Joe Liggins-The Honeydripper ©1999JCMarion


Joe Liggins was born in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and before he turned twenty was an accomplished piano player and musical arranger. He moved to Los Angeles in 1939 and played with various outfits, including Sammy Franklin's orchestra. When Franklin did not think much of Liggins's rolling boogie tune "The Honeydripper," Liggins put together his own combo and recorded the tune for Leon Rene's Exclusive label. The result on Exclusive #207 (parts one and two) was a huge hit for Liggins. The next release for the Exclusive label was also a big R & B hit called "I've Got A Right To Cry" on #210. After that one-two punch the door was open for the Liggins unit (now called Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers) to join the first rank of R & B performers. The wonderfully named "Harlemesque" and "I Know My Love Is True" followed on #212.

In 1947 Liggins and his band recorded many great tunes for the Exclusive label and became a mainstay of the Los Angeles R & B circuit centered around Central Avenue. "Caravan" appeared on #216, The two part "Dripper's Boogie" on #232, "Yvette" on #238, and "Blow Mister Jackson" on #244. In 1948 the output continued with "Think Of Me" and "Little Willie" on #252, "Groovy Groove / "Apple Of My Eye" on #267, and "Dripper's Blues" and the old standard "Sweet Georgia Brown" on #271. Into 1949 the musical partnership began to unravel as Leon Rene was having financial difficulty keeping the label going. There were two last recordings for the Exclusive label by Joe Liggins that year - #1359 - "Big baritone" and "Miss You" and #1455 - "Fascination" and the old chestnut "I Cover The Waterfront". By the end of 1949 Exclusive was finished and Liggins looked around for a new recording home. He didn't have to look far as Art Rupe of Specialty signed Joe who joined his brother Jimmy and his band at that label.

1950 began as Rupe was in negotiations with Leon Rene for the purpose of purchasing the Exclusive masters many of them featuring Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers. Specialty records #350 is Liggins R & B version of the pop and country hit song "Rag Mop" and it is a good debut for Liggins as the record is a hit seller. His arrangement of the song is covered by Lionel Hampton for Decca. Joe Liggins and his band play a number of "Rag Mop" dances in L.A. In March the second release on Specialty, #355 by Joe Liggins hits the street and again it is a big seller. "Pink Champagne" and "Sentimental Love" in fact are a huge hit across the country, almost as big as "The Honeydripper". The band now features James Jackson Jr. and Willis Jackson on tenors and drummer Peppy Prince. Liggins and his band are set for a three month tour of the South with Camille Howard & Her Trio, Little Willie Littlefield, and Jimmy Witherspoon. Liggins drummer Peppy Prince steps out with his own group The Sugarmen and records "Sugar Man" (parts one and two) for Selective Records. Maxwell Davis, ace session tenor sax player sits in on a recording session for Specialty. Art Rupe decodes to have Liggins re-record his two biggest hits of the mid forties, "The Honeydripper" and "I've Got A Right To Cry" on Specialty #338. The huge hit record of "Pink Champagne" results in the record being heavily bootlegged in Los Angeles. July finds the Liggins unit in Chicago at The Pershing Ballroom. In August the rollicking two parter "Rhythm In The Barnyard" is released on #368. Liggins makes his first appearance in L.A. since "Pink Champagne" became a national hit. He is teamed with Amos Milburn at a show hosted by dj George Oxford in Oakland that draws more than six thousand plus many more turned away. After a Southern tour to promote his latest recordings, Liggins hits the Big Apple and plays a week at the Apollo Theater. He goes back to the coast to end the year and Specialty releases #379 - "Little Joe's Boogie" and "Daddy On My Mind" with vocal by Candy Rivers, his first record on 45rpm.

