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SPECIALTY 523; MARCH, 1948

 
 

 

In life we are all defined by our strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. A person is a combination of characteristics, some good, some bad, the best of which are often negated by the worst.

A gracious host who is an inconsiderate guest… a quick wit who has thin skin when the tables are turned… or, as in this case, a talented musical artist who crafts really good songs with strong themes yet seems completely unable to change the structure of those songs or his delivery no matter what.

In the end Jimmy Liggins will be defined by both of those traits, his best instincts and his worst habits, which oftentimes come wrapped in the same exact package.
 

 

Tomorrow’s Forecast
Because Jimmy Liggins hadn’t set out to be a musician in life and only came to the decision to switch careers after boxing and being his brother’s chauffeur each required dealing with too many gut punches, either actual or psychic, his learning curve had to be accelerated. This fast-track method of learning an instrument – the guitar in his case – and the songwriting craft, plus honing his own vocal delivery as well as putting together and leading a band and dealing with contracts, both recording deals and road gigs with unscrupulous promoters, was a lot to absorb in a year or two.

That’s not to say any of those individual things were easier to pick up for those who devoted more time to the job than Liggins, but the difference is they could progress from one task to the next in due time. For most who dreamed of a career in music your younger years would not be spent learning how to tour for instance, but rather that’s when you’d spend your time learning chords on the guitar and how to sing and play at the same time. Then after exhausting the repertoire of songs you’d heard others do, you’d probably start to write your own tunes, most of which would be pretty bad at first before you got the knack of how to do it and began to polish your craft.

Only then would you be prepared to look for work which at that point would probably consist of a few local jobs for small audiences at rundown locales that paid little but offered plenty in the way of experience. Then after having navigated those early career ups and downs that are a right of passage for almost every artist in history you’d finally be ready for the big time, signing a contract, getting used to the studio experience and then hitting the road to promote your records.

Total estimated time for all of this: Five to seven years.

Jimmy Liggins however learned all of that in one crash course spanning perhaps five to seven months, maybe a year or so, but not much more than that by all accounts, and yet the amazing thing is he managed to learn a lot of it really well, such as selecting topics to write about and using some vivid imagery to get the stories across.

His time spent driving Joe around, who was a major star don’t forget, might’ve given him enough insight to handle tours and leading a band (and Jimmy’s band was first rate) and possibly even pick up some helpful pointers on the recording process and dealing with contracts (though he was in constant battle reportedly with his agent and tour manager), all of which put him ahead of the game when he became a professional himself.

But it’s the first things that most kids learn when starting out – how to craft different sounding songs that enable you to vary your vocal delivery – that Liggins seemed to never fully grasp and his failure in that regard winds up undercutting what was otherwise shaping up to be a terrific career.
 

Pour Down Like Rain
You’d think maybe that using the term “failure” to describe a vital aspect of an artist’s style would be sufficient reason to dismiss that artist out of hand, or to at least cast doubt as to the validty of their other talents, but keep in mind that all failure is relative.

Yes, the song structure and vocal mannerisms Liggins lugged from one record to the next like a hobo toting a overstuffed duffle bag on every train he hopped, could get tiresome when listening to them one after another. But that’s why Greatest Hits albums for Liggins are best sampled judiciously, playing them on shuffle as you’d have heard them at the time with one of his songs appearing in the midst of a three dozen other songs by sixteen or twenty different artists.

Then a lot of what Liggins did so well stands out a lot easier. But when heard back to back, or taking a single song and listening to it continuously on repeat to analyze it, then the flaws begin to show.

The better aspects however stand out regardless of the method used to listen and Rough Weather Blues is no exception.

The songwriting itself is stellar. Its themes, its lyrics, its use of analogies and imagery and the progression of ideas it presents are all first rate.

Of course using weather as euphemisms for moods – sunny days, clouds, storms – isn’t anything new in music obviously, but Liggins doesn’t try pretend he’s being clever by applying them here. He not only acknowledges their presence outright but he makes the entire song revolve around them as the narrator himself is dispensing advice USING those euphemisms to make each point.

Yet instead of merely making the obvious choices like “the sun will come out tomorrow” or “into each life some rain must fall” – you know the type, the inspirational poster come to life and being sung with false earnestness – he comes up with ones far more involved that get you to really consider their meanings as they unfold, anticipating where he’s taking them and then seeing how well they apply to the situation he’s describing.

It’s an overworked trend in fawning music criticism to call lyrics poetry – and for the record these are way too morose to call that comparison to mind at first glance – but nevertheless there’s remarkable care in the words he chooses to make his points that still manage to fit perfectly within the form as well as to a story that advances those points as it goes. For someone who once had his personal letters in the Specialty Records files critiqued as making him appear “semi-literate” (by someone praising him, let it be said), Liggins shows that when it came to songs he more than understood how to best use language to give deeper meanings to the subjects he tackled.

