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When you try something ambitious in music there’s always a good chance that people will be slow to catch on, unsure of what they’re hearing, or if it’s even intended for their ears, and so while it may be a creative success you might wind up with a commercial failure on your hands that negates your artistic advancement.

But in the singles era in rock ‘n’ roll you had the opportunity to try and head off such potential outcomes by pairing that more elaborate song with one that has decidedly more limited aims, which generally means to get your audience moving and blast away so they can’t have conversations about how the other side of the record seems strange and incomprehensible.

It may be nothing more than covering your ass, but it was the one way artists saw to keep open their chances at being allowed to still follow their ambitions the next time out.


Better Late Than Never
Because he’d started off playing in jazz circles when he launched his professional career just as rock was coalescing as the more potent commercial entity, Willis Jackson just missed out on what might’ve taken him in a whole new direction under different circumstances.

Being just a kid in his late teens he was uniquely qualified to tap into the restless energy and desire for self-glory that his peers on sax who chose rock over jazz were bringing to the table. Certainly he was more than skilled enough to perform those cruder songs with ease and in the process, like Big Jay McNeely, bring a good deal of musical creativity to the role to make those efforts stand out.

But he didn’t try and so rather than be one of those guys who had a few honking workouts on record to act as calling cards, he was someone who – like most in jazz had – gained his reputation as a live musician, where it should be stated, he was not averse to cutting up a fellow sax player on the well publicized Sax Battles that were billed like heavyweight fights in clubs during this time to draw in rowdy crowds to scream themselves hoarse and then spend their dough to quench their thirst that resulted from getting worked up over such decadent displays.

Now that those kind of saxophone assaults were fading from the charts though Willis Jackson, having moved to Apollo Records last year to try and carve out a recording career that focused largely on rock singles, was trying to straddle the line between more impeccable jazz and more hedonistic rock.

If the brilliant flip side of this was the one leaning towards jazz, then Later For The Gator was the one intended to sooth the antsy rock fan’s soul by being more ostentatious, more direct and… decidedly less ambitious.

But just because he set his sights lower doesn’t mean that within that realm he still can’t impress.


The Gator Bites
It’s true there’s nothing particularly really special about this but though he’s taking a rather simple approach to a rock sax instrumental he’s certainly not falling short in making it work pretty effectively.

Opening with a a rousing horn riff played by the ensemble it downshifts so they can transition to the more basic hook that sets up Jackson’s first soloing stint. Backed with hand claps this section is more of a prelude to the main event, something to just get you in a reasonable groove, get you acclimated to his horn and establish the pace and texture of the song.

Before long the other horns come back in to provide a more complex backdrop on Late For The Gator while Jackson starts to improvise as now the drums are handling the backbeat which is when the song starts to come together.

We get a few moments of creativity in the arrangement in spite of the rather straightforward big picture approach, as somebody seems to be pulling on some high tension wires to create a high twanging effect, almost cartoon like, though it’s kept well in the background. In reality it’s the trumpets – presumably – as there’s not even a trombone on this to replicate that sound, nor any stringed instruments unless somebody was reaching into the piano to pluck the strings manually.

The main event though is still Jackson who is free-styling while remaining on point when it comes to keeping it on a melodic leash. He does manage to drop into an obscene wind-breaking honk and then comes out of it repeating the same notes in a fervent pattern that has become so well known in rock circles where this is used to whip listeners into a frenzy. While he doesn’t quite try and get you to collapse in exhaustion from that display, he’s definitely not taking it easy either.

It may not have a traditional structure – intro, main melody and two distinct solos before a fade – but it’s not so far removed from it that you can’t follow along. Maybe it’s lacking a repeated hook that would make it more memorable, but while it’s playing you don’t really notice its absence. In short this is a very competent sax-based workout fit for the roadhouses and juke joints where rock fans were likely to be found.


Gator… Aid?
Each era – and eras in rock are notoriously short – are notable for one or two dominant sounds and it’s simply a shame that Willis Jackson couldn’t have been a prominent part of the era just preceding this one when the tenor sax instrumentals ruled the roost.

He had everything going for him – youth, ability, showmanship, even a cool nickname (Gatortail) which lent itself to headlines and song titles (coincidentally this is the third record this week to have gators surfacing in the water) – and had he broken through with a chart topper of that kind during that period maybe the image of him historically would be a little different.

But while Later For The Gator came along too late to take advantage of that, and wasn’t quite up to par even if it had a better environment to be accepted, Willis Jackson didn’t suffer much. He soon became one of the more prominent sidemen in rock, a constant companion on record and on the road for Ruth Brown, the biggest female rock star of the 1950’s and by the time the sax was becoming less of a featured component in all rock ‘n’ roll late in the decade he was still young enough to move into jazz and draw raves for his performances.

So consider this just a belated offering for the sax sweepstakes of the last few years, one not destined to make him a household name by any means, but the side of this particular single that would at least ensure he’d be welcome to the rock party for however long he wanted to stick around.


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