“Big” Al Sears – Rock & Roll Progenitor
Albert Omega Sears, better known as “Big” Al Sears, was born February 21, 1910 in McDonough County‘s Macomb, IL in the heart of Forgottonia. Noted Jazz historian and scholar Phil Schaap claims “Al Sears undoubtedly made the largest anonymous contribution to 20th Century America that can be clearly referenced.” Sears played saxophone and played it well, Sears played as a teenager saxophone with Fats Waller. In 1928 Sears replaced the tenor saxophonist Johnny Hodges in the orchestra of Chick Webb, in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. He played with a number of other noted Big Bands through the 1930’s hooking up with Lionel Hampton‘s group in 1943, before becoming a soloing member of Duke Ellington‘s Orchestra in 1944.
It was while playing tenor sax in the Duke Ellington Orchestra that Big Al met and nurtured a young student named Alan Freed. Later, in 1951, Big Al Sears brought a copy of his composition “Castle Rock” recorded by Al as a member of the Johnny Hodges Orchestra to this same Alan Freed who was just starting his Disc Jockey career in Cleveland. The record not only became a smash hit, it is significant in the fact that it, as Schapp declares, was “when the Jumpin’ Blues became known as Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
An early civil rights activist, Big Al broke the color line of the upper echelon administration at major record companies as an African American executive at ABC-Paramount Records. During his tenure as an executive, Sears made sure that newly signed ABC-Paramount artist, Ray Charles, was not customarily cheated out of his royalties. Al later owned several record labels of his own, including Arock, Serock, and Gator. In 1961 Al was the featured tenor sax player on the Aretha Franklin LP “Aretha & The Ray Bryant Combo”
It is not an overstatement to say that “Big” Al Sears was a true musical star and a popular music innovator and pioneer, both in the Duke Ellington Orchestra during Jazz’s prime, through The Swing Era to R&B and Soul and one of the leading progenitors in the birth of Rock & Roll.
For 17 years Macomb hosted the annual Al Sears Jazz Festival. The event ended after 2018 as the key promoters organizers of the festival retired from the business.
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Click “Watch On YouTube” below to see Alan Freed introduce “Big” Al in the film Rock, Rock, Rock!.