Monday is the centennial of the birth of saxophonist Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams (1915-2002). Born in Tennessee, raised in Detroit, Williams was a pioneer of the honking, high-powered saxophone style that became a transfer point between jazz, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll. But it was a single recording that made Williams a star, provided his nickname, and encapsulated that shift in music history.
Williams and his band recorded “The Hucklebuck” for Savoy Records in 1949. An easygoing blues that hugs its signature riff close, the record became one of the year’s biggest sellers. The riff was not new: Williams first heard it under the title of “D’Natural Blues,” an Andy Gibson composition that bandleader Lucky Millinder had started performing in 1948. Both songs, in turn, were stealing from Charlie Parker’s uptempo 1945 bebop “Now’s the Time.” But Williams’s version became a hit; and, once it acquired some pleasantly risqué Roy Alfred lyrics (“Push your partner out / Then you hunch your back / Start a little movement in your sacroiliac”), a fad.
What distinguished “The Hucklebuck” from other fads was its cat-like number of lives. Hit-parade covers proliferated; Kate Smith did one, as did Frank Sinatra. After Williams and his band opened DJ Alan Freed’s famous 1952 “Moondog Coronation Ball” in Cleveland — the only act to perform before a riot shut the concert down — the tune became rock ’n’ roll repertoire. Bill Haley and the Comets recorded it (renaming it “Actopan”), as did Bo Diddley and Chubby Checker. Brendan Bowyer’s 1965 version was a hit in Ireland, and became an emblem of the traditional Irish songs giving way to the rock-influenced showband style (which also made it the soundtrack for the twilight of Boston’s own Irish dance halls). As late as 1981, rockabilly-nostalgia band Coast to Coast pushed “The Hucklebuck” into the United Kingdom top 10. WFMU DJ Steve Krinsky, in a 2001 survey, cited ska, punk, and reggae versions.
Williams’s record had captured a moment of extreme stylistic fluidity: the post-World War II free-for-all of radical bebop, romanticized swing, raucous R&B, and rudimentary rock. From that vantage, “The Hucklebuck” was free to launch on any number of musical vectors. Williams continued touring with his bands for years, in rock and R&B cavalcades, backing everyone from Fats Domino to Paul Anka, before retiring from performing in the late ’60s. But the nickname? That stuck, commemorating the time he caught a bit of the cultural whirlwind.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.