"Big Al" Sears Remembered©2003JCMarion


Al Sears was born in 1910 in the town of Macomb, Illinois. Music seemed to be the way for Sears to show the world his talent and his dreams for recognition. By the time he was a teenager he was cutting his musical chops with various combos in and around Buffalo, New York. He was also a member of an early version of the band of Chick Webb. Ironically the sax man he replaced, Johnny Hodges, would cross his path often in his later years. During the early thirties he toured with an all Black musical revue called "Keep Shufflin'". After the revue ended Sears was a member of a number of bands such as those of Zach Whyte, Bernie Young, and Elmer Snowden. In the later thirties he led a number of small combos In Buffalo, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Indianapolis. In 1941 he joined Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy for two years. Recognized as a competent and professional horn man, after leading a combo for USO tours during the war years he was part of Lionel Hampton's band until he joined the important and prestigious orchestra of Duke Ellington.

He was part of the reed section of the Ellington band for five years. After leaving the Duke, he joined a mainstay of Ellington's, Johnny Hodges, as part of a small combo that played swinging jazz tunes and included Lawrence Brown on trombone, Emmett Berry on trumpet, and of course Hodges on alto. Some of their better recordings were "Rabbit's Blues" on Mercury #8937 and Sears most famous composition "Castle Rock" on Mercury #8944.In January of 1950 Sears was signed to Coral Records. One month later Coral #65023 is released as by Al Sears & His Sparrows which featured the songs "Shake hands" and "Brown Baby" with a vocal by Clarence Palmer. In April another Coral Records release is issued. The songs are "Tan Skin Lad" and "125th Street New York" on #65029. In early August of 1950 New York's Bop City was the scene of a battle of the bands between Al Sears and Earl Bostic. In October of 1951 Al Sears signs with King Records in Cincinnati. Later in the year King releases "Take The D Train" and "Baltimore Bounce" on #4489. In early 1952 "Azores" and "Groove Station" are released on King #4499. In the spring "The Marshall Plan" and "Berry Well" are released on King #4520. In August Al Sears announces that he will leave the Johnny Hodges band and go out on his own as a solo artist. Al Sears and Jimmy Oliver head a combo with a two tenor sax front line and are a good attraction in Philadelphia.

In late 1952 Al Sears changes record labels again and now is signed to RCA Victor. His first release for his new label is out in January of 1953 - "Huffin And Puffin" and "Mag's Alley" on #20-5131. In April "Easy Ernie" and "In The Good 'Ol Summertime" are released by RCA Victor on #20-5272. At this time the tenor artistry of Al Sears is recognized by the musical community in New York and he begins an extensive career as a session man heavily in demand for R & B recordings. His identifiable strong and bluesy tone can be heard on many recordings for Herald, Apollo, Savoy, and Baton label recordings. He is also in demand as a backing musician for many stage shows and personal appearances in the quickly spreading popularity of R & B music in the mid fifties. In January of 1955 Sears is on stage at St. Nick's Arena in New York for Alan "Moondog" Freed's first stage show in the East. That began a solid connection with Freed for five years. He is quickly signed for the big "Easter Jubilee of Stars" at the Brooklyn Paramount that set the stage for the rock 'n roll age. In February Sears records an instrumental version of "Tweedle Dee" for Herald Records. The flip side is "Going Uptown" on #448. In March Sears is part of the Alan Freed band signed to Coral Records. In May Al signs with Coral to record under his own name on both singles and albums. In June now known as "Big Al" Sears, he records for Coral Records with the tunes "Tom, Dick, And harry" and "Come And Dance With Me" with vocal by Charlie Calhoun (in reality Jesse Stone a top arranger for Atlantic who also recorded a version of "Smack Dab In The Middle"). The rest of 1955 is taken up with Alan Freed's shows over Labor Day week and Christmas Week. He is also part of the Alan Freed band's appearance for two nights at New York's Birdland night club.

In early 1956 Big Al heads the backup band for a series of R & B shows throughout the state of New Jersey. Coral Records releases "Tina's Canteen" and "Come A Running" with vocal by Herbie Cooper on #61558. In January Sears signs with Groove Records, part of the RCA Victor family of record companies. Al Sears is part of the record breaking success of Alan Freed's "Second Easter Jubilee of Stars" in April at the Brooklyn Paramount. In May Grrove Records releases Sears version of the song "Rock And Roll Ball". The flip side is "Love Call" on #0151. Big Al is a crucial part of Alan Freed's radio show for the CBS network during 1956. His sax breaks behind the top acts of the time are memorable and preserved almost fifty years later on air check recordings from the Armed Forces Radio Network. Sears takes part in the "Second Anniversary Revue" presented by Alan Freed at the Brooklyn Paramount. In September Groove Records releases "Great Googa Mooga" and "Here's The Beat" on #0156. Late in the year Big Al is on screen with Alan Freed in the film "Rock Rock Rock".

In August of 1957 Jubilee Records releases "Around The World" and "Fascination" two pop music outings by Sears on #5293. In October Sears and his band back up a lineup of vocal groups for a bitg show in The Bronx at Hunt's Point Palace. Some of the groups appearing are The Rays, Chantells, Dubs, Bop Chords, Shells, Kodoks, Deltaires, and others. That month Jubilee releases "So Glad" and "Chicken Walk" on #5305. In 1958 Sears remains a top session man for record companies in the Northeast, and remains part of the backing band for all of Alan Freed's operations on stage, screen, recordings, and radio. By the end of the first golden era of rock 'n roll and its heavy Rhythm & Blues influence, Sears knew his days of sideman in R & B were numbered. He now returned to his roots as a swinging tenor man and re-discovered his jazz roots with a series of well received recordings. I saw Big Al Sears one last time in 1970 at a rock revival show at New York's old Academy Of Music leading the band and still stomping to his tune "Right Now Right Now" one of Alan Freed's theme songs. Soon after Big Al retired from the music scene and years later in 1990, he passed away in St. Albans, New York at the age of 80. It was quite a career for a mostly anonymous tenor sax man, but when you hear so many of the great records of that great era, and the live recordings that survive, you can hear the recognizable blasting tenor sax sound and knowingly smile and say, "yeah that's Big Al . . . . . "

Besides his R & B work there are albums that are around that show off his jazz and swing styles.

"Seariously" for Germany's Bear Family label includes his early 50s records for King, RCA Victor, Herald, and Groove.

"Swing's The Thing" for Prestige / Fantasy and features the tunes - "Record Hop", "In A Mellotone", and "The Thrill Is Gone".

"Johnny Hodges Swing" for the British label Joan Records - features the early 50s Hodges combo recordings.

"Duke Ellington Treasury Shows" - the Duke Ellington Orch from the wartime 40s live broadcasts.

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