The James Cotton Band Gets The Treatment
"Hard Time Blues" (Allen Toussaint)
James Cotton Band, from High Energy, Buddah, 1975
Here’s another artist who came to Sea-Saint Studios for the Sansu Productions Treatment in the 1970’s. Master blues harp blower and singer James Cotton, with his fine band*, cut their 1975 Buddah LP, High Energy, there along with a krewe of contributors** who should be familiar to regular HOTG readers by now. Overseeing the general production duties was Allen Toussaint, with Wardell Quezergue doing the arrangements
Cotton’s band were no strangers to funkin’ it up. Drummer Kenny Johnson could deliver killer grooves, as I still readily recall from hearing other of their records, especially the live stuff back in the day. Toussaint’s “Hard Time Blues” is one of his patented, well put together, multi-part tunes with an easy-going feel. I chose it because I’m hooked on James Booker’s piano work which leads off and runs through the piece, repeating variations on a nice descending riff (designed by the composer, I am sure). While it might be a stretch to call this one a blues, as stylized as it is, Cotton and band handle it well, even though his rough voice is more suited to a simpler, more hard-driving expression. Also, note the lack of a harmonica on this number. It’s not the only track lacking one, either – strange for an album by a man whose nickname is Superharp. I guess the label wanted Toussaint and Cotton to try for some kind of cross-over appeal, which, of course, didn’t happen anyway. I can just hear them now: “James, baby. Love ya; but, if you want airplay, you’ve gotta lose that harmonica! We’re going to send you to New Orleans and let Toussaint add something more hip to your sound. It'll sell, baby.”
Fortunately, neither Toussaint nor Wardell Quezergue use a heavy hand in their approach to presenting this blues band in a different light. It’s no radical reconstruction. Like this song, the entire record is a comfortable, somewhat laid back, yet funky, affair; but, while Cotton and group do a respectable job, they just don’t seem entirely in their element. They’re damped down a bit. Thus, the album’s title has always mystified me. In no way would I describe this production as high energy. Guess that was wishful thinking on somebody’s part.
Both Toussaint and Quezergue approached record making in a controlled manner - much more musically well thought out than spontaneous. The trade off there is that you can give up some of the juice - the band’s performing dynamic - when you have them play set arrangements. Still, there is an acceptable funk quotient on this album. I like “Hard Time Blues” and most of the other tunes and performances. I just don’t think it very accurately represents what the James Cotton Band was really all about. So, in that respect, it is a flawed production. And that’s probably why the record has become merely a footnote, a curiosity, showing what happened, and what didn’t happen, when a full-tilt blues band in their prime ran up against the more urbane approach of these cool New Orleans style popsters.
Such is showbiz. Live and learn. Listen and judge the effectiveness of the Treatment for yourself; and let me know what you think.
* The James Cotton Band on High Energy
James Cotton, lead vocal and harmonica
Mat Murphy, lead guitar
Kenny Johnson, drums
Charles Calmese, bass
Shavis Sheriff, Sax
** with, on “Hard Time Blues”,
James Booker, piano
Wardell Quezergue, keyboards
Steve Hughes or Teddy Royal, guitar
Lon Price, tenor sax solo