Right On, Ms Mercedes
I have been getting some fantastic e-mails and comments lately, including some coming directly from people involved with the music I've been discussing. I am hoping to develop these contacts into features through which we can learn more about the New Orleans music scene from the viewpoints of those who were and/or are a part of it. Stay tuned for that; but, right now, I just have to give you a taste and share a couple of e-mails I got from Ms Mercedes Davis. As I think you will readily be able to tell, she not only has a wealth of information to convey, having grown up around and been a part of that scene, but she has a gift for expressing herself, too. So, imaginge my delight when I got these messages in the past day or so. I have combined them, edited them just a touch, added a few links to CDs she references, and a made few comments in [ ] brackets.
It's so great to see someone who has such a deep appreciation of New Orleans music/musicians. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of being on the inside, so to speak. Of course, back in the day, my girls and I (The Triple Souls: Inez Cheatam, Sena Fletcher, and Mercedes Morris-Davis) [!!!!!] were just a trio of nameless voices who were heard on many of the sessions being produced by Allen Toussaint/Marshall Sehorn, Wardell Quezerque, Eddie Bo and others. I had the pleasure of singing background on sessions with Betty Harris, Lee Dorsey, Johnny Adams, Curley Moore, Eldridge Holmes, Aaron Neville, and The Meters. Many of these sessions are on a 2-disc collection called Get Low Down. Aaron did some good songs on Make Me Strong. On this CD he re-did Art's "All These Things". The Meters joined the girls on this cut. I nicknamed Aaron Neville and Johnny Adams "The one-take wonders." When Aaron stepped up to the mike, we went through the song once and it was a wrap. Johnny was the same way. Aaron's "Speak to Me" is spellbinding. As far as I know, The Meters used female vocals on only one album --Rejuvenation. This is a must have CD.
Rejuvenation was not a pieced-together session. It was a work of art -- no sheet music, no rehearsing, etc. When they got the signal from the control room, they just jumped in with both feet and set the studio on fire. When they finished, we were just the icing on the cake. But, the funk was so thick in the studio that night, it just rubbed off on us and we took it from there. The albums (CD's) I've mentioned were recently purchased by me online from Tower Records. My albums were damaged during Katrina and I wanted to have this music in my collection for my grandchildren and great grandchildren. I don't want to just tell them about this music, I want them to hear it.
Now, let's talk about Sam & The Soul Machine. There were some people who tried to create a competition between this awesome band and The Meters. The Machine's recordings were even canned because The Meters were a certain record producer's house band. They were told they sounded too "Meter-ish." Bull!!! The only resemblance was that both groups were extra funky. While playing at the Desert Sands (formerly on North Claiborne and Esplanade), the people attending Straight's Business College used to walk across the street to listen to the Soul Machine rehearse. It wasn't long before the owner saw an opportunity to make a few bucks and started a $1 cover charge for rehearsals!! On the weekends, you'd better get there about an hour early if you wanted a seat. You had a super tight band playing everything from Booker T. and The M.G.'s to Jose Feliciano plus three dynamite singers: Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, and Gary Brown. When Cyril sang "Light My Fire" everyone in the club who had one would flick their BIC's -- almost gave the owner a heart attack. No matter how long of an intermission Aaron and Cyril took [they were, unfortunately, out copping dope, according to their autobiography! -- Dan], the audience would patiently wait for the next set. I'm not telling you what I heard, I'm telling you what I saw -- I was there.
When the group alternated to the Greystone across the river in Algiers, a lot of their following went with them. The Stone was smaller and the atmosphere was a lot more relaxed. Gary Brown (The Pied Piper) would go out on the sidewalk playing his sax and the people would follow him in. His signature tune was "Drown in My Own Tears." He'd play this while walking up and down the narrow aisles between tables -- no mike. These guys were family; they just didn't have the same parents.
To cite an example, The Machine's drummer left to join the Army just before an Easter Sunday gig at the Greystone. Cyril was just getting out of the hospital (with both arms in casts). Many people didn't know what a hot drummer Cyril was. He told Sam, "I'll play drums", and he did --with casts on both arms. When it was time for Cyril to get up to the mike to sing, two girls from his hood sat behind him on stage just in case he got weak and Brother Aaron got on the drums. It all worked out fine.
