Born in Cleveland in 1919, Benjamin Clarence Jackson took up the saxophone instead of the violin that his parents wanted him to play. He started his first band, The Harlem Hotshots, while he was still in high school, with his friend Freddie Webster. Returning to Cleveland in 1943 after a brief stint in Buffalo, Jackson caught the eye of bandleader Lucky Millinder. It was the musicians in Millinder’s band that gave him the unforgettable name “Bull Moose.” One night while on tour in Texas, the scheduled singer Wynonie Harris didn’t show up to sing. Jackson was pulled out of the sax section to croon the song “Hurry, Hurry,” and a new career was born.Syd Nathan had an interest in the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. Nathan was interested in expanding his small country & western label, King Records, and the newly developing form of music called rhythm & blues intrigued him. Millinder, already signed to Decca Records, encouraged his sax player/vocalist to record for Nathan. Bull Moose Jackson never looked back.
Over the next five years, Jackson recorded every style of popular music. In 1947, his recording of “I Love You, Yes I Do” became the first rhythm & blues single to sell a million copies. He followed this milestone with a continuous string of hits including “I Want a Bowlegged Woman,” “Nosey Joe,” and perhaps his best known song, “Big Ten Inch Record,” and forever left his mark on the history of rhythm & blues.
Moose toured and recorded with his band “The Buffalo Bearcats” throughout the late `40s and early `50s, and in 1961 he re-recorded “I Love You, Yes I Do.” Tired of the road and the expense of traveling, the early `60s found him limiting his performing to private engagements and working for a catering firm at Washington DC’s Howard University. That’s where Carl Grefenstette found him in 1983.
Grefenstette’s band, The Flashcats, were a popular R&B act around Pittsburgh and tri-state (PA, OH, and WV) area. They routinely played several of Bull Moose’s songs in their act. “We did ‘Big Ten Inch’ and we’d always introduce it as a Bull Moose Jackson record,” Grefenstette recalls. “A lot of the people in the audience probably thought we were making the name up.” But one person didn’t. In the audience one evening was Howard Kozy (aka Bumblebee Slim), a local R&B disc jockey, who not only knew who Jackson was, but where.
Grefenstette immediately contacted Moose, and coaxed him into appearing with the band. “We admired him,” Grefenstette says. “He was one of the last living members of an influential era of R&B. The impact of that music on rock ‘n roll can’t be measured. We brought him to town because we thought it would be the thrill of a lifetime to play with him.”
The resulting series of sold-out concerts with The Flashcats made Bull Moose a cult hero in Pittsburgh, and lead to his first new recordings in over 30 years. “I’m elated that I can still perform, and I’m very proud that people still remember,” Moose told the Associated Press in a 1984 interview. “They’ve resurrected an old man. I had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. They dug me out and here I am.”
With Grefenstette as his manager, Bull Moose and The Flashcats recorded first a 45, “Get Off the Table Mable (The Two Dollars is for the Beer),” and then an LP, “MOOSEMANIA!” Overwhelming national response lead to appearances from New York to Hollywood. In 1985, Moose performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and toured Europe with Johnny Otis. Jackson’s re-entry into show business brought calls and letters of support from fans around the world.
Moose continued to perform regularly until 1987, when his health began to fail. He gave his last performance, a birthday concert with The Flashcats, in Pittsburgh on April 23, 1988. He spent the last year of his life in Cleveland, being cared for by an old girlfriend — someone who’d renewed contact with him after reading about his new-found success.
Bull Moose Jackson died of cancer at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Cleveland on July 31, 1989. He is survived by worldwide legions of rhythm & blues fans, and thousands of dear friends who had the privilege to know and work with him