I have the faintest of memories of hearing the song “Key Largo” by Bertie Higgins when I was a child. When I was much older, I distinctly remembered having heard the notable chorus; “we had it all…”. As I began to consume the music of all eras as a young man, I would often come across the song and fondly remember it though I thought little of it or the singer. Then I received a clue of sorts that told me there may be something to investigate. I read somewhere – where I don’t recall – that Higgins was considered similar to Jimmy Buffett. This intrigued me. I have long had a strong connection to Buffett and would often wonder what other artist out there could provide the listener the same feeling or vibe that Jimmy could. The fact that there is no one out there like Jimmy Buffett is a topic for another article but I have come to learn that Bertie Higgins comes perhaps the closest of anyone.
I think it is quite remarkable that one day I came across the Bertie Higgins album Just Another Day in Paradise on CD at a thrift store. It even bore on the case a sticker promoting the record’s singles. I’ll admit I thought the album would be slight in the extreme and would be nothing more than a novelty. There’s a little more going on here, though.
Elbert “Bertie” Higgins was born in Tarpon Springs, Florida in 1944. He is a descendant of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Learning of his birth in the Sunshine State instantly strengthened my belief that there indeed was a connection between Higgins and Buffett. While Jimmy was born in Mississippi, he made his name singing of life in the Gulf of Mexico and depicting a Floridian lifestyle is a large part of his ethos as a songwriter. The fact Bertie was born in Tarpon Springs was nice for me, too. I have in the past studied this city and featured my findings in my review of the film Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, a movie that takes place and was shot in Tarpon Springs. In fact, Bertie had spent time as a sponge diver, the industry depicted in the film and one that the city is known for.
Higgins’ first break came as a drummer for Tommy Roe but he left that gig wanting to make his own music. He soon gained a reputation and came to the notice of people like Bob Crewe and Felton Jarvis and also Burt Reynolds, who thought Bertie showed promise as a screenwriter. Higgins eventually teamed with two songwriters who had an unfinished song they needed help with. Bertie added touches that reflected his fascination with classic film and the result was “Key Largo”. The song was released in September of 1981 on Kat Family/Epic Records and soon ascended the charts. The success of the single prompted Kat Family to bankroll an album and sent Bertie into the studio in Georgia. He emerged with the record we are looking at today.
So fitting that the record starts with the sounds of birds and surf. The title track belongs in a sub genre of music I love – the dreamscape. We are trapped in a workaday world but our imagination takes us away. “We slipped away last night, eased on down to the Keys”. “Just Another Day in Paradise” adds a nice touch at the end; escaping to the islands has all been a dream but when the singer turns and sees his lady love he realizes “anywhere with you is paradise”. This tune hit #46 on the US Pop charts and was Top Ten US Adult Contemporary.
The second track brings us to the other characteristic that stands out in the work of Bertie Higgins; his love of classic film. “Casablanca” laments a lost love echoing the aching “almost” of the story of Rick and Ilsa in that immortal film. “I fell in love with you watching Casablanca…I thought you fell in love with me watching Casablanca, holding hands ‘neath the paddle fans in Rick’s candle lit café” Some era-specific electric piano augments Bertie’s romantic breathy vocal and this appropriately atmospheric tune doesn’t pillage a classic film for its own use but instead honours it. The love story of the song harkens back to the movie and clever lyrics are employed. “A kiss is still a kiss in Casablanca…I love you more and more each day as time goes by”. Big in Japan, this tune where it hit #13 on that nation’s Oricon Weekly chart.
“Key Largo” is – love it or hate it – a pure piece of soft pop perfection early-80s style. And the song fits well into the Bertie Higgins catalogue. You could say it is the Bertie Higgins catalogue but what I mean is it perfectly encapsulates his dual purpose as a singer-songwriter; his love of old movies and his cinematic lyrical style and warm, tropical settings. As a single, the tune and its title and lyrics remind everyone of the 1948 film and of the timeless romance of its stars, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. And as a part of this album, it uses as it’s setting a sultry Floridian city where the weather is fine and the living is easy. A couple of nit-picky things; even when I first heard this song as a kid, it occurred to me the famous movie line used in the lyric – “here’s lookin’ at you, kid” – is not from Key Largo but from – again – Casablanca. And as I grew older and became more familiar with old movies and Key Largo in particular, it struck me that in this romantic song, the singer talks of sailing away to Loveland and rekindling the fire “just like they did in Key Largo”. Except Key Largo is much more of a gritty film noir than a romantic picture. I’d go so far as to say there is zero romance in Key Largo save for the final moments when Nora opens the curtains and lets in the new glow of a bright future. But these two things matter not.
