One Of A Kind Au Natural
"Two Of A Kind" (J. Hill - D. Dixon)
Jessie Hill, from Naturally, Blue Thumb, 1972
Some ten years after his passing, Jessie Hill is still a beloved character in his hometown of New Orleans and to fans of the city’s unique pop music. Best known for his one hit novelty single, the characteristically quirky “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”, which cracked the national top 10 in 1960 and was adopted as a Mardi Gras favorite at home, Hill’s lack of singing skill did not stop him from performing and recording, but certainly limited his appeal to the general public. When the music scene in New Orleans shrank drastically in the mid-1960s, he headed for the West Coast and soon was having some success with songwriting, which was his true talent. Whether alone or in partnership, mainly with expatriate New Orleans friends in California such as Mac Rebennack, Alvin Robinson, and Dave Dixon, Jessie Hill amassed a catalog of well over a hundred tunes, recorded by such artists as Aretha Franklin, Delaney and Bonnie, Ike and Tina Turner, and Shirley Goodman. For more background, I refer you to a great piece on Jessie done by Red Kelly over at the B-Side last year.
Our feature today, “Two Of A Kind”, is a good example of his writing ability (all the LP’s songs but one were co-authored with Dave Dixon), vocal limitations, and, it seems, bad business dealings. The song appeared on Jessie’s final release, the 1972 Blue Thumb LP, Naturally, which became an instant obscurity upon its blast off to commercial oblivion. While there is some good playing on the record, much of it gets lost due to sloppy arrangements, muddy recording, and chaotic mixes (or the total lack of mixes). There seem to be many (uncredited) musicians plugging away on the sessions, probably all done in California; but the whole staggering shebang sounds like it was done stoned, quick and on the cheap to fulfill some contractual obligation or, perhaps, just to give the record company a tax write-off. Rebennack’s former shyster manager, Charles Greene, is shown as the album’s producer; but that’s giving him far too much credit, since with just some judicious tweaking and attention to detail, this project could easily have sounded 100% better. His role was more likely to insure that any money allocated to the album production wound up in his pockets.
If you can get past all the qualifiers, there are some enjoyable songs on Naturally, which is often a pricey find these days. I chose “Two Of A Kind” because to me it has the best groove: strong horns, buoyant bass, chugging guitars, and a nice push-pull syncopated pattern to the drums. It’s an upbeat soul/pop song with elements of funk lurking within that is well-structured and moves along nicely despite Jessie’s inability to nail down a melody*. I'd like to hear Taj Mahal cover it with the Phantom Blues Band's backing to kick the tune up to its full potnential. No charge for that suggestion, Taj.
Maybe the best thing about the whole LP, though, is its packaging. The cover photographs of Jessie are stagy, but hip; and the back section has a wheel inside it that you can turn to see different smaller photos appear through holes. Man, if they had spent as much effort and money on making the sound more coherent, this might have been a lot closer to a classic instead of an odd artifact that became the early coda to Jessie Hill’s recording career.
*By the way, take this as you will, according to Jeff Hannusch in I Hear You Kockin', Jessie claims credit for coaching Rebennack in how to sing back in the early '60s, saying the future Dr. John sounded like Alfalfa prior to that. Funny, I always suspected Mac had copped the vocal stylings of Curly Moore of the Clowns. Discuss.