Born John Marshall Greer, 21 November 1923, Hot Springs, Arkansas
Died 12 May 1972, Hot Springs, Arkansas

Singer, tenor saxophonist, songwriter.

The recording career of Big John Greer spans the years 1949 to 1957, first for RCA Victor and its Groove subsidiary (1949-55), then for King Records (1956-57). Most of these waxings feature him as a vocalist, but he also recorded a number of sax instrumentals.

Greer learned to play the sax at Langston High School in his native Hot Springs, Arkansas. The same school was attended by Greer's childhood pal Henry Glover, the future King Records producer. Both men progressed to Alabama A&M College in Huntsville, where they played in the college concert band, the A&M Collegians. Glover joined Lucky Millinder's band in 1945 as a trumpet player and later also as an arranger and songwriter. When Millinder saxophonist Bull Moose Jackson left the orchestra in July 1948 to promote his blossoming solo career, Glover called his friend Big John Greer to come to New York and fill the sax chair of the departed Jackson. Greer's first recording date with the Millinder orchestra was planned for January 1949, but he was so eager to see his name on a record that he moonlighted for Bob Shad's fledgling Sittin' In With label in the autumn of 1948, resulting in two (poor selling) 45s, among which "Rockin' With Big John".

The session of January 3, 1949, included the ballad "Little Girl, Don't Cry", written by Millinder and Doris Davis (Henry Glover's wife), with Greer as the vocalist. Unfortunately, RCA was slow in releasing the track, allowing a cover by Bull Moose Jackson to steal the honours (# 2 R&B). When it was eventually issued, the Millinder version spent one week at # 15 (R&B) in July 1949. RCA missed the boat again with "I'll Never Be Free", one of the biggest songs of 1950. Greer recorded the song as a duet with Annisteen Allen in November 1949, but their version (credited to Lucky Millinder) was not promoted by RCA until late 1950 and was outsold by three other versions, most notably by Kay Starr and Tennessee Ernie Ford (# 3 pop).

Alongside his Lucky Millinder tenure, Greer began his own solo career, with a group called the Rhythm Rockers, as early as April 1949. When Millinder defected to King Records in 1950, Big John stayed put with RCA for his solo recordings, although he continued to record with the Millinder orchestra at King as a sideman. You can hear Greer blowing his lungs out behind King stars Wynonie Harris (on "Mr. Blues Is Coming to Town" and "Bloodshot Eyes", for instance) and Bull Moose Jackson (on the raunchy Leiber-Stoller composition "Nosey Joe").

Greer enjoyed his biggest hit (and the only one under his own name) as a vocalist in the spring of 1952 with the tasty blues ballad "Got You On My Mind" (# 2 R&B). This Howard Biggs-Joe Thomas composition spawned several covers and was later recorded by Joe Turner (1959), Cookie and the Cupcakes (a # 94 pop hit in 1963), Jerry Lee Lewis (1965), Joe Tex (1966) and Eric Clapton (2001), among others.

Apart from Annisteen Allen, Greer was teamed up with several other female duet partners. Among them was Dolores Brown, with whom he recorded the novelty "You Played On My Piano" (in December 1951, but not released until 1953). RCA had first recorded the song as a duet of Hank Penny and Jaye P. Morgan, but their excellent version stayed in the can (until it was released by Bear Family in 1983), possibly because of the risqué lyrics. There were further versions by Hardrock Gunter and Helen Humes, both in 1952.

Though there were no more chart hits, Greer's releases sold steadily. Early in 1954, producer Danny Kessler moved him from the parent label to RCA's new Groove subsidiary, which was exclusively devoted to rhythm and blues. Rock n roll-styled platters from the Groove period include "Bottle It Up And Go" (1954) and "Come Back Maybellene" (1955, an answer to the Chuck Berry hit), both with Mickey Baker on guitar. After RCA/Groove dropped him in August 1955, the singing sax player was rescued by his old friend Henry Glover, who got him signed to King. Four singles were released in 1956-57, among which the great rocker "Come Back Uncle John" (sort of an answer to "Long Tall Sally"), but by the end of 1956 it was clear that Greer had serious alcoholism troubles and King cut him loose. He went back to Hot Springs and continued to perform for a few years with a local band. But his drinking problem combined with his (over)weight took a toll on his health and Big John Greer died in May 1972 at the age of only 48, forgotten by all but the most dedicated R&B fans. His music has stood the test of time, though.

More info :

- Rockin' with Big John - Bear Family BCD 15554 (1992, 3 CD-set, deleted). The complete RCA and Groove recordings, 72 tracks. Liner notes by Peter Grendysa.
- I'm the Fat Man - Rev-Ola CR BAND 17 (2007, 30 tracks from RCA and Groove, 1949-55). Compiled and annotated by Dave Penny. Concentrates on the rocking, jumping side of Big John.

Acknowledgements : Dave Penny, Peter Grendysa, Bill Dahl.

YouTube :
Drinkin' Wine Spo-De-O-Dee :
Got You On My Mind :
I'm the Fat Man :
Ride Pretty Baby (with the Du Droppers) :
Drinkin' Fool :
Bottle It Up And Go :
Lucky Lucky Me :
Come Back Maybellene :
Come Back Uncle John :

Dik, March 2013

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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