Which is why as great as they are it’s almost a shame that they also have to be sung by Jimmy Liggins who once again finds coming up with melodic variations in his delivery to be an almost insurmountable obstacle.
 

Can You Weather The Storm?
Though Liggins has two speeds at which his songs travel, they take the exact same route to get to their destinations. Think of it as a two lane highway, sometimes he’s in the left (faster) lane, sometimes he’s in the right lane easing off on the gas pedal, but the road itself doesn’t change, the scenery doesn’t change, the twists and turns don’t change.

Every song when broken down melodically is using the same road-map.

This is exacerbated by his vocal tics and the limitations of his exceedingly nasal baritone. He’s incapable of adding much nuance to any line other than softening his tone to suggest a little more reflection at the end of certain lines. Beyond that though he’s forced to let the lyrics do all of the heavy lifting and while they do just that, it’d be easy to imagine a more gifted singer turning this into a tour de force, but sadly that type of performance will never be in Jimmy Liggins’ wildest dreams. He is what he is and that’s good enough to work on most songs, but it can never truly elevate them much.

That’s where the great band he has needs to step things up, masking his weak spots to a degree, yet with this one they let Liggins down ever so much.

Part of this of course is the fault of Liggins the songwriter who sticks to the same basic melody and we can be grateful for the different elements that the band brings to each rendition, but there are only so many ways to skin a cat or deliver a song and with their options running low they choose Rough Weather Blues to dial things down.
 


 

Of course a fairly morose song is going to have less chance for dynamic interplay between instruments, but while the reliance on group horns delivering a mournful refrain interspersed with a few treble key interjections on the piano works alright for the theme, they still had a few additional choices they could’ve made to give Rough Weather Blues more distinction.

For one thing the drummer is awful quiet, lightly keeping the beat without adding anything atmospheric. Now I doubt they had a full array of exotic instruments at their disposal, but this song cries out for a tympani to add the shimmering distant thunder effect that would’ve tied it into the theme. Nothing too elaborate and not something you’d want to overdo, but two or three timely rolls on one of those would’ve added considerably to the effect the lyrics were conjuring up. If one wasn’t available a piece of sheet metal can be used in a pinch and that’s only as far away as the nearest hardware store.

Then there’s the little matter of Liggins’ guitar, which is once again either absent or inaudible. Rumor has it he was fairly good on it and he played it in concert all the time, even letting the horns sit certain songs out so he could go to work on it and give them a breather. But on record at this point he wasn’t called on to actually play it and its presence, even just a judicious solo or a few fills in between verses, would’ve given the record a much different feel than his past efforts and allowed it to seem different even if the majority of the arrangement was the same.

The horns DO get a second more lively riff to work on along the way which helps break up the tempo it had been riding prior to that but the solo, carried by a distant trumpet, is hardly adding anything too interesting on its own.

Essentially it’s a modest by-the-numbers approach by a group that was much better than they were allowed to show with these repetitive works, though another – more critical – way to look at it is if they WERE so good (and their later work away from Liggins would confirm they were) why didn’t they step in and make suggestions to change up the melodies or shake up the arrangements?

As good as Liggins and the band are on so many things, there’s always the sense they could be even better just by adapting a more ambitious outlook.
 


 

Like The Sound Of Many Waters
So the end result – to use weather related terminology – is the forecast calls for lingering clouds on an otherwise balmy day with comfortable temperatures, little wind and no precipitation in the area. But the bright sunshine you were hoping for will only peak through those clouds intermittently throughout the day.

You can still be outside and not have to worry about needing a jacket or umbrella, but forget about laying on the beach or picnicking in the park.

Rough Weather Blues gives us the best of Jimmy Liggins – the songwriter – and if not the worst of him, at least the part that most frequently lets us down with another song revisiting past sights on the trip.

What started out as maybe the most promising career of all rookie artists in the first few months of the rock era, from Roy Brown on down, was now shaping up to be one that would still provide plenty of highlights but more frustration than was advisable for someone hoping to be a star rather than merely a consistent presence on the scene.

Though the final tally of everybody’s value in this world takes into account their best and worst attributes, with most artists they keep those separate enough that looking back we can appreciate their best sides while overlooking or setting aside their worst. That may not always be the right thing to do, this selective rose-colored view we choose to have, but as evidenced by the struggles in reconciling the two sides of Jimmy Liggins which remain forever intertwined, we can better understand why that division is so necessary.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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