The man who brought the organ to rock ‘n’ roll and created one of its all-time great instrumental hits in a career that spanned a half century in multiple genres.

Bill Doggett was born in 1916 and got his professional start as a pianist in the late 1930’s with his own band, one he then sold to Lucky Millinder wholesale and went to work under Millinder over two different stints, appearing with him on some of his classic sides in the early 1940’s.

From there he worked as The Ink Spots pianist and arranger in the mid-1940’s while they were still the top vocal group in music before doing a brief turn with Lionel Hampton’s jazz band. During this period he was fairly prolific in the studio, cutting sides with everyone from Illinois Jacquet and Jimmy Witherspoon to future rock legends Wynonie Harris and Johnny Otis.

When Wild Bill Davis left Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five to start his own organ trio, Doggett was brought in as his replacement, still playing mostly piano, as well as arranging on some of Jordan’s last huge hits as the 1940’s wound down. When he left Jordan in 1951 to go solo he had played various styles effectively, from the vocal group idiom to Jordan’s proto-rock, as well as jazz, which had the most critical cache.

But Doggett realized that jazz’s commercial peak, especially in singles, had passed and its album era was still in its infancy, so your success in jazz was largely judged by live gigs. Yet Doggett was a studio musician at heart and seeking a way to play organ on commercial singles he turned to rock ‘n’ roll which already had a history of innovation and not following accepted precedent.

Signing with King Records in 1952, Doggett attempted to find his “sound” through trial and error, initially keeping too many jazzy touches in his songs and getting only mild interest. Then, perhaps taking a cue from labelmate Earl Bostic, he began to explore different approaches depending on the format, as his albums were more jazz based while his singles were focused on hook-filled rock ‘n’ roll made for dancing. At the same time he brought in new band members with experience in this field to give his records a more diverse feel, including guitarist Billy Butler and saxophonist Clifford Scott.

In 1956 they hit on the sound they were after with the endless churning groove of “Honky Tonk” which topped the charts and made them unlikely rock stars. Doggett was forty at the time and over the next few years they tried to match that record and feel with sporadic success.

Ironically it was after the singles market dried up for Doggett in the early 1960’s that they finally found a more consistent rock sound, releasing some of their best work to commercial indifference over the first half of that decade.

Switching labels as he neared fifty he continued on this track and saw no drop in the quality of his output. By the 1970’s he eased back into a senior statesman role, switching effortlessly between the rock he got famous for and the jazz he began with.

Doggett continued to perform and record to the end, dying at the age of 80 in 1996, one of the last rock acts of note to have first made his name in another field that pre-dated the music, and one of the few who left their biggest mark in rock ‘n’ roll.
BILL DOGGETT DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Apollo 801; March, 1950)
As a sideman for… Willis Jackson

(Apollo 801; March, 1950)
As a sideman for… Willis Jackson

BIG DOG (PTS. 1 & 2)
(King 4530; April, 1952)
An interesting start in rock with a few too many jazz ideas, especially on Part One with how the organ is presented, but it tightens up in Part Two as the guitar takes on a more prominent role, the two combining to give this a unique feel for the time. (5)

(King 4548; June, 1952)
Trying to find a route to commercial success Doggett sings… not terribly, but not with any real skill either, on this rather slight song wherein the only time he seems truly comfortable is during the organ solo. (3)