Funky To A Fault
Back before funk music had a name, creative New Orleans drummers of the 1950s and early 1960s such as Earl Palmer, Hungry Williams, and Smokey Johnson (among others) incorporated elements of the strutting, syncopated Second Line street parade rhythmic patterns into their style of playing, mixing in elements of Caribbean or Latin at times, as well as other change-ups, and reshaped the landscape of 20th century drumming. Their approaches influenced other first rate drummers far and wide, including a succession of those employed by James Brown. Brown took those layered, poly-rhythmic concepts and used them to orchestrate his entire band to play his lean, mean groove machines, engendering an intense, new, wide-open school of music in the process. But, HOTG drummers were and still are direct, vital links to the deep cultural roots of the improvisational, complexly percussive, dance-oriented mode of musical expression we came to call funk.
Thus, I really couldn't do my multi-part feature on Wardell Quezergue without bringing up Joseph 'Smokey' Johnson. If you search HOTG for references to this outstanding drummer, you'll find many, as his grooves are the foundation of many a track I've posted; but, until now, I haven't focused on any of Smokey's recordings as featured artist. So, let's remedy that with two of his singles for the Nola label. Both are collaborations with producer/arranger Quezergue, who used him frequently on sessions.
Several years earlier in 1961, Johnson and Quezergue had worked together on the session for Earl King's proto-funk classic, "Trick Bag", produced by Dave Bartholomew; and, around that time, Bartholomew also used Johnson for Snooks Eaglin's Imperial sessions. Soon thereafter, the drummer went with Quezergue, promoter Joe Jones, and several other New Orleans artists (including Johnny Adams and Earl King) to audition for Motown in Detroit, where they recorded numerous demo sessions. Earl King once remarked that at least part of the reason why they got in the door was Motown's fascination with Smokey Johnson, who could do more on a trap set by himself than any two of the label's session drummers. Although Barry Gordy ended up signing only King to a contract (but never releasing anything he cut), he wanted to keep the remarkable Johnson around for a while. So, Smokey stayed in Detroit for a couple of months. His influence on the Motown sound was profound and is still not well-known. Gordy had his staff drummers study Smokey's techniques, appropriating some of New Orleans' precious trade secrets and incorporating them into countless hit sessions at the expense of the music business back home.
In 1963 and 1964, Bartholomew enlisted Johnson for his last two Imperial big band albums, giving him the spotlight on the tune, "Portrait Of A Drummer", from New Orleans House Party (which I've got to post some day). This was also the period when Nola Records was formed in New Orleans. Quezergue was a partner in the label as well as principal producer/arranger. It wasn't long before he gave his frequent session drummer some solo shots; and the two wound up writing and recording what has become a New Orleans standard.
"It Ain't My Fault PT 1" (Quezergue & Johnson)
Smokey Johnson, Nola 706, 1965
"It Ain't My Fault PT 2"
Those of you who appreciate a bit of subtlety should be especially drawn to "It Ain't My Fault", which does not have to hit anybody over the head with its beats to get them involved. Deftly arranged, it is a fascinating early example of both Johnson and Quezergue incorporating Second Line syncopation into pop music. The arranger's device of starting off with just the drummer's relaxed but intricate percussive work (plus somebody hitting what sounds like a glass bottle) quickly pulls us into the song, even before the simple musical hook, played by just the guitar and piano, ensnares us. George Davis runs the guitar riffs on the first side with that recognizable style made famous several years later on Robert Parker's "Barefootin'", yet another Quezergue production. On Part 2, the horn section kicks in; and a bobbing and weaving soprano sax (James Rivers?) joins the party. While the lighthearted, hard to resist "It Ain't My Fault" was enjoyed locally. it did not have a national impact at the time; but it set the stage for many more uniquely funked up grooves to follow, and over time has become a Mardi Gras favorite and a part of the brass band repertoire.
"I Can't Help It - Part I" (J. Johnson - W. Quezergue)
Smokey Johnson, Nola 720, 1966
"I Can't Help It - Part II"
Speaking of "Barefootin'", this funky two-sider was released just prior to Parker's Nola classic (#721). It's hard to say which was recorded first, because "Barefootin'" came out almost a year, I think, after it was recorded. But George Davis' agile, in the pocket guitar work again is easy to spot. "I Can't Help It" was the third of Johnson's six singles * on Nola, and is remarkably similar in style to "It Ain't My Fault". This time, it's the kick drum and tom-toms that carry the attack, rather than the lighter hi-hat work on the earlier number. The entire groove is kind of a backwards/inverted version of what he played on "Fault", having a herky-jerky, bouncing feel that, while interesting, seems less danceable. Still, it's great to hear a top notch drummer allowed to play around with the beat so freely on a pop release. That freedom to deconstruct and reassemble beats for new kinds of grooves became the hallmark of funk, which has no set patterns. Johnson's chops and versatility greatly influenced some of his young drumming students back in the day, such as Leo Morris (a/k/a Idris Muhammad) and future Meter, Joseph Modeliste (a/k/a Zigaboo). Hey, I'd have to say that funk is at least partly Smokey's fault! He just couldn't help but express the rhythms interwoven into the life and culture of his hometown.
* Smokey's Nola plus other 1960s sides and more are available on the Night Train/Tuff City CD or LP It Ain't My Fault. You can read a review of it here.