The Personal Find: Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk Parts 1 & 2"

Photo: Shaw Artists Corporation

A jump blues song that sold over a million copies was nowhere on my sonic horizon until I discovered it in a dusty box at the back of a thrift store.

An otherworld alien who came across what we call a 45rpm would, of course, not be considering just that one thing. They would be sifting through a whole pile of detritus.

That’s the way any one of us might find a 45rpm, a seven inch single, after digging through piles of clothes, toys, books, magazines, plates, knives and so on. The otherworld alien must begin with complete mystification, but even those of us who can comprehend a function might draw a blank at the artifact’s content.

If the writing (on the label) is in English, I'm much farther along than the hypothetical Martian. I also have my field of expertise, an uncompensated hobby; like the amateur sleuth or archeologist I pick apart the clues, everything from the logo, the label, the city of origin down to the song’s title and choice of font. I know it's a recording -- a polyvinyl seven inch 45rpm, an analog technology that can be listened to without the benefit of electricity (if need be).

But who was the original owner of this banged up artifact and how did it end up in this lost and found heap? The discarded 45 rpm is not as forsaken as the second hand photograph (a face, a person, with lost a name, a misplaced identity). The recovered 45rpm provides us, as a previously owned object, with a chance to wonder. We can connect the single to its era and genre, to the place we found it, and otherwise conjecture about all the disparate types and venues that jittered and shimmied, reveled or shed a tear under its influence.

I found Bill Doggett’s single, “Honky Tonk (Parts 1 and 2)” somewhere around 2003 in a one-off thrift store in Queens, New York City. I was killing some time before the PS1 art museum opened. The owner of the thrift store, a white middle-aged woman, had probably been born and bred in that neighborhood (she appeared “at home”). She treated me tersely, if not with actual disdain. It must have been obvious to her that I hadn’t grown up in that neighborhood. Perhaps she simply wanted me to spend more money. The store is probably long gone, bent under the usual economic constraints of gentrification and the insecure remuneration of that particular kind of retail.

45rpms weren’t exactly the store’s specialty. I found a small stack at the back of the store; their condition was far from pristine, but informed me of a certain time and place, a certain kind of collector, and what the hell, they were cheap. That’s how a song, a musician, an interesting linage will drop into my lap. The internet might have claims to the entire history of recorded music (even as it unfolds), but how else was I eventually going to find Bill Doggett except by picking up a compromised copy of his buried-under-the-pile hit?

I went on a couple of things: the label, King, out of Cincinnati, Ohio, distributor of (among others) James Brown, and the title “Honky Tonk”. That was all the information I needed (and a reasonable price). This particular 45rpm probably has less resale value than what I paid for it (though I have no precise recollection). It’s relative value, in terms of what I gleaned from it, might be priceless.

Doggett’s instrument of choice was the Hammond organ, and if we go by the date of his eponymously named trio (1951), he has a serious jump-start on Jimmy Smith’s commercial breakthrough with that instrument in the '60s. Doggett and Smith do share an instrumental mode that lent jazz some mainstream popularity, but we can split those two into their respective eras. Doggett lands on the cusp of jazz’s waning popular appeal (with the big band or “swing” era coming to a close) and its revamping into smaller combos that morphed, for one example, into jump blues. In fact, Doggett was at one time a member of Louis Jordan’s seminal jump blues ensemble.

The all-too-accepted history of American music posits jazz as withdrawing into the highbrow confines of Bop and every other esoteric pursuit that came after Charlie Parker’s musical break-through. But if we look at Louis Jordan’s biography we see he’s jazz and pop, not only landing in the marketable jump blues (Jordan was nicknamed “King of the Jukebox”) but also in the swing and jazz categories along with blues and R&B. Popular (or more properly recorded) music and its influences are much more impure or harder to separate than what becomes distilled in popular history. Jazz, as a frame of mind (let alone what the studio musicians are playing after completing their professional duties on the latest top ten hit) has never gone away, despite your individual preferences.

What makes for a hit, despite formulas being forced through the corporate grinder, can often be tossed off, unexpected, unforeseen. Doggett had released 25 singles on King Records when he hit upon the all-too-obvious shuffle of “Honky Tonk”, a hit song with the usual apocryphal background concerning its origins. On the one hand we hear Doggett was late for a recording date so the rest of the band pulled a three-chord warm-up out of thin air, or, on the other hand, the song was a riff that Doggett had already been running by enthusiastic live audiences. However it came about, and despite its relative simplicity (in terms of all the blues riffs that were bouncing around the airwaves) the song caught on in a big way, reaching #1 on the R&B charts and #3 on the Pop charts.

We can see that the song “crossed-over” (from the R&B to the Pop charts) so no wonder it ended up in a bric-a-brac shop in Queens. What might be considered curious is that a song that sold over a million copies was nowhere on my sonic horizon until I discovered it in that location. The song was released in 1956, and made serious inroads into the nascent white teenage rock 'n' roll market while still making it big with the African-American counterpart. After the song achieved its massive sales, Doggett was pitched on the rock 'n' roll circuit, but the band maintained its pedigree, i.e., “ ...we play jazz”.

Why this hybrid hit song caught on so massively is embedded in its actual sound, which deftly straddles all those named genres. The guitar line itself implies yet another category by evoking the hillbilly twang that King Records originally set out to cash in on (before turning to the lucrative R&B market). So it sounds familiar, but it's a familiarity that has been upgraded to a new kind of cool, something that many people would recognize at once while still letting it remain a personal declaration.

The song is a strut, a marching song for the laid-back, certainly danceable but far from frenetic, something that can be played to get the party going or settle it down once everyone is on the same inebriated wavelength. Its mainstream popularity is nevertheless inexplicable, perhaps analogous to the surprising popularity of Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 version of “Body and Soul”.

Though Doggett would certainly have loved to strike gold a second time, that magic spell was never quite repeated. It’s a formula that was only distilled (to that degree) once, but part of that recipe must include the specific ears that received it at the moment of its release. It’s telling that two ensembles that covered “Honky Tonk” are The Beach Boys (the whitest of white rock groups) and James Brown (the deepest black of R&B). I wonder what a Martian would make of that?

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