He bought what he thought was an alto saxophone on time payments. When the store delivered the horn, it turned out to be a tenor sax almost as big as he was, but he decided to keep it.
A year after that, he was playing with an 18-piece band called Rajahs of Rhythm. When World War II started, most of the musicians in the band were drafted.
"I was 4-F, I never found out why, so I stayed out of it," Mr. Oliver said in a 1996 Inquirer article. When he was 18, he started playing in the clubs and found himself in the company of such jazz luminaries as Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Pearl Bailey. He also played with drummer Max Roach.
In the late 1940s, Mr. Oliver encountered a Philadelphia saxophonist named John Coltrane, who many said was strongly influenced by Mr. Oliver's playing.
"Early on I was branded with having the Philadelphia sound," Mr. Oliver said in the 1996 interview. "I came along before Trane, and so I had a step or two on him. We became close friends."
At 14, Mr. Oliver had fallen in love with Henrietta Harris. By the time he was 16, they had a son. By the time he was 28, they had four children. He was a grandfather at 35. They finally married in the late 1970s. She died in 2001.
His love for his family and his fear of getting heavily into drugs, as many of his fellow musicians had done, kept him in Philadelphia. He turned his back on chances to hit the road and seek a national reputation.
"Things didn't happen to me the way I may have wished them to happen, but . . . I didn't want New York to give me an early grave," Mr. Oliver said in 1991.
He kept chugging along as a regular on the Philly club circuit. He played gigs up until the end of his life, granddaughter Zina Hardy, who was raised by Mr. Oliver, said yesterday.
"He took good care of his family. When I was 5, I got all dressed up and listened to him in clubs," Hardy said.
"He was supposed to play at the Top Shelf the day he died," she said.
In addition to his granddaughter, Mr. Oliver is survived by sons James Jr. and King; daughters Ramona Dates and Patricia; 11 other grandchildren; 17 great-grandchildren; and a brother.
Friends may visit at 9:30 today at Shiloh Apostolic Temple, 15th and Master Streets. The funeral will follow at 11. Burial will be in Rolling Green Memorial Park in West Chester. A celebration of his life is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the Clef Club, Broad and Fitzwater Streets.
Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To ask a question of Sims, go to http://go.philly.com/obituary.