Gospel Bird vs Soul Machine (Updated 8/22/2006)
Today’s topic is something that I had meant to get to sooner. I just kept getting sidetracked. It got moved to the front of the line by this insightful e-mail I got just the other day:
Just played Sam & The Soul Machine's Funky Delicacies cd for the first time and a couple things flashed through my head as I listened: one, that the sax player (Gary Brown) sounds very much like he could be the 'unknown sax player' on 'Soul Machine', the bonus track on Sundazed's reissue of the debut "The Meters" cd...and then a few minutes later hearing the track 'Gospel Bird' a more stunned flash of realization that this track, which is a fragment, really, around 1:40 long (not 2:35 as the liner notes indicate) is in fact that very same song, although its brevity and the more primitive mix (plus the fact that without either "The Meters" or "Zony Mash" at hand, I'm unable to A/B the two tracks) made it impossible for me to discern whether these are different recordings (which is my sense) or "Gospel" is a snippet of the 'Meters' (?) track...Either way the fact that these are essentially the same piece is the most mysterious Meters event since I realized 'Grass' and 'Sassy Lady' are in fact the same exact track. Of course the instantly recognizable Ziggy Modeliste performs on both, but do you have any insight into this mystery? (Lack of recording dates on Meters material or any scholarship on their recording sessions continues to frustrate me)...Personnel on later S & the S.M. tracks is also not included in the band's cd. Thanks for your site, which I just accidently
discovered a week or two ago, when I read your piece on Cyril Neville's "Gossip." And thanks if you have any information on this topic.
To which I replied, mostly off the top of my head (always dangerous):
Your reaction to the "Gospel Bird"/"Soul Machine" mystery mirrors my own when I got the 'Zony Mash' CD a few years back. As a matter of fact, I've had it on my list of post subjects for quite a while - just never seem to get around to it. Maybe your e- mail will be my motivation.
"Gospel Bird" is the same song, but definitely not the same recording as "Soul Machine", although Zig is surely drumming on both (he's even more syncopated on "Soul Machine"). The arrangements are similar, though. My guess is that, since both S&TSM and the Meters were quite familiar with each other, the Meters recorded "Gospel Bird" (who knows if that's the real name or not) at some point, because they dug it and knew their friends had never gotten it released. Then, the Meters' version was never issued either, for whatever reason. They may have just put "Soul Machine" on the track listing as note as to what (and whose) song it was, rather than as the actual name of the song.
An alternate possibility is that that the S&TSM covered a Meters original - maybe Zig could have composed it and hipped them to it, since he played on some of their sessions. But I doubt it. Since the Meters' version is called "Soul Machine", I am more inclined to think that they got it from that band. Zig could have brought it to them or they heard them do it live.
I'm with you on Gary Brown likely being the saxophonist on the Meters' version, and on other of their early tracks (I forget which right now) with an unacknowledged sax player. I know for a fact that Toussaint used him heavily in the 70's on his own projects (like the 'Life Love and Faith' LP from 1972) and other productions. Also, Brown is featured on Toussaint's 1975 Phiadelphia concert that appears on the Rhino/Handmade 2 CD set , 'Allen Toussaint: The Complete Warner Recordings'.
And, don't get me started on the lack of session information for the Meters and many other Toussaint/Sehorn/Sansu productions. Not having session information on many LPs they produced certainly does a disservice to the fine musicians who played on them, as well as interested fans and historians who are trying to figure out time-lines and such, years after. I would assume that, since the notes Sundazed (a pretty good re-issue label) provided with the Meters' series don't contain a wealth of information, there is little to be found.
You've got good ears, John; and you're obviously a stone Meters fan. Thanks so much for writing. Glad you enjoy the site
So, OK, here are the contenders:
Sam & The Soul Machine, from Po'k Bones & Rice, Funky Delicacies
The Meters, from The Meters and Zony Mash, Sundazed
I’d let our exchange be the entire piece, except that I just had to do more research (well what did you expect?). Remember that I’ve featured Sam & The Soul Machine previously as part of my Tuff City Sides series (another project I need to get back to!); but I now can update that information. Art Neville talks a lot about the Meters. and Aaron and Cyril reveal much about the Soul Machine in the Neville Brothers’ auto-bio; and, if you don’t have it, you should get it. It doesn’t help much on dates, which can be frustrating (their co-author should have provided that context), but does fill in the back story on the bands quite a bit. The tales of the Soul Machine and the Meters are intertwined, just a few of the many related threads in the New Orleans cultural tapestry. If the Meters had not been born, the Soul Machine would likely not have existed, either. But, let’s go back a bit further. . . .
