JOE HOUSTON is a relic of a short-lived and long-gone era, when the frenzied natal screams of rhythm & blues first pierced the American landscape. Houston—along with guys like Big Jay McNeely, Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson and Sam "The Man" Taylor—came to personify the "honking" school of tenor sax playing, which was where the aggressive energy of rock & roll first came to the fore. The method was simple: blow with a violent and raunchy tone, grab a few notes and furiously strangle them to death, and then add in showmanship riffs like playing on your back and walking the bar. Jazz critics of the day (at a time when jazz was still really pop music) were outraged, decrying the honkers as tasteless barbarians. Which they were, but that missed the whole point. These guys stripped the veneer of respectability from the music and created something fiercely new that appealed to the spirit of rebellion that first took hold in the postwar years. They didn't want to dazzle you with their chops and sophistication—they wanted you screaming on your knees, letting go of all inhibition and twitching the Saint Vitus' dance.
"All the kids went crazy over the saxophone in them days," says Houston, who has lived in the same Long Beach apartment for 22 years (!!!). "They had a lot of fun. The sax was a big thing in the '50s."
Houston's biggest hit, 1955's "All Night Long," is a honker's template: play a note or two, but make it sound like a bull being vivisected; chant three words and repeat them over and over at top volume; and attack until a state of bliss is achieved. The style was about as subtle as a punch in the pants—the punk of its day, really—but it was sheer Zen perfection.
"You know, when we made that record, we played it for 45 minutes in the studio, and they had to splice it," Houston recalls. "I bought a case of wine for everybody, and I took four cats to the studio to clap hands with me. The engineer was saying, 'Joe, man, they gotta stop dropping that bottle, man!' Everybody got wasted! But we come up with something different."
Houston has had a long and fruitful career. Born in Austin, he moved to New Orleans to play with Gatemouth Moore while still a teenager. By 1947, he moved to Houston to play with Amos Milburn. Then he moved to LA in 1952 and played with Big Joe Turner for 25 years.
"I still miss him; we was good partners," says Houston. "I lived in LA when they named the music [rock & roll]. I was right in the midst of it all. I made a lot of records in my career. I just called it blues—I was playing the same thing I was playing with Big Joe Turner. It was the same music.
"I was influenced really by Arnett Cobb and Joe Thomas. Joe Thomas was the first person I ever heard play saxophone; he was with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra. Arnett Cobb's from Texas, so that's where I heard him. Arnett Cobb was my man! You know, that stuff still sells good with the people. If a saxophone player can't honk, he ain't playing nothing. A lot of people were influenced by me because they learned how to play saxophone listening to 'All Night Long.' One note!"
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Houston doesn't want you to know how old he is, so I'll respect that and just say he's younger than you think—chronologically, but also in spirit. He's known for putting on a show with the same energy he displayed in the '50s. Which is what he'll do Friday night at the Abilene Rose.
"Ain't nobody left around but me and Big Jay McNeely—he told me that just the other day," Houston says. "I play for everybody, young and old, and whenever I play, the people are satisfied!"
A good place to have one last party this century is at the Blue Cafe, where THE BLASTERS will hold court. Former Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin is eternally resentful of singing brother Phil for continuing to use the Blasters name to front what essentially has become a generic handle for whoever is currently backing Phil ("He's calling it the Blasters, and it ain't the Blasters; the Blasters were a bunch of guys from Downey and Lee Allen"). That may be true, but Phil—bless his heart—always has a great band behind him, ne'er a hack in sight. More to the point, Phil Alvin is one of the best, most powerful and unique singers to come out of the LA scene in the past 20 years. It has been, is now and will ever be a pure pleasure to hear him belting out classics like "Marie Marie," "Long White Cadillac," "American Music" and "Border Radio" through that clenched-tooth, purple-death's-head leer of a mug.
Joe Houston performs at Abilene Rose, 10830 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-1700. Fri., Dec. 31, 9 p.m. $50; $90 per couple (includes dinner); the Blasters play the Blue Cafe, 210 the Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Fri., Dec. 31. (Various ticket packages are available; call the club for more info).