There’s something about Barrelhouse Blues music that gets under your skin and won’t leave you alone. Perhaps it’s the beat, the inflection of the singer’s voice, or maybe it’s just the easy swing that sets your hips to moving and your toes to tapping. Yet, a real good Barrelhouse player can also take you down a sentimental road full of tears and heartbreak without once making it taste like too much sugar in your coffee.
It’s a real trick, and not one that many people can manage; Dr. John is probably the best-known player, and I’ve heard one or two others who can carry it off. One of the guys I knew is no longer with us — Ron Hedland — and you probably never heard of him. I knew him in the early 80’s when he was calling strippers at the Brass Rail in Toronto Ontario as his day job, and playing a Fender Rhodes Electric when he got the chance. He could sing an old chestnut and make it sweet, or he could reach down and play barrelhouse like he was sitting in with the whorehouse band back home in Virginia where he was born.
The other man you may not have heard of either, but he’s still around and kicking. At 81-years-old, Eddie Tigner doesn’t sound like he’s going anywhere in a hurry. His voice is strong, and fingers fast on the keys of either his piano or the organ that he plays – kicking out some of the best, lowest, and fattest Barrelhouse blues I’ve heard in a long time.
If you haven’t heard of Eddie Tigner, I guess you can be excused because it’s been a while since he was in the public eye. According to his biography over at the Music Maker Relief Foundation’s web site, he’s been spending his days recently serving lunches in a school cafeteria. Eddie started his piano playing career back in the 40’s when he was in the Army (he figures he has played gigs at every military installation in the United States) and was actually playing Vibes in his first band.
Living in Atlanta during the 1950’s, he played with Elmore James during the early years of the decade, which is probably where he picked up his fine Boogie Woogie/Barrelhouse technique. Eddie’s band, the Maroon Notes, played vaudeville shows in theatres in Atlanta and toured through small towns throughout the South down through the west coast of Florida. In 1959, the Ink Spots rolled into town and needed a keyboard player for the night and hired Eddie. That night lasted for nearly 30 years as he toured with them until 1987. Since 1991 he’s been playing clubs in around Atlanta as well as “feeding the children,” as he calls his day job.
Slippin In is Eddie Tigner’s second release on the Music Makers label, and shows once again what a valuable service the folks who run that label are doing for American music. Not only are they making sure deserving artists are able to record and make a living from doing what they do best — playing music — they are ensuring the rest of us get to hear some of the best music around. Mainly through word of mouth, they find the musicians who have slipped through the cracks and are barely surviving on minimum wage jobs or social security, and give them the opportunity to regain their pride and earn some money by booking them for shows and recording their music.
As I said, Eddie is one of the best Barrelhouse style players I’ve heard. It’s not just that he’s a hot keyboard player — because I’m sure there are hotter ones — or that he’s got the greatest voice in the world; it’s the way he uses his talents that make him so good. He doesn’t just play the piano; he teases and coaxes notes from it so it sings in the way that’s specific to honky-tonks and old juke joints.
Listen to him playing “Please Send Me Someone To Love” on Slippin In and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. In the wrong person’s hands this would be the biggest piece of shalmtz this side of Las Vegas, but under his care this song sounds like the plea it should be. His fingers gently pull notes from the piano that are redolent with the sadness of a lonely man, while his voice, down in the lower register, states his case in an almost matter of fact manner. There’s something that much more poignant about a song like this when it’s delivered as a simple plea for compassion instead of the melodramatic howl that so many people seem to believe is what constitutes emotion.
The musicians he plays with are taking their cues from Eddie and you can feel it in the way they have all caught the less-is-more attitude his playing exemplifies. Listening to his composition, the instrumental “Slippin In”, primarily a Hammond Organ and guitar duet, makes this really clear. Instead of either Eddie or his guitar player, Felix Reyes, playing speed of light solos with millions of notes that you never hear, they make each note they play tell a story. I’m not a big fan of organ music normally, but the way Eddie uses his Hammond made a convert out of me on this occasion. There was something about the way he was able to nurse the notes out of that instrument that made it sing beautiful harmony with the guitar unlike anything I’ve heard in along time.
Eddie Tigner is a great all around Blues piano player who can handle everything from a straight-ahead Blues number like “Need Your Love So Bad”, to the rollicking swing of “Knock Me A Kiss”. He can sing it slow and sweet, or fast and loose, and sound equally comfortable and always sound like he means every word he sings. There aren’t many people left who can do justice to Barrelhouse Blues/honky-tonk music anymore, but Eddie Tigner’s Slippin In is proof that there are still some who have what it takes to make your spine get loose and remind you that you have hips.