Back To Louisiana Purchase
"Don't Turn Your Back" (Terry Manuel)
Louisiana Purchase, from Louisiana Purchase, Basin Street Records, 198?
In the year since my last post-up on Louisiana Purchase, a little known New Orleans soul/funk outfit that only had this one LP and a couple of singles during their run, I haven't learned much more about them [see below* for an update]. I think they probably played more on the road than they did at home. Several months back, I finally found a mint copy of the album, likely recorded at least in part in New Orleans, and have been listening to it off and on since, having in mind to post something from it. Then, as has been happening all too often lately, the recent death of one of the members, vocalist Donald Whitlow, moved the piece up toward the front of the line.
I had received e-mails about Mr. Whitlow’s passing from his daughter and son. His son told me that one of the most popular tunes his father sang was “Baby’s Love” from this album, which had been played on WYLD in New Orleans. While I find that song to be a very well-done piece of deep soul and one of the record’s stand-out tracks, my mission here has lead me to chose the more uptempo and funkified groove of “Don’t Turn Your Back”, sung I am guessing by its composer, keyboardist Terry Manuel. Manuel may be familiar to at least some of you way into the New Orleans scene as a member of the Neville Brothers band during the mid-1990’s and of Cyril Neville’s side project, the Uptown Allstars, around the same period. Of the eight tracks on the LP, Mr. Manuel wrote three of the strongest, the others besides our feature track being the down-tempo but intense “When You’re Not There” and another highly percussive groover, “Can’t Get Your Love”.
While I may be old school in my tastes for funk/soul/R&B, I don’t automatically shy away from ‘urban contemporary’ and funk using synths (although, I am not at all a fan of programmed drums), if used tastefully and tastily. This undated album (I am guessing early to mid-1980’s) is so well recorded, arranged and performed that I can overlook the gear involved, the ultra-slick, highly processed sound they went for, and some of the more hokey spoken word production elements. The LP’s song selection is nicely balanced, too, with ballads, mid-tempo grooves, and out and out dancers. Of course, “Don’t Turn Your Back” the lead-off track, is definitely among the latter. It just feels good; and I find myself hitting repeat often after the fade. Guess it’s the fantastic drumming of Brennan Williams that is the basis for it all. He kicks ass and takes names, breaking up the beat with syncopated abandon. Meanwhile, the other instrumentation seamlessly integrates, the keyboards, synth bass, guitar and precision horns layering intricate, interlocking patterns. It’s a masters class in the art of tight arrangement; and the sound and style probably owe a lot to the Maurice White/Earth Wind and Fire school of the groove.
As my friend and frequent contributor, Dwight Richard, has pointed out, like his band of roughly the same era, Chocolate Milk, Louisiana Purchase was shooting for the national charts with their sound and approach. You don’t hear this record and think New Orleans; but the quality of the performers and the funky, if polished, underpinnings bespeak a source where the talent pool is deep and standards are naturally high. This nine-piece band had four lead singers, two of whom played instruments as well. You can see them listed at my previous post on the band linked above. Also, see Dwight’s comments there on the background of Louisiana Purchase. I will just add that one of the other singers, Arthur Booker, may be the same guy who did a duet with James Booker (as Arthur and Booker) for Chess back in the Fifties. I hope to find out more about the career of Donald Whitlow, too, later on.
Finally, note that the Basin Street Records label for this album was Chicago-based and has nothing to do with the outstanding contemporary New Orleans label of the same name started in 1997. I guess this recording was released just before CDs totally nudged out vinyl. If the masters are still available, it would be a worthy candidate for digital reissue. Maybe that would spark a rediscovery of this largely unknown group of great players who, as Dwight said, “definitely added to the musical legacy of New Orleans funk.”
[Update 4/20/2007 - I've learned from Mr. Whitlow's daughter that the band has a new CD and a website now. ]