Hushed Voice 

Remembering Tommy Riggs, longtime regular at the Bullpen Lounge

Remembering Tommy Riggs, longtime regular at the Bullpen Lounge

His death didn’t rate a notice in The Tennessean, but anyone who knew Tommy Riggs knew he was a giant. True, he was a large man, weighing more than 450 pounds, but Riggs, who passed away July 29, will be remembered far more for his enormous talents as a singer and songwriter, and for his incredible generosity of spirit.

“You almost have to go back to Brook Benton or Billy Eckstine to find a true baritone singer like Tommy,” says the great singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb, a Riggs fanatic. “He was of that school: a tremendously gifted guy who never strained a note—and the greatest friend a guy could ever have.”

Best known for his longstanding nightly engagement at the Stockyard’s Bullpen Lounge, Riggs had been battling a rare cancer of the small bowel for a couple of years. By the time he died, two weeks after his 57th birthday, he’d lost 200 pounds. At his last performance, a benefit held in June to help defray his medical bills, he was wheelchair-bound and racked with pain.

“Even then, he brought up four girls to sing whose names I can’t remember, who were working in Nashville as waitresses but blew everybody away—one after another,” says Steve Popovich, now the president of Cleveland International Records and in the late ’80s and early ’90s head of PolyGram’s country division. “He always had a knack for recognizing the next generation of talent.” Riggs himself sang two songs at the benefit, in the extraordinarily soulful voice that had entertained listeners for years.

At least his hometown paper, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, saw fit to remember him in a lengthy obit subtitled “Singer, Songwriter, ‘Prom King.’ ” The article recalled how the North Little Rock native gained local fame as the “Prom King” for performing at high school proms throughout central Arkansas. He earned a larger following in the ’60s and ’70s as Rock Robbins, a rock deejay on the high-powered Little Rock station KAAY-AM, which could be heard from Canada to Cuba.

Riggs later performed in Las Vegas and New York before settling in Nashville in 1987, appearing at Cajuns Wharf before holding court at the Stockyard from 1988 to 1997. “It was the best night out anywhere in Nashville,” says Webb, who saluted Riggs in his recently published book Tunesmith. “He was so generous in bringing other people onstage, so it was always a forum for new talent. I remember how a waitress would put down her tray and start singing, and he’d say, ‘This is Grace from Podunk, Ark.,’ or someplace like that. Then there were times when someone like Jerry Lee Lewis came in and played. And the house band was clearly the best band ever, anywhere. I went every chance I got, and every once in a while, he’d get me up onstage to play a couple tunes. Once he knew you, you were special folks and had to be seated ringside and attended to and introduced to everybody.”

Popovich was frequently among those seated ringside. “Without ever having a record out, [Tommy] had an underground following and friends from all over the world, whom he’d met when Nashville was in its heyday and tourists rolled in during their annual trips,” he says. “But it was a great place to hang out and hear people who didn’t have deals—and Tommy, of course. He’d sing blues, New Orleans classics, current country covers. He did a monster version of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now,’ not to mention his hilarious one-liners. It was the best live show in Nashville at one time.”

Changes inevitably came to the Stockyard, and Riggs and the band were dropped. But even though his final stand in Nashville was a weekend gig last year at the Broken Spoke, Riggs’ June benefit—dubbed the “Butterbeanefit,” after his signature song “Just a Bowl of Butterbeans”—fittingly was held at the Bullpen. Among those who performed were Bryan White, Lori Morgan, Sammy Kershaw, Jeannie Seely, Diamond Rio’s Dana Williams, and the Memphis Horns’ Wayne Jackson. Not present but donating silent auction items were Webb, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Tim McGraw, Bill Anderson, Steve Wariner, and Ray Stevens.

“They raised a lot of money, which helped his spirits in a way you couldn’t put a price on,” says Riggs’ daughter Kelly Hollowell. “He was touched and surprised by the outpouring of love and support.”

Popovich says it was the best he ever sang. Bryan White says it was “like Tommy never missed a beat.” Hollowell notes that Riggs had been writing in bed the last few months and emceed only a couple shows in his wheelchair, “but they didn’t care: It was his voice and personality that they wanted.”

White was just one of the many performers whom Riggs had befriended and spotlighted at the Stockyard over the years. “I used to hang out there when I first moved to Nashville, because Tommy would let me go up and play,” he says. “Nobody knew who I was, and he was one of the first people to really believe in me as a singer—and [he was] a super nice guy and really great person.”

One of the most celebrated songwriters in American pop music extols the merits of Riggs the songwriter. “He was an excellent songwriter, who unfortunately didn’t get the attention,” Webb says. “I love some of his tunes to this day, like ‘Love’s Last Stand’ [a hit for Donna Meade, who alternated sets with Tommy at the Bullpen]. But he was a tremendous singer: I couldn’t believe the big voice that came rolling out of him.

“I’m going to miss him. I don’t know what else to say.”

I too always went to the Stockyard to hear Tommy whenever I was in Nashville. Yes, he really was that good, and yes, he opened his arms to everybody.

“Tommy was a good friend to a lot of people,” Sammy Kershaw says. “A lot of people lost a good friend.”

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