Joe Houston, Pioneering Rock & Roll Sax Player, Has Died at 89

The cover of Blows Crazy!, a compilation album of Joe Houston tracks, released by Ace Records
The cover of Blows Crazy!, a compilation album of Joe Houston tracks, released by Ace Records

Joe Houston, the hard-charging R&B tenor saxophonist whose explosive early-1950s instrumentals not only anticipated but directly fueled the rise of rock & roll, died at a Long Beach assisted living facility on Monday, Dec. 28, due to complications from a series of strokes. He was 89.

Born July 11, 1926, in Bastrop, Texas, Houston grew up in the rich Texas blues tradition and, as a teenager, was hired by Chicago bandleader King Kolax. He subsequently worked the road with the likes of Savannah Churchill, Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner, Amos Milburn, even a young Little Richard.

In 1949, inspired by the sudden outbreak of honking sax hitmakers such as Big Jay McNeely, Paul Williams and Hal Singer, Houston switched from alto to tenor sax and developed a supercharged, aggressive new sound. After Los Angeles’ Modern Records leased his volcanic 1951 “Blow Joe Blow” from Texas indie Macy, Houston moved to L.A., where he spent the rest of his life and career.

The 1950s were prime time for honkers and shouters, and Houston immediately became a staple on the feverish Central Avenue club circuit, playing on innumerable shows, dances, record dates and frequent coast-to-coast tours. With the eager assistance of white airwave jocks such as Art Laboe and Hunter Hancock, Houston also found himself pioneering rock & roll with frantically emphatic mastery. His was a high-velocity, party-time war cry, epitomized by his 1956 masterpiece, “All Night Long,” a wild, wild record with a sound that drove everyone — white, black and Chicano — completely nuts, earning Houston a prominent rank in the eternal order of rock & roll demonology.

He cut a slew of delirium-inducing instrumentals for Modern, Crown and a dozen other labels — all lusty, lowdown workouts with evocative (and shrewdly exploitive) titles: “Flyin’ Tacos,” “Drunk,” “Forest Fire,” “Rockin’ at the Drive-in,” “Chicano Hop.” But he was no mere simple-minded honker. Houston also possessed a magnificent set of pipes, capable of delivering blues vocals with burnished luster and powerfully expressive majesty. As a sax soloist, he was a coolly capable and communicative jazz head, as showcased, with breathtaking beauty, on such recordings as his moody version of “I Cover the Waterfront.”

A longtime resident of Long Beach, always sharp-dressed and sharp-tongued, Houston was a magnificent badass on the bandstand, one who worked right up until poor health sidelined him in 2005. He was an irreplaceable talent, and his is a stunning loss.

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