Toussaint and Labelle Take It Higher
"Don't Bring Me Down" (Allen Toussaint)
Labelle, from Nightbirds, Epic, 1974
Sorry to take it down. . .
By 1974, Allen Toussaint was in the early stages of producing outside acts - not from New Orleans and not tied to Sansu Productions that he ran with Marshall Sehorn – at the partners’ newly-built Sea-Saint Studios. Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash, whose vocal group was re-christened Labelle at the start of the 1970’s, came there to work with Toussaint on their Epic album, Nightbirds, their first for the label. Having had three good, but less than successful, prior LPs on other labels, attempting to blend soul and rock, Labelle found the right producer, the right place, and the right sound and material to give them a funked-up jump start to stardom. Commercial success is usually not the story this blog has to tell; but I thought I’d consider a cut from this album, since it put Toussaint over the top, too, marking him as a go-to producer for the remainder of the 1970’s.
Let me apologize for not having the liner notes for this LP, which is in boxed up in storage due to a shortage of space at my place. I don’t even remember how much information it contains; but, as I recall, most, if not all, of the Meters, others from Toussaint’s fine stable of sidemen, plus members of the Labelle band, too, played the sessions. “Don’t Bring Me Down” is one of only two Toussaint compositions on the record, and is certainly the most basic production, with a simple but quirky drum pattern and a primal, repetitive groove and melody for the girls to wail on. It’s hard to classify this as anything other than pure Toussaint pop/funk, recalling the kind of things he had done for Lee Dorsey. Though certainly not his best work, it’s an unusual little piece worth hearing. His other contribution, "All Girl Band", while well put together, just sounds generic and insipid to me, as if the composer were on auto-pilot.
Of course, the first class ticket to the big time for Labelle on this album, the most successful of all of their singles, was “Lady Marmalade”, which, as I am sure you know, Toussaint did not write. His classic arrangement and production of the Bob Crewe/Kenny Nolan song about New Orleans ladies of the night realized it’s full, funky, strutting potential; and Labelle totally vamped it up, threw it down, and brought it to climax. You can still hear this one on oldies radio; and I often have to stop what I am doing and crank it up when it comes on. It’s truly a masterpiece of pop/funk/soul fusion that, to my mind, remains untouched, making cover versions superfluous, even Irma Thomas’s live version. One of the other album highlights is the equally well-arranged, played and performed funky workout, “What Can I Do For You?”, written by James Ellison and Ed Batts from Labelle’s band.
While “Lady Marmalade” and Nightbirds did very well, the follow-up album, Phoenix, which I think is pretty damn good, also produced by Toussaint in New Orleans, didn’t generate any significant hits and is almost forgotten today. After a few more years, Labelle broke up for solo careers, with Patti Labelle having the most success with her truly amazing vocal prowess. Toussaint worked with her again on Released in 1980. Nightbirds had a bare-bones CD re-issue (no notes) in the early 1990’s; but Phoenix has never been re-issued, as far as I can tell (I wrote about that one on 10/21/2004). Both albums, while not perfect, are worth seeking out for the compelling conjunction of Toussaint, New Orleans, and Labelle captured in those grooves.