He was born in Bastrop, a suburb of Austin, Texas, and studied trumpet in school, changing to saxophone later. As a teen he began emulating a touring band by buying a red suit with white pants. One night in 1941 a saxophone player did not show for a gig with the band and Houston took his place. Between 1943 and 1946, Houston toured with King Kolax's band through Kansas City and Chicago and throughout the Mid-West.
After World War II Houston returned to Texas, and recorded with the pianist Amos Milburn and singer Big Joe Turner. Initially playing alto sax, he switched to tenor in the wake of such "honking" saxophonists as Big Jay McNeely and Paul Williams. Turner got Houston his first recording contract on Freedom Records in 1949. Houston moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and played with Betty Roche and Wynonie Harris.
Eventually, Houston formed his own band The Rockets, and moved to Los Angeles in 1952. He scored his only two chart hit singles in 1952 with "Worry, Worry, Worry", and "Hard Time Baby" both of which peaked at #10 on Billboard's R&B singles chart. He recorded for many record labels, including Modern and Crown, and contributed vocals as well as saxophone on some of his records.
Houston was based in Los Angeles throughout most of his career. He toured and recorded with his band the Defrosterz, started by the bassist Mark St. John, who acted as his bassist and manager almost 20 years, plus the keyboardist Mike Malone. They toured North America and recorded throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The band was signed to the Shattered Records label.
|1952||"Worry, Worry, Worry"||Rock & Roll with Joe Houston & Rockers||10|
|1952||"Hard Time Baby"||Rock & Roll with Joe Houston & Rockers||10|
- Dahl, Bill. "Joe Houston: Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved 2010-07-30.
- "Joe Houston, Pioneering Rock & Roll Sax Player, Has Died at 89", LA Weekly, December 29, 2015. Retrieved December 30, 2015
- Grobaty, Tim. "Joe Houston, legendary saxophonist, dies in Long Beach at 89". Press-Telegram. Retrieved 29 December 2015.