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My Evening With Higgs

by Rich Demaio

[Livicated to the memory of Joe Higgs]

Los Angeles, April 1995

  I am now convinced that Joe Higgs knows everything. The other night, I had the undeniable privilege of spending a most memorable evening with Higgs at the home of my best friend and brother, Roger Steffens. Now, I have been to the Steffens' house a zillion times and learned early on that it is the place where "you never know who's gonna stop by." Everyone from Carlos Santana to the Beastie Boys to Nina Simone to the Melody Makers or any number of reggae luminaries can happen by either announced or unannounced, at any give time.

  So one night last week, after an unauspicious audition at Universal Pictures, I made it over there in time for the arrival of Joe Higgs, who brought over a friend, Colin Johnson. Also from Trench Town, Colin is one of the original Schoolboys group going back some 30 or 35 years. He lived at #1 Second Street, only a few houses away from Bob Marley. Joe Higgs lived on the next block. They were all around when Bob first entered Coxson Dodd's studio, when "Judge Not" and "Simmer Down" were brand new, never realizing what talent was about to explode out of the ghetto. Colin played with "Pipe" Matthews of the Wailing Souls as a kid, and so among all the photos, records, posters and memorabilia that Roger has in his Archives, Colin found a few friends. Stories abounded. Little stories, personal stories that no one else could know except the neighbors from next door, or up the street.

  "We'd come home, or come out at night," Colin mentioned, "and Bob, Bunny and Peter be playin' inside. We'd all gather around and it was like a sing-along back then."

  After listening to Colin's tape, and after talking about politics, American and Jamaican government, and a Ronald Reagen movie Joe had seen where Reagan was a cowboy who tried to run off the Ku Klux Klan, the night was winding down. The conversation again drifted to music. An obscure tape of Bob Malrey played in the background as Joe Higgs, the Father of Reggae, listened and reminisced. The soulful sound of Bob's voice and acoustic guitar inspired many memories for Higgs and for Colin. As if out of nowwhere, Joe suggested that a certain part of the tape, or perhaps the way Bob was singing, reminded him of Johnny Ace, the late r&b singer whose untimely death in December of 1954 brought tears to the eyes of almost every music fan of the day.

  "Who?" Roger asked surprised, not expecting to be talking about '50s rock 'n' roll amidst all the reggae in the house. "Johnny Ace?" He knew the man's work intimately. But Johnny Ace was a name I had only heard about via a Paul Simon song on his Hearts and Bones lp. I knew his name, but I didn't remember his songs.

  "Perhaps you weren't here den," Joe offered with an endearing laugh that caught both Roger and Colin. Yeah, Ace's soaring career and unexpected death all happened before I was born. Roger quickened to the back room of the Archives and returned with none other than Johnny Ace's greatest hits lp, the original copy still in mint condition, and offered the song "Pledging My Love."

  "You must know this one, Rich," he said.

  I did remember hearing it, once it started going. Maybe as a passing moment through my own musical history, maybe as an oldie from childhood, or even on one of the radios owned by my aunt or older cousins who had them constantly tuned to WMCA or WABC in New York City. But to Joe Higgs, the recollection the song conjured went far deeper. Back to his own youth in Trench Town, when the drifting strains of AM radio from Miami-based stations permeated the balmy late-night Kingston air, breaking the silence with some of the greatest music ever. It was the truest of the truest roots of reggae. The foundation of almost everything. The ground floor for all who heard it. The album segued to the next track, "Anymore," a slow romantic ballad. Ace's voice soared. He had a range from low D to high C.

  "When the girls hear dis song," Higgs said, "they fall in love."

  These were some of the greatest make-out songs of all time, he and Roger remembered.

  "You know who else I liked back then?" Higgs continued, unexpected memories suddenly pouring into his head. "Jackie Wilson."

