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APOLLO 801; MARCH 1950



Having already reviewed two different singles in the last few weeks by Willis Jackson as Apollo Records foolishly issued both simultaneously, and since like the other sides this contains conflicting stylistic elements of jazz and rock, you might think we’ve said all we can say about these early uncertainties regarding which direction Jackson would head and therefore we can skip this side and wait until he’s got a firmer idea of his musical membership.

Yet indecision has been a prevailing theme around these parts as rock went from an untested innovation in 1947-48 before gradually coming into its own and firmly establishing itself as the most imposing big kid on the block and so why not have one more example just to prove the point?

Besides even now with rock’s commercial might proven time and time again there have been examples of recent hedging by some of the genre’s most imposing figures and so as long as there are still some artists who remain unconvinced of its long-term viability this is a topic that needs to be thoroughly examined again and again… and in Jackson’s case, yet again… until a firm decision gets reached.


Buggin’ Out
Luckily though for impatient readers out there (not to mention a certain writer weary of rehashing the same topics) as we’ve already covered Jackson’s backstory and all of the associated side topics on the first two reviews we can cut right to the chase for this one, since I’m sure this title alone has all but the most obsessive of early rock fans scrambling to get to another website, surely thinking there’ll be nothing of note to be found within.

But while that’s a good assumption to make the truth is that while Dance Of The Lady Bug is beset with some of the most mild jazz-derived playing we’ve encountered on a Willis Jackson song to date it also contains the saving grace of the other two records which is none other than Willis Jackson himself who is proving to be a saxophonist of remarkable skill and charm, regardless of the material. It’s just that the material itself was more often than not letting him down.

You can understand the confusion when it comes to settling on one style for both the artist and the record label without either of them having much of a track record from which to build.

Apollo had ventured into this realm already with some other sax players from jazz backgrounds, Bobby Smith most prominently with Bess’s Boogie, where he seemed game for the shift to something more raw and earthy than what he was accustomed to, but while rock instrumentals were definitely proving to be the better bet for hit singles the long term outlook for jazz was still seen as more stable if only because there was a twenty year history of it being consistently strong in the market.

For Jackson, still a few weeks away from turning 19 when this was released, he had to be aware of the excitement rock was generating in his own age group and thus that made him more amenable than the veteran Smith had been to giving this genre his full attention.

So maybe to cover all their bases Apollo did what we always recommend here and split the single to appeal to two different audiences. Jackson’s flamboyant ostentatious workout that highlighted On My Own was geared towards rock fans, while this more modest offering was probably intended to placate the jazz fans… except maybe nobody let Willis Jackson know, for he lets himself get carried away on this which blurs the line between the two genres more than they might’ve liked.


Bugs In The System
At the onset of the record their jazz preference is fairly well-defined as this is a mid-tempo prancing sort of song with a nice little hook – or two – in the main riff that kicks this off.

It’s the type of intro that nobody, rock fan or jazz enthusiast, would likely complain about even if neither side jumped to embrace it. When the trumpet comes in however you see the jazz interest start to be piqued and the rockers quickly growing bored and distracted. But while conceptually weak from our standpoint it at least helps to set off the change in direction once Jackson enters the picture, slow at first and measured in his playing, but soon raising the stakes with some more gritty energetic action.

His tone is really good… some guys just have that sweet spot in their horn that they gravitate towards and Willis Jackson definitely knew how to milk that for all it’s worth, giving these lines a subtle sensuality that makes it far more alluring that those same lines might be in other – lesser – hands.

Once he has your attention he starts to ramp things up, discarding the more sedate trappings that had been defining Dance Of The Lady Bug and in the process trying to get a gut reaction from the rock crowd who surely felt they’d walked into the wrong show during that opening minute.

What that means though is now it’s the older jazz fans reaching for their coats and hurrying to pay their checks as Jackson doles out some forceful lines beginning at the 1:25 mark. After a brief respite he comes back with a stuttering escalation of power heading into the two minute signpost trying to insist to any lingering doubters out there that this was indeed a rock song.

We can’t altogether believe him though for before the jazz club patrons empty out completely Jackson willingly cedes control back to the band who have been relatively innocuous during most of his extended stretch in the spotlight. As soon as they’re back in charge of things they naturally put a far too tidy bow on the proceedings and get everybody to settle back down again.

Ultimately neither group of listeners will be fully satisfied by these piecemeal records yet within each of those constituencies there’s bound to be at least something that will appeal to their senses and I suppose all of those involved were figuring it’d be best to let the most vociferous audience response set their course going forward. Who knows, maybe that’s even why they released both singles at the same time, making sure to give listeners enough options to make their preference known.


Get The Bugs Out
Of course our preference as rock aficionados was never in doubt, for while we can appreciate the collective abilities of those able to play either style of music, eventually we all know you have to make a decision. Rock or jazz… hot or cool… us or them?

Dance Of The Lady Bug features the least in the way of rock attributes of the records we’ve covered and as such it’s the least compelling of the three sides, even though Jackson’s playing here is perfectly suitable for rock and shows his natural affinity for rock’s basic requirements.

Unfortunately he’s not being trusted to carry an entire record with his playing and the stylistic compromises, while fairly well handled so the shift between them isn’t jarring, means none of the records will never leave a great impression overall.

But I suppose this is par for the course for a lot of labels steeped in older forms and for a lot of younger artists capable of handling either yet still uncertain as to which to give their heart to when the stakes are merely their career prospects going forward. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who still can’t legally rent a car or cast a vote in 1950.

Should he decide to throw in with rock however his performance here shows he shouldn’t have much trouble doing so… basically he just has to expand on what’s he’s delivered so far – provided he gets his backing musicians to go along with fueling that fire rather than dousing it with a different mindset. If he can do that consistently over an entire record there’s no telling what he’d be capable of.

But until he makes his mind up and dives headlong into rock then he’s bound to be someone whose promise remains more tantalizing than his production.


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