Although born in Tulsa — he was 2 during the 1921 race massacre — Mr. Singer developed a style often described as “Texas tenor,” shorthand for a bluesy and blustery tone associated with tenor sax players from the Lone Star state.
During the 1940s, he played in popular big bands led by Jay McShann, Lucky Millinder, Roy Eldridge and, briefly, Duke Ellington before forming his own combo. Mr. Singer’s instrumental “Corn Bread” (1948) stayed on the Billboard R&B charts for 22 weeks, eventually reaching No. 1.
A riff-based blues propelled by low honking notes, “Corn Bread” was one of the first in a long line of raucous R&B sax instrumentals that were meant to inspire frenzied dancing more than laid-back listening. The song lacked a title when he recorded it, and he initially forgot the session.
“When they told me about ‘Corn Bread’ becoming a hit, I said ‘What the hell is ‘Corn Bread?’ ” he told the British magazine Blues & Rhythm, the Gospel Truth in 2006. “They said ‘Man, it’s the hottest record in the world right now!’ ”
Mr. Singer also played on “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1947) by blues shouter Wynonie Harris, a jukebox hit considered to be one of the first rock-and-roll songs. Harris gave a shout-out to Mr. Singer — whose nickname was Oklahoma — exhorting, “Rock, Oklahoma, rock!” before the sax man obliged with a trenchant solo.
During the early rock-and-roll era, when the saxophonist, rather than the guitarist, was often the main soloist, Mr. Singer’s bold style influenced younger players such as King Curtis and contemporaries such as Big Jay McNeely. He also garnered acclaim for his 1959 jazz album “Blue Stompin’ ” (1959), featuring trumpeter Charlie Shavers, and served for a time as co-leader of the Apollo Theater pit band in Harlem before moving to Paris in 1965 because of the deteriorating racial climate at home.
Another collaboration, “Royal Blue” (1991), with boogie-woogie pianist Al Copley, harked back to the blues. He also toured and recorded in the early 1980s with “Rocket 88,” a British swing and boogie-woogie band featuring drummer Charlie Watts and pianist Ian Stewart of the Rolling Stones.
“They put all these names to it, but I just play it,” Mr. Singer once said. “You hired me for a record date, I’d play the best I could no matter what you wanted to call it.”
Harold Joseph Singer was born Oct. 8, 1919, in Greenwood, a prosperous Black community in Tulsa known as the Black Wall Street. His father was a machinist making tools used in oil drilling, and his mother catered food.
A White mob burned Greenwood on May 31, 1921, leaving in its wake as many as 300 Black residents dead and thousands without homes or businesses. Mr. Singer’s mother had taken him to the safety of Kansas City to stay with family, but they later returned.
After studying violin as a child, Mr. Singer learned reed instruments in his teens and settled on tenor sax after hearing jazzmen Lester Young and Ben Webster. He attended what is now Hampton University, a historically black school in Virginia, before working in Midwest territory bands.
Survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Arlette Verdickt of Chatou; two daughters; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Singer, who fully embraced modern jazz and even fusion, argued that a personal signature was more important than an abundance of technique.
“The young kids are really blessed now, you know, with their books and DVDs and solos written out for them. When I was coming up that didn’t exist,” Mr. Singer told Blues & Rhythm, the Gospel Truth.
He added: “They play very good at a technical level, but they don’t take enough time to put something of themselves into the playing. Back then you could tell Roy Eldridge, you could tell Louis [Armstrong], you could tell Cootie [Williams], you could tell Ben Webster. . . . But now you hear a lot of guys who could play the hardest saxophone, but you say ‘Who is it?’ ”
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