Joe Houston: Passing Of Tenor Sax Wild Man

By Steve Propes

To properly cruise Hody’s Drive-In at PCH and Anaheim St. 1950s style, an in-dash 45 rpm record player to dazzle other cruisers, pedestrians and car hops with one’s unique taste in rock ‘n’ roll. L.A. honking tenor sax players were prime exponents of some of those great records and three of the best were Big Jay McNeely, Chuck Higgins with the bop style “Pachuco Hop” and the wailing “All Night Long” by Joe Houston.

After an extended period in a nursing home after suffering a stroke, long-time Long Beach resident, Houston passed away at age 89 on December 28th, 2015 in Bellflower.

Born in Austin, Texas on July 12th, 1926, Joe recalled, “I don’t remember when I didn’t play the tenor sax. I lived in a neighborhood of professional musicians in Austin. I started playing trumpet in a high school band for six months, then I got a sax. At 14, I was sitting in a club. I was influenced by Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and Arnett Cobb, later by Charlie Parker.

“My first professional engagement was in Chicago. All the fellows said, ‘Don’t go with the band. They’re going to take you up north and strand you, man, you’re not ready.’”

After several successful records, Houston said, “I made enough to buy a limousine. I was sharp. I’m still sharp. After the limo, I got a Cadillac.”

Joe arrived in L.A. in 1951 when the tenor saxophone was king in rhythm and blues (R&B). Joe recorded his own wild style for several small indie labels with tight budgets and even tighter fists. Whatever money Joe couldn’t make in the studio, he more than made up for on the road where there was constant demand by fans of real R&B records.

He recorded for two black-owned labels, the first of which was owned by trumpet player and musician’s union official, Jake Porter. “I had the best sounding records I made with Jake. Everybody was trying to play like me. Jake Porter was good people. But he beat you out of money if he could, quietly.”

Porter made authorized use of Joe’s “Cross the Tracks” in “‘Cheech & Chong, the Last Movie.” “Jake gave me $500, sold it to Universal Studios for $25,000.”

In 1954, Houston recorded for John Dolphin of the legendary Dolphin’s Of Hollywood record shop near Central Avenue, who had just started the Money label. DJ Dick Hugg, Huggy Boy, also a Long Beach resident, was heard on vocals with “friends that used to drink wine and they could dance good. I bought three quarts of wine, told them to clap hands, ‘when we get to the part, holler “all night long!”

“All Nite Long” was popular from its release date in summer 1954 and it remained available on various labels for decades, thanks mainly to Huggy Boy, who had him record an almost identical version, as did other labels.

“John Dolphin had 12 hours of radio time with Huggy Boy and he was the hottest person in Los Angeles. I knew I’d get some play on it. If I didn’t get any money, I knew I’d get some gigs.” That plan worked.

Recently, the Dolphin story has been turned into a stage play with talk of a movie deal, however the Dolphin family long ago sold rights to the music.

John Dolphin was a nice person to me,” Joe continued. “He’d get you a hit record, though, but it was Huggy Boy who made it” as it was his sign-on and sign-off radio theme song.

To black church-goers and preachers in the mid 1950s, one of the great no-nos was to cross from gospel music into the pop field, with rock ‘n’ roll especially in mind. A breakthrough mixing gospel with R&B was noted by the California Eagle of April 10th, 1958. “The Clara Ward gospel group will be double billed with rock ‘n’ roll man Joe Houston at the downtown Paramount. Blues and gospel mixed? Had to happen sooner or later, we guess. Should be a shouting good time!”

It was. Several years ago, Joe reminisced with a smile, “We all got together on ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’”

In recent years, Houston lived in Long Beach and worked around the world as well as local clubs and the occasional outdoor festival, though never the Long Beach Blues Festival.

Fans recall his amazing concerts, including ones in Chicago that drew around 300,000 and the rocking “Louie Louie” cruise in Long Beach Harbor in August 1988.

About ten years ago, Houston suffered a stroke and entered a nursing home in Bellflower.

At first, he entertained the staff with his sax-ual prowess, the music filtering down the halls. Toward the end, his sax was nowhere in sight, save the framed saxophone illustration gracing the wall.

steve@longbeachcomber.com

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