Friday, June 26, 2009

Just Like Bogie And Bacall - Only Different

Generally speaking the term ‘one hit wonder’ is bandied about a little too liberally, but in certain cases it’s an entirely apt definition to apply in reference to an artist’s career. In the case of Bertie Higgins, the line between the two camps is a little blurred. Higgins is generally corralled into the ‘one hit wonder’ camp on account of his 1982 top ten smash ‘Key Largo’. But in his native U.S., Higgins did actually trouble the chart statisticians on one further occasion, so in a technical sense, he does manage to avoid the tag.

Given his family heritage, it seemed that Bertie Higgins was destined at some point to become somewhat of a story teller. His great-great grandfather was the German writer/poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the man who penned the tragic play ‘Faust’, acknowledged as one of the great works of German, in fact world, literature. Elbert Joseph Higgins, or Bertie for short, didn’t gravitate directly to the world of literature, but eventually his music would be characterised by a distinctly literary flavour. He grew up in the community of Tarpon Springs, in Florida, so not a million miles away from the island of Key Largo, which would in time be forever associated with the Bertie Higgins’ name.

Higgins didn’t get his start in show business as a musician, but rather a ventriloquist, and some may think that a perfectly reasonable training ground for lip synching. However, Higgins didn’t graduate to lip synching, aside from in his music videos, but rather he leapt into the world of rock and roll as a drummer. Throughout high school and college, a studious Higgins tried to remain focussed on his studies toward a career in journalism, but all the while the music bug kept biting. High school proms, local dances, whenever the opportunity arose, he’d hit the skins. Eventually the itch to be a musician became too much, and Higgins left college to take up a position as drummer with a band called The Romans. It was the early 60s, and soon The Romans were touring the country regularly. They soon came to the attention of singing sensation Tommy Roe, who invited them to become his new backing band. Renamed The Roemans, Higgins and his band mates toured the world with Roe, opening for the likes of Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys, and Tom Jones. Whilst The Roemans enjoyed a steady income from their tour work with Tommy Roe, their own flirtations as a recording act weren’t so fruitful. During the mid 60s they recorded several singles for the ABC-Paramount label, but none managed to break the band in their own right.

By 1968, Bertie Higgins had grown tired of life on the touring circuit, and yearned for a change of pace, both in life and as a musician. He quit The Roemans and returned to his home in Florida, with a view to teaching himself the guitar, and becoming a song writer. Though Higgins was largely out of the mainstream spot light, he spent the next decade or so wisely. He’d made a number of friends along the way on his journey as a rock and roll drummer, and the likes of singer/songwriters Gordon Lightfoot and Jimmy Buffet remained close allies as Higgins developed his own craft. Bertie Higgins also kept up an interest in writing, more specifically screen writing, and actor/director Richard Boone became a mentor of sorts.

Higgins, Magnum, TC, and Rick, then began playing local clubs - wait, I shouldn't watch greatest hits television whilst writing these posts. Bertie Higgins began playing local clubs and was soon honing his performance craft at venues across Florida. By 1980, he’d had built up a cache of songs, and shifted base to Atlanta. There he struck up a partnership with producer Sonny Limbo, who had played a key largo, sorry, key role in the rise of Alabama, the southern-style rock band, not the state. Higgins had one song in particular that caught the ear of Limbo, a mid-tempo ballad with lyrics about a failed romance. With the help of Limbo, and new manager Bill Lowery, Higgins reworked the lyrics a tad. He drew on his personal love of classic Hollywood cinema, and wove the lyrics, (very) loosely around the Humphrey Bogart film ‘Key Largo’. The song was presented to a subsidiary label of CBS, Kat Family Records, who eventually succumbed to the song’s charms and agreed to release it.

‘Key Largo’ hit the U.S. Hot 100 during November of ‘81, and by early ‘82 had sailed to a peak of #8 (#1 on the Adult Contemporary charts). It was an alluring slice of soft rock, and about as radio friendly as you could get, at least in the U.S., circa early 80s. The verse lyrics were standard romantic ballad fare, but also contained a couple of clever references to lines from Humphrey Bogart films, namely “Please say you will play it again”, and “Here’s looking at you kid”, though curiously inspired by ‘Casablanca’ not ‘Key Largo’. In fact, aside from the mentioning of ‘Bogie and Bacall’ (in reference to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall), and the line “Sailing away to Key Largo”, the song ‘Key Largo’ doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the film of the same name. No mention of gangsters, hostages, shoot outs and double dealing treachery, that featured in the plot to John Huston’s 1948 classic. Still, the song did have a breezy, tropical island feel to it, and the accompanying video clip suited the song to a tee. ‘Key Largo’ charmed its way into the Australian charts during mid ‘82, and cruised all the way to #2, though Britain weren’t really into the whole easy listening soft rock sound at that time, and the song floundered at #60 on the U.K. charts.

Bertie Higgins had just one more tilt at the major charts, via the follow up single ‘Just Another Day In Paradise’, which managed to dock at #46 on the U.S. Hot 100 (though it did reach as high as #10 on the Adult Contemporary charts). It was the title track from Bertie Higgins’ debut album, which stuck pretty much to the same melodic soft rock formula throughout. What set the album apart from the pack, were Higgins’ lyrics, which gave the album a bit of a conceptual feel throughout. The classic cinema theme ran throughout most of the songs, with several more references to ‘40s movies, and Humphrey Bogart in particular, woven through tales of romance and adventure. The album’s third single was even named ‘Casablanca’. The Bertie Higgins’ brand of ‘Trop Rock’ story telling must have appealed to the masses, because the album ‘Just Another Day in Paradise’ eventually went double platinum (US#38/OZ#32).

Though you could be forgiven for thinking that Bertie Higgins then sailed off the edge of the Earth, that was far from the truth of the matter. He released a follow up in 1983, titled ‘Pirates & Poets’, which featured an obvious combination of nautical and romantic themes. Roy Orbison even dropped by to sing backing vocals on the track ‘Leah’. Over the next ten years, Higgins retreated once more to the quiet life, but kept on writing music and tinkering with screen-plays. He also took time to open a restaurant, and continued to perform on an irregular basis. In 1994 the album ‘Back To The Island’ was released, which was basically a repackaging of songs from his first two albums.

The voyage appears far from complete for Bertie Higgins, and over the last ten years he’s recorded several more albums, with 2009’s ‘Captiva’, the most recent. He regularly tours with his backing band, the aptly named ‘Band of Pirates’, and even boasts an international fan club, who call themselves ‘The Boneheads’. Once a year, Higgins’ Boneheads gather for a seven day cruise under the banner of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ - not sure if that one arose before or after the motion picture franchise. Speaking of which, Higgins has also maintained an interest in film making, and has worked with one of his sons on several projects.

It’s likely that while ever he has access to a guitar, a palm tree, and a nice stretch of tropical island beach, Bertie Higgins will keep on making music, in his own engaging, story-telling style.

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