These two groups are so intermingled that, when Art had to pare down his group to play at the Ivanhoe, Aaron, Cyril and Gary joined up with Sam. That's how it's used to be with the older musicians. Why can't it be like that again? It upsets me that we have lost so many musicians to Texas. Many of my musician friends are saying they aren't coming back. That comes from years and years of being taken for granted and underpaid. It comes from years and years of being pushed aside at Jazzfest time for the big name acts. To give you an example: For the grand opening of the Superdome, I performed with one of the opening acts (Margie Joseph) [wow! –Dan]and learned that Donald Byrd, The Temptations, The O-Jays, and The Isley Brothers were going to be picked up from the dressing rooms in driven to the stage in golf carts. I took it upon myself to request the same treatment for our group. We were wearing long gowns and high heels. After all, the Superdome is OUR house. Why should we be treated like little stepchildren? One year at the Fairgrounds, I witnessed Deacon John being denied the number of passes he needed for his family. Come on now, Deke has been a part of our culture since the 1950's.
I'm sorry, but something has to be done to show our musicians that things will be different (for the better) if they come back -- more money, better gigs, better treatment, etc.
So, sorry I got carried away. That's how we music lovers do!! [no apology necessary! –Dan]
. . . Back in the day I started writing for a little free entertainment guide called "DATA News Weekly." The writing started quite by chance. I've always been a fan of Art Neville since he and his Hawketts used to play for my high school's dances (Xavier Prep when it was co-ed). They played for almost two years at a club called the Nite Cap (on Louisiana Avenue and Carondelet Street. Since the club was only three blocks from my house, I was there almost every weekend. Then suddenly, they weren't there anymore and they left no forwarding address!
A few months later, I was down in the Quarter to hear some of my friends who were performing down there. As I approached Bourbon and Toulouse, I heard some very familiar music coming out the open door of the Ivanhoe. It was Art Neville. They were called Art Neville and The Neville Sound Band. So I walked in and there they were squeezed behind a piano bar. I don't know what race you are (and don't care) but the band and I were the only African-americans in the joint. I took a seat at that piano bar and got totally involved in what the guys were doing. Then, without being aware of what I was doing, I grabbed a stack of cocktail napkins and a pen and began to write. I wrote about what they were playing; how they were playing; and how the people were reacting to them.
When I went back to work on Monday, I typed up what I'd written on those napkins. I knew if their Nite Cap [fans] knew where they were playing, they'd fill that place. So to get the word out I sent my little article to DATA News Weekly. The founder of the paper (Scoop Jones) called me and asked my permission to print it. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays. I went back on Friday and there tons of Nite Cap folk waiting to get in. The next night, it was the same thing. During the next few weeks, Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn showed up at the Ivanhoe. Shortly thereafter The Meters were born. I'd like to think I had just a little to do with that.
Mercedes L. Davis
[By the way, I totally spaced on the fact that Ms Davis co-wrote the CD notes for the re-issue of P'ok Beans & Rice! I thought that name sounded familiar.]
Thank you for telling it like you saw it then and see it now, Ms Mercedes, and letting me share it here. To say I am impressed with your recollections and impressions is putting it too mildly. And, from what we have briefly discussed via e-mail, you have much more to tell. I look forward to talking with you in detail soon.
I'll be the first to say that much of what I write about this music I love, admire and am inspired by is gathered through print sources of various kinds in my possesion, on the 'net, or in my head sometimes. The stories and facts can get garbled passing through so many people (and my often sketchy brain) in the telling. Thus, it is always vital and refreshing to hear directly from someone who was there to provide new insights and verify or correct the information on hand. I've spent quite a lot of time in New Orleans over the years and have heard much live music there, but never lived there. I have a large archive of the city's recorded music. But, to me, hearing the stories and remembrances of people who were in the groups, in the studios, in the clubs is simply invaluable. Things are getting exciting - for sure dat.