Milligan’s Island

A resonant tenor and a barking delivery set Austin’s Malford Milligan apart from other soul singers—and that’s not the only thing.

April 1997By Comments

WHEN MALFORD MILLIGAN takes the stage with his band, Storyville, at the Austin barbecue joint Stubb’s, his blond hair is parted and combed in a jagged sort of pompadour. But as he sings, twirls, and sweats, the hair stands straight out from his cowlick, his temples, and the back of his head—it soon looks like an electrocuted mop. He wears a loose black silk shirt buttoned at the throat, and his complexion suggests what Procol Harum had in mind with the turn of phrase “a whiter shade of pale.” Milligan is a blue-eyed black albino, which in the segregation of his youth in Texas left him feeling like a freak of nature, an outcast in both the worlds he was born into. And yet today, the 38-year-old may be the next great soul singer.

Milligan is still learning, but his tenor resonance and barking delivery invite comparisons with Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and when he’s onstage, you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s six feet two and has thick shoulders, long arms, and large hands. He bounces on the heels of his patent-leather brogans, makes a tent of his fingertips, admires instrumental bridges with the otherworldly head sway of Stevie Wonder, and draws back his lips over an expanse of grin and gums worthy of Louis Armstrong. Then he jumps through the guitar play at the mike, flaps his palm against his chest, flings out an arm, and inhales the room. Of course, Milligan’s appearance cuts both ways. Although he was a performer at last year’s gala in Austin celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Texas Film Commission, his entry was blocked by a security guard who took one look at him and decided he was a derelict or a street crazy. “On tour,” Milligan relates cheerfully, “people are always saying, ‘Are you a, uh, roadie for this band?’ ‘That’s right. You got it! Exactly.’”

Though live performance is clearly what drives him, Milligan has acquitted himself well in the recording studio. Storyville’s A Piece of Your Soul (Atlantic/Code Blue), which was released last summer, has sold 50,000 copies to date, and the debut single, a rousing roots rocker called “Good Day for the Blues,” has received strong radio airplay for half a year. Milligan insists that such success reflects on the band, not him, for as a musician, he considers himself as green as horse apples. Certainly he has reason to be awed by the talent around him. Drummer Chris Layton and bass player Tommy Shannon were the legendary rhythm section of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. Guitarists David Grissom and David Holt have each had star turns as Joe Ely protégés; Grissom has also played with John Mellencamp and the Allman Brothers, Holt with the Mavericks and Carlene Carter. The players’ résumés read like a short course in rock and roll history, and to some observers they are a connoisseur’s guitar band—but that mix of artists would never have gotten together if not for the promise of a relatively inexperienced but spellbinding lead singer.

Milligan grew up in Elgin and Lubbock in a family of six who followed the cotton harvest from Central Texas to the south plains. “When I was a baby,” he recalls, “my mother would drag me along on a cotton sack while they picked. I’d get really sunburned.” Schools in Elgin were segregated when he first enrolled: “I came up in the civil rights era with nice pink skin and blond hair. In an all-black school I stuck out like a sore thumb, which made me extremely shy.” The Milligans were dirt poor; during summers in West Texas, they lived in whatever housing the farmers would provide. By the time Malford was old enough to participate in the harvests, they were mechanized—he hoed weeds around the cotton and his dad worked the machines. “I remember the look of all that flatness, nothing but cotton and sky,” he says. “In a way, I kind of miss it.” Music was a fixture of his upbringing but never occurred to him as a calling. “One time, my mother had the TV on and called us over. ‘Come in here. Look at this man wearing makeup.’ It was Little Richard, and he was just killing them. Beauty mole, pencil-thin mustache—I had never seen anything like it. But then, when I was growing up, you didn’t see many black people on TV. When Bill Cosby got to be on every week on I Spy—it’s hard to imagine now what a big deal that was. Later I liked to watch James Brown, but I was never really attracted to blues. I always thought it was old music, because my father listened to it.”

If Milligan had grown up following the cotton harvest a generation earlier, he would have had little chance to finish high school, much less go to college. The migrant life and spring-to-autumn growing seasons made a dropout of his father in the third grade. But farming had changed in more ways than mechanization, and a family could time the moves so that children stayed in school. Milligan graduated from Elgin High in 1978 and took classes at Texas Tech University and, eventually, the University of Texas at Austin. The next decade found him working the night shift at an Austin grocery store in diffident pursuit of a sociology degree. “I was falling asleep in the first row,” he says. “Professors hated me.”

