Don Wilkerson was a Texas Tenor in the tradition of Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. Though he never quite gained their level of name recognition, Wilkerson was heard unwittingly by millions on great R&B records in the '50s.
The Moreauville, Louisiana, native moved to Houston as a teen and earned a reputation as an alto player at Jack Yates High School. By 1948 Wilkerson was working regularly with Bayou City-bred ivory-ticklers Charles Brown and Amos Milburn. In 1954 Wilkerson signed on with Ray Charles (who was then in creative thrall to Brown) and played solos on Charles's classics "I Got a Woman" and "Come Back Baby."
Wilkerson left Charles's band (where he was replaced by David "Fathead" Newman) to pursue a solo career, though he would return to Brother Ray's fold on occasion. Between 1962 and 1963 Wilkerson recorded three solid albums for Blue Note (Preach Brother!, Elder Don and Shoutin'). The Complete Blue Note Sessions comprises these three albums on two CDs, with the original liner notes. No contemporary notes, no bonus tracks, nothing new. That Blue Note didn't hire someone to put Wilkerson's career into context is unfortunate, perhaps even unforgivable, as the saxophonist deserves a better retrospective.
Nonetheless, there is the music. Joined by the likes of Grant Green, Sonny Clark, Billy Higgins and John Patton, Wilkerson blew with a sassy flair. He could slowly burn the blues or wail with R&B licks. He honked and hollered like a Texas Tenor should, and like those other Third Ward cats, Wilkerson had a fondness for 12-bar blues.
Wilkerson's R&B leanings show up on several tracks, including the foot-tapping "Camp Meetin'." He swirls and whoops over the repetitive background in a manner that drove crowds wild back in his day. While Wilkerson was a honker, he had a unique tone and melodic sense. He inflected like a Texas Tenor but tended to stick to the upper register (perhaps the result of his alto training) and held notes as if he were singing them. He also had a melodic side rooted in big bands. "Drawin' a Tip" in particular pays a debt to Lester Young, and "Poor Butterfly" resonates Ellington.
Elsewhere, such as on "Blues for J," Wilkerson hinted at the soul-jazz movement that would become popular in the late '60s. He would sometimes play simple licks in this context, and other times run circles around the rhythm section. Green proved an able foil in the organ setting, as his simple, biting blues guitar contrasted with Wilkerson's more frenetic licks.
This collection reveals Don Wilkerson as a link between the "Hoy Hoy" R&B style of the early '50s and soul-jazz of the following decade. As such, his music is as important as it is unheralded. Musicological considerations aside, though, you can always just shake your ass to it.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.