Born Joseph Christopher Liggins, 9 July 1916, Guthrie, Oklahoma
Died 31 July 1987, Los Angeles, California

Vocalist, pianist, R&B bandleader, songwriter, arranger.

When did I first hear the music of Joe Liggins? It must have been 1967, maybe 1968. I was a student at the University of Amsterdam. At that time you could still find lots of interesting American singles from the fifties and early 1960s in Amsterdam for very little money, especially at the daily flea market in Waterloo Square. There was no opportunity to hear them before buying, so you had to take a chance. Earlier purchases of Specialty singles (by artists then completely unknown to me, like Art Neville, Don and Dewey, Roddy Jackson) had turned out well, so when I found a copy of Specialty 338 ("The Honeydripper"/"I've Got A Right To Cry" by Joe Liggins), there was no hesitation. Wow, that sounded really old-fashioned, but good. Nice piano and sax. From the 1940s? I had no idea. Both songs had an unusual structure. A vocal record usually had an instrumental break halfway (at least in 50s rock 'n' roll), but these were basically instrumentals with a vocal break in the middle.

Born in Oklahoma in 1916, Joe Liggins moved to San Diego in 1932, where he studied music and arranging at the local State College. He began playing piano, trumpet and drums with various local bands in 1933. By 1939 he was ready to move up to Los Angeles and try his luck. One of his earliest bands there included future saxophone legend Illinois Jacquet. While working with Sammy Franklin's California Rhythm Rascals, Liggins wrote a tune called "The Honeydripper", which would become his signature song. Reluctance on Franklin's part to record "Honeydripper" caused Joe to form his own band, the Honeydrippers, in 1944. One of the two sax players was Willie Jackson, who would stay with Liggins for 43 years, right up to Joe's death.

The band were packing them in with "The Honeydripper" at the Samba Club in early 1945, when Leon Rene (owner of Exclusive Records) came to check out what all the fuss was about. He arrived early in the evening, but Liggins told him that if he wanted to hear "The Honeydripper", he would have to wait until 11:45, like every night. It was a long song, 15 minutes, and saved for the climax of the show, which had to end at midnight, as there was still a wartime curfew. Leon did wait and was treated to an evening's worth of Joe Liggins songs, which made him even more determined to record the band. "The Honeydripper" was cut down to six minutes, and divided over two sides of Joe's first release on Exclusive. It was a giant hit, reportedly selling 2 million copies, and topping the R&B charts for 18 weeks (still a record, jointly with Louis Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" from 1946). It also crossed over to the pop charts (# 13), as did the # 2 hit from 1946, "Got A Right To Cry" (# 12 pop). Other Liggins hits on Exclusive included "Left A Good Deal In Mobile" (# 2), "Tanya" (# 3), "Blow Mr. Jackson" (# 3), "Dripper's Blues" (# 9) and "Roll 'Em" (# 9), all between 1945 and 1948.

The success of "Honeydripper" put Joe on the road and for the next five years he was constantly touring. In 1949, Exclusive Records went bankrupt, due to bootlegging, the inability to adjust to the introduction of the 45 RPM record and other calamities. Art Rupe, the president of Specialty Records, wanted to buy Exclusive's masters of Joe's hits for reissue on Specialty. When he couldn't come to terms with the creditor's committtee, Rupe signed Liggins to Specialty (Joe's younger brother Jimmy was already contracted to the label) and had him rerecord several of his Exclusive tracks. In my opinion, the Specialty remakes of "The Honeydripper" and "I've Got A Right To Cry" are superior to the original versions and the condensed 1950 arrangement of "Honeydripper" is now the better known version. In 1950, Joe had two big hits, "Rag Mop" (# 4 R&B) and "Pink Champagne" (# 1 for 13 weeks, the biggest R&B record of 1950). Over the next three years, Joe continued to come up with good songs, good records and solid if unspectacular sellers. But he was unable to adapt to changing times. By 1954 his records sounded tame compared to the popular R&B hits of the day and Rupe dropped him. Subsequent recordings for Mercury, Aladdin, Vita and Dot went nowhere amidst the rock 'n' roll turmoil. Liggins returned to Mercury in 1962, where he cut an album of his old hits along with some new songs aimed at the twist market, alas to no avail. That was his last major label affiliation. Some scattered sides on obscure labels fill out the Joe Liggins discography. He kept his own Honeydrippers working right up until his death, at age 71, on July 31, 1987. The honey never stopped dripping.

Along with people like Louis Jordan, Roy Milton and T-Bone Walker, Joe Liggins was an important figure in the transformation of R&B from black ghetto music into good-time dance music that was acceptable for the white establishment. Among the artists to record versions of Joe's tunes are Cab Calloway, Roosevelt Sykes, Jimmie Lunceford, Ralph Flanagan, Lionel Hampton, King Curtis, Rusty Bryant, the Ravens, Erskine Hawkins, Don and Dewey, Oscar Peterson, Fats Domino and Dr. John.

More info :
and : Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, What was the first rock 'n' roll record? (1992), page 5-8.

CD's : Much of his Exclusive material is (was?) available on the CD "The Honeydripper" (Night Train International NTI 7031), released in 1995. 20 tracks.
The complete Specialty recordings have been reissued on two CD's in 1989 and 1992 : "Joe Liggins And His Honeydrippers" (USA Specialty SPCD 7006, UK Ace 307, 25 tracks) and "Joe Liggins, Vol. 2: Dripper's Boogie" (Specialty SPCD 7025-2, UK Ace 436). 20 tracks).
There are also four CD's on Classics, "The Chronological Joe Liggins" (1944-1946, 1946-1948, 1948-1950 and 1950-1952), annotated by Dave Penny.

Acknowledgements : Billy Vera (liner notes for the two Specialty CD's),
Richie Benway (liner notes for the Night Train CD).

The Honeydripper (1983) :


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