And Now for Something Completely Honky-Tonk, by Michael H. Price
Some recent installments of this so-called Forgotten Horrors feature – the title suggests a resurrection of obscurities more so than it proclaims any particular shivers – have established the music-making imperative as essential to the standing of Robert Crumb as a Great American Cartoonist. Other such pieces have touched upon the kinship that I have perceived over the long haul amongst comics, movies, and music. This inclusive bias was cinched as early as the moment I noticed, as a grammar-school kid during the 1950s, that a honky-tonking musician neighbor named “Honest Jess” Williams was (unlike most other grown-ups in my orbit) a comic-book enthusiast.
The connection was reinforced around this same time, when I met Fats Domino backstage on a Texas engagement and learned that the great New Orleans pianist included in his traveling gear plenty of issues of Little Lulu, Archie, and Tales from the Crypt. Later on, as a junior high-schooler, I discovered that a stack of newsstand-fresh funnybooks always seemed to exert their thrall more effectively with a hefty stack of 45-r.p.m. phonograph records on the changer. (“Flash of Two Worlds” plus Charlie Blackwell’s Warners-label recording of “None of ’Em Glow like You,” augmented with a wad of Bazooka-brand bubblegum, add up to undiluted pleasure – well, the combination worked for me, anyhow.)
This latest unearthed obscurity has more to do with music – and a peculiar strain of indigenous Texas music, at that – than with any other influence. But the parallel tracks of American roots music, comics, and motion pictures tend to cross spontaneously. There is only one Show Business, and if not for the early revelation that such a fine Western swing guitarist as Jess Williams followed the comic books avidly (his favorites were Tomahawk and Blackhawk, the comics’ great “hawks” after Will Eisner’s Hawk of the Seas), I doubt that conclusion would have struck home with me.
I had written extensively about Williams and his steel-guitarist cohort, Billy Briggs, in a book called Daynce of the Peckerwoods: The Badlands of Texas Music (Music Mentor Books of England; 2006). Now comes a late discovery that bears amplifying:
The gruff vocalist and inventive steel guitarist Billy Briggs, with his X.I.T. Boys ensemble of post-WWII Texas, had blazed a trail from Western swing toward rockabilly – with just few enough breakout-hit recordings to leave the latter-day admirers wondering why the band had not persisted long enough to gain a foothold in rock ’n’ roll.
The X.I.T. Boys’ rambunctious shuffle beat, their grasp of part-countrified and part-doo-wop harmonies, and their fondness for playful novelty songs and romantic laments, by turns, had pointed assuredly in such a direction.
Ambitious persistence, as it turns out, was hardly lacking among the X.I.T. Boys. Both Briggs (1919–1984) and his chief collaborator, the rhythm guitarist Jess Williams, held forth on a provincial level for a good many years beyond their brief span as national-profile recording artists foreshadowing a breakout for rock.
The 1950s found their ensemble sound essentially unchanged from the progressive fusion of idioms they had developed during the 1940s. Neither Briggs, with his taste for coaxing bizarre, stinging chords and a jazz-rooted shuffle-boogie pattern from his long-leggéd and homemade nine-string steel, nor Williams, with his blues-based heartbeat strumming, could be pegged as a typical hillbilly artist.
But Briggs and, especially, Williams found rhythm-and-blues and prototypical rock ’n’ roll appealing enough to explore, even within the resolutely anti-rock confines of their principal showplace, a diehard honky-tonk nightclub called the Avalon Ballroom, out on the wild-side-of-life northeastern fringes of Amarillo, Texas. The X.I.T. Boys’ 1947 independent-label recording of “X.I.T. Song,” combining a romantic complaint with a salute to an annual reunion of cowhands from the historic X.I.T. Ranch, proves downright subversive in retrospect: A review in the show-business tradepaper Billboard characterized “X.I.T. Song” as “very close to playing race swing.” It helps to know that Briggs and Williams were frequent after-hours sit-in players at the La Joya Hotel, a black nightclub and gambling den at the northwestern edge of Amarillo.
Briggs, a disappointed man since the lapse in 1953 of a mass-market contract with Los Angeles’ Imperial Records, became ever more reclusive despite his hometown acclaim. The Avalon and, later, a maverick enterprise called the Briggs Nightclub, kept Briggs playing while serving as perpetual retreats from civilian, and civic, life. He stuck with Williams, and with the Avalon, until 1955, when he opened the Briggs Nightclub. The site lay close by Amarillo’s honky-tonk district, along a little-traveled spur route called the Fritch Highway. This enterprise lasted until 1963 – an instance of awkward timing, given that the early-middle 1960s saw a surge in traffic along the Fritch Highway in response to new recreational and residential developments northward from Amarillo. When Briggs dropped out during the 1960s, he did so in a decisive manner, quitting Texas for California, where he settled at length into a make-do career as an industrial security guard and retired in 1981.
