Born William Ballard Doggett, 16 February 1916, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Pianist, organist, bandleader, songwriter.
Though he was a very prolific recording artist, nowadays Bill Doggett is remembered almost exclusively for his smash hit "Honky Tonk". Having listened to a lot of his music on Spotify and YouTube, I can understand why. Most of it is formulaic dance music or forgettable cocktail jazz. Compiling even a short list of YouTube recommendations wasn't easy. But even if he had never recorded anything else than "Honky Tonk", Doggett would still be deserving of a place in this feature.
Bill Doggett became famous as an organist, but he started out on the piano. His mother, a church pianist, introduced him to the instrument when he was nine. While still in high school, he performed with the Jimmy Gorman Band, the pit orchestra at the Nixon Grand Theater in his native Philadelphia. Bill assumed leadership of the group in 1938, but his first major exposure came when he joined Lucky Millinder's band in 1940. Two years later Doggett joined the popular vocal group the Ink Spots as pianist and arranger. He was also an active session musician, working with Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes (that's Doggett's band on "Be Baba Leba"), Wynonie Harris, Johnny Otis and Ella Fitzgerald among others.
In 1949, Doggett joined Louis Jordan's Tympany Five, then the most popular act in black music. He replaced pianist Wild Bill Davis, who had left Jordan to pursue a solo career on Hammond organ. Inspired by Davis's heavy, jumping style on organ, Doggett also quit Jordan (in 1951) to work under his own name. He began experimenting with a Hammond B-3 organ and was soon leading an organ-guitar-drums trio in New York clubs.
Henry Glover signed Doggett to King Records and produced his first session on January 19, 1952. This resulted in the two-part single "Big Dog" (King 4530) and two other titles. Doggett had not yet found the sound that would make him famous. The sales of his early records weren't what he wanted and he decided to change his basic trio format. He added a sax player (first Percy France, from 1955 Clifford Scott) and recruited a new guitarist, Billy Butler, a Philadelphia session musician. Technically, Doggett was not a great organist, but when it came to setting a danceable groove, he was superb. He soloed on occasions, but mainly concentrated on the rhythm and the groove and left the heavy lifting for Clifford Scott and Billy Butler. Doggett, Scott and Butler made a formidable trio. Add drummer Berisford 'Shep' Shepherd and bass player Carl Pruitt or Edwyn Conley, and it was among the best R&B bands of the decade.
King had already released 24 non-charting singles by Doggett when his chart luck finally changed, and in a big way too. "Honky Tonk (Parts 1 & 2)" is one of the all-time great R&B and rock instrumentals. It topped the R&B charts for 13 weeks, also reached # 2 on the pop charts and sold a staggering 1.5 million copies by the end of 1956. For the most part, "Honky Tonk" was improvised during a Sunday-night dance in Lima, Ohio. Audience reaction was such that Doggett's band had to do the new song at least nine times again. Doggett knew he had a smash and recorded the song in New York on June 16, 1956 (in one take, according to Bill himself). With a duration of 5 minutes and 22 seconds, the song had to be divided between the two sides. Part 1 is dominated by Billy Butler's guitar and side 2 by Clifford Scott's saxophone.
In general, "Honky Tonk" is not regarded as the beginning of instrumental rock n roll as a genre of its own, as it was more R&B than R&R. It was Bill Justis's "Raunchy", one year later, that really set the instrumental ball rolling.
"Honky Tonk" was followed in the charts by a Doggett cover of "Slow Walk" (# 4 R&B, # 26 pop), though the original by Sil Austin was a slightly bigger hit. Other chart entries included "Ram Bunk Shush" (# 10 R&B, # 67 pop, 1957), ""Soft" (# 35 pop, 1957), "Leaps and Bounds" (# 13 R&B, 1958), "Hold It" (# 3 R&B, # 92 pop, 1958) and "Rainbow Riot" (# 15 R&B, 1959). A reissue of "Honky Tonk, Part 2" in 1961 was his chart swan song (# 57 pop). When it came time to negotiate a new recording contract in 1960, Doggett asked for a modest increase in his royalty rate, mindful of the millions of dollars he had made for King over the past four years. King boss Syd Nathan turned him down flat. Angry and hurt, Doggett left for Warner Bros, where he had only one minor pop hit, "The Hully Gully Twist" (# 66, early 1961).
King milked the Doggett catalogue for all it was worth and continued to put out product from their vaults (sometimes overdubbed) until 1964. Altogether there were 66 (!) King singles under Doggett's name between 1952 and 1964 and 23 albums.
Bill Doggett never had another record as big as "Honky Tonk", but he did all right. After Warner Bros, he recorded for Columbia, ABC, Sue and Roulette. And there was always the road, always a crowd of people somewhere who wanted the dance the night away to the familiar sound of "Honky Tonk". Doggett worked steadily until shortly before his death in 1996. He died of a heart attack at Lennox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, at the age of eighty.
More info :
CD : Honky Tonk : The Very Best Of Bill Doggett (Collectables, 2004). 25 King tracks. The best choice for rock n roll fans.
Acknowledgements : Jon Hartley Fox (book "King Of the Queen City : The Story Of King Records), Steve Barrow, John Broven.
Dik, November 2013
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