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Liner Notables: Honkers & Screamers – Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Vol. 6 (Paul Williams, Hal Singer, Big Jay McNeely, Lee Allen, and Sam “The Man” Taylor)

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Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits… 

    The honkers and screamers were the original rock and rollers … They were wild men. They disrupted the smoothness of black popular music in the 1940s with their booting, shrieking solos and outrageous stages routines – walking out into the audience as they honked one note over and over, peeling off their jackets and ties while they played and then lying on their backs and kicking.

The usual fluff-piece function of album liner notes to promote the recording artist at hand usually undergoes a change in best-of retrospectives, with their focus on career-long appreciations. While the liner notes writer will almost invariably consider the applicable historical context, the approach for various-artists’ anthologies is to expound upon the broader historical implications and cultural perspective.

That Robert Palmer, the late New York Times pop music critic and Rolling Stone contributing editor, can supply some depth as well as breadth to a 1979 Savoy Records anthology of influential pre-rock artists is remarkable. Honkers & Screamers: Roots of Rock and Roll, Vol. 6 showcases the music of saxophonists Paul Williams, Hal Singer, Big Jay McNeely, Lee Allen, and Sam “The Man” Taylor.

But, in addition to providing biographical information and track-specific details on Honkers, Palmer considers other aspects as well. He not only explores the roots of the music — such as in the African masked dancers who also masked their voices and “gurgled, bellowed, shrieked, rasped, buzzed, and generally carried on” — and the immediate antecedents of saxophone R&B, he also, when the occasion calls, delves into the nuts-and-bolts technicalities of the subject.

For example, as Palmer sketches out the honker and screamer beginnings of jazz masters Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, he explains how the instrumental technique of their avant-garde tendencies was rooted in R&B saxophone tradition. The sound was largely a result of “overblowing the horn to get a distorted tone, biting down on the reed in order to produce shrill squeals, playing lengthy solos that grew hotter and hotter until they verged on hysteria.”

And one thing led to another. When the big band era faded away after World War II and “the boppers took the intellectual jazz listeners away,” the young honkers just starting out discovered the benefits of showmanship, when “a little repetition, tonal distortion, and grandstanding, when cannily paced and well-placed in a program, could create pandemonium.”

Palmer, in his methodical, thorough and accessible chronicling, also notes a geographical bearing on the development of honker and screamer rhythm and blues, as he takes the blues riff, the basis of R&B music, on a southwestern route. In contrast to jazz bands elsewhere who worked from written arrangement or continued on with New Orleans-style collective improvisation, black musicians in such southwestern regions as Texas and Oklahoma “were playing ‘by head,’ getting together on blues riffs and making up new riffs behind improvising soloists as they went along.”

Established bandleaders, seeing the potential in such audacious sidemen, enticed them away from other bands, and the swaggering sound and riff-based construction of honking and screaming quickly spread. Palmer shows how even the non-saxophone efforts of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and guitarist Charlie Christian, were, well, instrumental.

In any event, the stage was set for the careers of Williams, Singer, McNeely, Allen, and Taylor. And while Palmer devotes a generous chunk of commentary to all five musicians, many of the colorful retellings involve Paul Williams — according to producer Teddy Reig, a “‘glamour puss’”who’d “‘play his solos and make the broads happy’” — whose talent makes for a good illustration of how and why honking spread. “‘The word got out,’” Williams himself recollects, “’Maan, that saxophone player down there blowed the mike into the FLOOR! And that was it. We started doing dances and we had lines, both ways, as far as the eye could see. Fire department, police department, everybody was there.’”

Big Jay McNeely, an extrovert who was a master of endurance able to out-honk just about anyone, and who, Palmer says, “went on to acquire a reputation as a wild man among wild men,” was equally suited for the spotlight and famous for his “walks.” Walking — leaving the stand and walking through the audience, down the length of the bar, even into the street — “was as much part of being an R&B saxophonist as honking and screaming.” As Palmer shows in a choice anecdote, McNeely even topped Williams’ showstopper of walking and honking alongside a hired midget who walked atop the bar:

    ‘I remember we were playing on a package show in an amusement park outside Beaumont, Texas,’ recalls Teddy Reig, ‘and Big Jay and part of his band did a walk. And the white folks’ police didn’t understand what his walk was all about and they took him and the other musicians who were walking down to the jailhouse. Well, the rest of the band was still on stage playing, and the people were screaming for Big Jay. And then we got a call from the police station and we had to run down there and get him out.”

All the makings for rock and roll, in its pre-rock and roll state. In his summation, Palmer writes that the R&B and rock stagecraft of today owes a lot to these pioneer exhibitionists and attention-seekers. “They brought large black audiences together in communal celebration, and they rocked the theaters and dance halls where they played to the foundations,” he states. Moreover, as Palmer goes on, “their visceral, invigorating music has withstood the test of time with its energy and irreverence intact. Listen and enjoy.”

No doubt Palmer’s incisive expertise and entertaining liner notes has helped to enhance that listening experience and enjoyment.

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