Born James L. Elliott, 14 October 1918, Earlsboro, Oklahoma
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, bandleader.
The R&B music of Jimmy Liggins is quite different from that of his brother Joe Liggins, who had greater commercial success. Joe, the elder, wrote and recorded music that was refined, that of a schooled musician, while Jimmy’s was more primitive and aggressive. Both men made exciting, danceable music which was very popular in its time - the heyday of urban jump blues, that important link between swing and rock ’n’ roll. There were other differences : Joe was a solid, steady type (his alto/baritone sax player, Little Willie Jackson, stayed with him for over forty years), while Jimmy had three complete changes of personnel in a mere four years.
The son of Harriett and Elijah Elliott, Jimmy was born in Newby, Oklahoma. As a child he adopted the surname of his stepfather, a minister. The Liggins family moved to San Diego, California, in 1932. Jimmy fought under the name of Kid Zulu as a professional boxer before he started working as a driver for his brother Joe’s band, the Honeydrippers.
Seeing how much money Joe was making from his hit recordings “I’ve Got A Right To Cry” and “The Honeydripper” (both 1945), Jimmy taught himself to play guitar, formed his own band in 1946 and started writing songs. However, neither Joe nor his label, Exclusive, took an interest in his compositions. Jimmy then took his songs to Art Rupe at Specialty Records. Rupe sent him back three times for rewrites, but the results were well worth the work and Liggins had no less than six sessions for Specialty during the last four months of 1947. His first release was “I Can’t Stop It”, soon followed by “Cadillac Boogie”, which became the blueprint for Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” (1951), which is often cited as the first rock ’n’ roll record. However, it was the other side, “Teardrop Blues” (Specialty 521), that gave Liggins his first chart entry, in the summer of 1948, peaking at # 7 on the R&B charts. Two further hits followed in 1949 : “Careful Love” (# 15) and “Don’t Put Me Down” (# 9). Among the session musicians on these early recordings were some prominent sax players : Charlie “Little Jazz” Ferguson (later leader of the 5 Royales), Maxwell Davis and future modern jazz star Harold Land. Liggins patterned his band after his brother Joe’s Honeydrippers and called them the Drops of Joy.
In spite of the success of his records, misfortune hounded Jimmy, in the form of bad bookings, cancelled engagements and union problems. On April Fool’s Day 1949, Liggins was accidentally shot in the mouth during a fracas at an engagement in Jackson, Mississippi. Considering the gravity of his wounds, it was a miracle that he survived, but he was unable to record for more than a year.
Jimmy was instrumental in bringing his brother Joe to Specialty in 1950. Joe Liggins scored four Top 10 R&B hits in 1950-51. Jimmy Liggins had his biggest hit (also his last chart entry) in 1953 with “Drunk” (Specialty 470), credited to “Jimmy Liggins and his 3-D Music”. His voice was overdubbed on the original take to create a “3-D” effect. Shortly thereafter, he left Specialty and did one session for Aladdin on June 29, 1954. This resulted in two fine singles : “I Ain’t Drunk” (a kind of answer to “Drunk”, later covered by Albert Collins) and “Boogie Woogie King”, but his chart success was over.
After Aladdin showed no further interest in recording him, Liggins began to fade from the scene. He started his own management agency and in 1958 also his own record label, Duplex Records. His Duplex recordings, most of which were made in 1959 and 1960, are generally considered sub-standard. The label survived until 1978, without any hits, financed from a diverse musical business, ranging from teach-yourself-piano charts to record distribution. Jimmy Liggins died a forgotten man in July 1983, at the age of 64 in Durham, North Carolina. More recently he has been recognized as one of rock’s forefathers. His wild stage presence and manic delivery influenced Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.
More info :
Partial discography (1947-1954) : http://www.rocky-52.net/chanteursl/liggins_jimmy.htm
Acknowledgements : Billy Vera, Bill Dahl, Spontaneous Lunacy site.
Dik, December 2017
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