The Jazz Master

theodore Arthur

For some people, 50 years seems like an eternity. But for those who do what they love, the time goes by in a blink. Saxophone player Theodore Arthur Jr. firmly belongs in the latter category.

On stage since he was 10, the dapper 68-year-old proudly claims never to have had an “8-to-5 gig.” He was always able to support his family by playing music professionally. And play he has — Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Solomon Burke and Aretha Franklin have all experienced the Mobile native’s talents.

Arthur began his musical career as a drummer at Engine Street Junior High, which eventually became Blount High School. Migrating from drums to clarinet, he followed an oft-traveled route through the school band, but the saxophone became the key that took him beyond the city limit signs.

At 19, with the recommendation of B.B. King bassist and fellow Mobilian Marshall York, Arthur took a job with the velvet-smooth Little Junior Parker, who would later be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Some of Arthur’s recordings with Parker are still available.

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Before long, fellow road warriors noticed Arthur’s talents. During the next couple of years, Solomon Burke, Jerry Butler and other big-name acts who needed a top-notch sax player came calling.

Another Mobilian set Arthur up for the job that provided a higher podium to show his skills. In 1966, Richard Lovelace, a fellow member of Butler’s group, clued Arthur in to an opening with the legendary Bobby Blue Bland band.

“I started out playing the blues first, ” he says, “but when I was with Bobby, I started learning orchestration and arranging, and that led me to jazz and bebop. The blues paid the bills, but jazz is my passion.”

I started out playing the blues first … The blues paid the bills, but jazz is my passion.

Arthur’s tenure with the group would continue through the end of the decade, before IRS infractions shut it down. By 1973, with tax issues settled, the band was back. The group included Arthur, who was now writing and arranging material and leading the horn section.

Along the way, integration slightly changed the view from the stage. “The audience just became more of a melting pot, ” Arthur says. He says he really didn’t see many stereotypical one-race crowds in Mobile.

“The Chitlin’ Circuit was nothing more than the clubs on the ‘other side of the tracks’ that would hire traveling musicians. Mobile was different than a lot of places. In 1958, we used to play Ritz 21, a white club on Virginia Street, six nights a week. We were making more money than some of our friends working at Brookley Field or the post office.”

Today, one-man bands and DJs have snapped up many of the entertainment gigs that live groups once dominated. “In years back, there were always great bands, like the Total Sounds, and places to play, like the Dashiki, Club Harlem, The Mardi Gras, all the Elks lodges, the King’s Club, The Stork … Mobile’s first jazz club was open, the Villa on Lafayette Street.”

Despite a shifting landscape, Arthur still works regularly with six different bands. His passion for jazz has kept him as a member, on and off, of Mobile’s oldest band, the traditional jazz-based Excelsior Band. He also plays with schoolmate Shad Collins in “Shad and the Gang, ” and he puts on his own solo shows, which sometimes feature his daughter, Karen, as vocalist.

Recently, Arthur re-issued a project from his old jazz/disco era group, Solid Gold Revue. The album, “Love’s Traffic, ” was first released in 1979.

“Solid Gold Revue was one of the most exciting projects for me, ” he says. “Ray Crumley and I formed the group out of Texas. We toured for a year or so and then went into the studio to record the album. I don’t think I’ve ever played as an artist, on my own, to any bigger crowds. We made a lot of people happy.” Arthur’s music continues to keep crowds smiling.

Catt Sirten

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