Bill Doggett explains the genesis of his 1956 hit record, “Honky Tonk”, which stayed at #2 on the charts for weeks behind Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel

“I say, ‘Hey man, this thing is good. We better give this thing a name. This sounds like one of them honky tonk joints that we used to play down south, with the spittoons and things and the sawdust on the floor.’ So that’s how the name came about. The name, the song and the tune all came together in less than fifteen minutes.”

Doggett: Yes. They heard that organ and that saxophone. Then I added a guitar. Billy Butler on guitar. And then that sort of filled it out. And then after Percy France got sick and he had some problems then I added, well, a whole bunch of saxophone players. Then things didn’t really begin to happen until Clifford Scott got with the band.

Bill DoggettSK

Mathews: Right. How did that happen?

Doggett: Well, Scotty was playing back here. Scotty had been out with Lionel (Hampton), I didn’t know him then, but another friend, I think his name was Kelly Owens told me about a saxophone player. No, we were playing Baltimore and we went to play at a club outside of Baltimore, we used to play it on Sundays, it was called Carr's Beach. Like a recreational thing. There were two black owned beaches in Maryland. Carr’s Beach and...I can't remember the name of this other beach. Anyway, they were right next to each other. But at that time Clifford was playing with Kelly in Princess Anne, Maryland, which isn’t too far from Baltimore. So I met Kelly on the street one time and he say, “Man, Bill if you ever need a saxophone player man, let me know.” He Say, “I got a good one.” So I said, “Yeah, well who?”  He told me his name, and then I’d been changing saxophone players so much until somebody left, I don’t even remember who it was. Then I sent for Scotty, and Scotty came and joined the band and that started our blues turnaround. And that started it. Then out of that bluesy turnaround that we had came Honky Tonk and several more things, bluesy records that I had. 

Mathews: Can you tell us about how Honky Tonk  was created, how that song happened. I’ve noticed that the song credits, what, five guys?

Doggett: Four. Well, that’s actually the way it happened. We were on our way to Los Angeles and we started our tour back east here somewhere. Any how, on a Sunday we played a dance in (Lime), Ohio. We got there early, and so as we would always do, we would either go to a pool room or restaurant, something to kill some time. And this particular night Scotty and Billy and them went to a bar, and had a few tastes. So when they came back, you know, we started playing our regular routine at the dance. So we'd finished playing something and then all of a sudden, I guess Billy’s juice told him to play some blues (chuckles). He decided he wanted to play some blues. So in the middle, out of nowhere, he started playing this (hums intro. bass line), that front part that we play? And I guess it affected the people the same way it affected us because, we heard this and we started looking around at each other because we didn’t know what he was going to do. But in the meantime, the people had started to dance. We’d only played about four bars or eight bars of this thing, and the people had started to dance. Now, we can’t leave 'em out there in the middle of the floor, that would have been sacrilegious or something. (chuckles) So we heard this thing, so we had to wait until he finished to know what he was going to play. So by the time we’d played eight bars I knew what he was going to play. So something out of somewhere made me start playing the shuffle. And when I played the shuffle thing, then Scotty had a real quick ear and a real quick mind, he started doing the same thing but backing me up just a little different then. And he put the top part on it. And so then, it was the form then in the band that if Billy started off with a solo, then Scotty would play his solo  then I would play my solo next. And then the other way around, if I played my solo, then Billy would play then Scotty would play.  So this is how the formula came up. We didn’t say a word to each other. Billy played three choruses, and when Billy played his last three choruses, Scotty felt his last three choruses finishing, and Scotty came in and played his thing. So after we played it, it must have been about, three or four minutes had passed by that time. And so Scotty looked over at me and said, “You want some of this?” I said, “No man, this thing is good enough like it is. Let's take it out." And we were right at the point where we say, (taps and hums cadence)...don't know where it came from, it just was there. (Hums more of lead to climax), It reached its climax and after it reached its climax, Billy fell in with the rest of the thing that he played. So after we finished playing it we all looked at each other and laughed, man, you know because we never played anything like that before. So, but the secret of the whole thing, and I do wish I knew who this man was, because we might not have never played this thing again if he hadn’t walked across the floor, and we went on played about three more tunes. This fella walks across the floor, he say, “Hey Bill!” I say, “Yeah.” He say, “Play that song that y’all played about three songs ago.” I say, “Which one?”  And I called a few songs and he say, “No, not that. Play the one where the guitar player starts it off.” So I looked at Billy and I say, “Hey Billy, can you do it again?”  He say, “Yeah, I can do it again.” So we did it again. But the main thing, other than this man coming across the floor asking us to play it again, the main thing we did was we did it exactly the same way. Exactly the same way, and you know musicians don’t do that. You got to improve it. (laughs) You got to improve it, you got to see if you can play something different. But we played it exactly the same way. And the people all raved over it. I say, “Hey man, this thing is good. We better give this thing a name. This sounds like one of them honky tonk joints that we used to play down south, with the spittoons and things and the sawdust on the floor.” So that’s how the name came about. The name, the song and the tune all came together in less than fifteen minutes.

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L  I S T E N   T O   T H E   M U S I C :

California Rhythm and Blues Music: 1945-1955

1. Everyday I Have the Blues: Earl Good Rockin’ Brown with Lowell Fulson’s band (1949)

Everyday I Have the Blues

2. Double Crossing Blues: Johnny Otis with Little Esther Phillips (1949)

Double Crossing Blues


3. Honkey Tonk: Bill Doggett (1956)


Honkey Tonk