The Fifties was the great era for Honking Sax Players and there where some great ones. Here is one that I think most of you have forgotten, but in 1957 he had a #44 hit instrumental…
(February 17, 1926 – August 28, 2004)
The 1950s R&B scene was rife with fire-breathing tenor sax honkers and Noble “Thin Man” Watts was one of the most incendiary.
Born in DeLand, Florida, Watts studied violin and trumpet in his youth, later switching to sax. He gained musical training at Florida A&M University in 1942, where he played in the school’s marching band. His mates in that band included future jazz luminaries Nat and Cannonball Adderly.
His first big break came just after he got out of college. The Griffin Brothers, one of Dot Records’ top R&B acts hired Watts to do some recording.
Then he joined baritone saxist Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams in 1952, recording with him as a session player for the Jax label.
Williams led the house band for a groundbreaking mid-’50s TV program Showtime at the Apollo, a Willie Bryant-hosted extravaganza. Watts worked in this house band taking sax solos behind Dinah Washington, Amos Milburn, and Ruth Brown.
He also played for a while with Lionel Hampton.
Watts’ own Discography commenced in 1954, recording a couple of tasty tunes for DeLuxe: “Mashing Potatoes” and “Pig Ears and Rice“. In 1956 he recorded a single for Vee-Jay with Williams’ band called “South Shore Drive“.
Like fellow Rock ’n’ Roll / R&B honkers Sil Austin and Red Prysock, Noble Watts was a veteran of the Tiny Bradshaw band. And all of these achievements came just prior to young Watts’ salad days on the New York-based Baton label…
Sol Rabinowitz’s NYC based Baton label had enjoyed minor chart success in 1955 with Buddy Tate’s “Fatback and Greens”. A couple of years later Nobel Watts was signed in the hope of producing another instrumental hit.
With his band, the “Rhythm Sparks” in support, Watts wailed “Easy Going,” “Blast Off,” “Shakin‘,” “Flap Jack,” plus quite a few more searing instrumentals.
At his second Baton session in October 1957, among the tracks recorded by Watts was a greasy, grinding dance instrumental with the vaguely suggestive title “The Slop”, which propelled the saxist onto the pop charts by December of 1957. After some heavy airplay it was renamed “Hard Times” and became a good seller on the pop charts as well as an R&B hit.
Hard Times (the Slop)/ Baton 249/ November 1957/ #44 (and his Rhythm Sparks)
Guitar twanger Duane Eddy must have dug what he heard — he covered this same grinding shuffle for the Jamie label a few years later.
Watts also appeared on American Bandstand with Johnny Mathis in 1957. He played behind Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, and many more on various late-’50s package tours.
During the late ’50s and early ’60s, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson managed Watts , recruiting the saxist to lead the house band at his Harlem lounge.
But things started to get thin for the Thin Man during the ’60s (45s for labels Sir, Cub, Enjoy, Peanut, Jell, Clamike, and Brunswick came and went without much notice) and into the ’70s.
However, he mounted a comeback bid in 1987 with a fresh album, Return of the Thin Man, for Bob Greenlee’s Kingsnake logo (later picked up by Alligator).
The album King of the Boogie Sax followed in 1993 for Ichiban’s Wild Dog imprint. Watts continued to work as a session saxist for Greenlee when he was not pursuing his own interests.
In 2004 Watts died of a combination of pneumonia and emphysema. He is survived by his wife June and daughter, Natalie Watts Brown.