Born John J. Kelson, 1922, Los Angeles, California
Died 28 April 2012, Beverly Hills, California

The wailing tenor sax solos of Jackie Kelso can be heard on countless West Coast rockers : "Say Mama" by Gene Vincent, "Bye Bye Baby" by Johnny Otis, "Try Me" by Bob Luman, "Moose on the Loose" by Roddy Jackson, "Do What You Did" by Thurston Harris and, a little later, "Twistin' the Night Away" by Sam Cooke, to mention just a few.

Writing about Jackie Kelso and the records he plays on is difficult for two reasons. For one thing, you need to have a pair of very good ears to distinguish his (R&R-styled) playing from that of Plas Johnson. Then, when it comes to classic rock 'n' roll sessions, Jackie's recall is appalling to put it mildly. Most of what follows is based on the two-part "Repeating Echoes" interview with Stuart Colman from 1986, transcribed in "Now Dig This" magazine last year. "Do you recall playing on that particular record?" asks Stuart about "Jennie Lee" by Jan and Arnie. "Very, very clearly", says Kelso. It is now almost common knowledge that Plas Johnson is the sax player on "Jennie Lee". Same with "Pink Shoelaces" by Dodie Stevens, where the solo is also almost certainly by the Plas. On the other hand, on his website, http://www.plasjohnson.com/PJ/Biography/Discography/plasRandRoll.htm

Plas Johnson claims to play on certain records on which not he, but Kelso is known to have played. (The Piltdown Men recordings, for instance.) So we cannot simply take these two great sax players on their word. Both claim to play on Eddie Cochran's "My Way", Bobby Day's "Mr and Mrs Rock and Roll" and several other records. So who's right and who's wrong?

Kelso started taking music lessons when he was eight years old. His first instrument was the clarinet. At the age of fifteen he acquired his first alto saxophone. This was also the instrument that he first played after joining Roy Milton's band (The Solid Senders) in 1946, switching to tenor sax later on. Milton was a very successful R&B artist in those days, who recorded for Specialty Records for almost a full decade. Tired of touring, Kelso left Milton's band in 1955 and soon found himself employed by Johnny Otis, as an A&R man for Otis's record company, Dig Records. He also became a member of the Johnny Otis band, which included Plas Johnson at that time. For a while the band had two tenor sax players, but Plas got busier and busier doing session work and he felt he could leave Otis' band, because there now was another good tenor sax player to replace him. Jackie went on the road with the Johnny Otis Show, often as band leader, and is mentioned at the beginning of "Shake It Lucy Baby", the long opening track of the "Johnny Otis Show" LP on Capitol (recorded 1957, released 1958). Plas Johnson also sent Kelso out on record dates as his sub, so Jackie felt he had to learn quickly to sound like Plas and play the rock 'n' roll style. (Until then, Kelso had played mainly R&B and jazz.) He was always co-operative, trying to make both the producer and the artist happy. Kelso also got the chance to record instrumental singles under his own name, on small West Coast labels labels like Spry ("Cooler, Please"), Signet ("Straight As An Arrow") and Vita ("Once More").

In the early sixties, he was involved with many instrumental rock and roll recordings (Piltdown Men, Sandy Nelson, The Routers, etc.). Phil Spector often used three sax players for his Wall of Sound and Jackie was usually one of them, along with Steve Douglas and Nino Tempo. Kelso adapted easily to the changes in the music business and was always in demand as a session player or bandleader. Like Plas Johnson and many other R&R session men from the fifties, he returned to his first love, jazz, and, now in his eighties, is still touring with the Count Basie Orchestra. He still did the occasional rock & roll job though, like backing Little Richard on his 1986 album "Lifetime Friend", which was produced by Stuart Colman. Jackie Kelso: a truly great saxophonist and, according to those who have met him, an extremely nice person.

Further reading: Stuart Colman Presents Repeating Echoes : Jackie Kelso on Radio London. Part 1 in Now Dig This 247 (October 2003), page 12-14 ; part 2 in NDT 248 (November 2003), page 24-26.

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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