27 July, 2010

Emery Eugene Higginbotham, January 21 1922 - July 27 2010

If you're old enough to remember when a Charleston musician and  "recitationist" named Buddy Starcher had a locally produced TV show on WCHS TV, then there's a good chance you saw my dad on TV. He was Buddy Starcher's guitar player before Starcher recorded a gold album and left Charleston for a larger TV market.

If you listened to WBES FM radio in the 80s and remember the catchy Boll Medical jingle that played in all Boll Medical radio ads back then, you heard one of my dad's best melodies. Boll Medical's GM, Chris Miller, had just fired their ad agency and placed me in charge of Boll Medical's advertising. Boll didn't have a jingle so I gave my dad a few simple phrases I wanted him to work into a jingle and hired him to write it. We sent his simple vocal and acoustic guitar "demo tape"  to a guy at WBEZ in Chicago who added keyboards, percussion and a female vocal and made "donut", end sing, open sing and full sing versions of it. Boll's customers and referral sources told us they found themselves singing along with it. That's jingle gold. 

If you learned to play guitar in St. Albans during or immediately after "the British invasion", there's a good chance you took guitar lessons from my dad. I still remember how dad's tiny after school guitar teaching business exploded in the 60s when simply every St. Albans boy (and a few of the girls) started bringing 45 RPM Beatles records and sheet music to my dad and asking him how to play stuff my dad didn't even consider music.

But I'll never forget when my dad's opinion of The Beatles changed forever. Someone brought him "Yesterday" and my dad dutifully starting learning it. 

"I hate to admit it" he said, "but those boys can write some music,” he told me. "I even had to learn a new chord".

Dad reacted similarly to "Penny Lane" and to other Beatles hits that his students brought him.

During the "British invasion" years dad's little home-based guitar lessons business outgrew our house  so dad rented a space on Grant Avenue next to old Doctor Brooks' dental practice and then spilled over into a third floor space on Main Street.

A few years later students started bringing dad stuff that really challenged his open-mindedness. I remember one day when I heard dad playing and re-playing the same Van Halen tape. When I went back to dad's "music room" I found him slumped over his guitar trying to figure out how Eddie Van Halen was playing a particularly unorthodox lick. Dad figured out the "hammer on/pull off/tapping" thing Van Halen made famous but dad didn't like the "alternative tunings" employed by Van Halen and other rockers. As far as dad was concerned, there was only one right way to tune a guitar and anything else was just guitar heresy and cheating. He felt the same way about capos.

"Real guitar players don't have to use capos,” my dad said every time he saw a capo. "Real guitar players learn how to play the same chord three to five different ways anywhere on the neck and don't need to use a capo."

Easy for dad to say since he could play just about anything with strings and frets. In addition to being a pretty good guitar player my dad played mandolin and banjo.

If the Charleston Gazette uses the old photo I sent them along with his obituary, you'll see him playing the double-necked Carvin he toted from gig to gig throughout much of my childhood. The bottom neck was a guitar; the top neck was a mandolin. Back in those days dad was playing with the Jules Micheaux Combo, which played pretty much everything - and dad liked to be versatile.

Twice in dad's guitar-teaching career he taught guitar atop other music-related businesses. he taught at Herbert Music Company on Main Street in St. albans for a while and then, after he retired from the Post Office, he taught in a space above The Fret and Fiddle, a used musical instrument store on Pennsylvania Ave. in St. Albans.

Dad didn't have any formal musical training but he could sight read pretty good and managed to write quite a few songs that got published by small music publishing companies. Throughout most of my childhood years dad worked for the Post Office by day and played music on the weekends. He played all the "animal clubs" - The Eagles Club, The Moose Lodge, The Elks Lodge, etc. - and he played for weddings and parties and political fundraisers. I remember once when my dad - a lifelong Democrat - played a Republican fundraiser and I basically accused him of hypocrisy. 

"Republican money spends as good as Democrat money" said my dad "and the more money they give to me the less they have to beat Democrats with at the polls".

Dad would also want me to mention the time he went to Nashville and recorded a few of his original songs. I was only about 12 at the time, I think, but I remember that I liked a tune he called "Dark Clouds". It was kind of bluesy and almost hit the top 40 - in Australia. Had his record broken the top 40 anywhere he would have had a decision to make: keep working at the Post Office and let his record career fend for itself or quit his "day job" and hit the road to promote the record. 

Some of my dad's friends and acquaintances may also remember that dad was a regular contributor to the Metro West supplement to the Charleston Newspapers for several years. His "remembrances" of growing up in the coalfields and going to war and playing music appeared on a regular basis next to his photo. People dad hadn't talked to since childhood found him as a result of those articles and he got a bang out of it. For him, his articles worked in the 90s like Facebook works for my generation.

About a year before dad died he nearly lost an eye to an aggressive, disfiguring cancer on his and then a few months after that he was hospitalized with congestive heart failure for about a month so when he succumbed to apparent heart failure early Tuesday morning July 27, 2010, "his death was not unexpected", to quote my mom. Years before his death he made arrangements to have his body donated to science so when he died in the emergency room at Thomas Memorial Hospital, the folks from Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University came to take his body. After med students have used my dad's body to learn human anatomy, his remains will be buried next to his sister's as he requested.

Emery Eugene Higginbotham is survived by his wife, Hester, by his brother, Troy, and by me, his only child.

1 comment:

  1. Just saw this. Emery was a great asset to our orchestra. He was always encouraging and punctual. We were together 15 years.

    I led the orchestra and did DJ work too. Once he told me that my DJ presentation was so good that I should drop the orchestra snd concentrate on that.

    Thanks for the writeup. Glad we got to know him.

    Dick Newman dnbl@msn.com


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