Bebop wasn't a big deal in many parts of the U.S. until 1948 and 1949, when stronger radio signals in New York allowed jazz stations to reach other cities at night and national magazines began picking up on on Dizzy Gillespie's hipster style and novel sound. But just as bebop was outflanking swing, another form of music called jump boogie was gaining ground. By June 1949, this form of dance music would be known in the music press as "rhythm and blues."
One early jump-boogie star was baritone saxophonist Paul Williams, who is today best known for The Hucklebuck. Williams recorded the song in Detroit in December 1948. Soon after it entered Billboard's R&B chart in February 1949, the strutting honky-tonk blues reached No. 1, and it remained on the charts for 32 weeks.
Credited to songwriters Roy Alfred and Andy Gibson, The Hucklebuck had an interesting evolution. The song's earliest relative, D Natural Blues, was recorded by Fletcher Henderson in 1928 and again by Bob Crosby in 1938. But these discs were stiff send-ups and sounded quite different in spirit from what Williams did with the song and those who covered it.
Williams' Hucklebuck was more strongly influenced by Charlie Parker's Now's the Time, recorded in November 1945, and Three Bits of Boogie's This Is the Boogie from 1941. Both had a hopping, march-like feel that emphasized the second and fourth beats, making jukebox listeners want to get up and dance.
Interestingly, on January 3, 1949, shortly before Williams' Hucklebuck was released, Lucky Millinder recorded D Natural Blues, which sounded virtually identical to Williams' The Hucklebuck. One can only assume that Millinder had heard Williams' version performed at clubs in Detroit and released his rendition as D Natural Blues to avoid having to pay copyright royalties.
After Williams' Hucklebuck was a bona fide hit, the song became a crossover sensation. There were upward of 25 recordings of The Hucklebuck in 1949 alone—including versions by Kay Starr, Tommy Dorsey, Erroll Garner and Cab Calloway.
Like Leo Parker, Cecil Payne and Harry Carney, Williams had a thick, forceful sound on the baritone sax and made smart use of the instrument's barking lower register. But instead of choosing to explore jazz improvisation, Williams played the hefty horn with a snappy, wailing personality. Among his singles were The Twister, Free Dice and Rompin'.
Williams recorded an extensive number of early R&B instrumentals, all of which are worth exploring. What's fascinating about this music is the road not taken. At a time when many saxophonists were pursuing a career in jazz, Williams preferred the blues with a style that was fluid and effusive.
Williams (and Big Jay McNeely, for that matter) would help turn the saxophone into a rock-and-roll sex symbol in the late 1940s and early 1950s. During this period, the reed instrument trumped the trumpet as the dominant stage star. As R&B continued to gain ground in jukeboxes and record stores in the early 1950s, especially with the rise of the 45-rpm, jazz had to find a new style that re-embraced a swinging beat and featured front-line horns playing in unison. The result was hard bop.
Paul Williams died at age 87 in 2002.
JazzWax tracks: The best Paul Williams set is a three-CD series called Paul Williams: The Complete Recordings. Volume 1 (1947-1949) is here. Volume 2 (1949-1952) is here. And Volume 3 (1952-1956) is here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Paul Williams The Hucklebuck...
Here's Lucky Millinder's D Natural Blues...
And here's... well... you'll see...