  Now, Jackie Wilson I knew. The soulful spirit that he brought forth through his singing was unmistakable. He could bring chills to your skin like no other singer. Roger was gone for another brief second to the back vaults of the house, and soon "Doggin' Around" was spinning on the turntable. Every time he sang the one particular lyric - "STOP..." - I felt a surge of energy inside me that only a few musicians even today can stir. When he sang you felt his pain, his heartache, every emotion went right through you as if it were your own. You could BE him, lip-synching to the record. Higgs knew every word and sang as though he were on stage from the rocking chair where he sat. His eyes were suddenly lit up like I'd never seen. And hearing his voice singing along with Jackie Wilson, I knew I was in the presence of greatness, both on vinyl and in the room. His enthusiasm was quick to fill the still night air of Los Angeles 1995 as though he were 14 again, back in Kingston, hearing his favorite songs for only the second or third time. Between Jackie Wilson and Joe Higgs, both of whom I have the greatest respect for, I was quickly drawn in. Colin was too, recalling the great songs with equal ease. Roger was the DJ, always one step ahead, for as Jackie Wilson played on, he disappeared yet again on one of those errands whereby he vanishes and reappears quicly with something that pertains to the moment, whatever it is. The house is full of stuff and only Roger knows where and how to find it, and precisely when to find it, which is the real magic. Perfect timing.

  Now, jamming heavily to brother Jackie and Big Mama Thornton on "Hey Baby," a rowdy rocker that even the best rockabilly artists of today can only dream of duplicating, I watch Higgs' head roll with every perfect strain of the song. I began recalling names of other artists I knew, but missed out on the first time around - a drawback of having been too late. Joe Higgs suddenly became a fount of musical knowledge.

  "What about Ruth Brown?" I asked.

  His only replay was "Ruth Brown," but with a facial expression that indicated he thought she was the greatest. They were all the greatest though. And with every choice nugget that Roger popped on, even through the scratches and pops age has left on these discs, another fast, vivid memory would be delivered to Higgs' mind. He's slap his knee and howl, "Cho, Rasta!" as he listened, singing the lyrics without missing a beat or a word or an inflection. Like they were his. We knew they were ours. He even recalled particular nights from his past as though they were yesterday.

  "You know what I was doing when I heard this song?" he would ask. A detailed story of 1950s Kingston would follow, the childhood participants of same reading like a Who's Who of Modern Reggae Music. Bob, Jimmy Cliff, Bunny, Peter, Toots Hibbert, Pipe. They were all there in the memories that night as he recalled other early r&b artists that inspired all of them during those same tropical nights. The Orioles? The Moonglows? How about Little Willie John? The Five Satins? "The deep forbidden music they'd been longing for," as Paul Simon summed up in "Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War" from Hearts and Bones. Paul Simon. That's my era. That was my introduction. I liked that song and wondered who those groups were. Was I ever surprised!

  But even those great artists' roots were called forth by the entirely knowledgeable Joe Higgs. Billie Holliday? Robert Johnson? How about Bessie Smith? He went back and back. With each name, a strain of a song would pass his lips with the same enthusiasm as the artists themselves had recorded them. He knew them all. His brain was computer-like in its output.

  Not wanting to feel any more like the baby of the group than I already did, but still wanting to be part of this great moment, I dared interject my musical worth and opinion. I said, "Both Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith inspired Janis Joplin." He looked me in the eye.

  "Janis," he said, low and deep. "Great!"

  "Yeah," I could only reply. I had connected, but his follow-up really locked me in.

  "And Hendrix," Higgs continued. I lit up even further, if that was possible.

  "Hell, yes. His blues cd is incredible!" I said it as though I was talking to some kid I knew. "And they've also released his entire Woodstock performance on cd now. It's unbelievable when you hear him play live."

  "Yeah mon," said Joe.

  He knew. His range of musical knowledge spans some four decades now, and he is still on top of it all. It may not seem like such an accomplishment on the surface, but all I know is when my dad was Joe Higgs' age only about ten yeasrs ago, he didn't even know what a cd was, let alone who Hendrix and Janis were.

  The names flew when we talked about who was the most inspirational singer or whose guitar could make you cry in only a few notes. Joe knew them all, capping off the conversation with Stevie Ray Vaughan, punctuating with James Brown, Ben E. King and spicing it up with Fats Domino. "He loved to play the piano, dat mon," he said.

  "Who did that song 'Money Honey'?" I asked, racing my brain to recall the group that long preceded me, but whose songs I had on a tape somewhere.

  "Uh...Clyde McPhatter," Joe said.

  Right again. The Drifters. Knowing this guy when I was in college would have saved me hours of library time writing those reports I did for my music classes.

