James Von Streeter, born simply as James Streeter, was a tenor saxophonist who left a significant mark in the early years of rock. He got his start in Lloyd Hunter’s territory band in Kansas where he met Johnny Otis, a drummer in the same region. When Otis moved to Los Angeles to join Harlen Leonard’s band in 1944, Streeter soon followed, becoming a key component of Otis’s group when Otis took over as leader of the house band for Club Alabam.
Streeter was primarily known for being an acclaimed figure in Johnny Otis’s vast ensemble, yet he also had noteworthy releases on his own during the tenor sax revolution in rock’s early years. He changed his name to James Von Streeter in tribute to silent film director Erich Von Stroheim, indicating an artistic worldliness. Interestingly, he was the first rock musician of any kind to be featured in a motion picture. His side group, The Wig-Poppers, played a nightclub scene in a movie, though the actual music was dubbed in by another rock sax player, Maxwell Davis. This accounts for both the first screen appearance by a rocker in Von Streeter and the first rock music to make a soundtrack with Davis.
Over his career, Von Streeter played behind numerous other artists on record, including Johnny Ace, Joe August, Little Esther, Little Richard, Preston Love, Johnny Otis, and Big Mama Thornton. He recorded under his own name for Scoop and Savoy in Los Angeles, California, in 1949.
Despite the presence of two tenor sax titans, Johnny Otis’s group relied less on that instrument than many of their contemporaries. Even so, Von Streeter had some memorable turns in the spotlight in the early 1950s before changing tastes and Otis’s lack of vocalists who were best suited for those types of records featuring torrid sax solos gradually took the focus from his work.
By the mid-to-late 1950s, as the Otis band reorganized and Von Streeter’s growing heroin habit intensified, his tenure with the group came to an end. Just a decade after being a rising star with a major film credit and a featured role in one of the most popular groups in all of rock, James Von Streeter disappeared from the music scene he’d helped to define. He passed away in 1960 in Detroit at the age of 60.
Page last updated 6/23/2023.