After heading the touring band and playing keyboards for Aaron Neville, who was on the road a lot after “Tell It Like It Is” hit big in late 1966, his brother, Art, returned to New Orleans and decided to get his own thing together, which initially included on vocals Aaron and younger bother, Cyril, who also played percussion and was coming into his own as a performer. As saxophonist brother Charles was living in New York, Art picked a young, hot sax player named Gary Brown for the band. Art Neville and the Neville Sounds were soon regularly playing an Uptown New Orleans club called the Nite Cap. At first, Art used various backing musicians, such as the legendary Smokey Johnson on drums; but, he soon chose some impressive younger players for his regular, increasingly funky rhythm section: Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Jr., and Jospeh ‘Zigaboo’ Modeliste, George’s cousin. Prior to taking the gig, Leo had been playing guitar in the Sam Henry Trio and was a session player used frequently by Allen Toussaint. George, who had been a guitarist, switched to bass at Art’s urging. With steady gigging and appreciative crowds, the seven piece ensemble caught fire in a hurry in 1967.
The next event created a split that produced two new bands and altered the course of New Orleans music history. Art was offered a chance to play The Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street – but there was a catch. The stage was only big enough for a four-piece. So, Art make a tough business and artistic decision, essentially firing the front line, his two brothers and Gary Brown, to take just the tight rhythm section with him to the more prominent French Quarter. He explains that there was so much going on musically and rhythmically among the four players that he was sure they could hold their own as a basically instrumental combo, in the mold of Booker T and the MG’s, but with more funk and improvisation. And that they did from jump – and more.
While Aaron and Cyril were hurt by Art’s change of course, it didn’t take them long to re-group. Wanting to keep their gig at the Nite Cap going, they held onto Gary Brown and joined up with Sam Henry on keyboards, ‘Kent’ Morgan on guitar, Richard Amos on bass, and Richard ‘Bull Dog’ Bonnie (Boney) on drums (although Cyril occasionally played the traps, too), to form the Soul Machine, which by 1968 became a very popular cover band, doing uniquely arranged soul, pop and rock They moved on to other clubs around town like the Desert Sands. Then, at some point during the next year, both Cyril and Aaron separated from the band, pursued by their own personal demons and the law; but Henry kept the group together as Sam & The Soul Machine. In 1969, with some help from Toussaint, the group went into Cosimo Matassa’s Jazz City studio to record an album, having worked up a number of mostly instrumental originals. For those sessions, Henry hired ‘Zig’ Modeliste and Joe Gunn to drum on various tracks and was using a new guitarist, Eugene Synegal. But, the LP was never released, because the mater tape was held by the IRS when they closed down Matassa’s studio for unpaid taxes, seizing all his equipment and masters. Henry had a safety copy of the tape, but never could never get a deal; and the recording gathered dust until Tuff City/Funky Delicacies released it along with some later recordings by the band as Po’k Bones & Rice in 2002.
Of course, the fortunes of Art Neville and his bandmates fared much better. The club-packing foursome, still called Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, were heard at the Ivanhoe by Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, who hired them as the studio band for Sansu productions in 1968. They were soon recording backing tracks for Lee Dorsey, Betty Harris, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Lou Johnson, and others, under the direction of Toussaint. While the producer was very strict about the players following his arrangements, the band was allowed to jam freely in the studio when not doing sessions for others; and much of that creative riffing was recorded. So, Sansu decided to market their house band, too; and encouraged them to come up with a shorter, catchier name. It was the Meters. Still, major labels all spurned the advances; and Sehorn struck a deal with Jubilee Records in New York to release the Meters material on the Josie subsidiary. The group racked up five chart hits for the label in 1969, four more in 1970, and ultimately released three albums for Josie before the label went belly up. On the strength of those hits, Warner Brothers then took them on.
