Born Charles William Higgins, 17 April 1924, Gary, Indiana
Saxophonist / bandleader Chuck Higgins was born in Gary, IN, a town later to become world famous as the hometown of Michael Jackson and his numerous brothers and sisters. His first choice of instrument was the trumpet, which he took up at he age of ten and at which he became considerably more proficient than he ever did at playing the tenor saxophone.
In 1940, the Higgins family moved to Los Angeles, where Chuck attended the L.A. Music Conservatory. He hooked up with a quartet of musicians that included Frank Dunn on piano and sax player Johnny Parker. When Parker quit this band, Higgins took on the sax blasting duties himself and became the leader of the band, soon to be called the Mellotones. Chuck's composition "Pachuko Hop" became his first record, on Jake Porter's fledgling Combo label in 1952. It is the definitive Higgins instrumental and his biggest seller, but due to Combo's poor distribution, sales were limited to the West Coast and insufficient to dent the national charts. Many of Higgins' s recordings feature a vocal by varying members of his combo. This was also the case with the flip of "Pachuko Hop", which is a classic of early rock 'n' roll in itself. "Motorhead Baby" features the vocals of 17-year old John Jacob Watson Jr, who was still pounding the piano before taking up the instrument that would make Johnny "Guitar" Watson a household name. After switching from piano to guitar in 1953, Watson left the Mellotones, giving Frank Dunn the chance to rejoin the band. Of the eight singles that were released on Combo in 1952-53, the most interesting (IMO) were those featuring a vocal : "Motor Head Baby" and "Just Won't Treat Me Right" by John Watson, "Big Fat Mama" and "Real Gone Hound Dog" by Daddy Cleanhead (Chuck's older brother Fred Higgins). In 1953, the combo switched to Aladdin, where they had three singles released (3215, 3224, 3283), and then, in 1954, to Art Rupe's Specialty label. Fourteen titles were recorded during three sessions (most of them with vocals by Daddy Cleanhead), eight of which were originally issued, on four singles (532, 533, 539, 541). Art Rupe was a perfectionist and replaced some of Higgins' band members in the studio by up-and-coming session pros such as H.B. Barnum and Jimmy Nolen.
My own favourite from the Specialty recordings is the instrumental "Special Tea" (!), which remained in the can until 1992. An earlier, inferior recording of this song was issued by Jake Porter in 1954, under the title "Blue Sax" (Combo 67), after Higgins had already left the label.
In 1955-56, the Higgins combo recorded for Dootsie Williams's Dootone label. The second Dootone single, "Wetback Hop", became the subject of controversy because of the use of the derogatory term for Mexicans in the title. It was an attempt to associate the listener with the earlier success of "Pachuko Hop", which refers to Mexican zoot suiters of the 1940s. After a few sessions for various small labels in 1956, Higgins returned to Combo in 1957 with a mixed-race band that included future Canned Heat member Henry Vestine. "Long Long Time" (Combo 144, 1957) is a fine bluesy recording, featuring Frank Dunn on vocals. There were no Higgins releases until 1962, the year in which he reunited with Jake Porter for the opportunist "Pachuko Hop Twist" (Combo 170).
Chuck temporarily retired from performing and became a music teacher at various L.A. high schools. For the last 20 years of his life he was a professor of music at UCLA, a job which he combined with a 1970s comeback as a honking saxblaster. In that decade, he had two LP releases (and one single, "Too Smart") on Ronnie Weiser's Rollin' Rock label. The second of these (1979) was called: "Chuck Higgins Is A PHD", PHD here standing for "Pretty Heavy Dude". In August 1983, Higgins was part of Ace's "1950s R&B Jamboree", in the company of LA contemporaries Young Jessie, Willie Egan and fellow honker Big Jay McNeely. This was a great success and Higgins was finally discovered by European R&B fans, as his Combo recordings were released on an Ace LP. He died of lung cancer in 1999, leaving behind an estimable body of work, even though he never scored a national hit.
CD's : - Chuck Higgins Blows His Wig! (Ace CDCHD 1102, 2006). 24 Combo recordings. Annotated by Tony Rounce.
Acknowledgements : Liner notes for the three CD's mentioned above.
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