“Big” Al Sears – Rock & Roll Progenitor

Albert Omega Sears, better known as “Big” Al Sears, was born February 21, 1910 in Macomb, IL.  It is said that through his talent, Sears possibly made the largest anonymous contribution to 20th Century America that can be clearly referenced. Sears played saxophone and played it well, leading to his first major gig in 1928 when he was tapped to replace Johnny Hodges in Chick Webb‘s ensemble. 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 noted Jazz historian and scholar Phil Schaap 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.

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 and R&B to being a leading progenitor in the birth of Rock & Roll.

Be sure to check out Al’s portrait on McDonough County’s largest mural at The Old Dairy.