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SPECIALTY 319; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

In the stock market the basic rule of thumb for investors is to buy low and sell high. In rock ‘n’ roll that’s easier said than done, for those who reach such highs – whether creatively or commercially, if not both – the belief is always that they’ll build on that and their stock will rise even more.

Besides even if it was possible who are you going to sell TO? This isn’t sports where you trade artists contracts to other labels… although admittedly that’d be a fascinating game to play on a rainy weekend.

I’ll give you Paul Williams for Amos Milburn,” Savoy’s Herman Lubinsky tells the Mesner brothers of Aladdin Records, who upon seeing Milburn’s latest record busting through towards the top of the charts indignantly reply, “No chance… not unless you throw in Wild Bill Moore and the draft rights to the kid you just signed, Big Jay McNeely”.

Are you out of your mind?” Herman screams over the phone, accusing the Mesners of trying to rob him blind as he tells them in no uncertain terms that he’s through making any offers to them. But a few days later he reconsiders and calls back saying that if they’ll include saxophonist/producer Maxwell Davis in the deal with Milburn, “as a package”… he’ll make the trade. “Besides”, he tells them, “you just took my entire starting rotation in the horn section, I’ll need someone to replace them”.

You gotta admit, it’s an intriguing offer and both sides kick it around with their assembled brain trusts, each weighing the pros and cons of the trade.

If such deals had been taking place in rock’s first six months there’s probably not many artists who’d have commanded a higher price out of the gate than Jimmy Liggins.
 

 
Though his rock releases only made regional charts, Liggins did score a national hit with a more refined style at the same time giving him a versatility that would allow whoever was trading for him to position themselves well no matter which brand of music was deemed most promising commercially.

Furthermore his early instincts on his rock sides showed him to be well ahead of the game when it came to being able to harness the excitement and attitude the music was featuring in its best moments. On the strength of his first two releases it’s entirely possible that of all the record companies who’d dabbled in rock through mid-winter of 1948 only National Records who held the contracts of The Ravens would’ve been content to keep what they had rather than get in the Liggins sweepstakes.

Other than that you’d have probably seen most companies lining up to offer Specialty their pick of names off their respective rosters for a shot at Jimmy Liggins.

But had Specialty waited to pull the trigger on a deal, maybe holding out hope they could still sway National to give up Jimmy Ricks and company, they’d have done themselves in as Jimmy Liggins stock started to fall over the spring, summer and fall.
 

Counterfeiting Is Forgery
It’s starting to be fairly obvious how limited a performer Jimmy Liggins actually is. Never the best vocalist to begin with his weaknesses becomes glaringly obvious the more he recycles the same melodic attack. All of his songs – self-written it should be pointed out – follow the exact same pattern. His cadences fall in precisely the same way each time out, almost as if he were unaware that he was allowed to sing in another manner.

Some songs may speed it up, others will slow it down, but his vocal inflections themselves rise and fall with numbing predictability. The songs begin to lose their own identity in a way because of this and it becomes almost disconcerting to listen to, especially if you’re going through his entire record collection to date in one sitting. Just a year into his career you already had to be growing weary of hearing little variation in his approach.

He benefited when starting out of course because they hadn’t yet become predictable. Nobody knew he was a one-trick pony yet. Furthermore those first two records – I Can’t Stop It and especially Cadillac Boogie – were lyrically his best offerings, not only presenting Liggins as somebody eager for action which appealed to the burgeoning rock audience, but it also helped give rock itself an aggressive identity in its own right. The songs were restless and forward looking in a way that was incredibly appealing for a generation just starting to take their own fate in their hands.

But since then not only have his subsequent records plowed the same melodic ground but they’ve done so using less effective equipment.

Instead of boasting about his upward mobility in life as might be expected the outlooks he’s using are getting more subdued. Rather than opening up the musical framework to allow for even more instrumental mayhem with roaring saxophones, perhaps even bringing his own electric guitar to the forefront, he’s reining things in instead. Worst yet the enthusiasm he sang with early on which served to overcome his vocal weaknesses is being toned down these last few times out and with Careful Love all of those shortcomings reach their apex on the most cautious song in his catalog to date.

 

 
 

Test Your Love
In spite of the harsh critiques for all of the foibles laid out above we have to say the compositions themselves that Liggins is coming up with are by no means bad. In fact the stories are actually pretty varied and show a good grasp on delivering interesting perspectives rather than sticking to just one persona.

Here on Careful Love, as can probably be deduced by the title, the theme is a cautionary one as he takes on the role of a guy who clearly looks before he leaps in life… and for that matter probably sends a team of surveyors to check the ground he’ll be landing on should he eventually decide to make the leap after careful consideration.

Now admittedly this isn’t the kind of devil-may-care attitude that the best rock songs often embody, but it’s one that offers a different array of options as he delves into the story.

It seems as if he’s got himself a girl whom he genuinely likes and who apparently is quite fond of him as well. There’s no whispers of infidelity or incidents of unexplained departures that need to be cleared up and there doesn’t seem to be a string of domestic violence incidents or any calls to the authorities for disturbing the peace in their background.

