Bill Doggett; Keyboardist Had Hit With ‘Honky Tonk’


Bill Doggett, a jazz and rhythm-and-blues pianist, organist and arranger best known for his 1950s hit “Honky Tonk,” has died. He was 80.

Doggett, who recorded the perennial hit in 1956, died Nov. 13 of cancer in a New York City hospital.

Popular in his early years only with die-hard jazz fans, Doggett achieved universal popularity with “Honky Tonk.” The famous instrumental tune was recorded in two parts by King Records, one on each side of a 45-rpm single. By 1979, it had sold more than 3 million copies. It won Billboard’s triple crown award and top R&B; combo award and Cash Box magazine’s most programmed instrumental combo award.


Doggett proved to be a very adaptable performer. He began playing jazz in the 1930s and ‘40s but segued easily to rhythm and blues in the 1950s and after. His work also inspired what became rock ‘n’ roll.

The keyboardist did much to popularize the organ as an instrument for swinging rhythm and blues.

Although he worked steadily for almost six decades, Doggett achieved his greatest popularity from 1952 to 1960 when he headed a small band that recorded for King Records. In 1952, on his first King record, he played organ on “Big Dog,” which illustrated the new, swinging, amplified dance music.

He was born in Philadelphia to parents who worked as a domestic and an elevator operator and were too poor to afford a trumpet for him. Often watching his mother play the piano, he began formal piano lessons at age 9. By 13, he was leading a high school dance band called the Five Majors, and soon started arranging music for the band’s performances at dances and parties.

After high school, Doggett easily found work in the big bands and began recording on Decca and other labels as an accompanist, or sideman.

In 1949, he replaced “Wild” Bill Davis on piano in Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, at the time the hottest black band on records. Later, he briefly worked alone and then formed a trio for King in 1952.


Joining him on the “Honky Tonk” recording were Billy Butler, Clifford Scott, Berisford “Shep” Shepherd and Carl Pruitt.

In later years, Doggett took his groups on several tours of Europe.

Doggett is survived by his wife, Angela, of Islip on New York’s Long Island, and a brother, John, of St. Louis.