Cliff Givens

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This bass vocalist has had a lengthy career, starting out in a country blues band, working with groups such as the Ink Spots in the mid-'40s, and eventually showing up on Ry Cooder and James Taylor sessions…
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This bass vocalist has had a lengthy career, starting out in a country blues band, working with groups such as the Ink Spots in the mid-'40s, and eventually showing up on Ry Cooder and James Taylor sessions in the '80s. To some critics, the process seemed unfocused, even "meandering" to quote one exactly. But Cliff Givens, or Clifton Givens as he is credited in the earliest days of his career, was a complete success by one set of standards considered very important by musicians. That is, as a player gets older they should carry less and less equipment around with them. In this way, he is leaps and bounds ahead of most players, having forsaken the cumbersome bass fiddle for his own voice, which he used to create bass lines of great swinging beauty.

There are few singers attempting to create a walking bass sound that do it as effortlessly and smoothly as Givens. Much of the credit for what is actually a fascinating musical transition can go the producer Lillian Shedd McMurry, one of the few women to run a blues label in the early '50s. It is she who was credited with suggesting Givens sing a bass line rather than play the bass itself on a session for her Trumpet label by harmonica master Sonny Boy Williamson II, resulting in the incredible track entitled "Mighty Long Time," a duet for Williamson and Givens. At this stage of the game, Givens was already ahead of the game as one of the first bassists in the newly developing genre of postwar electric blues. When Williamson began recording in Chicago, this would develop into the rocking Chicago blues or urban blues style that is essentially the heartbeat of all later developments in both rock and soul music. But, by then Givens had gone over completely into the vocal music camp, as the demand for bass singers in Chicago blues bands was about on par with sitar or penny whistle. He joined the Ink Spots, which went through more transformations than Lawrence Talbot, when singer Hoppy Jones died shortly after collapsing on-stage in the mid-'40s. At that point, Givens was working with the Southern Sons Quartet, but was brought in as a replacement for Jones. This stint was short-lived. Perhaps because he was tired of looking at Givens, group leader Bill Kenny brought in his own twin brother to replace him.

Nonetheless, the period was long enough to legitimize the singer as a "real" Ink Spot as opposed to the dozens of imitators, members of groups which featured no member with any kind of association at all with the original group. And it also meant Givens was in the studio for collaborations with the magnificent jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, resulting in some of the finest tracks ever recorded in the vocal music genre. Although the Ink Spots were one of several groups of this ilk that became household names, Givens is actually much more respected for his work with the Golden Gate Quartet. This was the type of complex syncopation and intricate harmony work that Ry Cooder was looking to recreate on portions of his Bop Till You Drop album, so it is no surprise that Givens was brought in to help get the job done right. He also sang bass with the Dominoes beginning in 1953 through the end of that decade, appearing on many of their recordings and once in a while even getting handed the lead. For several years, one of his vocal sidekicks in this group was none other than the great soul singer Jackie Wilson, who coincidentally also wound up dropping dead on-stage.