Until we can get the definitive word from those involved, the exact origins of “Gospel Bird” and “Soul Machine” will never be known. The fact that the latter version first appeared on the Sundazed’s 1999 re-issue of the first Josie album, The Meters (it pops up again on 2002’s Zony Mash comp), leads me to believe that it was recording during the 1968/1969 sessions used for the LP. That makes it fairly contemporary with the “Gospel Bird” session. To make matters murkier, though, the vast BMI song/songwriter/publisher database has listings for both songs! “Soul Machine” shows the individual Meters as writers and Bugaloo Music and Cabbage Alley Music as co-publishers. The writing credits for “Gospel Bird” are Richard Amos, Gary Brown, Samuel Henry, Jr. and Eugene Synegal (the Soul Machine minus a drummer), with Rhinelander as the publisher, which, as I recall, was owned by Sehorn and published many of the Meters’ early songs!!!!! Hoo boy. How’s that for musically incestuous? After all this, I’m still partial to the theory that the Meters were covering a Soul Machine tune, inviting Gary Brown along for the occasion, as it definitely required a sax player; and who better that their friend, an originator? The Meters’ BMI credits for the song may have been filed much later when this track was unearthed and released by Sundazed. Then again, I could be wrong.
Whatever the case, the song with two names is a dark, moody little number with Zig, I am sure, playing on both. I find his work on “Soul Machine” to top the take on “Gospel Bird” in funk quotient. Thanks, John, for getting me to re-focus on this little mystery. It’s not much clearer; but maybe someone out there can reveal more. If so, feel free to let us know. As for the rest of you, go get these CDs, if you don’t have ‘em. I insist.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Sam Henry, Jr., who confirmed that he indeed wrote “Gospel Bird”, one of the instrumentals on his ill-fated LP, recorded with the Soul Machine in 1969 in Cosimo’s Jazz City studio, where the Meters were also making their early recordings. He is not certain when the Meters recorded their version of the song and related that it was only recently that Art Neville had told him they had covered it. Sam learned about HOTG from former Soul Machine saxophonist and vocalist Gary Brown, who I had contacted by e-mail and who passed along my questions to Sam. Gary wrote me at the time that he did not recall doing that session with the Meters, and again, just yesterday, said that he does not know who is playing sax on “Soul Machine”. This was backed up by Sam, who said that he and Gary had discussed it, but could not figure out who the mystery horn player might be. Sam pointed out to me that whoever it was had incorporated elements of Gary’s style. So that much remains a mystery, as does why the CD version of "Gospel Bird" fades out at 1:46, when the track listing shows 2:36. Sam had no idea why they faded it early. I'll try to ask Tuff City.
But it is great to have direct confirmation of the authorship of “Gospel Bird” and to certify that it is the original. We did not discuss the ramifications of BMI showing separate songwriting credits for the Meters on “Soul Machine”. Instead, Sam had more to tell me about the songs re-issued on CD by Tuff City/Funky Delicacies. For example, he got some of the song titles (and name for the album) from a menu he picked up back then at a restaurant on an old highway into New Orleans (90, I think he said). The place was called the Water Hole; and on the menu were such dishes as Po’k Bones & Rice, and Gospel Bird, which was chicken served on Sunday. Those three names became titles for some of the tunes. As Sam tells it, the album was designed as an all instrumental project. A later album was planned with the vocalists, Cyril and Aaron Neville and Gary Brown, but never panned out, although Gary Brown did later sing on a few single sides with the band. One of those, “Get Down” is also on the CD. Cyril and Aaron were still members of the group when the LP was made, but, as I have pointed out, they never recorded with the band. Sam says the brothers were often out of town, either in New York or California (details of those trips are in their autobiography) in those days, which is why only Cyril appears in the photo on the CD cover.
As for the last five songs on the P'ok Bones & Rice CD, Sam told me that he wrote and recorded them for a separate project he produced himself at Sea-Saint studio around 1973, using the regular session players there: Herman Ernest on drums, many of the members of Chocolate Milk, including the horn section, with Steve Hughes and Teddy Royal on guitars. So, these tracks did not actually invovle the Soul Machine.
Sam Henry lost his home and pretty much all of his worldly goods to the flooding last year and now resides in Texas. He has graciously agreed to speak to me again; and I hope to do a full feature on him later, based on our conversations. Again, thanks to him and Gary Brown for helping us know more about their music. Gary has a new CD out, on which Sam plays extensively. You can hear song samples and find out more about about Gary and his recent endeavors at his website.