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There’s two ways to look at this record’s title staring you in the face.

The first – and probably the most natural – reaction to encountering the kind of desperate characters who would blatantly telegraph a sequel to a big hit in the hopes of luring people into giving this a try, is to recoil in disgust, cursing the name of Jimmy Liggins and Specialty Records and vowing to take out the knives to carve this song to pieces.

The other response however, after some reasoned contemplation, might be to think that if they’re being so unapologetically crass about carrying out such a shameless ploy, they must’ve come up with a pretty damn good song and figured why waste time disguising it, fully confident that the value of its content will far outweigh the utter shame of its title.

Which internal voice do you listen to? The embittered cynic or the benevolent optimist?


I Cried A Long Time
It’s been two and a half years since Jimmy Liggins scored his first national hit with the original Tear Drop Blues and a lot has transpired since that time.

When that song charted some of the hits on the Billboard Race Charts (as it was still known then, as we were still a year away from the switch to the Rhythm & Blues chart) were by the likes of Arbee Stidham and Dan Grissom. Meanwhile the dominant pre-rock stars like Louis Jordan, Julia Lee and Mabel Scott were still far more popular than their pure-rock offspring.

So the idea that Jimmy Liggins could elicit the same type of interest in Answer To Tear Drop Blues, a sequel to a song that had actually been atypical for him – and certainly for rock – way back in 1948 and certainly hadn’t gotten any more appropriate sounding for the rock landscape since then, seemed far-fetched at best.

Now throw in the fact that this wasn’t a recent recording itself. In fact, it had been cut a lifetime ago in November of 1948, making it a far more timely sequel in concept which makes you wonder why it hadn’t gotten issued a lot earlier than this. Surely putting it out now was little more than a way to clean out the company’s closets, not something that they were expecting to draw any interest.

But circumstances make strange bedfellows, or something like that, and so when Liggins’s career had been rudely interrupted in the spring of 1949 via a gunshot to the face at a dance he was playing and consequently went on the shelf for a year to recover Specialty Records needed “new” releases to keep his name in the public’s mind and so just as Jimmy mercifully was nearing a return to the active scene the company must’ve figured, “If not now, when?”.


You Came Back Home
So where else do start if not the similarities and/or differences between what is effectively Part One and Part Two? Does Liggins merely refit the old song with new lyrics and call it a day, or does he try and get creative and do something different, leaving just a thread connecting the two songs?

Well in what has to be a pretty shocking upset of the betting odds, Liggins does the latter, convincingly re-imagining the original song and making it not only slightly more modern, as you’d hope and even expect, but he makes Answer To Tear Drop Blues a much better song regardless of the era.

The original Tear Drop Blues gave the impression of being very plodding even though the pace wasn’t a ponderously slow as it appeared at a glance.

The problem with it was the main riffs the horns were laying down were alternately sluggish and all over the place. They seemed to be almost picking their lines at random out of a hat, none of them were complimentary to what preceded it or what would follow, and as a result the entire production came across as decidedly haphazard. To compensate for this perhaps, Liggins delivery became more deliberate and as a result the song didn’t flow too well.

So under the heading of Live And Learn, they’ve returned to the source with the knowledge of what worked and what didn’t and shored things up quite nicely.

Gave Me Joy Through And Through
The most important change they’ve made was a simple one, in that they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure everything fits properly. They’ve not only simplified the lines but they’ve made sure that there’s a coherent progression in their parts, surely thanks to Maxwell Davis leading the hired gun sessionists rather than having Liggins’ own band, The Drops Of Joy, play on the record… good musicians, yes, but with a tendency to play with less discipline which reflected their experience on the bandstand rather than being appropriate for the studio.

Consequently with Answer To Tear Drop Blues the engine is running much more smoothly when Liggins gets behind the wheel, allowing you to focus more on what he’s singing rather than being distracted by what else is going on around him.

The key to this change is the repetitiveness found in the primary horn riff and crawling piano boogie. Once that’s locked in you trust that it’s there without needing to consciously notice it and when the tenor sax freestyles over it, you can take it or leave it without either choice hurting your ability to appreciate the track as a whole. Even Billboard couldn’t help but focus on its economical effectiveness in their review:

It also helps that Liggins is so focused in his singing, using a monotonous – almost monotone – delivery that rises and falls with blissful predictability. This is practically a vocal version of futuristic ambient music, soothing in its circular cadences, something that also allows Jimmy – who has a peculiar tendency to emphasize the same parts of a song whether it’s called for or not – to stay in his comfort zone as this leans hard on that basic structural approach rather than fights against it.

In other words, it’s a record that establishes the simple – if not simplistic – guidelines and then insists that all of the musicians and Liggins himself stay within those boundaries. Not altogether risky I’ll grant you, but far more rewarding because of it, especially when the story has also been tightened up considerably.

Keep You By My Side
In the first go-round with this idea the plot was unfussy but also fairly unoriginal: Liggins hadn’t heard from his baby in awhile and cried over it in a very drawn out explanation. The lyrics themselves weren’t bad, but they packed surprisingly little story into that three minute record.

On Answer To Tear Drop Blues Liggins sets out to fill in the blanks, updating the main theme – she comes back to him, he’s happy again – while throwing in a few more nice lines in the process.

Like its predecessor this doesn’t pack much information into the song, but because it’s not set up as a cliff-hanger of sorts, as the first was when were waiting to hear more details to find out the source of his misery, here – simply because we already know the outcome – we’re able to take more pleasure in the smaller details.

Again, like with the musical improvements, a lot of this is slight of hand tricks. There’s not many more words here, if any (feel free to count them both if you want) but the song feels more informative, in part because of the tighter musical backing perhaps, but also because Liggins’ more upbeat mood lends itself to accepting the explanations he offers more willingly.

Maxwell Davis’s sax solo doesn’t hurt in this regard either, giving you a breather from the vocal lines which opens the song up in a way. None of this is exactly revolutionary in concept mind you, it’s all pretty straightforward by the numbers songwriting and arranging, but it’s very efficiently done and as result the finished product winds up being a lot more than just the sum of its parts even if it’s a little outdated by the time the public got to hear it.


No More Will You Roam
Obviously sequels are rarely essential in any creative endeavor unless they were originally conceived as an ongoing story from the start, which this wasn’t, so it’s hard to claim that Answer To Teardrop Blues was designed to be more than a fairly shallow attempt to capitalize on a proven formula.

But the myriad of events swirling around it – from the recording of the song with stand-ins for Liggins’ group to the decision to not issue it for so long, which indicates Specialty might not have thought it was up to par, even as they were low on material after Liggins was unable to record anything new with his jaw wired shut for so long – probably makes the surrounding story appreciably more interesting than the record itself.

Yet when you actually get around to hearing the record and find it’s not nearly as exploitative and lacking in imagination as you’d expect out of a sequel, but actually improves upon the original in some ways, you’re reminded that sometimes, no matter how dismal the prospect of such a cheap money grab may look on paper, when you have some talent you can pull it off with a fair amount of grace.

Still not essential, but a mild and entirely welcome surprise all the same.


(Visit the Artist page of Jimmy Liggins for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)