Even though he’s been singing on Minnesota stages for 50 years, Maurice Jacox might have an identity problem.
Is he an R&B screamer? An intimate lounge crooner? The sexy sax man from Willie & the Bees and the Butanes? The singer-actor who staged a Nat King Cole tribute show? The classical wannabe doing “Besame Mucho” with an orchestra? The soul serenader at the New Standards holiday show? An electric flute player in the Electric Flag?
He is all of the above.
“I’ll sing anything,” Jacox said with an expansive and reassuring smile. “I’ll sing show tunes. I’ll sing anything that catches my ear.”
No matter the song, he’s a magnetic presence.
“On any stage, your eyes are immediately drawn to him,” said Butanes leader Curt Obeda, whose R&B band starred Jacox for years. “He’s handsome, tall, imposing. He has all the talent in the world.”
“The focus is always on him,” said saxophonist Eugene Hoffman, who used to stand next to Jacox in Willie & the Bees. “It’s his personality and his stature physically. He’s flamboyant in many ways.”
Jacox has done something flamboyant, yet unflashy: He’s recorded the first album under his own name, with a release party Sunday at the Dakota.
The CD is called “Stripped Down” because that was the approach: low-budget, but a showcase for his lesser-known quieter side. Like Jacox, the songs are proudly eclectic — Motown, Doc Pomus, Nat King Cole, Dan Penn, James Taylor, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John’s “Imitation of Love” and Earl Grant’s “Imitation of Life.” (No, he wasn’t trying to be cute. He just liked both songs.)
He’s accompanied by two guitarists, Bob Ekstrand on acoustic and Tom Cravens on electric, with Vince Hyman on vibes on two selections and a taste of his own alto sax on “Always One More Time,” a gentle benediction.
He does “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” a cappella, takes the Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You” to Brazil and blesses Johnny Hartman’s “Slow Hot Wind” with gypsy mysticism.
Jacox figures he has 2,000 tunes in his songbook. He can pull them out on command, as he did when pianist Nachito Herrera asked him to sing “Besame Mucho” in front of 5,000 people in Cuba without ever having rehearsed it.
“It was one of the scariest things I’ve done in my life,” he said with a gasp, clutching his hands to his chest. “But I love singing.”
Stretched out on a couch in his sunny living room, the long, lean Jacox hardly looks scared. Instruments are set up throughout the apartment he shares in the Schmidt Artists Lofts, the renovated brewery in St. Paul, with his longtime partner, fashionista Saeteesh.
On this day, he’s wearing color-coordinated blue jeans, a V-neck T-shirt and ball cap. But onstage he’s always stylish in a lively patterned shirt, flashy vest or natty sportcoat, and the coolest headwear in the room.
Belying his lively stage style, Jacox speaks in a soft voice, with the slow articulation of a radio storyteller.
“I’m obsessed with lyrics,” he explained. “I read them over and over again to try to understand what is being said. With someone else’s words coming out of your mouth, you put the songs in the context of your own experience. Every song that I sing, I’ve sung it 20 or 30 times before I bring it to an audience. I know that song so well that I might as well have written that damn song.”
Flowering in San Francisco
Born 73 years ago with a club foot, Jacox spent his first three months in a hospital. He had five bone grafts as a kid, and endured a year and a half at Shriner’s Hospital.
He started piano lessons at age 3 even though his family didn’t have one. At 10, he convinced his parents to buy a $450 accordion on the installment plan. He took up saxophone in high school, but dropped out after stints at Minneapolis Central, South and West to try a career in show business.
He got to sit in one night on flute with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Roland Kirk at a club in Golden Valley. At age 17, he made his acting debut at the Guthrie Theater and would later appear at Brave New Workshop, among other Twin Cities theaters.
Jacox blossomed in San Francisco during 1967’s Summer of Love, hanging with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and playing electric flute in the Electric Flag, Mike Bloomfield’s psychedelic blues-rock band.
When he returned to Minneapolis a few years later, Jacox wanted to join his old pal Willie Murphy’s new group, but the bandleader wanted a baritone saxophonist, not a flutist. So Jacox borrowed a baritone from Hoffman and five days later was onstage with Willie & the Bees.
“He has a perfect ear and perfect memory,” said Hoffman of Jacox.
And perfect star power. Back then, many clubgoers thought “Willie” was Jacox, not bassist Murphy, because the singing sax man stood out in leather pants and flowered shirts straight out of San Francisco.
“He was not of us,” recalled Obeda. “Even when he was dressed in his Harlem Globetrotter uniform and roller skates, you still thought he was cool.”
After the Bees disbanded in 1984, Jacox fronted the Wingtips in Duluth before the Butanes beckoned, expanding into a 10-piece horn-driven R&B revue with Jacox as the lead singer. Eventually, he moved on to Soul Tight Committee, Lights Out Committee and various jazz combos.
‘I should have a bigger ego’
Whatever Jacox sings, he insists he never does a song the same way twice. He shouted out to Saeteesh in an adjacent room, asking her to corroborate since she attends all his gigs.
“That’s why I’m not bored,” she chimed in.
“And the people that play with me are never bored,” adds Jacox.
Health issues have continued to plague him as an adult. He’s had four hip replacements, a knee replacement, a big toe amputated and major colon surgery this spring. Four days after exiting the hospital in April, he honored a commitment to sing “Nature Boy” at the memorial service of a close friend, even though Jacox couldn’t stand up for more than a few minutes.
Jacox lives for music. He doesn’t earn much in local clubs — maybe $100 here, $150 there — so he teaches three days a week at Linden Hills House of Music, giving lessons in voice, flute, saxophone, clarinet and piano.
He continues to sit in with the Butanes at their regular Thursday gig at Shaw’s in northeast Minneapolis. “He gets a free shot and a beer, and that’s enough to get him to sing for half an hour with us,” said Obeda.
Jacox will do whatever he can to get a gig. He sits in — and substitutes — with other bands, including Willie Walker’s We R Band and Steve Clarke & the Working Stiffs.
Despite his love of song, he’s not a songwriter. “I have songs in me, but every time I write half of a verse on paper, I go: ‘You pompous ass, who the hell do you think you are?’ ”
He’s not a bandleader, either. “He’s happy to not be dealing with the conflicts of scheduling and minutiae,” said Obeda.
He certainly has the tools and panache of a star frontman, but not the drive or the well-connected manager to get him to stardom.
“He’s a sideman,” noted Hoffman, who has known Jacox since 1965.
“He’s not always a great advocate for his own self,” Obeda said. “He’s not assertive.”
Jacox acknowledges those shortcomings.
“Doing what I do, I should have a bigger ego,” he observed. “That’s one of my problems.”
He would like to do more acting. But he’s not exactly chasing roles.
“I always thought he was a frustrated actor,” said Hoffman, who touts Jacox’s impressions of other people.
With the afternoon sun bathing his face as he fidgets with a copy of his new CD, Jacox gets a dreamy look.
“I would like to sing for larger audiences,” he said, without really having a plan of how to do it.
The reality is that he’s satisfied with smaller rewards.
Jacox told the story of a woman whose friends dragged her to one of his performances. She was suffering from a migraine, but his singing miraculously chased away the headache.
“That’s why you sing, that’s why you make music,” he said with the conviction in his voice rising. “I’ve been allowed to reach out and touch people and make them feel better. I’ve been allowed to ease people’s pain. Bring people joy.
“Money can’t buy that. I am rich beyond my imaginings.”