Billy Briggs was born in Fort Worth Texas in 1919. He apprenticed there under pioneering electric steel guitarist Bob Dunn & joined the Hi-Flyers in the mid-1930’s. He followed a stream of former Hi-Flyers to Amarillo in late 1937 to join the Sons Of The West (whose he played on « Panhandle Shuffle ») & in the coming years became one of the earliest steel guitarists to significantly expand upon Dunn’s model. Briggs built his own nine-string steel, began experimenting with new tunings & chord voicings, and, when he formed his own band Swinging Steel in 1939, became perhaps the first steel player to attach legs to his guitar & play standing, fronting his own group. He returned to the Sons Of The West in 1940 & took part in their tightly arranged forward-looking 1941 sessions for Okeh. He held together a makeshift Sons Of The West lineup for a while during the war, then formed his own XIT boys in 1946. In late ’46 or early ’47 Briggs began an association with Dan Allender’s Dalhart/Amarillo-based Time label that lasted to the end of the decade. A single release on Lew Preston’s Folke label followed, before a prolific stint withImperial (1950-53) gave Briggs a regional & much covered hit « Chew Tobacco Rag » in 1951. Briggs ended a nine year association with Amarillo’s Avalon club in 1956 when he dispanded the XIT boys & opened his own ill-fated hall. He left music soon after & died in California in 1984.
About the music of Billy Briggs.
Many Imperial sides are uptempo novelties, with jivey lyrics and a significant jazzy feel. Indeed his famous steel-guitar sound is well to the fore. « The Sissy Song », « Freckle-Face, Snaggle-Tooth Gal », « North Pole Boogie » are among his best songs, but the most well-known is « Chew Tobacco Rag » (two versions), covered by at least (to my knowledge) half a dozen or ten artists, including Spade Cooley, Zeb Turner or Pee Wee King, not to mention an R&B version by Lucky Millinder.
It has been impossible to find anything more proper or complete on him. He is just beginning to get any recognition from Texan fans of Western swing music, hence a couple of Cds, more home-made than commercial. Here are below a part of the liner-notes included, which injects a little bit more light on a far underrated musician (notes by Michael Price)
Without the influence of Billy and Jess, who did their most striking work during the 1946-into-1951 period represented here, the Texas Panhandle-Plains region’s own rock-and-roll and C&W scenes of the 1950s and ’60s would have been significantly less distinctive. Jimmy Bowen, Buddy Knox, Buddy Holly, Charlie « Sugartime » Phillips, Ray Ruff, Roy Orbison and producer Norman Petty-all have, at one time or another, acknowledged their admiration for the Briggs-Williams combination, and especially for the insistent shuffle rhythms and blues-influenced vocalizing that Billy and Jess brought to the table.
BILLY, AS RESIDENT STEEL PLAYER, also harbored jazzman ambitions that show through in his sophisticated chordings and horn-like punctuations. His chief influence was Bob Dunn, of Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies from Fort Worth, but Billy introduced the innovation of a homemade nine-string steel guitar, and he sang in a self-consciously declamatory style (typified by « You Almost Killed My Soul » and the national-breakout hit, « Chew Tobacco Rag« ) that might seem amateurish if not for its utter brash confidence and prevailing air of indignation. The avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who briefly called Amarillo home during this period, has recalled after-hours across-the-tracks jams with the X-I-T Boys: « That Briggs cat was doing riffs on steel guitar that you just don’t associate with ‘country’ music. »
JESS WLLIAMS, of the heartbeat-steady rhythm guitar and plaintive whiskey-baritone blues voice, held forth as co-leader of the X-I-T Boys even though Billy took top billing. They composed most of their own material, assimilating traditional and commercial influences but retaining an unusual lyrical skew. Jess kept things going in Amarillo for years after Billy’s (ultimately frustrated) bid for greater recognition on the West Coast. The third lead vocalist is Weldon Allard, who stayed in the music business well into the 1990s.
Another appreciation of Briggs’ music :
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).
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. »