Chuck Higgins was, by his own admission, never much of a sax player. A competent trumpeter who only switched to tenor a couple of years before making his first recordings, he never really developed the skill or technique. Higgins’ saxblasting was, at best, rudimentary. His often off-key honking was never likely to bring sleepless nights to the likes of his Central Avenue contemporaries such as Plas Johnson, or Joe Houston. But it was popular enough among L.A.’s R&B-loving youngsters to give our man a career that spanned several decades, and even more record labels. CHUCK BLOWS HIS WIG focuses exclusively on the sides that he and his band, the Mellotones, cut for just one of those labels – Jake Porter’s Combo Records – during the 1950s.
Although Chuck never signed an exclusive contract with any of the labels he waxed for – that included just about every important West coast indie imprint, with the exception of Modern – his association with Jake Porter and Combo was both his longest lasting, and musically most productive. Indeed, it was Jake who first managed to coax Chuck and his Mellotones into his own recording studio in late 1952, and it was at their first session for Combo that the group waxed the first version of the perennially popular Pachuko Hop. For the other side of the 45, Higgins and co banged out the rocking Motor Head Baby – notable for being not only a great record, but also the recorded debut of the teenage Johnny Watson (who, being a piano player at that point, had not yet gravitated to his universally-known nickname of “Guitar”). This CD omits Pachuko Hop, as it’s already available on several other Ace CDs – but it includes the previously unreissued master take of Motor Head Baby, along with several other notable vocal cuts by young Mr. Watson.
Johnny Guitar Watson’s is not the only voice you’ll hear here. Chuck often employed his brother Fred in a number of guises, most notably as “Daddy Cleanhead” and “Geechie Howard”, and he can be heard wearing both pseudonyms herein. Others who stepped up to the mic during the course of these sessions include Chuck’s long time ally, and on-off piano player, Frank Dunn. The terminally obscure Ora May Garvin also gets a cut to herself.
For the most part, though, “Chuck Blows His Wig” offers a frenzy of barely controlled saxophony, direct from the days when Higgins and his contemporaries thrilled R&B lovers the length and breadth of Central with unbridled displays of wig-blowing showmanship, and a beat that would not quit. At least one side of every one of Higgins Combo 45s is included, as are several previously unissued tracks which were discovered only recently, in the course of researching the A&R for this compilation. The music that Chuck and the Mellotones made on Combo – or, indeed, on any other label that they recorded for during the same time frame - would take no prizes for subtlety, nor would the musicianship itself qualify anyone involved with its making for a scholarship to the Chicago Conservatiore. However, as an exercise in sheer excitement, it’s awfully hard to beat.
Here – for the first time on CD, in most cases – are two dozen for Chuck Higgins & co.’s most exhilarating musical outpourings from the Golden Era of West Coast R & B. If they don’t blow your wig, chances are that your wig is already gone, amigo.
By Tony Rounce