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.

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

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