Friday, October 2, 2009

Top R&B Tenor Kings from the 1950's

The origins of the predominance of the guitar as the featured instrument in much of contemporary music is rooted in the birth of rock n' roll in the fifties, as rockabilly merged with R&B. As combos became smaller, the prevalence of wind instruments began to fade. Interestingly, before the emergence of the electric guitar in the combo setting, the saxophone was the considered the ax, and the original "cutting sessions" were actual bouts between both jazz and R&B tenor and alto players.
By the late 1940's, a fascinating diversification was taking place in African American music that coincided with the onset of be bop and hard bop in jazz circles. Two different tracks began to bifurcate: be bop or hard bop, which was seen as the experimental track was shadowed by the increasing popularization of R&B based groups also rooted in jazz, many of which formed the instrumental backing of the Jump Blues phenomenon discussed in a previous post. What is particularly interesting is that some musicians, and many very talented saxophone players, moved in and out of both R&B and Bop oriented combos with facility. Some of the great players of the late 1940's and early 1950's such as Johnny Griffin, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, Teddy Edwards, Harold Land, Jack Mcvea, Jimmy Forrest, Benny Golson, Earl Bostic, Hank Mobley , Clifford Jordan and Pervis Hensen could all move in and out of bop and R&B formats with equal fluency, and could also work with equal ease on ballads. In a sense, these players were drawing from the blues/ballad tradition established by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and extending themselves into bop material that Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon were popularizing in the late 1940s. Most of the aforementioned players moved into more bop related material as the fifties progressed, yet most still laid down some wonderful R&B arrangements on occasion.

In this post I would like to foreground some of the fantastic sax players who worked primarily in R&B during the same period. On some of these recordings one can hear some of the raunchiest, most raucous sax solos in the history of R&B from the heyday of the great R&B bands. Also, it could be said that these players lay the groundwork for the later work of King Curtis, Junior Walker and Eddie Harris. I do think this is a somewhat incomplete offering however, some of the best work from Sil Austin and Big Jay McNeely from this period are simply not available. That said, many thanks to the collectors on youtube.

1) Buddy Johnson with Pervis Henson on saxophone. This great tune, Down Yonder from 1949, in a big band setting, has an authentic R&B flavor with a great sax solo by Henson.

2) Joe Houston and his Orchestra: Houston recorded with greats Big Joe Turner and Amos Milburn. His Sand Storm from 1951 is another absolutely fabulous R&B based number with Houston laying down some unbelievable smooth and raucous blowing. A true gem of the genre that goes a little outside. Also, check ot Joe's All Night Long from 1955. Outstanding.

3) Red Prysock: Jump Red Jump is a classic from 1954 and really showcases Prysock's extraordinary talent in the R&B genre. A true headcutter, Prysock's playing is legendary.

4) Marvin Phillips: Mamo Mamo from 1955 is a unique tune that combines a Jump Blues feel with jive like vocals. Great tenor solo here by West Coast R&B legend Maxwell Davis.

5) Jimmy Forrest: Jimmy is best known for his 1952 hit Night Train. Here, on Blue Groove Jimmy lays down a slow R&B masterpiece. Unbelievably tight riffing and tone, sets up the King Curtis sound to come later. Absolutely top notch recording with only 68 views on youtube.

6) T. J. Fowler: Back Bite from 1951 is a very obscure recording but a real gem of the genre, great playing here in a more classic blues format.

7) Bill Doggett: Rum Bunk Shush is from a few years later, probably 1956 or 1957. Doggett is best known for his classic crossover hit Honky Tonk but here sax ace Percy France really tears loose and lays down some wonderfully tight R&B sax.

8) Willis "Gator"Jackson: Later Gator is a wonderfully tough 1957 R&B instrumental. Incredible playing here. Shuckin is later, from the early 1960's off the Prestige LP "Really Groovin." This is a jazzier arrangement with the great Tommy Flanagan on piano and the unbelievable Kenny Burrell on guitar. Jackson shows his mastery of the genre on the extended lead time.

9) Big Jay McNeely Jay made some premium recording for Savoy and King back in the late 1950's and this cut"Ice Water" probably comes from that period. Career spans over fifty years. Very nice sound, McNeely has made a comeback since the 1980s and is still playing today.

10) Jimmy Liggins: Cadillac Boogie from 1954. This is really more of a Jump Blues tune but the incredible Harold Land takes this R&B sound outside a little as he shows his versatility.


  1. It's always nice to listen to the father of each genre, at least that's what I think. By the way, there's a Maxwell Davies remix album, sponsored by generic viagra and produced by Sony. Give it a try guys, it's pretty good in fact.

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