Eddie Tigner Slips Into His 93rd Year With a Special Celebration
With his 92nd birthday coming up on August 11, singer and piano player Eddie Tigner has just about lived through it all when it comes to Atlanta blues history – from the house parties that captured his imagination as a child to his current role as an elder statesman, working to keep a Southern tradition alive at joints like the Northside Tavern.
Some of Tigner’s earliest memories revolve around the blues. His mother played piano at house parties, front porch picking sessions and back yard get-togethers. “When she was playing, I was five or six years old,” he says. “She’d drag me around with her. She played the blues. She’d play when people had parties in their backyard and on their back porch.”
By age seven, Tigner started taking piano lessons. He says he never took to playing guitar, but his skills as a pianist grew swiftly, as if it was in his blood. “My son and my grandson also play piano and organ,” he adds. “I’m not much of an organ player, but I try sometimes.”
Tigner’s professional ambitions took shape after he enlisted in the Army in 1945. He was recognized as a musical talent and allowed to both perform and book others as on-base entertainment. Through this role and encounters with electric guitar pioneer T-Bone Walker, original Ink Spots member Bill Kenny and others, Tigner discovered the value of reading music at a time when jazz was king. “If you wasn’t a good reader, you didn’t play,” he says. “Now you don’t have to because the blues is more or less a feeling. You had to read jazz because it’s so modernized.”
Upon his return home, Tigner was an experienced entertainer in the same town as a hopping Sweet Auburn scene. Vaudeville shows and gigs with his group the Maroon Notes positioned Tigner for a life affirming offer when slide guitar great Elmore James relocated to Atlanta. “That was my first big gig,” he says. “I’d played around Atlanta quite a bit. That was my chance to go out of town and play in Chicago. That was it!”
One of Tigner’s biggest influences back then was the Ink Spots, an all-black vocal ensemble that rose to global fame between its 1934 founding and the original group’s disbanding in the 1950s. Founding members Charley Fuqua and Deek Watson went on to lead groups billed as the Ink Spots in the years to come. But it wasn’t like those arena rock bands with two semi-legit lineups existing simultaneously. In what could’ve been a copyright nightmare waiting to happen, dozens of unrelated bands would exist between the ’50s and ’80s under the Ink Spots banner.
Tigner was in one of these bands from 1959 to 1987, although he’s quick to point out that his group had nothing to do with his beloved originals.
“The agents liked my voice and liked the group I had and, believe it or not, they started booking us as the second Ink Spots,” he says. “If they couldn’t get the real Ink Spots, they’d book me and bill my band as the Ink Spots.”
Often billed as Eddie Tigner’s Ink Spots, the band went through a lot of talented entertainers during its namesake’s stint. The revolving door of bandmates included former Orioles member and lead tenor vocalist Alexander Sharp, bassists James Dennis Mims and Pete Harris, lead singers Richard “Dick” Porter and Earl Conley, guitarist and vocalist Ed Mason, and drummers Bobby Tuggle, J.E. Simpson and Bobby Patterson. The group also included another Atlantan that’s gotten his due in the past 30 years in the late saxophonist Grady “Fats” Jackson. Those names come from a blog called After the Ink Spots which, despite offering a wealth of information about various Inkspotters, probably doesn’t even scratch the surface of who all played with Tigner over a nearly 30-year span.
Tigner says that every member was a star in his own right, allowing the group bearing his name to play at once-forbidden places in segregated America.
“I almost got as famous as (the original Ink Spots), really, and I was enjoying it,” he says. “I got a lot of jobs, believe it or not, that they couldn’t even play. They started booking me in Holiday Inns and Ramada Inns. We had our own room and we stayed in those hotels when blacks couldn’t stay in a white hotel. It was great. It was an honor.”
After leaving his version of the Ink Spots, Tigner settled down in Atlanta and took a cafeteria job at Indian Creek Elementary School – a position he held until his 2008 retirement. Although he still played around town in the early ’90s, not much was happening musically for the veteran performer until he met Atlanta musician and friend of the blues Danny “Mudcat” Dudek.
Forty years Tigner’s junior, Dudek was in his 20s when he developed an evangelistic zeal for getting Atlanta’s blues veterans their just due. This took shape through benefit concerts that live on as the Northside Tavern’s annual Chicken Raid weekend.
Dudek’s efforts to boost the careers of Tigner, former Piano Red bandmate Beverly “Guitar” Watkins and others caught the attention of the Music Maker Relief Fund. Founded in 1994 by North Carolinians Tim and Denise Duffy, the organization aids aging musicians by both recording their music, setting them up with foreign and domestic tour dates and helping them afford their day-to-day needs. It’s half folklore project, half New Deal-esque social program and a complete Godsend for artists like Tigner.
Music Maker has issued Tigner’s only solo albums to date: 2003’s Route 66 and 2008’s Slippin’ In. The former’s title track is an American standard, first recorded in 1946 by the Nat King Cole Trio and covered since by everyone from Asleep at the Wheel to The Cramps. Under Tigner’s watch, it’s a rollicking, piano-driven blues song that allows his current Uncle Sugar bandmates’ talents to shine.
According to Dudek, the original version represents the jazz trio style that dominated pop music when Tigner first became an entertainer. “When Nat Cole released this song, he was the next evolution from the original Ink Spots,” he says. “The Ink Spots when Eddie joined were contemporaries with Cole. The song is a standard, and he was at ground zero when this kind of music was very popular.”
Tigner also would’ve seen the musical twists and turns taken by the song over the years. “As a traveling musician who spent very few days a year at home for many decades, you know he’s got sweet memories attached to each place mentioned along Route 66,” Dudek adds.
Since connecting with Music Maker, Tigner has gotten reacquainted with America’s highways. He’s traveled overseas for the first time, as well, sharing his songs at European festivals and venues. Not bad for an artist who, without outside interest, might’ve never had the means to take his music beyond the friendly confines of the Northside Tavern and Fat Matt’s.
Tigner is just one of several legends you can regularly catch at local clubs. Among his equally accomplished peers is fellow Music Maker beneficiary Albert White, an amazing guitar player who’s performed with Piano Red, Clarence Carter and others. There’s also Roy Lee Johnson, a fellow Piano Red alum who’s forever tied to the Beatles because they covered his timeless R&B composition “Mr. Moonlight.” Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, a third Piano Red bandmate, might be the greatest on-stage performer of them all and remains a master of the pre-Hendrix behind-the-back guitar solo. In short, if you scoff at event names like “Chicken Raid,” you’re missing out on living history.
Despite recent bouts with lung troubles and doctor’s orders to stay away from smoky bars, Tigner is gearing up for his Aug. 12 birthday bash at the Northside Tavern. Dudek says it’ll be held indoors with Uncle Sugar and numerous other friends. He even teased a possible appearance by White, if you’d like to check off seeing two of the before-mentioned Atlanta legends in one night.
It’s all part of the Northside Tavern’s Mentors Series – concerts that center on such artists as former Percy Sledge guitarist Robert Lee Coleman, Motown legend Ike Stubblefield and others with Georgia ties. This series is one of several signs that while jazz and blues standards like “Route 66” might be from a different time and place, they’re as timeless as Tigner and his fellow legends.
Photo by Brett Scibal.