ORLANDO, FLA. -- Noble (Thin Man) Watts, who went from living on the wrong side of the tracks in De Land, Fla., to laying down historic rhythm-and-blues tracks in New York, got his nickname 45 years ago as a dance band player around central Florida.

His colleagues, gifted black teen-agers like himself, would joke that Watts was thin enough to squeeze through his horn.

"The name stuck, but after I got to New York I took that 'Thin Man' out, 'cause I was doing jazz," he said. "All of a sudden I started working less. I had a girlfriend up there, a girl I'd gone to college with, and she said, 'Put that name back in and you'll start getting calls.' She made up some 'Thin Man' cards and the phone started ringing. I'll die with that name now. I ain't ashamed."

The nickname still fits -- Watts is 6-foot-4 and weighs just 140 pounds -- but close friends call him Noble.

They find that name even more appropriate for a man who, at 61, is emerging from a long fallow period and regenerating himself by playing the tenor sax with a vigor and precision he hasn't approached in two decades.

"He's sounding good," said Nat Adderley, legendary jazz cornetist who played with Watts at Florida A&M in the 1940s. "I went to hear him and his band {the Midnight Creepers} in Orlando a while back. I almost never sit in with people anymore, but Noble and these guys sounded so good I went out to the car, got my horn, came back in and joined them. That's the highest compliment I can pay."

Watts' first American album, "Return of the Thin Man," was released recently on King Snake Records. He has been performing regularly around Florida with the Midnight Creepers. An invitation to play at the Smithsonian last year suggests new appreciation for his role in linking jazz and rhythm and blues. Further evidence is the release of an LP collection of his 1950s and '60s singles by an English label, Flywright.

Things are looking up for Watts. Amazingly, his renaissance is happening not in New York but at home in central Florida.

"I'm where I want to be," Watts said. "I'm with guys who play what I want to play. I'm not getting rich, but that's okay. I don't want a big bank account and a Rolls-Royce in the front yard. I want to play the blues."

Watts was born and brought up in De Land. As a boy, he tended the yard of a Stetson University music professor in exchange for piano lessons. Later he and his mother saved for months so he could get a trumpet. He dropped out of high school to play in dance bands at clubs around central Florida.

"We'd get two or three dollars, maybe a fish sandwich," he said. "We was kids, and we was enjoying it."

While playing in Tampa, he met the late great saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, Nat's brother. Cannonball encouraged Watts to join him and Nat at Florida A&M. Watts did so in 1942, after returning to De Land to get his high school diploma.

At Florida A&M, Watts belonged to both the marching and dance bands. The Adderley brothers were members, along with several others who went on to distinguished careers as performers or music educators.

"Noble was one of the most talented," Nat Adderley said. "Going in, he didn't have as much formal training as the rest of us. He got by on talent. He expanded his musical knowledge by learning to read music, by learning chord progressions and harmony and composition. He's a well-trained musician."

Watts would often play screamingly high notes on the trumpet. He played so hard he strained muscles in his face and lost what musicians call "embouchure" -- the facility for applying the lips and tongue effectively to a particular wind instrument. He dropped out of A&M, returned to De Land and took up the tenor saxophone, which required different muscles.

"I had always wanted to play the saxophone, but I was reluctant because it had so many more keys than the trumpet," he said. "But after I quit the trumpet I found that I could play the saxophone."

He was playing saxophone for the HoneyDippers in Tampa when he was picked up by the Griffin Brothers, a touring band. He played with them all over the United States. In 1952, he joined the band of Paul Williams, who had had a big hit with "Hucklebuck." He played with other leading bands through the early '50s, including Lionel Hampton's.

Baton Records, out of New York, signed Watts to record a series of singles in the late '50s. His biggest hit was "Hard Times (the Slop)," an instrumental that hit the charts in 1957. Copies of the 45 record have become collector's items.

As a musician trained in jazz, Watts brought range and sophistication to the evolving rhythm-and-blues sound.

"He was and is the quintessential R&B tenor," said Bob Porter, host of National Public Radio's syndicated "Portraits in Blue" program.

Bob Scheir, who produces blues records and hosts a blues radio program on WMNF-FM in Tampa, said Watts influenced the late King Curtis, who is cited as a major influence by Clarence Clemons and other contemporary rock saxophonists.

Watts did well commercially with one other of his singles, "Jookin'." From 1957 to 1961, he worked off-and-on in a combo at Sugar Ray Robinson's club in Harlem. He also toured in early rock 'n' roll "package" shows with Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers.

He's still angry about the direction popular music took him in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"To sit in Lionel Hampton's band, you had to be a well-put-together musician, reading-wise and everything else," he said. "Then here comes rock 'n' roll -- three chords and twist your butt. It was an insult to the musicians, but if you wanted to work, you played it. Elvis Presley was no king to me. Lionel Hampton was a king. Woody Herman, Benny Goodman. These men were musicians."

Watts' glory days ended in the early 1960s. Through the next two decades he supported himself by playing in various bands, but he was no longer recording, and his name no longer resonated with the decision-makers in the music business. He bounced back and forth between Florida and New York. Scheir would occasionally see him playing a club date around Tampa.

"He had regressed into playing the Holiday Inn circuit and what we call 'bubble music,' " Scheir said.

Watts moved back to De Land in 1983 when his mother became ill. She died the next year. He stayed home, taking whatever musical engagements he could find. Bob Greenlee, a blues bassist from Sanford, Fla., heard him playing with a combo at a party in New Smyrna Beach in the summer of 1985.

"He was so skinny that his pants were sewed together with dental floss," Greenlee recalled. "He was playing terrible jazz. He just wasn't keeping up. People were saying, 'Man, I don't know about Noble.' Finally it dawned on me that this was Noble 'Thin Man' Watts.

"But here he was, sounding awful. His mind was fogged over from having done so much cocktail music . . . I went up to him and said, 'Hey, man. Don't you ever play 'Jookin' any more?' "

An unlikely friendship ensued. Greenlee, 42, is white, a Yale graduate, and wealthy by virtue of family money. They recruited a few other talented musicians and formed the Midnight Creepers last year.

Scheir, who has heard the band, said Watts' playing has improved "300 percent" over the bubble music years.

Greenlee founded King Snake Records last year. One of his first big projects was "Return of the Thin Man," which featured Watts, with backup by the Midnight Creepers and a guest appearance by blues great Taj Mahal.

Billboard magazine reviewed the album favorably, saying, "Results are definitely in the soul-combo groove and as fine as any of the genre's recent recordings."

NPR's Porter went further: "It's been a long time since I've heard such an authentic sound in that kind of music."

Watts is writing material for a second album. He's aware that King Snake, a fledgling blues label, is unlikely to land him on the charts again.

He says that doesn't matter. He's content with his music. He feels better about what he hopes will be his legacy.

"I'd like for it to be that when I die, my music don't die with me. I'd like for somebody to say, 'I got a lot out of what Noble did. He left a lot for us to go on.' "