Little Willie Jackson

As a bandmember, saxophonist Little Willie Jackson most often played swing jazz, but on the sides he issued under his own name, he played the Los Angeles jazz/jump blues hybrid that was so important to the birth of R&B in the late '40s. The blind Jackson played with pianist Joe Liggins in the Creole Serenaders in San Diego in the mid-'30s. By the end of the 1930s both he and Liggins had moved to Los Angeles, and in the mid-'40s they formed the Honeydrippers. The band had a number one R&B hit with "The Honeydripper" in 1945 that is viewed as one of the stepping stones to R&B and rock & roll, although Liggins is the name that history has associated with the record. Jackson sometimes sang with the Honeydrippers, as heard on the 1946 Exclusive single "Walkin'."

In 1947 Modern Records got the Honeydrippers minus Liggins to record for them, with Little Willie Jackson acting as singer and bandleader in addition to playing sax. At the end of the year he recorded a couple dozen sides for the label, which was stockpiling masters in the face of an imminent recording ban. This resulted in a half-dozen singles being issued on Modern in 1947 and 1948, and like much of the company's output in its early days, it straddled the line between the swing and jump blues eras, with a hefty dose of boogie.

Of the numerous Modern artists who plumbed that style during the era, Jackson was closer to jazz (and further removed from blues) than most, taking much of his repertoire from songs first performed in the early '30s and earlier. "I Ain't Got Nobody," "Muddy Water," "St. Louis Blues," and "There'll Be Some Changes Made" were all recorded (and sometimes left unreleased for more than 50 years), sometimes in a style not too far removed from Cab Calloway. Still, some of the songs had a more modern, boogying bluesy vibe, like the instrumentals "Jackson's Boogie" and "Watts Local." "Black and Blue," also recorded by Louis Armstrong, has some claim to be a racial commentary of sorts, as it was allegedly written for a Broadway show of the same name under instructions from gangster Dutch Shultz to write a song about the perils of being black.

Jackson made his last solo recording, "Who Put the Lights Out," with pianist Christine Chatman on Personality in the mid-'50s. He played on an album by Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers in 1962, and also did an LP with Liggins at the end of the 1960s for Johnny Otis' Spectrum label. He was still playing as late as 1983, when he participated in a Legends of the Rhythm & Blues show in Los Angeles. ~ Richie Unterberger

Top Songs