  Enter Roger once again, this time with a small stack of selected 45s saved from his own youth in New Jersey. The music was the same, and to Roger, to find someone who appreciated pre-1955 rock 'n' roll and the so-called "race music" of the day and to be able to share the excitement with someone who knew who Alan Freed was, was like a holiday. I watched as these men became teenagers again but also realized that the Reggae Archives with Joe Higgs HIMSELF sitting in the middle, the Father of Reggae himself present in the heart of one of the biggest reggae collections in the world where you could find anything, had all given way to Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," The Four Deuces doing "White Port and Lemon Juice" (I remembered it as a Frank Zappa song, naturally!), The Turbans, The Coasters' "Young Blood," the original version playing as Joe Higgs screamed "Yakkety Yak! Yakkety Yak!" recalling yet another of their amazing string of hits. And thanks to Roger, they kept a-comin'. What about Ray Charles? "Speedo"? The El Dorados? Everything. The names kept flying between Higgs and Steffens as I watched in amazement drinking in every intoxicating note coming from the speakers. Higgs' face was beaming with delight.

  Weary from a long day, he still jammed like a boy from the rocking chair he sat in, occasionally lighting the herb and Marlboro mixture he favors. But it was when Roger played Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns doing "Don't You Just Know It" that Joe Higgs jumped (and I do mean JUMPED) out of his chair, peaking with excitement that anybody in the entire world would remember, let alone have this song, and danced with my best friend Roger Steffens, the steps that the group did some 40 years ago - directly in front of my seat. Roger Steffens not only got Joe Higgs out of his chair, but got him to dance. I was hysterical. Not at the sight of seeing these two 50-somethings completely engrossed in this incredible song, dancing together, singing to each other note-for-note as the 45 spun out the tune, but at the fact that in just a few minutes time, the topic of conversation had gone from poltical scandal and disgust to this. From rust and decay to a high-polish finish. In a hearbeat, the music left behind by these great artists had transformed the night into a Jamaican dance party. You couldn't help but laugh.

  In the middle of it all, I shouted to Roger, "What's the name of this song?" Coincidentally, the chorus came around at that exact moment. "Don'cha just know it..." Roger and Higgs both sang in unison inches from my face, laughing to each other and punctuating the moment with a blasting high five. Who wouldn't laugh?

  There was one other moment in the past nine years I've lived in California that stands out in my mind. It was my birthday, Easter Sunday, Passover, a full moon, and daylight savings time all on the same day. Roger took me and his daughter Kate for a brunch at the home of Dr.Oscar Janniger, a psychologist renowned for his studies of LSD. Allen Ginsberg met us at the door. The guy that wrote "Dances With Wolves" was there. He had just won an Academy Award the week before. Timothy Leary was holding court in the garden. Some other ex-hippie that I didn't even know broke out a banjo and he and I began singing folk songs like we were college roommates. It was a memorable afternoon, but this night with Joe Higgs beat that hands down.

  And still the songs kept coming. It was getting late, I remember. But who cared. Joe kept trying to leave - his car keys in his hand. Midnight, 12:30, the songs played on and Joe kept singing each one, often doing a complete verse while the record was still playing the first few notes! He didn't miss a one.

  As they left that night, we hugged - one in the spirit of music. Reggae, rock 'n' roll, r&b all united. The joining of cultures in a chance meeting on a spiritual level where only music can take you.

  That night, in my eyes, Joe Higgs proved that he is not only the undeniable Father of Reggae, but possibly the father of all music. De mon know everyt'ing 'bout music, I seh.

  After Joe left, Roger and I sat at the dining room table, his wife Mary and the kids asleep. School tomorrow. The house was quiet except for an occasional dog barking in a nearby yard. Roger made himself half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, his mainstay. I felt like I had just gotten back from the gym.

  "In all the times he's been to the house," Roger said between bites, "I've never done that with Joe."

  He was as astonished as I at what had just gone on so spontaneously. I was just glad to be there. Glad to be his friend, and in that small moment, I felt in my own way that I too was a part of the foundations of reggae music that night.

Long Live Joe Higgs. Respect!


Other Articles:
"A True Pioneer" from Jamaica Observer - December 24, 1999