This CD, covering the years 1954-56 and sessions for the Specialty and Money labels, is more R&B than jazz. Most of the cuts are vocal, and most qualify as jump blues or doo-wop; the liner notes even compare one track to the Clovers. So why is this reviewed here? Two reasons: the style of jump blues is a bridge between jazz and later R&B; you can hear both styles in these cuts. And because Chuck Higgins blows a gravelly tenor sax, a shouting style straight from the honkers and screamers of the ‘Forties. These cuts rock, in the ‘Fifties sense of the word, and those who like the jumpin’ jazz of the period will find much to admire here.
At the time these were cut, the music was changing, and Chuck did his best to keep up with it. The band is basically a small-group jazz unit; besides the leader, you get a perking baritone sax, at times a trombone, a smooth guitar, and rhythm. To this you add Chuck’s brother Fred (here billed as “Daddy Cleanhead”) and on many tracks what sounds like a doo-wop group. Most of the players are obscure, but guitarist Jimmy Nolen later played with James Brown, and pianist H.B. Barnum became a force in West Coast R&B, writing “Peanut Butter” for the Marathons.
The vocal numbers here go all over the place: smoothie love ballads (“Let Me Come Back Home”), and “naughty” tunes (“I Know What You’re Talking About” – I bet you can guess what.) There are jump blues (“Broke” and “Aw Aw Baby” – with a bank teller telling Chuck “I feel sorry for you, but your wife has just been in!”), and what can only be described as jump novelties (one of them, “Is It Real”, describes a creature like the Purple People Eater.) Cleanhead’s voice is perfect for this stuff: it’s street-smart and you can hear him smiling as he sings words that were hot for this time. Some of the words are corny, but for an instrumentalist Higgins was a surprisingly good songwriter. Most of the best numbers are his, with H.B. Barnum penning the infectious “Dye-Oooh Mambo” (the lyrics are mostly grunts!) Chuck’s role as saxman is very restrained on the vocal cuts: he blows softly and is often outshouted by the foghorn baritone. He sometimes gets to scream for a chorus, wit! h the same problem as many rock sax solos: not enough time to get anything said.
Two things on this disc are of interest to jazz fans. The first is the instrumental tracks from the 1954 sessions. “Special Tea” (named for the record label – get it?) is a full-throated shouter, with chuck walking the bar in a high-pitched squeal as the baritone churns under him. “One-Chord Instrumental” is nothing but – guitar and baritone riff the chord as Chuck moans sadly, with no squawking and a great deal of feeling. And “Dye-Oooh Mambo” lets Chuck honk away happily while cowbells ring and Cleanhead grunts.
The second highlight is the entire 1956 session. The sound is fuzzy and the band very sloppy; they stop right in the middle of “Rock ‘N’ Roll (Oh Yeah)” – and it was released anyway! The 1956 date is mostly instrumental (one truly horrible vocal, “Come Back Home”, lets you know why), and Chuck blows fire from his horn. Some honors also go the unidentified boogie pianist (who also plays organ on one track), and the ever-present baritone. Money Records was a low-budget outfit, and these rough cuts prove it. But the energy of Higgins and group save the day. If this is your cup of tea, grab a copy and start jumping.
(Note to collectors: The hit version of “Pachuko Hop” was cut for Combo Records in 1952. The version heard here is from 1956, with muddy sound and lots of energy. It might not be the hit, but it works.)