Williams was lastingly grateful to be back home in Amarillo after his wartime-combat experiences. His European Theatre service had left the genial extrovert with a chronic-to-acute case of shell-shock anxiety that could be triggered by something as commonplace as an automobile’s backfire. In becoming ever more the local celebrity, Williams branched into television, beyond the X.I.T. Boys’ radio-and-teevee appearances, as an after-school kid-show host. He furthered his “Honest Jess” moniker as a Chevrolet salesman and a horse-trainer and riding coach. And he raised musically inclined offspring, including guitarist Ron Williams and drummer Lynn Williams, who would become prominent sidemen on the rock-band scene around and beyond Texas’ Panhandle region.
Williams’ service as a mentor extended to my attempts to form a blues-and-rock band as early as the waning 1950s – his, and Briggs’, friendships with the Price family dated from the Depression years – and Williams demonstrated a willingness to rock out with such local-label 45-r.p.m. releases of his own as “Suzanne (Stop Rockin’ to the Can-Can)” and a variant thereof called “Suzanne (Quit Twistin’ to the Can-Can).” These oddities surfaced while Jess was still holding forth at the Avalon Ballroom with a post-Briggs band called the Western Cavaliers, descended from the X.I.T. Boys.
I eventually began working with Jess’ sons Ron and Lynn Williams around 1978 on various road-band and studio-based projects, with the guitarist and producer Billy Gene Stull. In 1979, Stull and I brought Jess Williams out of retirement as a featured artist on a postmodern honky-tonk engagement combining Stull’s country-rock quintet, Billy & The Kids, with the Gairrett Bros. Band, a Montana-based outfit that had settled into Amarillo.
But we were talking about Billy Briggs, and about the rediscovery of a long-obscured episode from the heyday of Billy Briggs & His X.I.T. Boys.
The resurrected story has to do with one of Briggs’ several attempts to approximate the commercial success of a signature song called “Chew Tobacco Rag,” which became a widely covered hit early in 1951 for Imperial Records and its Commodore Publishing division. Briggs sequelized the piece with “Chew Tobacco Rag No. 2” – each tune is distinguished by its deployment of rhythmic spitting noises – only to find himself locked into a spiral of diminishing returns.
The indulgent cycle of bad-habit songs must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the recurring novelty also proved a distraction from Briggs’ wider interest in writing verses about romance, failed or otherwise, regional color (see “Coyote Shuffle” and “Texico, New Mexico, Joe”), and ironic declarations of down-home machismo (“The Sissy Song”).
Briggs ordinarily wrote verses and melodies as a solo artist, bouncing ideas off Jess Williams as a rule while serving a similar sounding-board function for Williams’ own original compositions. A remarkable collaboration with an unlikely partner proves to have been responsible for one of Briggs’ earlier attempts to sustain the image fostered by “Chew Tobacco Rag.”
The song is 1951’s “Dip Snuff Stomp.” I often had wondered about the Imperial pressing’s BMI composer credit, which cites “Briggs & Juniper.” The solution to that slight mystery reinforces the notion of what a small world this is, after all.
It turns out that the “Juniper” half of a spontaneous songwriting team is one Dr. Walter Juniper, a dean at West Texas State College – whom I encountered in 1970 when I enrolled in a course on Graeco-Roman antiquities at that same academy, since upgraded from college to university.
Dr. Juniper had schooled three generations of Panhandle-area collegians. Although the students knew him as a spirited and humorous intellectual (he signed his memoranda as “Dr. Jupiter” and referred jokingly to himself as “an egghead”), still his interests in popular music hardly figured in his classroom sessions.
The key to that “Briggs & Juniper” composer credit surfaced by chance recently, while I was sorting through some scrapbook clippings from the Price household in Amarillo. Of course, my late father, being an old-time pal of Billy Briggs, would have kept the occasional memento on file. This one stands out. It comes from the Daily News of Amarillo, Texas – a March 10, 1951, installment of a recurring column called From A to Izzard, from the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Wesley S. Izzard. (The piece may have been ghost-written by Izzard’s second-in-command, the editor-and-columnist Paul Timmons, who often served such a function on behalf of the newsroom boss.) The column follows:
That’s How Song Hits Are Born
If, a few weeks from now, your favorite jukebox should start jumping with a new song called “Dip Snuff Stomp,” you’ll be interested to know that the composer is Dr. Walter Juniper, classical scholar, dean of the college, and professor of Latin at West Texas State College in Canyon.
