Atlanta-based pianist and blues singer Eddie Tigner remains standing while performing in order to keep the music vibrant — literally.
The musician, who turned 88 in August, has spent countless hours sitting on a bench, chunking out block chords on the keys or navigating deliberately through solos, but standing enables him to play late into the night. “Most keyboard players sit; I can’t anymore,” he says. “If I sit down to play, I’ll go to sleep.”
Those nightly gigs used to include sojourns to Europe sponsored by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a support organization that has helped Tigner with medical bills, gifted him a new keyboard and helped him wrangle a passport. Those European concerts ended in 2012, though, as the recession hit Europe, and Tigner says that the traveling part of his life is over. Now, his concerts are limited to Thursday night appearances with his own band at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack and a weekly Sunday performance at Northside Tavern with the blues group Uncle Sugar.
Tigner has been performing with Uncle Sugar at Northside for the past four or five years — the musician says there’s a much younger, Georgia Tech crowd at that venue — and his longtime Fat Matt’s gig has been as successful. At the barbecue venue, he says, customers swing by to pick up to-go orders and end up standing around, listening to him sing long into the night. Simply put, Tigner is a magnetic musical presence, and he has abundant staying power.
Music Maker has helped capture his voice — which encapsulates a lifetime of memories in every note — on record. In 2003, Tigner released Route 66, a 12-song album that pitted originals like “Rag Mop” against standards such as “Take the A Train,” “C.C. Rider” and, of course, “Route 66.” Four years later, Tigner’s follow up, Slippin’ In, came along. His recording of “Route 66” is featured on We Are the Music Makers, a Music Maker release to correspond with the organization’s 20th anniversary celebration, and Tigner appeared at Music Maker’s anniversary celebration in October.
Tigner’s mother instilled in her son the passion and creative drive to play music throughout a career that has stretched on for more than 70 years. His mother played piano, and Tigner remembers her playing backyard parties and barbecue gatherings in Macon, where he was born. After his father died in World War I, his mother moved the family to Kentucky.
The young musician’s musical exposure broadened rapidly in the Bluegrass State, and he remembers hearing bands like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Wayne King’s orchestra. Tigner internalized the country and western sound, listening to the professionals when he got the chance, but mostly hearing the music his mother played.
“She was doing boogie-woogie back then and a few bluegrass [tunes] — because in Kentucky, they specialized in country and bluegrass,” he says. “That’s the style I love. Even today, we’ll slip in a few bluegrass tunes.”
His family moved back to Atlanta when Tigner was 15, and then he was off to the army a few years later, in 1945. During World War II, he served as a booking agent for the special service hall, so he met a number of musicians who had come to entertain the troops. Slowly, with encouragement from these new acquaintances and other enlisted musicians, Tigner started taking up the piano.
In those early years, he says, his creativity was fueled more by Nat King Cole’s small-group style of playing — smooth vocals, and an almost effortless touch on the piano. As he’s gotten older, Tigner has moved to a more percussive attack on the piano that fits well with his road-worn voice. “I love the music I was doing back then; it was more fluid than the music is now,” Tigner says. “But I enjoy music, period.”
Tigner got his highest-profile break in 1959, when he joined the Ink Spots onstage during a show in Atlanta and became a touring member of the band. When the original band gave way to multiple groups — a former member has said there were up to 14 different versions of the “Ink Spots” quartet that toured the country — Tigner served as a connection to the way things were, according to a 1982 article in the Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard. In a concert review, the author noted that on that night at the Eugene Holiday Inn, the group was billed as “Eddie Tigner’s Ink Spots.”
According to the article, Tigner “calls the tunes, sets the tempos, plays the organ, sings bass and off-stage, wears a baseball cap with the message, ‘I’m the Boss.’”
The article referenced Tigner as an original member of the band, and with the loose definition of authenticity that surrounded the group, that may have been true, to some extent. Tigner was playing his own tunes even then — in an article from the late 1970s, he said the group would be happy to play disco, except they didn’t have the right tools — but used classic Ink Spots numbers as the foundation of the show. That was almost 30 years ago, and now Tigner has carved out a career as a soulful bluesman. But this second act almost never was; Tigner says that after ending his run with the Ink Spots in 1987, he returned to his Atlanta home, ready to give music a rest. “I was getting ready to retire. I was going to stop for a while,” he says. “I started playing blues after that.”
The decades rolled by, and Tigner developed a following in Atlanta and Europe. Some listeners at his weekly gigs could look at Tigner and the fact that, at his age, he’s still standing at the piano, singing originals and old favorites, with dumbfounded awe. For Tigner, though, music is just what he does. “As long as I’m able, I will be doing it,” he says. “I just love to play.”
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