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SPECIALTY 520; NOVEMBER, 1947

 
 

 

In 1945 Joe Liggins cut one of the biggest selling records of the decade, “The Honeydripper”, a grooving mellow riff that tentatively pointed the way to the future. Joe would go on to have a long successful career scoring hits well into the next decade but he’d play only a peripheral role in rock music’s evolution, choosing instead to maintain the classier style that was in vogue when he broke in, thus appealing to an older more content brand of music lover than those would lurk in the alley looking for their kicks in the raunchier style of rock ‘n’ roll that followed.

His younger brother, Jimmy, on the other hand had no such misgivings. For Jimmy the alley seemed like an appealing destination. Younger brothers are like that. The older brother’s success sparks a similar interest in the sibling but they want to make their own name and get out of the other’s shadow.

In Jimmy’s case this was especially true as he got his start by acting as his brother’s chauffeur, which is probably a more polite way to put it than “roadie”, “flunky” or “toady”. Yet both brothers were undeniably musical. Whereas Joe had formal training, played piano, studied music theory and arranging and thus was well schooled in the more traditional methods befitting serious bandleaders of the time, Jimmy played guitar, was more self-taught and decidedly not old-school in his thinking. Upon seeing his brother’s runaway success mid-decade first hand the younger Liggins wisely decided he’d had enough of carrying bags for a living and figured somebody ought to carry HIS bags for a change and thus set out on his own, both in a professional sense but also set out on his own musically, choosing not to follow big brother’s footsteps in terms of stylistic approach.

He found his way to Specialty Records run by Art Rupe who probably figured signing the younger unproven Liggins was a decent risk to take. Thanks to his family tree he’d have a modicum of name recognition and there was certainly a growing market for black music of all kinds on independent labels which is what Rupe was already… well… specializing in. But if he expected something more refined in the manner of older brother Joe the resulting session held September 9th would’ve been fairly shocking, because little brother had other plans.

Jimmy Liggins was gonna rock.

 

I Start To Leave And Yet I Stay
As debut singles go I Can’t Stop It would set the bar extremely high for all of rock ‘n’ roll going forward. The first sign this is something different than the general order of the day are the horns. Whereas the musical styles that were then in vogue relied on tightly constructed, lightly swinging charts with trumpets, trombones and alto saxes handling the heavy lifting, maintaining the link to jazz and swing and in the process giving early rock records that still utilized them a somewhat dated feel in that regard, here Liggins employs two tenor saxophones, played by Harold Land and Charlie “Little Jazz” Ferguson, and lets them wail. As a result it feels more cutting edge already, something that gets emphasized even more later on when Land gets the first of multiple wild solos contained within.

The horn intro gives way to a brief (all too brief really, because it really kicks) tribal drum pattern by Leon Petties before Fred Jackson’s piano picks up the rhythm and carries it throughout the verses. Liggins’ guitar isn’t really featured here, but no matter because soon his voice charges in excitedly, almost a little too fast for the melody at first before he catches himself and slows it down ever so slightly.
 

 
 

So far, so good, you say. A strong combo playing a loose-limbed cut with a streamlined modern sound. But when the chorus kicks in with a vibrant call and response pattern with the band members lustily shouting their replies everything just takes off like a turbo jet, giving the sense of a rousing party going on behind the walls.

Even the lyrics, as minimal as they are, convey the spirit of rock’s communal orgy of reckless fun. Not pausing to let the commotion die down lest you lose interest, every chorus is followed by another tenor sax workout, each more ribald than the last with Liggins calling out, “Go Jazz” on the last of them as Ferguson cuts loose in a hang-on-for-dear-life coda.

Liggins doesn’t posess anywhere near the voice of some of the brightest candidates for stardom we’ve come across thus far, nor any real versatility or lightness of touch. In fact his somewhat nasal baritone is pretty one dimensional, but that dimension embodies pure unbridled exhileration better than almost anyone and at this stage those who can best convey that particular spirit on record are in a better postion than most to lead rock’s charge.

The excitement generated here in just under three minutes is what would set rock ‘n’ roll apart from so much other music. There was no sense anywhere in this song of holding back, of slowly building to a climax, of reining things in because that was what was considered “proper”. Everything came off the starting line in fifth gear, then if anything somehow ramped it up from there.

Compared to big brother Joe, seven years his elder, Jimmy’s style sounds crude and unrefined, but it really isn’t. Everyone here is playing proficiently, nobody is going off the rails because they don’t have the chops or discipline to play under control. The palpable difference is simply that Jimmy’s music was written to sound unhinged. That was its intent from the start and so, while far more raucous than Joe’s sophisticated tunes, it was no less credibly executed.

The difference was simply generational.
 

 
 
My Love For You Will Linger On
The standards used to judge quality were beginning to change. It may have been happening slowly, especially with the successful older gentry within music who no doubt looked down on songs like I Can’t Stop It as somehow vulgar to their ears, but the point of all music is to find an audience and appeal to their interests. The key to rock’s rapid ascent was that a new breed of artist was playing for an audience that hadn’t fully been served before, if it even had been acknowledged to exist in the first place.

A flood of young black soldiers were now back from overseas where they’d seen considerable action in World War Two, while others had departed the Jim Crow south for more ample wartime work in factories up north and out west where oppression was somewhat less stifling than back home. With these added responsibilities, greater freedoms and more money came an increased sense of communal pride and self-determination, the idea that their generation would be the ones to enjoy better opportunities and the spoils that came with it. This post-war optimism needed a voice to express these views, a restless enthusiasm for what they hoped lay ahead for them all.

Guys like Jimmy Liggins gave it to them, throwing open the doors to a wild celebration of life on the edge, opening their ears to these new sounds that reflected and built upon those more worldly experiences and instilled a sense of freewheeling excitement to the mix that signaled the best was yet to come.

Audience and artist truly were in this thing together from the get-go.

Sadly, we know the two types of resistance that followed. In the “real world” the stringent political and legal struggles for true integration and equality in society was of course the more crucial battle and one which was even longer and more arduous than anticipated, with true equality in every sense still not fully achieved even now, two decades into the following century. But in a way a smaller microcosm of that struggle against inevitable gains was becoming apparent in music as well, with the more conservative older guard (blacks, as well as whites) preaching restraint, in many ways their genteel musical sensibilities symbolizing their own life experiences which saw little to be gained from loud demands for revolutionary change, all while the younger generation typified by rock ‘n’ roll impatiently pushed ever harder to be heard and “get on with it!”.
 

 

All Night Long Until The Break Of Day
As for the topic at hand, for a good long while there’d still be room in black popular music for both variations of music à la Liggins. As befitting their birth order Joe continued to appeal more to the more mature middle class establishment while Jimmy took care of stoking the imaginations of the more reckless younger generation on the other side of the cultural divide. In the end, maybe not surprisingly, the more professional, disciplined and dignified Joe wound up lasting longer as a prime attraction, keeping his band together for forty years while playing music that remained virtually unchanged, albeit for increasingly smaller, older audiences content to linger peacefully in the past. The cautious generally outlive the reckless in every walk of life, music included. Confirming that truism the wilder more fun loving Jimmy burnt out rather quickly, like so many rockers do, and by the mid-1950’s he was all but done as a commercial entity.

Ahhh, but older brother Joe’s brand of music gradually faded into history, a stately memento of a more sophisticated era.

The music Jimmy Liggins helped launch with storming records such as this on the other hand far outlasted them both.

Freedom doesn’t wait for long and once escaped it’s hard to lock it up again. You can’t stop it after all.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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