213: Tommy Tucker, ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’

Posted by on Mar 25, 2020 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week |
Hi-Heel Sneakers

Hi-Heel Sneakers

Tommy Tucker, ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Henry David Thoreau said that.

Robert Higginbotham was born in 1933 in Springfield, Ohio, and went to his grave in 1982 in Newark, New Jersey. In between, he sold real estate, freelanced for a local paper about the plight of black males in America. He died at 48 from inhaling a cleaning agent while polishing his floors.

Red Dress

Red Dress

I’m sure Bob was terribly distraught by the death of his boxer buddy (‘Who Killed…’) Davey Moore. He didn’t live to see his daughter Regina make a modest career as a singer under the name of Teeny Tucker or his cousin Joan spend two weeks in outer space.

But before he settled into his respectable bourgeois life, Bob spent some time pursuing a career as a rhythm and blues singer in Chicago for the Chess/Checker label (founded by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, aka Lejzor and Fiszel Czyż, as immortalized in the film de clef “Cadillac Records”). Bob never became a household name like his stablemates Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, or Howlin’ Wolf, not even under his nom de plume Tommy Tucker.

Tommy was the ultimate “one-hit wonder”. In 1963, his song ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’ hit number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Tommy Tucker

Tommy Tucker

Little Tommy Tucker” is a nursery rhyme first recorded circa 1744 (the words written down, not sung in a studio, silly). It equates the futility of cutting bread without a knife to living your life of quiet desperation without a wife. I’m sure there’s some pretty heavy meaning there, but you’d have to go do some bespectacled cultural anthropologist to find out just what that is.

I recently read Bob Dylan saying that songs aren’t written, they’re found. They exist out there in the vapour, and the ‘songwriter’ is just a medium for catching it, like a metamusical brass ring. But Bob also recently said that “Blues is a combination of Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes working it out,“ so you want to tread carefully in that minefield.

There’s a timelessness to ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’. Indeed, it’s hard to think of it being ‘written’; it does in fact feel like it’s always been there, and Bob Higginbotham just grabbed it.

Robert Higginbotham--in quiet desperation?

Robert Higginbotham–in quiet desperation?

He didn’t invent the term ‘sneakers’, which was already in use in the late 19th century to refer to how quietly someone wearing rubber-souled athletic shoes could “sneak up” on you. But the song did invent a type of pedewear – no mean feet in itself.

But Tommy’s recording undeniably did coin a template for that ebullient rush of anticipation every one of us has felt sprucing up for a big Saturday night.

Bopping to it at the age of 15, little did I (or anyone else) dream that it would go on to be recorded by literally thousands of artists, including The Beatles (1969 studio jam), The Rolling Stones (1964, unreleased), Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis (live, knockout), the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, the Grateful Dead, Laura Nyro, Janis Joplin (Big Brother, unreleased, killer! version) and Stevie Wonder (1965 live).

One-Hit Wonder

One-Hit Wonder

I have no idea if Bob Higginbotham felt a sense of quiet desperation while he was peddling real estate or refinishing his floors. But he was one guy who most definitely did not go to the grave with the song still in him.

So let Tommy Tucker be a role model for all us Robert Higginbothams. Keep filling out lottery forms. Keep digging for gold on the weekends. Keep writing those poems and painting those watercolors. We, too, could be one-hit wonders.

 

Put on your red dress, baby
Lord, we goin’ out tonight.
Put on your red dress, baby
Lord, we goin’ out tonight.
And wear some boxin’ gloves
In case some fool might wanna fight.

 Put on your high-heel sneakers,
Wear your wig-hat on your head.
Put on your high-heel sneakers,
Wear your wig-hat on your head.
I’m pretty sure now, baby
Lord, you know you’re gonna knock ’em dead.

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6 Comments

Recruiting Animal
Feb 20, 2015 at 1:09 pm

I saw Tommy Tucker when I was a kid. We weren’t interested in him though or Jackie DeShannon (whom I later came to like). They were the opening acts; we were there to see the main show. But that wasn’t so great either. The screaming was so loud you couldn’t hear anything and it only seemed to last a half an hour.


 
DCortex
Feb 20, 2015 at 5:05 pm

I worked at A-1 Studios in Manhattan (76th st), where “Hi Heel Sneakers” was recorded in 1963. My employment was 1970 to 71 or 2. Robert was still trying to make another hit, but never hit the charts again. He was a great guy and was operating a restaurant in Jersey as well as his performing hopes.


 
Mark L. Levinson
Mar 27, 2020 at 12:37 pm

For what it’s worth…

While Henry David Thoreau is often credited with variations of the aphorism “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them,” that is not what he wrote in “Walden.” He merely said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (Or to quote another Thoreau aphorism: “You must work very long to write short sentences.”) — https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2012/new-york-times-corrects-misquote-of-thoreaus-quiet-desperation-line/


 
Dave
Mar 27, 2020 at 8:07 pm

So that’s where that line from Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free #10” came from…

I sat with my high-heeled sneakers on
Waiting to play tennis in the noonday sun
I had my white shorts rolled up past my waist
And my wig-hat falling in my face
But they wouldn’t let me on the tennis court.


 
Reinhard
Mar 29, 2020 at 8:01 pm

Thanks, Jeff, for this cool reference! As a lyric fragment the high-heel sneakers found their way into Steely Dan’s FM, the last song they wrote together before their album Two Against Nature 20 years later.


 
Skip Knowles
May 8, 2020 at 10:09 pm

We were not worthy!
‘High Heel Sneaker‘ is the classic example of an unpolished original exceeding all the slick covers that followed. The recording was perfect in its raw, down home, rough around the edges organ & guitar, a working combo deep into a groove, like a live take from the late set at Eli’s Mile High Club. Top name artists and musicians couldn’t touch it. Inventive lyrics and infectious groove, juke joynt musicians inviting us to poke our heads into their world. I can’t believe this tune made it onto top forty radio at the time of Bobby Vinton and the Supremes. I LOVED the original…couldn’t care less for the covers.


 

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