Sunday, March 15, 2009

Crossing Over: Bill Doggett's Honky Tonk

A survey of the top hits from 1956 reveals that black musicians had begun to crack the Billboard's top choices by melding R&B sounds into top hits. Chuck Berry and Fats Domino were the first to do so, Berry being assisted in large part by the promotional acumen of Alan Freed. Chuck's first hit, Maybellene, which is generally considered the first authentic crossover hit to reach the Billboard charts, made it to #5 on the in 1955. By 1956, Little Richard was also in on the fun with Tutti Frutti, and the Platters were also hitting it big in a Doo Wop vein.

Another lesser known crossover hit in 1956 was organist Bill Doggett's instrumental classic, Honky Tonk, which sold over three million copies and was quite the rave during the fall of that year, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts. This classic has several unique features: it had an authentically bluesy backbeat which usually didn't translate into Billboard material, it was an instrumental, and, Doggett was essentially an unknown entity in popular music when it came out. Among black musicians, he was well established however, having played with Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton and Johnny Otis. The tune includes classic guitar work by Bill Butler, who later hooked up with King Curtis on a cover of the same tune and wonderful sax work by Shep Shepard. The fact that Doggett's Honky Tonk was able to successfully "crossover" while talent laden musicians at Chess such as Muddy Waters and Little Walter never broke out of the R&B charts speaks to segregation in the industry that effectively isolated many gifted musicians from more mainstream recognition.

Finally, Honky Tonk resurfaces in an odd place in the 1980's; in David Lynch's classic noirish film Blue Velvet. The inclusion of the hypnotically seductive rhythm works perfectly as a backdrop to the sordid scene in which the tune is featured.

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