By Steve Propes
To properly cruise Hodyâs 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 oneâs unique taste in rock ânâ 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 âPachuco Hopâ and the wailing âAll Night Longâ 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, âI donât remember when I didnât 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.
âMy first professional engagement was in Chicago. All the fellows said, âDonât go with the band. Theyâre going to take you up north and strand you, man, youâre not ready.ââ
After several successful records, Houston said, âI made enough to buy a limousine. I was sharp. Iâm still sharp. After the limo, I got a Cadillac.â
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 couldnât 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 musicianâs union official, Jake Porter. âI 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.â
Porter made authorized use of Joeâs âCross the Tracksâ in ââCheech & Chong, the Last Movie.â âJake gave me $500, sold it to Universal Studios for $25,000.â
In 1954, Houston recorded for John Dolphin of the legendary Dolphinâs 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 âfriends that used to drink wine and they could dance good. I bought three quarts of wine, told them to clap hands, âwhen we get to the part, holler âall night long!ââ
âAll Nite Longâ 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.
âJohn Dolphin had 12 hours of radio time with Huggy Boy and he was the hottest person in Los Angeles. I knew Iâd get some play on it. If I didnât get any money, I knew Iâd get some gigs.â 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.
âJohn Dolphin was a nice person to me,â Joe continued. âHeâd get you a hit record, though, but it was Huggy Boy who made itâ 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 ânâ roll especially in mind. A breakthrough mixing gospel with R&B was noted by the California Eagle of April 10th, 1958. âThe Clara Ward gospel group will be double billed with rock ânâ 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!â
It was. Several years ago, Joe reminisced with a smile, âWe all got together on âWhen the Saints Go Marching In.ââ
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 âLouie Louieâ 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.
I was honored to play with joe in the 1970s at local clubs in LA . I am a guitar player , my band backed up Joe and Sam and Dave in Roland Heights Ca. Club Roman night Inn. 1978. Joe was a good guy and fun to watch him play.