Pink Champagne

The song in question was not Joe Liggins's only hit. He in fact had an impressive string of best sellers on Leon Rene's Exclusive record label between 1945 and 1948, starting with "The Honeydripper," which holds the distinction of being the biggest hit in the entire history of Billboard's rhythm and blues charts, spending 18 weeks in the number one position from September 1945 until January '46. It had a melody and beat based on "Shortnin' Bread" and throwback lyrics ('he's a killer, a Harlem thriller'), yet the two-part jump 'n' swing record's impact can't be overstated. Cover versions by Jimmie Lunceford and Roosevelt Sykes were also hits (the first week of December '45, the three competing records were 1, 2 and 3 on the chart). Even Cab Calloway put his unique stamp on the song in early 1946, after the other versions had peaked. Exclusive didn't waste any time in getting other Liggins 78s on the market, releasing "Left a Good Deal in Mobile" and "I've Got a Right to Cry" while "Honeydripper" was still the top seller, and both were hits as well. The magnitude of the song's popularity stuck with him; his records bore the name Joe Liggins and his Honeydrippers for the remainder of his career.

Born in Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1915, his family moved to San Diego in 1932. Studying the piano and trying his hand at songwriting, he felt ready to enter the Los Angeles music scene by the end of the decade. An early-'40s stint with Sammy Franklin's band ended when Franklin refused to record his "Honeydripper." It turned out to be a break for Joe. He started his own band and did the song himself...and look what happened! Shortly after Liggins hit the charts, that refusal was reversed when a version by Sammy Franklin and his Atomics on the Black & White label suspiciously popped up (it wasn't successful, which is only fair under the circumstances). The Honeydrippers were hot, and saxophonist Little Willie Jackson was as loyal as they come, staying with the band his entire life, keeping the group going even after Joe's death in 1987. The '47 Liggins hit "Blow Mr. Jackson" is a good example of his axe-handling. Other 1940s hits include "Tanya" and "Dripper's Blues," trading on the appeal of the original chart-topper.

Younger brother Jimmy Liggins trained to be a boxer, but eventually found himself working as a driver for his brother's band. After seeing Joe's success, especially all the money he seemed to be making, he decided he wanted some of the action and set to work teaching himself to play guitar. Though Jimmy's style was considerably more rough-edged, there was a market in the late '40s for that, too, and he slipped through the door at Art Rupe's Specialty Records in 1948, scoring sizeable hits with "Tear Drop Blues" and "Don't Put Me Down" before decade's end. Joe's sales had slowed considerably by 1949 (though the club gigs were going full-throttle) and he joined his kid brother at Specialty, starting off the '50s with one of many (probably too many) renditions of "Rag Mop," including the original by the song's cowriter, country singer Johnnie Lee Wills, R&B covers by Lionel Hampton and Doc Sausage, and a number one pop version by The Ames Brothers. One of the few recordings Liggins hadn't written himself, his version sold well, and Rupe was certainly pleased with both Liggins brothers' output, but Joe wasn't quite satisfied. He went back to his original game plan for the next single and ignited another fireball like the one in '45.

Joe Liggins

Drinking songs had always been popular subject matter for R&B acts, and Joe Liggins was at the forefront of the booze-and-barroom song's 1950s peak. "Pink Champagne" was patterned after the beat of Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse's 1942 hit "Cow Cow Boogie," with a riff from the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer classic "Blues in the Night." Joe's lyrics address the pros and mostly cons of the sparkling beverage, lamenting the 'pink champagne that stole my love from me...left me feeling blue...made a fool of me,' but also pointing out that 'mellow, mellow wine...makes me feel so doggone fine.' The message connected with a large group of record buyers, spending nearly three months on top of the R&B charts from May until August 1950.

There was increased demand for drinking songs after this, and two others became number one R&B hits in 1951: "Bad, Bad Whiskey" by Amos Milburn plumbed the depths of the evil intoxicant, while "I Got Loaded" by "Peppermint" Harris endorsed the practice of passing the bottle around. Milburn, in particular, took to the juice, in song but not necessarily in life, with four more hits about sippin' spirits between '51 and '54. Brother Jimmy also got into the act, offering his own examples of the pitfalls of overuse on his final hit, "Drunk," in 1953. While these guys were warbling their woes from various gutters, Joe Liggins moved on to other subjects. He scored two follow-up hits ("Little Joe's Boogie" and "Frankie Lee"), then made occasional records for other labels. Liggins and Jackson also peformed regularly for live audiences over the next 35 years or so.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Pink Champagne