In sports when a player on a team with a non-glorified role – a lineman in football, a backup catcher in baseball or 12th man in basketball who rarely gets off the bench – actually gets to have the spotlight shine briefly on them, it’s often their more celebrated teammates who are the most overjoyed at seeing the annonymous player get a moment of glory.

On Atlantic Records saxophonist Willis Jackson was hardly some rarely used oboe player called in once every ten months to play three notes in the background, but as a sax player who didn’t always get his work behind other stars credited on the label, he was hardly on par with the likes of Ruth Brown and Big Joe Turner when it came to public recognition.

Hence, when he got a single of his own that showed off his talents it had to make his fellow artists who had no shortage of success thanks in part to his assistance on their records, feel pretty good… provided it didn’t become such a hit on its own that he’d be able to tour as a star which would remove him from working behind them in the studio.


Side Hustle
Let’s face it, it’s not as if Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson hadn’t had good rock singles come out under his own name thus far.

In fact, though he tended to split his output as a solo act between rock and jazz-derived artsy records, like the flip side here, Estrellia, the bulk of the released sides that fall on this side of the fence were pretty good.

Not that he quite matched the impact of his more condensed contributions of his solos on vocal records of others, notably his real-life main squeeze at this time, Ruth Brown, his own work shows that he had what it took to be a headliner in his own right… if he’d been doing this same sort of thing four years ago that is when sax instrumentals were all the rage on the charts.

By 1952 however they were somewhat passe, at least commercially unless there was such an undeniable hook in the record that it was hard for the broader public to ignore.

Unfortunately for him Gater’s Groove doesn’t have that – and thus didn’t have what it took to become an actual hit – but it does have everything else short of the kitchen sink, including an organ, all of which gives this an instantly memorable feel that helped to make this one of the more atmospheric rock instrumentals in recent memory.


Gator Skins… We Have It All… Belts, Handbags And Shoes
With its pounding tribal drum pattern to open things up, plus the aforementioned organ always hovering in the background like a vampire bat fluttering around a blood bank, it’s almost as if Willis Jackson will have to elbow his way to the microphone to be heard… but that’s a good thing as long as the others are adding more than ear-catching gimmickry to the proceedings.

The beauty of – but ultimately the limitations of – the honking sax instrumentals that dominated the late 1940’s rock scene was in how the tenor sax would start cutting loose as soon as the red light went on in the studio and would still be honking up a storm when the needle lifted on the record three minutes later.

They weren’t ALL one note performances, some were pretty complex in the lines they played and most featured some sort of support that at least added colors to the overall scene, but for the most part the sax had been the star and had the screen time to prove it.

Willis Jackson may indeed be the headliner here, but he’s sharing his time on stage with his cohorts who hold their own. It’s not just the drummer and organist either, but the other horns who in the past would have a tendency to either get in the way or take a rock record like Gater’s Groove too far back into the past, betraying their own jazz background or a label’s pop aspirations.

Instead here they actually help build anticipation for Jackson’s appearance, giving us a decent looped riff that gets capped off by the organ each time through which may not be very gritty but definitely registers high on enthusiasm if nothing else.

When Gator comes in, maybe after complaining to Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun about the misspelling of his nickname in the title, he’s full of fire, blasting away with a controlled fury, hitting highs and lows and finding the carcass of a melody to gnaw on its bones.

Granted this means it gets less of its direction from Jackson than the more compact support of the others, but he never really lets up and the back and forth exchange with the other horns meshes their disparate sounds quite well.

Maybe the organ adds too much of a roller rink feel to the record, or perhaps the lack of some obscene screeching and honking interludes is a let-down for those of you still seeking to get their rocks off to these types of records, but on the whole this fulfills its basic needs with room to spare giving you non-stop energy from a wide array of instruments, multiple crescendos along the way to make sure you don’t feel shortchanged by the arrangement and topped off by Jackson’s confident turn on tenor where both his rough tone and his determination are apparent with each note he plays.

None of Gater’s Groove is all that groundbreaking, there’s no real hook to get stuck in your brain, nor a solo that peels the paint off your walls, but everything about this was done with the right intentions and played by musicians who have the credentials to be taken seriously.

It may have been dropped ignominiously into a gap in Atlantic’s release schedule in late summer, designed more to appease Gator than to get him a hit, but he’s gotta know by now, just as his label does, that this kind of record has built-in commercial limitations that will never allow him to be a star in his own right.

But what it serves up instead is a way for him to stay on the radar of those with their ear to the ground looking for records that can get the blood pumping, as well as the restless concert goers who see him in person and need an excuse to get out of their seats and dance.

That’s not going to put Jackson on par with those he shares the studio with, but it’s still enough to keep him in demand.


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