The Staple Singers Get A Joyride
During Jazzfest, I was fortunate to see an all too short tribute to Wardell Quezergue held on a small stage within the racetrack grandstands. He and several of his musical associates from over the years spoke about his background, career and admirable character. Joining him onstage were Sam Henry, Jr. (his longtime keyboard accompanist and fellow composer/arranger), the Dixie Cups (with whom he has worked off and on since their inception), Irma Thomas, and Cosimo Matassa (who singlehandedly engineered most of the music recorded in New Orleans from the late 1940s to the late 1960s). Musician and writer Ben Sandmel was the moderator and played, as reference points, excerpts of several of the more well-known records WQ worked on. Even someone knowing nothing about Quezergue had to come out of that presentation feeling that he was an all around class act personally and professionally.
In preparing this post on a well-known "outside" group that came to New Orleans to record at Sea-Saint Studios, I spoke with Danny Jones, who was one of the Sea-Saint recording engineers on those sessions (he says he mainly worked the vocal tracks and mixed) and many others during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I know Danny from Memphis, where he lived for many years, although he is now in Houston. Back when I did radio, I interviewed him at length about his days at Sea-Saint and just got the surface scuffed up a bit. He's also the guy who introduced me to Allen Toussaint at a NARAS seminar in Memphis, for which I am ever grateful. Anyway, Danny discovered HOTG by accident one day last year, left an informative comment on the Ramsey Lewis post I had up at the time, and got reconnected through email. So, I hope to share more of his thoughts and memories when I can. I think what he told me a few days ago about working with Wardell neatly sums up the feeling I got from his other friends and co-workers at that tribute. Here's the way Danny put it:
Wardell.....what can I say? One of the nicest, easy going producer/arrangers I've ever worked with. Absolutely knew what he was going after and knew how to convey it to everyone. He was always in command, but ruled with a calm politeness. Wardell was always a gentleman, a very talented gentleman. Everyone had a great deal of respect for him. I knew if I was booked on a session with Wardell it would be good session because it always was! Wardell is one of the reasons I still miss New Orleans!
Thanks, Danny. And thanks to Jazzfest for their little teach-in. Now let's get on to the music.
"Show Off The Real You" (Wayne Douglas, Jr - Eddie Thomas)
The Staple Singers, from Hold On To Your Dream, 20th Century-Fox, 1981
I came across this album in a used vinyl shop in Memphis some years back and, as many times happens, almost passed it over; but when I turned the cover over to check the credits, the first thing I saw was "Arranged and Conducted By Wardell Quezergue". Sold American. Icing it were the players supporting the always soulful Staple Singers: Sam Henry, Jr, on keyboards; George Porter, Jr. , bass; Vincent Bruce ('Weasel') McDonald, guitar, Theodore Riley (sic- this is an error - it's really Teddy Royal!), guitar; Bernard ('Bunchie') Johnson, drums; and Kenneth ('Afro') Williams, percussion. Though I didn't realize it until later, the first three players on that list were members of Porter's post-Meters band, Joyride, who were enjoying popularity in and around New Orleans at the time, though, unfortunately, they would soon break up.
To me, even though the Staple Singers co-produced Hold On to Your Dream with John Abbey, it was not the best showcase for the group; and that's not really Quezergue's fault. It's the material - weighed down by too many not so great songs, some of which are lengthy ballads which Wardell arranged lushly, as directed. It's certainly a few steps removed from their days with Stax or, later, working with Curtis Mayfield. And, although it was recorded in New Orleans, they geared it to be a slick commercial product for the mainstream national market, leaving no telling clues in its sound or spirit as to where it was made.
Still, Quezergue and band manage to bring some funk to the party. "Show Off The Real You", featuring the ever-appealing, earthy voice of Mavis Staples, has a groove that won't quit and shows how much Quezergue could accomplish with a simple, syncopated interplay of parts. It's not just where he puts the instruments, but also where he doesn't put them that make this little precision piece tick. The song is not much more than a few repeated riffs with some vague self-affirming lyrics on top; but Quezergue's arrangement and Mavis' vocal manage to make to make it enticingly more than the sum of parts and an enjoyable way to spend nearly four minutes of one's terrestrial existence. As with many such dance-oriented tracks of the disco and post-disco eras, the drums play it more or less straight; but the arrangement has the vocal and other instruments rhythmically and harmonically playing nicely off each other. Bunchie Johnson keeps the groove in the pocket and manages to get in some finessed licks, especially towards the fade; but this is really Porter's ride, as the entire song is built around that main moving bass riff he plays so well. [Note: Sam Henry told me that David Barrard played on some of the tracks on this album - but he is not credited in the liner notes, so I cannot verify that, or know which ones.]
I guess there are several reasons I picked this number. While it may have been just another day at the studio for the hardworking arranger, I think Quezergue's effective, uncluttered contributions show off well here. You'll note there are no horns on this track - and he's always good with them, too. But I just dig this cut a bit more more than the others that have horn charts. Then there's the Joyride factor. I don't think I have any other records that have Porter, Henry and McDonald together backing a non-New Orleans, major label group. This album definitely got lost in the Eighties shuffle and is not heard much. If you can find a copy cheap, it's worth getting for several of the performances, including two fairly funked up ones written by the great George Jackson. Oh, yeah, it's well-engineered,too! Gotta give some props to the men at the board, Mr. Jones and Skip Godwin..