Yet while that would indicate they’re a pretty compatible couple this version of Liggins is a pessimist at heart, someone who spots a single distant cloud out the window on an otherwise sunny day and cancels the picnic he’s been planning all week. Now obviously that’s not going to be someone we want to associate with personally or somebody we’ll be apt to identify with as listeners, so as a result the song no longer has the ability to be a positive reflection on our own lives (or what we want our lives to be) but will instead have to serve as a case study of a guy we’d probably steer clear of rather than socialize with on a regular basis since he’d always bring us down with his glass half empty mentality.

But it CAN be interesting to examine from a distance and that’s what Liggins has to fall back on, either giving us some plausible reasons for his cautious nature or else he needs to come up with an ironic twist in the story’s conclusion to make him suffer for his cynical outlook on life.

Unfortunately he does neither, choosing instead to merely serve up his gloomy mindset as he tries to get some (probably unnecessary) assurance from his gal that her love is indeed true.

If she had any better options now is the time to take them and call that guy you’ve run into at the drugstore who smiled at you a few times, or maybe answer the door in a negligee when the postman comes by tomorrow in hopes of hooking up with him so you can leave Jimmy to the miserable existence he surely deserves.
 


 

You’ve Got To Give Up All Hopes
But even as that’s sound advice we’re offering this poor put-upon girl, we have to admit that the music accompanying his hand-wringing is entirely appropriate for the bleak sentiments of the story.

It’s certainly not the most rousing music we’ve heard, the horns droning on mournfully while the piano looms like the grim reaper of love ready to snatch his heart away at the first opportunity, but as slow as it’s played, plodding along in deliberate fashion, it’s effectively mirroring his own defining characteristics.

We’ve criticized songs in the past, Big Joe Turner comes readily to mind, where the musicians and singer were headed in opposite directions, the band playing spry while the singer moaned low, and the results are unsatisfying all around. We can hardly say that’s the case here as both components are on the same page throughout, so again we must give credit to Liggins for crafting the arrangement to emphasize the message he’s imparting.

In other words he’s doing his job properly, if not exactly making it pleasurable for the listener.

Even the horn solo, the bane of so many missed opportunities on other songs, is very solid and more importantly it’s pretty up to date. You’d almost expect the trumpets to be utilized to carry the downcast mood as is their specialty, but no, Liggins gives that role to the tenor sax and whoever is playing, be it Harold Land or Charlie “Little Jazz” Ferguson, they handle the job with class. The tone used keeps with the subdued spirit the others are projecting and yet still manages to subtly inject a fair amount of passion into the lines, dragging it closer to the sounds that are defining rock during this calendar year. None of the musicians really make any missteps on this track, but as is fitting for rock, even a downbeat version of rock, it’s the tenor sax which stands out and delivers the most captivating passages.

Frustratingly though we still don’t get any hint of Liggins’s reported prowess on the electric guitar, which would’ve added an interesting wrinkle to the proceedings, nor is there any shift in the tempo or textures used. The backing is intentionally monotonous to sell the story properly but it makes for a more challenging listening experience if only because we don’t want to be popping Prozac to keep us from spiraling into a deep depression from this droning mood.
 

Show Me The Right Sign
The problem boils down to one thing above all else and that’s simply this isn’t a record that we really want to hear. Music needs to be enjoyed and even sad songs have to touch upon something that we can relate to and find solace in. Liggins offers us nothing in that regard leaving us to modestly admire the song’s construction and yet even that isn’t easy to do once you note its alarming similarities to his past work.

The one reprieve we can grant Jimmy Liggins is that Careful Love was cut at his last session in the mad rush to get as much material in the can before 1947 closed and the recording studios were shut down for an extended musician’s strike.

He was also still a novice when it came to all of this, having just recently moved from being a valet for his famous musician brother Joe Liggins, someone who’d studied music in college and had been working as a songwriter and bandleader for a decade, to being a self-taught artist in his own right, learning to play an instrument, how to write songs (or should I say how to write A song multiple ways) and how to put together and lead a band.

That’s not an easy transition to make and considering he’d managed to come up with a few real winners right away showed that the natural skills he DID possess, while limited in number perhaps, were fairly strong and hopefully would grow stronger in time.
 


 

But that growth hasn’t been apparent yet and while the reasons behind his stagnation might be understandable if you were aware of his limited experience and the rushed sessions which exacerbated that issue, a listener in 1948 would only know what they heard coming out of the speakers with each new release. After such a strong start those releases were now meeting with diminishing returns and so Liggins’ value on the open market is falling.

Were Specialty Records offer his name for a trade now I’m sure they’d still find a few takers but the haul they could expect to receive for his contract would be considerably less than it would’ve been last winter. Instead of getting some interest in a one-for-one swap for Roy Brown they’d probably be lucky to get someone like Crown Prince Waterford or a drunk Cecil Gant in return.

Since you never want to sell low it’s safe to say that Jimmy Liggins will get more chances with Specialty to live up to his early promise as we head into 1949, our expectations diminished somewhat but not enough to give up on him altogether.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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