APOLLO 800; MARCH 1950



Another new arrival on the rock scene – and not surprisingly given the era we’re in it’s yet another tenor sax player.

The odds of any newcomer actually making a sizable dent in rock ‘n’ roll’s evolution of course is statistically pretty small, there’s just too many artists… too many records… for most neophytes to even be noticed unless they’re just so startlingly great that your head gets turned by them from the minute they walk on stage.

But while Willis Jackson would never score a national hit himself that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a vital presence on countless hits for others and, all things considered, one of the more notable figures of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll even if few people in the listening audience realized his importance at the time.


Watchu Talkin’ ‘Bout?
In the years since the name Willis Jackson has become more well-known than it had been in his heyday thanks to his personal connection to the legendary Ruth Brown. Though the two were never married (as often was erroneously reported), nor was he the father of “their” child, Ron (the real father was fellow singing star Clyde McPhatter), the long romance between Jackson and Brown was 100% true with Ruth unabashedly calling him “the love of my life” for the rest of her days.

But as 1950 dawns that’s still a ways off, the two hadn’t even met at this point when Willis Jackson strode onto the scene as a rising sax star with a flair for publicity and more than enough ability to back up his boastful proclamations.

Like many of rock’s first generation flame-throwing saxophonists Jackson was a jazz musician at heart but not one who looked down on rock, he in fact embraced its overall attitude and reveled in the Fastest Gun in the West mentality that made rock’s sax-based era so riveting from the standpoint of showmanship.

But that’s not to say any of that is really apparent on Jackson’s first efforts for Apollo Records as he’s basically adhering to a more mainstream approach wherein the songs conceivably fit into multiple genres, searching for a receptive audience to give his allegiance to.

The flip side of this single, the Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern written standard Can’t Help Loving That Man, actually was one of Jackson’s signature tunes – and not coincidentally the song Brown referred to as “theirs” throughout their romance – yet it’s clearly well outside the boundaries of rock. What that shows is that even though the tenor sax was unequivocally THE instrument of rock ‘n’ roll mayhem, Apollo Records and Jackson himself were still paying lip service to the more respected fields.

But on the self-penned Chuck’s Chuckles, a far too dopey title for its intended aims, Willis Jackson gives notice that rock aesthetics are indeed on his musical radar and while it’s hardly something that will get anyone to abandon the more lurid ostentatious screaming sax instrumentals that were drawing so much attention at the time, this works really well as a more measured alternative.


Nothing To Laugh At
Maybe the reason the song is more welcome in rock circles despite its sometimes stodgy arrangement is the slinky undercurrent it features which hints at, even blatantly suggests, a stripper’s anthem.

The intro to Chuck’s Chuckles however is a little too structured, the full bank of horns prancing along with a decent melody but one that is always on the brink of being too neat and mannered to fully convince us they’re genuine in their attempts at slumming on our side of town.

But when Jackson comes into view just over a minute in he’s got no such pretensions and clearly doesn’t feel the rock milieu is beneath him as he sounds positively sultry from his first lines. He’s not so much obliterating the playing of the others, who now fall in dutifully behind him by repeating their own established motif in the background, so much as he’s using their more proper approach to make his lines stand out more.

It’s not a novel concept of course, this playing off one another to highlight their differences, but it’s very effectively carried out as it lets Jackson appear more suggestive and unseemly without having to resort to the type of over-the-top honking and shrieking that were par for the course when it came to so many rock instrumentals.

Jackson doesn’t quite come across as menacing here but he’s definitely got a more ominous vibe going which gives the record its character. There’s almost a veil of quiet danger in his playing as if he’s the guy lurking in the shadows who you know is up to no good but is too slippery to ever be implicated.

His tone is fantastic, a rough metallic shimmer in its deeper notes which add to the overall effect that this music represents something more than meets the eye. He’s got a graceful power, never blasting away for the sake of showing off but effortlessly using a rapid fire progression that loses none of its strength with each succeeding note.

Eventually he runs out of ideas and has trouble wrapping it up in a memorable way but when he does hand it back over to the others who carry it to the end in a more traditional coda that repeats that now comfortable sounding intro you’re certainly not asking for your money back.

In a lot of ways Chuck’s Chuckles is a record that “feels” familiar to our ears by this point in rock’s journey and is able to transcend its rather limited goals by the sheer abilities of the man at its center, Jackson’s playing elevating a fairly simple tune and transforming it into something entirely suited to the rock ‘n’ roll jungle.


Team Player
When we discuss – and frequently criticize – the musicians who couldn’t seem to decide whether to pursue jazz or rock we should make it clear that in almost every case the focus of discontent around here wasn’t their skill sets in either realm but rather their lack of commitment to focusing exclusively on the task at hand.

But right away Willis Jackson gives us the perfect example of how it SHOULD be done, and could be done had every musician treated each assignment, whether rock or jazz, with the singular respect it deserved.

Jackson would go on to record a ton of albums for Prestige Records from the late 1950’s through the 1960’s, a jazz label through and through, and in many circles that’s what he’s best known for. Yet his rock efforts from the previous decade were no less authentic in their realm than the jazz LP’s were in that other world down the road and his ability to simply be able to accept each of their unique stylistic characteristics and seemingly not resent OR prefer either is what set him apart.

When Jackson had a job to do he did it without any reservations and Chuck’s Chuckles is early evidence of that mentality. He’s adapting his approach for a different audience than the one he used on the top side, as well as the deviating from what he was being asked to play in his day job for Cootie Williams band, a role he’d keep for years even while his own career was taking off with session work for Atlantic Records, touring behind Brown and cutting his own singles.

No, in of itself this is not quite a great record but it’s definitely a worthwhile one as well as something perfectly suited to rock. Even if you weren’t to have any idea of Willis Jackson’s future importance – as of course nobody at the time would have – this would still mark him as someone who bears watching.

I know what you’re thinking, this is just what rock needs, another fine sax player suiting up for their powerhouse team which as the months wear on is now well out in front in the musical standings. But imagine what you’d be thinking if you were on another club, looking at their lead seemingly growing bigger every day and suddenly having to come to grips with the realization that it might just be inevitable now that rock ‘n’ roll is poised to dominate the league for years to come with each new impressive recruit to their roster.


(Visit the Artist page of Willis Jackson for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)