In defense of the good dean’s reputation as a scholar, we hasten to explain that the whole thing is an accident. It happened yesterday [March 9, 1951, that is]. Here’s the story:
Dr. Juniper, as a hobby, conducts an old-time record program over KGNC [radio] every Sunday afternoon. He calls it Jukebox of Yesteryear.
Yesterday Dr. Juniper was in KGNC’s studio transcribing his program for next week. Also in the studio were Billy Briggs and his X.I.T. Boys, getting set to tape their morning show.
Briggs, it should be explained, is a songwriter. Just a couple of weeks ago, he hit the big time with a tune called “Chew Tobacco Rag.”
Dr. Juniper and Briggs got to talking. Dr. Juniper told Briggs that he had tried his own hand at composing, turning out a parody of Briggs’ “Chew Tobacco Rag.” He called his parody “Dip Snuff Stomp.”
Briggs demanded that the professor sing it.
Now, Dr. Juniper is a fair country tune-carrier, and he warbled “Dip Snuff Stomp,” accompanying himself with a few piano chords. Just as he finished, the phone rang.
It turned out to be a long-distance call for Briggs, from his Hollywood agent, Lew Chudd, of the Imperial Recording Company.
Chudd wanted a list of new tunes that Briggs had promised to have ready for the agent’s consideration. [Chudd, who had founded Imperial in 1946 at Los Angeles, was more boss than agent to Briggs.] Briggs rattled off a dozen, and then, on the spur of the moment, added, “and ‘Dip Snuff Stomp.’”
Chudd asked for the list again. Briggs repeated, but played it straight this time, omitting mention of “Dip Snuff Stomp.”
But Chudd demanded, “What was that last one you mentioned before?” Briggs told him.
“How does it go?”
Briggs tenored through a few swift bars of the chorus. [The “tenor” reference is a mistaken assumption on the columnist’s part; Briggs’ voice was a baritone.]
“Great!” shouted Chudd. “Make that one and send it out right away.”
Briggs and Dr. Juniper immediately went into a huddle. And they came up with a new songwriting team – Briggs and Juniper. That’s the way it will be on the record, and on the sheet music, if the song should catch on. The X.I.T. Boys’ recording will be in Hollywood by the middle of next week. [The recording session took place at KGNC-Radio’s studios at the western edge of downtown Amarillo, just across the way from the newspaper’s building.] And the band will preview it over KGNC on their morning program about next Wednesday.
The moral of this little tale is: If you are a Latin professor, don’t poke fun at the hillbillies by writing parodies on their songs. You may find yourself in business.
The first three lines of “Dip Snuff Stomp,” in case you’re interested, are:
We’ll dip, dip, dip, dip, dip;
We’ll sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff;
Oh, we’ll dip and sniff together, you and I.
And so ends the on-the-spot account of an intriguing, if hardly pivotal, moment in the history of an oddly transitional period in American roots music. The Amarillo Daily News’ interest in Billy Briggs had primarily to do with Briggs’ affiliation with KGNC Radio, which in turn was a corporate affiliate of the Daily News, and with Briggs’ status as a favored entertainer at rich-folks ranch-house parties thrown by the Ruling Class oil-and-cattle owners of those publishing and broadcasting companies. Briggs could sing persuasively of “oil, cattle, and wealth” on one of his last mass-market Imperial sides (1953’s “Full Blooded Texan”), but his lot remained that of the hardscrabble working-class musician.
The Daily News columnist’s show of admiration for Briggs ran more toward local-boy-makes-good condescension than toward any sharper understanding of Briggs’ inventive drive. The local newspaper soon lost interest as Briggs lapsed from name-brand recording artist back to the rank of a strictly hometown entertainer and nightclub entrepreneur.
A 1984 obituary notice in that same Amarillo Daily News acknowledged Fort Worth, Texas, native Briggs’ larger career dating from 1938 in Amarillo (notably with a Bob Wills-spinoff band, extensively recorded, known as the Sons of the West) and cited such other X.I.T. Boys recordings as “Panhandle Shuffle” and Jess Williams’ sentimental “Blue Bonnet Waltz.” But the memorial piece reserved its greater attention for “Chew Tobacco Rag” – the song that had signaled Briggs’ breakout, even as it consigned him to typecasting as a gimmick-song specialist.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors movie-lore books are available from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.