During his early days in Austin, Milligan prowled a favorite record store and listened to rock and roll of the Bad Company and King Crimson vein, but the city’s flourishing music scene was alien to him. On a whim, he joined a Buddhist society; at his first meeting he was mortified when the leader told him to take off his shoes—his socks were riddled with holes. But it was in the midst of the Buddhists, while voicing meditative chants, that he began to discover his talent. A voice teacher who belonged to the group heard him eight years ago and announced she was going to groom him to be a lead singer. “Blew my mind,” he says, “because it was so far removed from my reality. But all of a sudden I really wanted it.”

In 1989 he joined alternative rocker Craig Ross in a band called Stick People; their sensibility and sound were a different take on jazz fusion until one of their last gigs, in New Orleans, moved them toward something more Southern and soulful. In honor of that inspiration, Ross proposed calling a new band Storyville, after New Orleans’ notorious red-light district and the birthplace of jazz. Four years later, Ross decided to launch a solo career and later recorded a praised album, Dead Spy Report (MCA), but before he left, Storyville performed at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival. There Milligan caught the attention of a New York—based independent, November Records, which put out the band’s debut, Bluest Eyes, the next year. (The title cut was Milligan’s partly autobiographical tribute to the Toni Morrison novel The Bluest Eye.)

Though the album caused a stir in Austin, the label went under not long after. Yet even if Bluest Eyes engendered no great sales, its recording laid the foundation for a Texas supergroup. Originally from Corpus Christi, Chris Layton was the gum-chewing drummer who, with jazzlike precision, could meet and hold the pace of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s swirling, Hendrix-like style. Dumas-ex Tommy Shannon—the bassist who played on the live recordings that made white albino Johnny Winter an instant star in 1969—was Vaughan’s best friend and companion in extravagant vices and eventual recovery. (Old rock hands who are still in the business tend to drink a lot of coffee.) Likewise, Storyville’s other guitarists, David Grissom and David Holt, signed on with glowing bona fides from Lubbock and beyond. A discussion with the band, in fact, quickly is awash with nostalgia for Lubbock crap games, bootleggers, the original Stubb’s, characters walking around with pistols stuck into their jeans, and the sameness of the one-mile sections of farmland where the Milligan family chopped cotton.

All that origin and influence, plus a trace of gospel, infuses the Storyville sound. Grissom, Holt, and Milligan collaborate on the songwriting, and the band is so confident of the material, they seldom deign to play a cover; a recent exception and stunning addition to their repertoire is the Hendrix classic “Little Wing.” They’re a rock and roll band, not a blues band, which, according to conventional wisdom, is a sound marketing strategy. But the heart of the band is Milligan, and as he has grown and matured, his taste and style have echoed his rediscovery of Redding, Al Green, and other masters who share his ethnic roots. On A Piece of Your Soul, he’s at his best crying out the desperate frustration of love’s wrong turns: “Damned if I do / Damned if I don’t / You say you will / And I know you won’t / So cynical / I’ve thrown it all away.” However Storyville is packaged and promoted, its emergence is indeed a good day for the blues.

“I make records to get a wider audience and play for more people,” Milligan says. “Don’t get me wrong: I like making records. But I don’t know if anything is really good unless I bring it in front of people. One of the hardest things for me is not to sing the songs, but to talk in between and make that connection. This band has really made me be more personable, but I’m still goofy as hell; I’m not cool. With them I’ve definitely embraced soulful singing a lot more, in a stylistic sense, but also just getting at that place I need to be. Onstage the song is the master. I’ve got to go where it tells me to go. And if I’m not doing that, I’m standing on the outside looking in and feeling really bad. I don’t like being on the outside of that tune.”

And he can’t get enough of trying to find his way in. Despite tour dates from California to New York, high hopes for the release of a second single, “Blind Side,” and plans to return to the studio this summer, Milligan remains one of the most accessible Austin performers; he’s still a regular at the Antone’s jam sessions. One recent cold night finds him stomping around the club’s parking lot in flannel shirtsleeves, pumping his fist, and appearing to talk to himself. Actually he’s voicing one of his Buddhist chants, which is how he warms and psychs himself up to sing. But he’s doing this right beside the street. His breath fogs his argent hair and visage, and he looks absolutely deranged. An Austin patrolman slows down and gives him a long look. Oh, no, an observer thinks. He’s going to get arrested.

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