The song simply works, in spades. Lightly bouncing piano ushers in the gentle breeze of the melody and Bertie enters recalling his first winter spent with his lost love. He shares relatable reminiscences of snuggling on the couch watching the “late show”. The fact that this couple are apart recalls so many plot lines of the old films many of us love. We used to watch those old movies together and we saw ourselves on the screen – “honey, I was your hero and you were my leading lady”. We once starred in our own late, late show… The feeling from the memory of this romance is similar to the feeling these old movies can give us; a wistful longing of something intangible that cannot be held onto too tightly. Also like a previous era, we cannot simply return to a former love as if the years haven’t rolled on and separated us. “Key Largo” is delightful and the couplet “we had it all / just like Bogie and Bacall” is truly one for the ages.
Now, “Port O’ Call”. Here’s a tune that Bertie wrote himself that is very much a dramatic, cinematic tale. The singer says he was born in Savannah in 1955, the son of a sea-faring man. His father has always told him that his mother had died in childbirth. The singer has lived a life much like his father’s (this is very Buffett) and he describes his salty life spent on the water and with the ladies in various ports. After battling a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, the singer makes it to New Orleans where he docks and celebrates his survival at the Café d’l’Amour after he meets a “faded flower out in the rain”.
After spending time talking, this girl takes him to her room above Bourbon Street. In the dim light, he spies the locket around this girl’s neck and he investigates. Made of Spanish silver, he opens it and sees the picture inside. The picture is of the singer’s father and his young bride and on the back it is inscribed “I love you. Savannah ’55”. Then Bertie leaves us hanging and just sings about how it’s just another port o’ call to the fade out.
Now, what on earth does this mean? How does this N’Awlins prostitute have a locket with a picture of the singer’s parents inside? At first I thought “are these people her parents, as well?”. Making this girl the singer’s sister? Or is this girl the singer’s mother? She keeps a picture in a locket of her long-ago wedding day. The singer has said that his father told him his mother was dead “and I believed him because he never lied to me”. Why make a point of saying you “believed him”? Perhaps the mother went off to be a streetwalker and the father doesn’t want the son to know that. Making this girl the singer’s mother! Or is it all a coincidence? Is it just a fluke that this girl found this nice locket in a local antique store? Bit of a head-scratcher. Seems like a verse is missing. Is this Bertie being enigmatic and clever? Or is this narrative “flaw” evidence of a deficiency as a songwriter? Pulsing electric piano sees the song out as the listener tries to figure out what just happened.
Just Another Day in Paradise was released in 1982 and at this time cocaine use was widespread particularly in Hollywood. In October of that year, a New York Times article reported that film studios were having to insure their pictures against drug-related disruptions, so prevalent had narcotics become in La La Land. Not surprising Bertie offers “White Line Fever”, a song that appeared on the B side of the single “Key Largo”. In an attempt to sound gritty on this polished record, Bertie sings of the Coca leaf’s usage in Peru. He goes on to tell of the desperate and depraved players who suffer from their dependency. Naturally, he brings the action to Cuba and the Florida coast echoing Miami Vice‘s depictions of smuggling and federales on the take.
“She’s Gone to Live on the Mountian” again brings the sunshine. Bertie is alone but his suffering is eased by being “on the dock of the blue lagoon…with my toes in the sea”. His girl has gone to live – you guessed it – on the mountain and here on this sunny record we hear of ice and snow. This tune Bertie wrote alone has been influenced at least in part by where much of the record was recorded, on Lookout Mountain in Georgia where they can get anywhere from 6 to 20 inches of snowfall. On this song Higgins offers us the line “Sweet Ernest, did you ever feel this Hemingway?”. Debauchery is the name of the game on the drunken-bar-patron-pleaser “Down at the Blue Moon”. This would be at home on a Kenny Chesney record. Bertie’s a real pirate here saying “smuggling is my game, cocaine is my pleasure” but it’s a tough life as he wonders if his girl may be “spying for the damned, ol’ DEA”.
