn’t a solidly conceived early 1950’s rock song in its own right.

Nothing to get excited about maybe, but also nothing to really criticize from a conceptual point of view.

The song actually takes on some of the characteristics of a sax instrumental in that it relies heavily on a riff as its selling point. The big difference though is that it’s a repetitive vocal riff chanting the title line rather than a recurring sax riff which might better provide some genuine excitement for the record.

As it is though at least they seem to have a clear vision of what they’re setting out to do here, starting with the horns playing in unison to kick things off before the piano (played by his wife) and drums take over behind the vocalists who are singing in ragged harmony about their missteps with a girl who has been taking advantage of them.

The structure of the song is both its best attribute sonically, while also being its least creative one aesthetically as it requires very little vocal skill to put across, something which surely was intentional considering they weren’t professional singers. Yet because of that simple easy-flowing pattern it remains catchy enough to overlook their somewhat weak deliveries and focus instead on how effortlessly it rises and falls, surging along with a steady pressure that never lets up even though it also never really drives things home with any force.

It’s a sing-along track for those who can’t sing, a simplistic story for those without the patience for a more involved plot and a record for a company which remains skeptical of the more flamboyant records someone like Joe Houston was clearly capable of churning out on demand if left to his own devices… and if left to play his saxophone.

That’s something he doesn’t do much of here, if at all. He may be among the ensemble early on, but the only other horn being played during the bulk of the song isn’t his and it’s hardly stirring any excitement.

Still, this is a decent enough record for its limited aims and if nothing else ensured that Joe Houston’s opportunities to see the inside of a studio were going to continue and as long as that was the case maybe he’d get another chance to pick up that saxophone before it got rusty.
 


 

Someday Maybe You Won’t Worry Me So
Rock ‘n’ roll’s story is always in danger of being condensed to the point where it fails to reflect the nuance of what actually happened along the way and instead becomes just a series of broad touchstones, something which invariably is defined by hits.

Thus Joe Houston’s mark on those pages with Worry, Worry, Worry would not in any way be reflective of what true skills he brought to the table, not to mention the fact that by mentioning him without talking up his sax prowess would risk further diminishing that instrument’s importance in the evolving sound of the entire genre.

Yet we can’t begrudge Joe Houston for his efforts, even though it was with something completely atypical in his catalog, in part because that might be all that ensures his name won’t ever fully be eradicated from the ledger of rock acts as time goes on.

So in that regard we’re glad this made a few waves for him and it’s good enough to still be modestly appreciated all these years later. But if you’re looking to this record to understand what made Joe Houston so potent as a rocker, you definitely aren’t going to find it.

Of course if that revelation spurs you on to dig deeper to hear him at his best, then maybe it’s a good thing if you start here, because it’ll only make you that much more impressed when you come across the really good stuff he’s got coming up.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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