Strange Fruit (updated 2009)
The actual Juanita Brooks
"Garden of Four Trees" (Edwin J. Bocage)
Explosions, featuring Juanita Brooks [sic], Gold Cup, about 1970
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Eddie Bo started to do some producing for me, but his stuff just didn’t sound right. . . .I always felt that there was something that didn’t fit or was out of tune on everything Eddie Bo produced. I tried to tell him, but he just laughed. – Joe Banashak (owner of Minit, Instant, Seven B, and related labels), as quoted in I Hear You Knockin’ by Jeff Hannusch.
When he produced the Explosions’ “Garden Of Four Trees”, Eddie Bo was a few years removed from working for Banashak at Instant and Seven B, and at the tail end of his stint with Al Scramuzza's Scram and related labels. As he had done in the mid-1960s, Eddie again began making records on his own and would continue to go it alone for the rest of his life. Gold Cup was one of several imprints he used in the early 1970s; but, when interviewed late in his life by Martin Lawrie for the Eddie Bo Discography, Eddie could not remember much about this label. As Martin points out in his section on Gold Cup, Bo did an interview with Wax Poetics in 2004 in which he revealed that there had been a mistake on the credit for the featured vocalist on "Garden Of Four Trees". Instead of lead vocalist for the Explosions, Juanita Brooks, Marilyn Barbarin actually sang the tune. As some of you may know, Barbarin had another release on one of Eddie's labels of the period, Bo-Sound (#105/106), doing the fiercely funky Bo original, "Reborn", b/w "Believe Me". The singer, though, was never a member of the Explosions, according to Bo; and it remains unclear why she was featured on a record attributed to them, instead of the equally talented Brooks [who passed away in September of 2009]. Chalk it up as another of the inscrutabilities scattered throughout Bo's career.
Now, to some ears, “Garden Of Four Trees” just ain’t quite right. They would be in the Banashak camp, I suppose. But to the true funk fiend, virtually everything else can slide, as long as the beat moves booty with poly-rhythmic passion and/or abandon. I’m usually a bit less absolute; but, on this track, I’ll have to agree that the groove rules, despite some minor musical mayhem. Ultimately, I believe there was even some method to Eddie Bo's alleged madness on this strangely conceived funk anomaly with hard to decipher lyrics, semi-cryptic botanical metaphors, and some unusual changes, to say the least. Sure, Ms Barbarin's vocal strays toward atonality in the purposely off kilter sections between the bouncing, vaguely Afro-beat feel of the verses. But it’s still a great performance. Personally, I think Bo wanted her to go out, or left her out-ness in, relishing the spontaneous imperfection as part of the artistic allure of the piece. Keeping things unusual, he made the bass an effective, agile lead instrument on the track, while the drums and other percussion undulated throughout, overriding and rendering irrelevant the occasional dissonance.
There were two other known singles on Gold Cup, before Bo let it fall by the wayside, both by the Explosions: the funky, innocuous, but hooky “Hip Drop, Pt 1 &2” (#005) and another two-parter, the ultra-rare, "Jockey Ride" (#555), which, as Bo confirmed to Lawrie, was sung by Juanita Brooks. The latter record had been rumored but unknown until recently, when Martin discovered a copy, much to the envy of collectors and all seekers of Bo-consciousness. I long to hear it, at least, since I'm sure I can't afford it.
Be sure to marvel at Martin's handiwork on the Eddie Bo Discography - still a bit buggy and incomplete, but a massive and valuable resource for which he deserves much praise. Also, for a well-considered appreciation of various aspects of Eddie Bo’s musical career, mostly from the late 1960s onward, check out Larry Grogan’s fine work at his webzine, Funky 16 Corners.
As Joe Banashak attempted to articulate, during the later 1960s and on into the next decade, Mr. Bocage could be an unpredictable, mischievous recording artist and producer. Along with all his confusing aliases, quirky compositions, offbeat arrangements, and sonic experiments, Bo managed to create and inhabit his own peculiar world of funk in New Orleans, finding a sound and approach on his projects distinct from his contemporaries. He truly was a trip; and, as with many unique and creative artists, most people didn't get what he was up to at the time. We probably still don't; but the world in a way has been catching up to him. His cult continues to grow, because in much of his music you can hear his joy in making it and the fun he had when he occasionally goofed on everybody. How amazing it must have been to him that people still appreciate his work and dig records that he had all but forgotten about.
Note: This cut can be found on several CD compilations, including New Orleans Funk, on Soul Jazz.