Tags

No tags :(

Share it

SPECIALTY 521; JANUARY, 1948

 
 

 

Jimmy Liggins’ rapid ascent to stardom after starting out as a driver for his older brother Joe, a major star in his own right in the pre-rock black music market, was either completely improbable or not at all surprising… depending on your view on the likelihood of families sharing musical DNA.

Unlike Joe who was a college educated musician Jimmy had shown no prior musical aptitude OR interest and only after chauffeuring his big brother did he get the bug to play music himself, although it might just have been his distaste for being at his sibling’s beck and call that steered him into a new line of work.

Yet once he picked up a guitar the transformation was decidedly quick as he taught himself to play, then began to write songs and finally put together arguably the finest band of rock’s first year, an eight piece outfit featuring two of the hottest tenor sax stalwarts of the era and a rhythm section that understood their job for the most part was to create actual rhythms.

Liggins signed with Specialty Records and promptly scored hit after hit after hit, helping to define rock’s early style as something impatient and exciting.

This, his biggest hit of that period, was actually anything but inpatient or exciting and as such it may barely qualify as rock… depending on your view of a single artist’s songs sharing musical DNA.
 

 

News From You Would Make Me Glad
To be honest this was one we steadfastly avoided reviewing the first time around, despite it being Liggins’ first national hit (the others were regional hits in Cash Box magazine, though that was arguably the more accurate measurement than Billboard’s national charts that surveyed more well-to-do locales than rock first found favor in).

The reason for our hesitancy to feature this was because stylistically it was much further away from the core of rock ‘n’ roll than the vastly superior top-side and if this blog is telling the history of rock ‘n’ roll then it stands to reason we’d want to focus more on the songs that made it the cultural barometer that it quickly became in the late 1940’s.

But sidestepping an actual hit of an artist who had a really good career which has largely been forgotten in the years since really wasn’t fair to Jimmy Liggins and certainly doesn’t help his legacy any if no mention of this song can be found in a website devoting quite a lot of space to his records.

Furthermore his mere presence in rock ‘n’ roll was something to celebrate for the simple reason that if Liggins was going to take a stab at a music career in the mid-to-late 1940’s his decision to go into rock ‘n’ roll, a style that was just starting out with absolutely no track record to make it an appealing destination, when he probably could’ve drawn immediate notice had he stuck to the more refined template his older brother had helped to lay down and which was still widely popular, meant that aside from just being obstinate and a typically headstrong younger sibling Jimmy Liggins was following his OWN musical instincts, not following someone else’s, blood relative or not.

How can we not commend that audacity, a character trait that would define rock artists for eternity, by giving some space to the record which spread his name the farthest at the time? So even though Tear Drop Blues was hardly the most cutting edge thing he laid down at his first few sessions, it wasn’t SO far removed from the stuff that was more ahead of the curve to be excluded from discussion altogether.

So in that spirit we’re circling back to make amends and present the fuller picture of Jimmy Liggins’ transformation from lackey to headlining star.
 


 
 

Deep Down In My Heart I’m Sad
We’ll cut to the chase for once and get right to the review, saving us both some time in the process, though we’ll start by saying that our ongoing reluctance to include this song centered largely on what it was NOT.

Namely, it wasn’t the unhinged joy of I Can’t Stop It or even more presciently it wasn’t the culturally transformative Cadillac Boogie which adorned the top side of this single. The fact that today’s cut was chosen as the B-side would seem to confirm that everybody was in agreement that it wasn’t this one, but rather the song that tied automobiles to a upward mobility in the black community that was the most promising selection they had from among the dozen or so tracks they’d cut at the tail end of 1947 to beat the recording ban.

If anything this shows that they all probably considered Tear Drop Blues as something of a throwaway for the simple fact that if it was deemed to have significant promise on its own they’d have held it back for later release as an A-side, since none of them knew how long this moratorium on cutting sessions would last, so why waste a potential hit on the B-side of the very first release of the new year?

Surely when this turned out to be the one credited as the national hit they all probably claimed they knew it was going to be big all along but if they DID have even the slightest inkling maybe they could tell US why, because there’s little question this is second rate Jimmy Liggins based on what we’ve encountered to date.

For one thing it’s much slower than his best work so far and while we’re strong advocates for mixing tempos up from one side of a single to another, the problem is Liggins’ voice can’t quite handle to demands of a pure ballad, making this sort of a compromised effort on his part.

