Where Rock Meets The Caribbean - Part 2
I’m on my way to New Orleans soon for the second weekend of Jazzfest. a celebration of the region’s music, food, and arts that is particularly important this year, as it leads us, second-lining to the assorted grooves, up to the brink of hurricane season 2006 – the Great Unknown. Appreciate what you’ve got while you’ve got it, carpe da damn diem, because, from now on with New Orleans and Jazzfest, you never know when it all might be gone forever – sorta like seeing the Meters perform; but that’s a story for a future post. Right now let’s hear some mo' music.
Hungry Williams, c 1957
"The Girl Across The Street" (Tommy Ridgley)
Tommy Ridgley, Herald 537, 1959
New Orleans wouldn’t be the Home of the Groove without being way deep, going way back, in exceptional drummers. As my friend, Dwight, once said, you can’t throw a rock in New Orleans without hitting a good drummer – of course, post-Katrina, you can throw rocks there and not hit anybody – for miles; but, you get my drift. Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams, who is doing the complex stick work on “The Girl Across The Street”, certainly fits the profile. When legendary first-call session drummer Earl Palmer pulled up stakes for the Left Coast around 1957, Williams easily took up where he left off. As Antoon Aukes points out in his essential book on New Orleans drumming, Second Line, “In the mid-1950’s, Williams was known for his experiments with adapting Latin percussion patterns to the drum set.” Not only that, he managed to do it while still rocking out and/or playing funky second line rhythms simultaneously. Aukes gives numerous examples. But today, we’ll focus on one he doesn’t mention.
A 1958 or 1959 session, “The Girl Across The Street” was on Tommy Ridgley’s fifth single for Herald, a New York based label that picked him up in 1957 and issued a total of six records on him, all cut in New Orleans, and most having Hungry Williams on the drums. As with a previous Ridgley cut I posted, this one came to me via a cassette tape the singer, songwriter, and bandleader issued on his own in the late 1980’s, as I recall, compiling an assortment of his sides from the late 1950’s to the 1980’s. I hadn’t heard this song for quite a while and put it on by accident the other day, while looking for another cut on the same CD (one of my own archive CD’s of various transfers). Just into the song, I knew that Hungry was on drums; and, while they are not too clear, you can tell the man has a lot going on. He sounds like an entire percussion section – not an unusual thing for him. Note the pattern he plays on the bell of his cymbal, which Aukes describes as an Afro-Cuban casacara that Latin percussionists would play on a cowbell or on the sides of timbales. Below the cascara, Williams tears up on the snare, toms, and kick drum, creating a highly syncopated groove for the verses and ramping up to a driving second line kind of rock shuffle on the chorus. Amazing.
According to Ridgley’s recollections to John Broven quoted in Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans, other players on the Herald sessions include the immortal Lee Allen on tenor sax (who was signed to Ember, an affiliated label, at the time), Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler on baritone sax, Melvin Lastie on trumpet, and Chuck Badie on bass. The fantastic guitarist could very well be Justin Adams, one of the Crescent City’s finest, who was playing in Ridgley’s band, the Untouchables, at the time. The pianist is unknown.
As is often pointed out, and rightly so, New Orleans is the northernmost city of the Caribbean. With it’s Spanish/French heritage, and large early influx of population from Haiti,and other African roots, it has much more to do with what lies to its South than to its North. Yet, it has come to be a unique culture all of its own. And that certainly includes its ongoing musical legacy. I don’t want to hang too much weight on one two minute song, but what’s going on in “The Girl Across The Street” and similar highly percussive tracks, seems to me to be a microcosm of what the city's music is all about. Know what I mean?
[Note: For some reason, neither this song nor it's flip "I'll Be True" appears on the Collectables compilation, Tommy Ridgley: The Herald Recordings.]
Tommy & band at the Dew Drop Inn