Rock Moment: Big Sambo Comes Home
In Port Arthur, Texas, there’s an unlikely tourist attraction – or it would be a tourist attraction if more people knew about it. It’s called the Museum of the Gulf Coast, and once you get past the typical everytown historical artifacts you come to a section called “Music Legends,” which spotlights the talent who were born, raised and lived in Southeast Texas.
Of course there’s Janis Joplin, Lonnie Brooks, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, George Jones, Jivin’ Gene … the list is quite long. This section of the museum is more than worth the entry fee, because it’s richer than the better-known Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. You can hear the music, but many times you don’t get the great stories. Today I want to share with you one of those stories: the tale of Big Sambo.
In June 1983, a man named James Harold Young died in Port Arthur. Earlier in his life, he was known as Big Sambo, a saxophone-playing R&B singer with a beautiful singing voice. A few days after he died, this is the story that appeared the Port Arthur News:
On June 19, 1981, the Port Arthur Civic Center jumped and throbbed to the sound of rock and roll. Dancers choked the aisles as more than 2,000 concergoers embraced the second annual Jaycees’ Fifties rock revival show.
Probably the biggest hit of the night was a soft-spoken, unassuming musician whose saxophone and voice mesmerized the crowd. For James “Big Sambo” Young, it was a big night; playing before his hometown, it was the proudest moment of his life.
Last Friday, at 1:08 a.m., James “Big Sambo” Young died at Park Place hospital. His heart stopped too soon at the age of 45; he was buried on Tuesday. The area and the world have lost an immense talent. We have all lost a great friend.
Huey P. Meaux produced Big Sambo’s first and biggest hit record, “The Rains Came,” in 1961. “We recorded ‘The Rains Came’ at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans,” recalls Meaux. “James had an unusual voice, the vocal we had on the record was really haunting. As soon as we recorded it, I knew we were gonna have a hit.”
Big Sambo recorded other songs, like “Barking Up The Wrong Tree” (under the name James Young and the Housewreckers) but Meaux never got a chance to work with him again. Meaux adds, “His heart was the same color as his saxophone – gold.”
Big Sambo toured the United States, played sessions in Los Angeles and even appeared in a motion picture. He couldn’t get a hit though, and eventually settled back in his hometown with his family.
Young had worked for the City of Port Arthur since 1972. He was a crew chief for the Solid Waste services, supervising crews as they picked up litter. His love of music and entertaining drew Young to the Port Arthur Civic Center when it opened in 1979.
Civic Center director Carroll Albrittion recalls: “We need crews to clean up the Center after each show. Big Sambo came up and offered to work, because he said he knew entertainers and he wanted to see the shows. He worked out here a lot, and we also saw him at many wrestling and boxing shows.”
More people recognized who James Young was, and the Jaycees asked him to play in their second Fifties rock show. Euphoric at this recognition and justifiably proud of his accomplishments, Big Sambo would constantly visit Mrs. Elise Boneau at Boneau’s Record Shop.
“Every day he would come in, and every day I would get a big bear hug,” says Mrs. Boneau. “He was a loving, gentle peson who was glad to help anybody. That’s why I was so happy to see he went over so well at the Fifties show. He played a lot of benefits and he had begun to play over in Houston as well.”
When the crowds filed out of the Civic Center that June evening in 1981, their ears were filled with the sound of Big Sambo’s sax and voice. There were no parties, just a few pats on the back for him afterwards. Because after the concert, Big Sambo, the hero of the night, helped clean up the hall.