Obviously the theme of a song called Tear Drop Blues has him dealing with sorrow and he comes out of the gate telling us that he’s sad because he and his girlfriend are apart, but he sure doesn’t sound it. Not that he sounds excited mind you, but his vocals don’t seem to have another tone to them than what he delivers on the uptempo sides. The pace slows maybe, though even this is more because he uses a more deliberate start-stop pattern to draw out the refrains, but otherwise he seems like the exact same guy who was overjoyed about the quality of life he was leading prior to this.

Therein lies Liggins’ eternal weakness. He was a decidedly limited vocalist, in part because he voice was lodged in his nose which has a tendency to make everything sound as if he was battling a stubborn winter cold. Though his lyrics are usually quite good, sometimes even great, his delivery winds up masking their charm a lot of the time because his voice doesn’t do justice to the sentiments. On the faster paced numbers the band more than atoned for this by ramping up their playing, but when they had to slow things down it focused more attention on Jimmy and he can’t quite make up the difference.
 


 

You’re So Far Away
As for the band they’re certainly capable of putting the right spin on a downhearted song but they seem to know Liggins’s weaknesses as well as we do and are therefore trying to compensate for him by injecting a little too much verve in their riffs. It’s not overwhelming but the saxophones especially, played by Charlie “Little Jazz” Ferguson and Harold Land, are both too spry playing the fills in the verses.

Whoever takes the solo downshifts enough to put it back in line with the downcast mood but the problem is it’s not a very melodic solo and therefore not very compelling. The piano is doing its job, hammering away on the treble keys to simulate the tear drops in the title, but the song lurches more than moans and as a result you’re more impatient than invested, which is never a good thing on a song trying to get you to have a stake in the plot’s outcome.

That said, Tear Drop Blues is hardly a bad record, even if it’s far from his best. The other horns have the right idea at times, gently swaying to mimic sympathy and Eugene Watson keeps busy on the piano, adding more than enough color to draw your interest yet not distract you entirely from the rest of the production.

As for the topic itself it’s hardly anything really inventive – I mean, how many singers find their girl straying from them? A few dozen a week it seems, and here I thought most guys went into singing in the first place in order to GET girls, not lose them! But even with the well-worn subject matter Liggins paints a fairly effective picture of his problem.

Even his singing, the weak point of the record, is only singled out for that dubious distinction because of how it doesn’t convey his sadness properly rather than any real flaws in his projection (outside of the normal ones that is). In fact he breaks out a very nice held note late in the game on the word ”cryyyyyyyying” which might be the best word he’s sung to date, almost as if his voice somehow wound up in his throat by happy accident before returning to its usual home in his nostrils.

I guess you can be justified saying that everybody does their job here with reasonable efficiency, nothing more, nothing less, making it the perfect B-side to a perfect A-side (just so there’s absolutely no confusion, the two uses of “perfect” in that sentence have decidedly different contextual meanings!). The only fault in their pairing these two songs came when you the audience – or rather your surrogates in this story, meaning your grandparents generation – flipped for THIS song instead of the one that deserved it.
 

Until You Come Back Home
Though we’re happy whenever a rock artist finds success at a time when the music was still struggling to get noticed by the wider music community, the unfortunate aspect of this particular song becoming the biggest hit Liggins had in the 1940’s was that it encouraged him to pursue this same path again at the expense of his more adventurous sides, even cutting a sequel to it down the road with the inventive title of Answer To Tear Drop Blues (apparently they figured they might as well not try and disguise how shallow and crass they were being by coming up with a title that didn’t insult your intelligence).

Of course he didn’t completely abandon, or even cut back on, the more rockin’ material, but now the focus of Specialty Records was in trying to capture the same audience with similar ploys and considering Liggins already had a major problem in coming up with new melodies and deliveries as it was, the fact he was now getting the officially sanctioned go-ahead to mine this same territory again was playing with fire.
 


 

But all that being said, since Jimmy Liggins has had comparatively little in the way of long term recognition for any of his achievements, this included, I suppose we can’t begrudge him his success for Tear Drop Blues. But if there was a God in the heavens and that God was just, then it wouldn’t have been the B-side of Specialty 521 that made the noise on the charts at the time and then maybe his ensuing story would’ve followed a slightly different path and the name Jimmy Liggins might not be so modernly unfamiliar.

Then again it’s not as if those in the Twenty-First Century are still talking about Roy Brown who had plenty of hits that were worthy of actually being hits and who invented rock ‘n’ roll itself in the first place, so I guess by this point it doesn’t really matter which side hit if Liggins’ ultimate fate was to be forgotten anyway.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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