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If you were a record company largely devoted to rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1950’s and had in your midst a great tenor saxophonist who was already making his presence known contributing the kind of sultry, wild or dirty groove to many of your vocal acts, you probably had a twinge of remorse that you hadn’t had him under contract just a few years earlier when the sax instrumental was rock’s most consistently potent commercial avenue.

By 1952 that avenue, while not a total dead end, was certainly not taking you down the main thoroughfare of the charts, yet to keep the musicians happy you needed to release singles under their own name that at least had a chance to get some modest action.

So what do you do to try and facilitate this?

How about trying to turn the instrumentalist into a vocalist?

Nah, that won’t work… will it?


I Lost My Job
Of all of the big name sax players of 1950’s rock, Willis Jackson is someone who doesn’t have that one enduring instrumental to keep their name afloat, yet because of who he recorded with he’s not in much danger of being forgotten.

Like so many of his ilk, Jackson was more attuned to jazz and simply turned to rock because there was money to be made. But unlike some who resented this dumbing down of their art, he didn’t seem to mind as long as he was working behind someone else and on Atlantic there were a lot of “someone elses” of note, most lastingly for him was Ruth Brown who became his main squeeze (though never her husband as was often reported).

Yet his own releases for the company were a strange mix of stylistic hybrids, for unlike Frank Culley, his immediate predecessor as the label’s top saxman, who scored with some rock instrumentals in the late 1940’s, Jackson missed that boat in that regard and consequently was not steered towards the kind of honking displays that had defined the previous era.

But that didn’t mean he was simply going to be allowed to pursue jazzier directions with no regard for the current market and so in an attempt to try and get a hit during a period where instrumentals were no longer in favor, Atlantic’s top musical mind, Jesse Stone, came up with Wine-O-Wine, a vocal record that tries to not let Jackson’s limited abilities in that area overshadow his primary skill.

In theory maybe this made some sense, as coming up with a story and a catchy vocal hook it’d be more easily grasped and remembered. But in practice it was probably doomed for failure when the people responsible for delivering those lines can’t actually sing… at least in the way rock fans want to hear.

Two More Drinks Will Set Me Free
Down the road Jesse Stone would be instrumental in assembling two vocal group that would appear on countless records by Atlantic artists. One we’ve already met in a way, a group who’d be called The Cues in their everyday lives but would appear on record as The Ivory Tones (behind Ivory Joe Hunter), The Gliders (backing LaVern Baker), The Blues Kings (with Big Joe Turner) and occasionally The Rhythmmakers (for Ruth Brown). This was a group that came out of The Blenders, who we’ve watched try – and largely fail – to make the grade as a stand alone rock vocal group, for while they were capable singers, they didn’t quite have the passion for this kind of music to shape their own destiny. With Stone handling them however, they were given smaller but crucial roles and performed very capably at every turn.

The other group he came up with entirely on his own was a female counterpoint he called The Cookies. They worked extensively with Chuck Willis when he joined the label in mid-decade and they even scored a hit of their own with In Paradise, one of the first “girl group” records of note. Soon after that Ray Charles cannibalized them for his first Raelettes, though the others reformed The Cookies soon after and had a string of classic hits in the 60’s.

What does any of this have to do with Willis Jackson and Wine-O-Wine you’re asking? Well, there’s singers here – dubbed the The Four Gators (taken from Jackson’s nickname, Gatortail) and let’s just say they are pretty far away from The Cookies or The Cues in terms of authenticity.

My guess is they’re white session singers gotten from the same pool that supplied the major labels in New York because they are woefully lacking soul and considering what the song is about this can’t help but be a serious problem.

The second problem though is Jackson himself, an uncomfortable singer to say the least… that is, if you call what he’s doing “singing”. He’s got a decent enough rhythmic sense, as you’d expect, but he’s lacking confidence in his voice and so he sells the lines short, not investing them with the type of leering personality they call for.

In other words because of this it winds up being a much better song on paper than on tape.

Where it salvages things is on the musical side of the equation, where the band sets a steady groove thanks four other horns that pick up the slack when Jackson is busy jabbering away, and a solid rhythm section that never lays it on too heavy but never slacks off either.

The highlight though is when Gator himself finally brings his tenor sax to his lips and starts to blow. It’s not a long solo but it’s a good one, robust and melodic, fitting in with the other horns but standing out just the same, nailing every note as he freestyles within the song’s structure which is now framed by Emmanuel Simms’ more assertive drumming.

Unfortunately just when you’re getting loose, they bind you back up in syrupy vocals by four women who surely are keeping one eye on the door, ready to make a break for it when the disembodied voice from the control room yells “Cut!”.


One More Good Drink Will Help Me Stop Crying
If you were to call this a test run for the kind of thing that Atlantic would soon be known and celebrated for, you could definitely call it a success. It showed that Jesse Stone’s ideas were inventive and his arranging skills were first rate, but was simply held back here by unsuitable personnel.

But unfortunately when it comes to released product we tend not to judge things based on their potential for the future once a few tweaks to the formula have been made, we instead rate them entirely on how they sound in the present and here’s where Wine-O-Wine falls short.

We can blame the toothless Four Gators for ruining what might have otherwise been a highlight of the record if it had been in better hands (or voices) but while that’s certainly true, Jackson’s own incompatibility for his lead role – a role they were NOT going to re-cast on his singles naturally – was also subpar.

In other words, the same problem they faced at the beginning of this remained, in that they had a talented sax player in a period just after sax instrumentals had fallen from grace.

That meant they could either keep trying to adapt like they did here, bringing in new and more qualified singers to shore things up, or they could accept the fact that rock instrumentals were in the midst of a commercial dry spell but it was still the best way to showcase Jackson’s abilities and therefore let him blow up a storm and hope that as long as rock ‘n’ roll was the go-to music for drunken parties there’d always be at least one place where those records would get played.


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