In 1947, Paul (Hucklebuck) Williams was working regularly in Detroit clubs like the Royal Blue and sportee's Music Club, blowing sax with trumpeter King Porter's combo. Like the other small jump-blues groups springing up at the time, Porter's combo was patterned after Lous Jordan's highly popular Tympany Five.
"The big bands were still going on," Williams expains. "Jummie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, Duke ellington, Erskine Hawkins -- those bands were still popular. But the small clubs couldn't afford them and so small combos were getting a lot of work."
The proliferation of small combos like Porter's was one of the critical change in black popular music after World War II that ushered in the rhythm-and-blues era. From these combos emerged a new breed of saophonist, "honkers" like Paul Willams, Big Jay McNeely, Lee Allen and Sam Taylor. between 1947 and 1952, Williams and his band recorded some of the finest esamples of honking R&B for the Savoy labe.
Appropriately, Williams will be performing at the national Museum of american History tonight as part of the Smithsonians's "Rhythm and Blues: 1945-1955," a two-day symposium examining the development and influence of R&B. As for influence, there's no doubt that the honking style of Williams and others, with its combination of flamboyant theatrics and wild riffing, helped set the stage for rock 'n' roll. Tomorrow night another seminal R&B style, that of the vocal groups, will get its due when the Orioles and the Spaniels perform.
The excitement that saxmen like Williams generated was well demonstrated in Williams' first gig with his own band. On Feb. 20, 1948, he debuted at Baltimore's Royal Theatre and he admits, "We were nervous. I had heard that the Royal had the toughest audience in the world.
"We started playing 'The Twister,'" Williams recalls. "It's a hard-rocking, swinging tune. I was playing the solo on the baritone and kept dropping lower and lower to keep the microphone in the bell of my horn. At the Royal, the mikes drop down through the stage floor and the lower I wnet, the lower the stagehand dropped the mike. We kept going down and down until the mike just disappeared under the stage. Everyone went wild. They thought I blew it right through the stage floor."
Williams and his band were an overnight sensation and quickly broke all the attendance records at the Royal. It was during a rehearsal at the Royal that Williams heard Lucky Millinder's band playing an Andy Gibson composition, "D-Natural Blues." The song would insure Williams' place in popular music history and earn him his nickname.
"I didn't even know the name of the song," Williams says. "But we learned it and played it at a big dane in Pennsylvania. 'The place was packed and everybody was swaying back and forth like a wave. They looked like they were doing the same thing and I asked someone, 'Is this a dance?' The person answered, 'It's the hucklebuck.' We went to New York and recorded it as 'The hucklebuck.'"
"The Hucklebuck" became the biggest R&B hit of 1948, reaching number one and staying on the charts for an incredible 32 weeks. It spawned cover versins by Roy Milton, Lionel Hampton, Pearl Bailey, Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey and became a national dance craze. Williams and his band made a good living off the song as a live act for a number of years. Later, in the '50s, Williams settled into a career as a New York session man and band leader for R&B and rock 'n' roll packaged shows, backing hundreds of famous acts. In 1964 he quit the road and in 1968 opened a successful booking agency, which he still operates.
During a period in the '50s, Williams' band included the outstanding tenor sax player, Noble (Thin Man) Watts, and Watts will join Williams' group tonight. Watts, who also played in Lionel Hampton's band, enjoyed an instrumental hit in 1957 with "Hard Times (The Slop)" and spent the '60s leading the house band at Sugar Ray Robinson's Harlem restaurant in New York City.
Although Wugh Watts has been playing in jazz groups in Florida, he recently joined a Florida blues band, the Midnight Creeper, and performed with them last night at the Roxy. The band, which is lead by two ex-members of root Boy Slim's Sex Change Band, Bob Greenlee and Ernie Lancaster, will be joined by Slim himself.