Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Billy Briggs and his X.I.T. Boys on Time 103

Billy Briggs and his X.I.T. Boys in Amarillo, Tx., 1947. From left: Billy Briggs (doubling on trumpet), Freddy Beatty, J.R. Chatwell, Herschell Marson, Jimmy Pearce (sitting in on piano for Loren Mitchell), and Honest Jess Williams. Courtesy the Jewell Chatwell Collection. (Click on photo for full size image.)

Billy Briggs and his X.I.T. Boys - X.I.T. Song (vocal by Briggs) b/w Autograph Your Photograph (vocal by Honest Jess Williams) (Time 103)

While Billy Frank Briggs, Jr. (1919-1984) is best remembered today for his '50s novelty-dementia songs ("Chew Tobacco Rag," "The Sissy Song"), for a long time prior to that he was one of the more daring and progressive steel guitarists in the Southwest. The son of a Fort Worth lawyer, Briggs -- one of the few musicians who ever figured out how to sing and play steel simultaneously, and possibly the first to stand, rather than sit, while playing the steel -- moved to Amarillo in the late 1930s to work with the Sons of the West, playing with them off and on until 1946. He then organized his own group, the X.I.T. Boys, and they made their first records for the small Time label, based in Dalhart, in early 1947. ("X.I.T." refers to the 19th Century X.I.T. Ranch in the Texas Panhandle. There is an X.I.T. Museum online here.)

In contrast to his later Imperial singles, "X.I.T. Song" is pure western swing with hip, jivey lyrics with the patented Briggsian sexism ("be a lady when you walk and talk with me"), local references ("The Dalhart X.I.T.," referring to an annual rodeo, though no one outside of the Panhandle had any idea what he was singing about), and imaginative wordplay ("quit wearing out the hinges on the back of your neck" to a girlfriend who always shakes her head "no"), but more importantly, hot solos from Briggs, J.R. Chatwell (fiddle), Freddy Beatty (tenor sax), and Loren Mitchell (piano). Fortunately for posterity, a photograph of this group survives and is shown here. As good as this group was, Briggs discovered that he could draw just as many people and make more money with just a trio. Thus the large band experiment came to a halt in early 1948. A shame they didn't record more, as the original "X.I.T. Song" is one of the great western swing records of the era. With the trio, Briggs recorded a much inferior version of the song a year or so later (also issued on Time).

Billboard reviewed the record in its June 7, 1947 issue, noting that while the "combo comes very close to playing race swing," its sales were possible "only in the Texas territory."

Indeed, it didn't even sell in Texas. Only one lone copy of the original, full-band "X.I.T. Song" survives, in the Bob Pinson Collection at the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was discovered there by Kevin Coffey in 1995, who was able to tape it, and provides us with these sound files.

1 comment:

  1. It's a pity that such a talented steel guitar player as Billy Briggs is such forgotten today...I will try have a post on him on my website
    Greetings from France