Died: April 11, 1998
Born Lillan Biggs in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Search Lillian Briggs’s name in music trade magazines from the mid 1950s, and you will quickly come across her rags-to-riches story: former truck driver becomes rock and roll star:
“A 23-year-old former brunette truck driver, now a blonde entertainer with one of the hottest acts in show business…” (“Rock ’n’ Roll’s Lillian Briggs Booked to Be at State Fair,” Fredonia Censor, 2 August 1956)
“Brunette Lillian Briggs, trombone-playing idol of the teen-age rock ’n’ roll set, got her first steady job by answering a Help Wanted Male ad for a truck driver in the Allentown (Pa.) Call-Chronicle. She drove a 2-ton truck 14 months while developing her musical abilities.” (“Want Ad Wonders: Rock ’n’ Roll Idol Got Truck-Driver Job Via Want Ad” [advertisement], Kingston Daily Freeman [Kingston, NY], 7 November 1955.)
Briggs, the daughter of a steel mill worker, supported herself early in her career by working odd jobs, including truck driver and welder. She studied piano and violin as a child in Pennsylvania, and then learned to play the trombone so she could join her high school band. She said in interviews that she wanted to raise money to form her own all-girl orchestra, and eventually this goal led her to a gig with Joy Cayler’s All-Girl Orchestra, a prominent swing band. Playing with that group, she caught the attention of an agent who helped her to obtain vocal training and record deals.
Briggs was one of many performers who made the jump from other popular music styles to rock and roll in an effort to maximize publicity. She was an early adopter, however, appearing in news notices across the world under the moniker “Queen of Rock and Roll” (or similar) as early as 1955. She may have changed the genre with which she identified, but she didn’t change her primary instrument: throughout the fifties and into the sixties, Briggs continued to appear on stage with her trombone in hand.
She billed herself as the “Queen of Rock and Roll,” but her records drew more on her background as a big band performer than on contemporary rock and rollers: they are pervaded by swing rhythms, brassy lead vocals, scat singing, call-and-response with backing vocalists, blistering tempos, and jazzy instrumental interludes prominently featuring horns. She cited Louis Armstrong as a major influence. She also was inspired by jump blues: “I Want You to Be My Baby,” her biggest hit, was a Louis Jordan cover. It peaked at #23 on the Billboard pop charts the week of September 17, 1955, landing Briggs not far below Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” in the first crop of mainstream rock and roll hits.
Briggs toured internationally, appeared on a number of American television shows, from Jack Paar’s Tonight Show to American Bandstand to What’s My Line?, was cast in Alan Freed’s stage shows in New York, performed at the United Nations, played a jazz trombonist in the Jerry Lewis film The Ladies Man (1961), and made a rather experimental record with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (recorded 1962, released 1964). A dedicated working musician, Briggs played countless small gigs at state fairs and other more humble venues.
In the 1970s, Briggs largely retired as a professional musician and went to Florida, where she was a real estate mogul and something of a socialite. Her famous friends included Lucille Ball and two-time presidential hopeful Senator Gary Hart—to whom she infamously lent her yacht during the affair that ultimately ended his career. She died of cancer in 1998.
“Give Me a Band and My Baby” / “It Could Have Been Me.” Epic 5-9120 (1955).
“Eddie My Love” / “The Teen in Jeans from New Orleans.” Epic 5-9151 (1955).
“Don’t Stay Away Too Long” / “I Want You To Be My Baby.” Epic 5-9115 (1955).
“I’ll Be Gone” / “Mean Words.” Epic 5-9191 (1956).
The High Priestess of Rock ’n Roll. Epic EG 7163 (1956).
“Sugar Blues” / “Boogie Blues.” Epic 5-9214 (1957).
Screaming’ Jay Hawkins & Lillian Briggs. Coronet CX-218 (1964, rec. 1962).
“Want Ad Wonders: Rock ’n’ Roll Idol Got Truck-Driver Job Via Want Ad” [advertisement], Kingston Daily Freeman [Kingston, NY], 7 November 1955.
“Rock ’n’ Roll’s Lillian Briggs Booked to Be at State Fair,” Fredonia Censor, 2 August 1956.
“Music: Freed Rocks B’klyn With ‘Beat’ Show” Billboard, 8 September 1958, 70.
Kay Mott, “Allentown’s Lil,” Philadelphia Enquirer Magazine, November 20, 1956, 23.
“Lillian Briggs dies at 64,” Variety, 6 May 1998 (https://variety.com/1998/music/news/lillian-briggs-dies-at-64-1117470477/).