The first record of the new year is #392 - "Frankie Lee" and "I Just Can't Help Myself". Liggins and the band play a number of clubs in the L.A. area such as the Avodon Ballroom and the Basket Room. The recording of "Pink Champagne" is named one of the ten top selling R & B records during the year of 1950. As a reward of sorts, Art Rupe signs Liggins to a new three year contract at Specialty. On #394 "This One's For Me" and "Bob Is My Guy" with vocals by Candy Rivers, an ex-gospel singer from Indianapolis, Indiana, and also a new signee to the Specialty label. Specialty decides to issue competing versions of the song "That's The One For Me" - one by Joe Liggins and one by Roy Milton. In April "Whiskey Gin And Wine" is coupled with another Candy Rivers vocal on a cover of the pop tune "One Sweet Letter". The first all-Black radio network show goes into production for Mutual in May and will feature Joe Liggins and his Honeydrippers. Liggins appears at the annual Cavalcade of Jazz outdoors at Wrigley Field and joins Roy Brown, Percy Mayfield, Wynonie Harris, and Jimmy Witherspoon. Liggins plans to record "Phillips Sent Me" a tribute tune for Memphis dj Dewey Phillips on WHBQ. "Louisiana Woman" and "Trying To Lose The Blues" is released in August on #409. Joe kicks off a big Midwestern tour in Cincinnati in September and a month later Specialty #413 is out with "So All Alone" and "I Miss You". At years end Liggins and crew appear at the annual Christmas benefit show at the Lincoln Theater in downtown L.A.

Joe Liggins opens up 1952 with a big show with Big Jay McNeely at the Orpheum Theater in L.A. "Boogie Woogie Lou" and "Rain Rain Rain" are paired on Specialty #426. In April Liggins gets a hit record with "Tanya" on #430. The flip side is a re-recording of an earlier tune called "Dripper's Boogie". In October "Crying Over You" and "Going Back To New Orleans" are out on #441. Liggins and band do good business in December in St. Louis and Kansas City. In January of 1953 Liggins follows up his last hit with "Blues For Tanya" on #453. The flip side is "Freight Train Blues". The Liggins unit proves a good draw during a series of shows in Denver at the Rainbow Ballroom. In June "Just Plain Blues" and "Farewell Blues" are released on #465. In the fall "The Big Dipper" and "Everybody's Down On Me" appear on #474.

Back in his adopted home of Los Angeles in January of 1954, Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers appear at a number of shows at the Elks Hall in Long Beach with vocalist Ernie Andrews. The band is also a success the next month at the Club Alimony. In March, Joe and his band take part in a benefit show held at the Club 5-4 in L.A. for the wife of jazzman Stan Getz. In April #492 - "Make Love To Me" and "Tears On My Pillow" is released. During the July 4th weekend Newark, New Jersey R & B station WNJR holds an all star show and picnic, a most unique event. With Liggins are Roy Hamilton, The Orioles, Big Maybelle, Larry Darnell, Bull Moose Jackson, Varetta Dillard, Nappy Brown, The Dreams, Luther Bond, and The Orchids. (tickets are $1.50 !) Specialty #529 features "Whiskey, Women, And Loaded Dice" / " Do You Love Me Pretty Baby". It does next to nothing as the rock and roll age is upon us, and Specialty realizes the appeal of Joe Liggins to record buyers is fading fast and so drops Liggins from its roster. Liggins soon signs with Mercury which is trying to get in on the ground floor of the rock and roll revolution that is coming. The first release for their new label features Liggins and his band on "Yeah Yeah Yeah" and a cover of a pop hit for Vaughn Monroe-"They Were Doing The Mambo". Liggins plays the Green Mill ballroom in September as he struggles to keep as much of his audience as he can.

By now in 1955, Joe Liggins realizes what all the pioneer R & B performers see - the new rock and roll audience is a whole lot younger and they relate to the younger performers. By 1956 it is the music of teenage America and any of the older R & B performers that can still make it big in the music field are few and far between (Fats Domino and Ray Charles being notable exceptions). Mercury does little for Liggins since he signed on. In early 1956 they switch him to a subsidiary label Wing but he begs off and heads back to Southern California and records a single side for Aladdin "Justina" and "Go Ahead And Cry" on #3368. He then signs with Vita records with no results forthcoming, and in one last go around, Dot Records purchases the original Exclusive Records masters and releases "The Honeydripper" and "I've Got A Right To Cry" on #15522. By this time there is very little interest in the mid forties R & B as the music is dominated by Elvis, the rockabillies, and the doowop vocal groups.

By now Joe Liggins joins the other pioneers in realizing that after more than a decade as a top performer, innovator, and arranger, the next wave are taking over. The changes in the ten years or so have been astounding, and more are on the way. The bittersweet remainder is the fact that the majority of listeners and record buyers will never know about who came before and what standards they set, but without them none of the new generation of singers and musicians would know where to go, what to say, and how to play. Whether they know it or not or even care, the fact is they are and always will be, indebted.

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