The impressive closer is “The Tropics”. I’m often watching for how long a song is. I perhaps shouldn’t but I often take into consideration when assessing a song how much the artist had to say, lyrically and musically. This may have its root in my early days listening to Steve Winwood albums; 8-10 well-crafted songs, five minutes each. “The Tropics” clocks in at seven minutes and this impresses me. Written by Bertie alone, the song serves as a cautionary tale to a young hot shot who thinks he can enjoy the climate, run some risks and reap the rewards. Old Bertie knows different and he relates his tale…
He came to the tropics as a young man, as well, with every good intention. But – as any vintage Springsteen song will tell you – sometimes honest people find themselves with their backs against the wall and the singer’s “only hope was to steal the dope”. He eventually became a huckster in South America and then ran smuggling barges around Cuba and Santa Cruz and was the only survivor of a shipwreck off Mexico. He was nursed back to health by a mystical maiden of royal descent who apparently got him hooked on morphine.
He wraps his tale to the young man by warning him that “the tropics, they’re worse than a habit” and the manic, urgent tune fades off for a while with the haunting sounds of wind and a ship’s bell. There may be flaws in the narrative and the presentation of the tale in “The Tropics” but they’re small and it’s apparent that Bertie Higgins had a lot of story in him. He understood the ethos of island life and the juxtaposition of its beautiful climate and imminent dangers. This song is evidence that Burt Reynolds may have been on to something when he thought Higgins could write a screen story. “The Tropics” is a substantial closer giving much weight to what could otherwise be considered a slight, soft/rock album.
Bertie Higgins struck while the iron was hot releasing his sophomore effort Pirates and Poets the following year. It featured a stellar cover and more of the same musical and lyrical content apparent in songs like the opener “As Time Goes By” and songs with titles like “Tokyo Joe”, “Beneath the Island Light” and “Pleasure Pier”. Of note are a cover of Roy Orbison‘s “Leah” featuring the Big O himself and another long song, “Never Looking Back”, clocking in at over 7 minutes. When neither Pirates and Poets nor its singles resonated with audiences, Bertie tried one more time with Gone With the Wind – nothing. But… You’ve heard the expression “big in Japan”? Well, it’s no joke, especially where Bertie (and Cheryl Ladd) is concerned. “Casablanca” from Just Another Day in Paradise was covered in 1982 by Japan’s Hiromi Go and was a huge hit and this carried Bertie’s own version onto the Japanese charts. Ever since then, Bertie Higgins has enjoyed a massive following in the Pacific Rim.
Bertie Higgins may have had a somewhat common voice lacking strong character. He may be nothing more than a “one-hit wonder” but he is just the type of player we like to talk about here at Vintage Leisure. He is an artist who may have made only one significant statement but it is an interesting one. Additionally, he has been able to dine out on his one statement for lo these 40 years. Consider that – at least at one point in the Eighties – Bertie was drawing $40k per annum in airplay royalties from “Key Largo”. So, Bertie gets the last laugh. He’s got kids in the business (“DJ Diesel Boy” and a film producer, among others) and a legion of fans who call themselves “Boneheads”. In January of 2016, Bertie Higgins was inducted into the Florida Music Hall of Fame along with Julio Iglesias, Tom Petty and Jimmy Buffett – which is where we came in.
This alternate for Buffett released one interesting album and an enduring and unique single. Bertie Higgins continues today plying his “Trop rock” in clubs and bars in warm locales. If you see Just Another Day in Paradise for sale at a thrift store, don’t just chuckle. Well, I wouldn’t blame you for chuckling but buy it, too.
Just Another Day in Paradise (FZ 37901 – 1982) from Kat Family Records
Produced by Sonny Limbo and Scott MacLellan
Side One: “Just Another Day in Paradise”, “Casablanca”, “Candle Dancer”, “Key Largo”, “Port O’ Call”
Side Two: “White Line Fever”, “The Heart is the Hunter”, “She’s Gone to Live on the Mountain”, “Down at the Blue Moon”, “The Tropics”
Bertie Higgins, acoustic guitar and vocals // Grand piano, keyboards, organ, John (Jhoni Lekhoin) Healy, Steve Nathan; bass, Gary Baker, Arch Pearson III; drums, Owen Hall, Bill Marshall; guitars and mandolin, Ken (Deber) Bell, Shelton (Rudi) Irwin, Barry Richmond, Jeff Pinkham, Norman Blake; percussion, Mickey (Trouser Snake) Buckins, Edward Higgins; saxophone, Ed Leamon; flute, Scott MacLellan.
Recorded at Pyramid “Eye” Recording Studio atop Lookout Mountain, Georgia and Southern Tracks Recording Studio, Atlanta, Georgia.