Here’s a clip of one-hit wonder R&B stylist Tommy Tucker with a song which would grow in stature from the 60s to today; “Hi Heel Sneakers” recorded on Chess sub-label Checker in 1964. The song would be recorded by a wide range of acts from Elvis Presley, to Janis Joplin, to British jazzer Cleo Lane. This is an example of a song outshining its writer in terms of fame, and taking on a life of its own.
[Listen to ‘HI-Heeled Sneakers’]
Tommy Tucker (born Robert Higginbotham in Springfield, Ohio) took the traditional R&B approach, in that he placed his tunes on the back of a piano-and-sax driven sound, having learned the piano at the age of seven. By the early 60s, he had scored a few minor hits. But 1964’s “Hi Heel Sneakers” knocked it out of the park for him. Tucker’s version scored on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts too. It garnered enough attention for a number of acts to snap it up for cover versions, including the Rolling Stones who recorded it for a 1964 BBC radio appearance. Later, it was recorded by Jose Felciano, who also had a hit with it.
Riding high, Tucker toured the UK. And for a follow-up he wrote “Long Tall Shorty” with soul singer Don Covay, although it made less impact on the charts. He would write songs with Atlantic records found Ahmet Ertegun, and record with Chess bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon. But, despite his impressive company, it seemed that “Hi Heel Sneakers” would be Tucker’s shot. Tucker would troll the edges of the musical universe up until his death in 1982 at the relatively young age of 49.
“Hi Heel Sneakers” is one of the best examples of first wave R&B that I can think of, full of low-rent fun, going out at night for some action, all with the possible threat of violence (‘better wear some boxin’ gloves/In case some fool might wanna fight…”). Tucker’s lazy, Jimmy Reed-like delivery makes this tune something of a treat as well, and Tucker’s is the voice of someone from the neighbourhood seizing the day, or the night in this case, in spite of the dangers involved. There’s nothing more rock ‘n’ roll than that.
My first encounter with this tune was on Paul McCartney’s early 90s Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) record, which included this song among other R&B and country covers mixed in with his Beatles material. There was something basic about it which I loved, and it is made clear that it is this brand of R&B which helped the Beatles work out their sound when they were starting out. Tucker could have done worse then recording this one knock-out tune to be celebrated by so many.