The Fabulous Fantoms' Funksion
My introduction to the Fabulous Fantoms was hearing "Junk", an early instrumental track of theirs, on the 2002 Grapevine various artists compilation CD, Crescent City Funk (highly recommended, but now out of print???). From there I picked up the Tuff City/Funky Delicacies CD, Just Having A Party (2001), featuring almost everything the band released during the decade or so they were active (1968 - 1979), including an unreleased 1978 LP of the same name. Nearly all the details I have about this relatively unknown funk band come from David Goldfarb's notes for that CD; and hearing it was a revelation in several respects.
At the end of the 1960s, the newly emerging funk scene in New Orleans was spawning many hot new groups. Art Neville and the Neville Sounds quartet, playing regularly in the French Quarter, were hired as the new Sansu Productions studio band and became the Meters; and Sam & the Soul Machine, the Gaturs, and David Batiste and the Gladiators were also coming into their own. In that musically fertile era, the Fabulous Fantoms came together, as I understand it, in suburban New Orleans East, merging two separate young bands.
They started out large in 1968 with ten members, including a four piece horn section, covering tunes by both local and national funk and soul acts. Fresh out of the box, they secured a weekly gig at a club called the Devil's Den, which lasted until 1971, and continued to pull in more work. They regularly pleased late night crowds around town at three social aid and pleasure clubs: the Autocrat, the ILA, and the Label Union Hall. Even though their line-up was in flux for the first few years and they were learning the ropes of professional performance as they went along, the band cooked; and it wasn't unusual for them to have two gigs some nights.
The initial Fabulous Fantoms single, "The Mau Mau", a two-part, drum-heavy, original instrumental rave-up (which is not on the Funky Delicacies CD) came out locally around 1970 on Marty Lewis' Big Deal Records (#126), but didn't seem to impress much of anybody as a big deal, causing the group to not do a follow-up for the label. Instead, the next time they hit the studio in 1971, recording "Take Me There" and "Who Cares", they released the tunes on their own Power Funksion imprint, promoting and distributing the 45 themselves; but, with limited resources and options, there wasn't much they could do with it.
So, in 1972, they approached Lewis for assistance with the next Power Funkson single, "Junk" b/w "Get A Little Bit", today's HOTG feature, which was distributed by Big Deal. This one had some traction locally, getting played on the radio and generating more sales action, but was not picked up nationally. At least one run of the record had their name misspelled as 'The Fanoms', which surely didn't help matters. Obviously, my copy* isn't from from that batch.
By the time they released this single, calling themselves simply The Fantoms, the band has been together over three years, and you can get a sense listening to it of what they had to offer, despite the less than optimal recording quality: serious funk grooves coupled with tight, effective arrangements and a sound that could be big, but wasn't overblown. Their vocalists weren't top rate, but were certainly acceptable by funk band standards, nor were their song lyrics anything to write home about - if indeed most funk fans even noticed in the midst of intense booty shaking. Hearing this band, it is not at all surprising that they were a popular live act. It's just a pity that they never had the opportunity to take things to the next level and make some well-produced hit records. They certainly had the potential.
The Fantoms, Power Funksion 1002, 1972
"Junk" is the only FF track I've heard that features a flute. It's a tricky lead instrument to lay over this low down funk groove, paired with a distorted, processed guitar, as it risks coming off as too lightweight to hold its own. Still, it works fairly well in this context and is roughed up somewhat by the unknown player's occasional gasps for air and his frenzied blowing near the fade, which remind me just a bit of the heavy-breathed style of Ian Anderson in Jethro Tull, who wrote the book on the flute in rock music.
Embellishing the track are several nice elements: the layered opening organ notes; the drummer's stripped-down kick drum and hi-hat work for most of the piece, mixed with plenty of percolating percussion; and the massed horns which help build intensity when they introduce their big riff late in the song. These touches speak well of the band's instincts for arranging and help turn a simple basic rhythm track with some instrumental soloing into a work of varying dynamics, syncopated movement, and a uniquely funky hippie-jazz flavor. It may not be quite A-list stuff; but it's far from junk.
"Get A Little Bit" (M. Lewis)
The Fantoms, Power Funksion, 10002, 1972
This is a far more conventional sort of soul/funk outing for the band. Lewis has the writer's credit; but I doubt it is anymore than him wanting a cut of potential royalties on a group original. I've come to love what the drummer, Winston Shy (who would soon leave the band), and bassist, Robino Barnes, are doing on "Get A Little Bit". Both have a loose, relaxed feel, as they play around with the beat, and yet keep it in the pocket. They set up an eminently enjoyable groove that the rest of the band can ride.
Besides these two, the guitar is also prominent, just playing chords and a repeating riff, with no soloing. During this period, the Fantoms did not have a regular guitarist, and used various pick-up players, including the great Walter 'Wolfman' Washington, who was also doing some recording for and with Eddie Bo. I don't have a clue if Wolfman is on this track; but it is possible. Other players who were for certain on the session would have been founding members William 'Will' Norflin on organ and saxophonist Milton Lewis (who would also soon leave the group to form another band, the Family Underground), plus vocalists Ronald Trudeau and Anthony Rainey. Somewhat after the release of this single, an unnamed New York label expressed interest in "Get A Little Bit" and approached Marty Lewis and about signing the band; but the Fantoms did not take the offer, because they heard unfavorable things about the label and had a shaky relationship with Lewis.
After their next single, "Big Fine Woman" (supposedly released on Big Deal in 1972, although I can find no evidence of it), went absolutely nowhere, the Fabulous Fantoms did not make another record until 1975, when the three principals, Norflin, guitarist and singer Anthony Raines, and manager Robert Morgan, established MAN Records and put out another funky two-parter, "Rip Off", which had some good hooks and better recording quality. It was a non-starter all the same; but the next year they issued another single combining the A-side of "Rip Off" with a very funky rendition of "Love The One You're With", the Stephen Stills hit. That got them an offer from London Records, but the band did not have enough new original material for an entire LP at the time, causing the label to lose interest. Longtime fans of New Orleans music will find it significant that the band's re-working of the Stills song is supposed to have caught the ears of the Meters, who incorporated it into their live shows, as did the Neville Brothers after them.
Shifting ahead to 1978, again seeking the interest of a national label, the band self-produced a well-recorded and played album's worth of material at Ultrasonic Studio in Uptown New Orleans, with a pair of female vocalists and a percussionist added to the mix. Living up to its title, Just Having A Party was mostly get-down dance-funk music with a few slower soul songs created just to be shopped around for a record deal. And it almost paid off when TK Records contacted them about releasing the album. Unfortunately for the Fantoms, the timing was not right, as the label opted to go strictly for the disco market in 1979 and did not sign them after all. As a mater of fact, the rise of disco and the growing use of DJs in the clubs, ultimately led to the demise of the band as a live act, as well, that year.
Had the Fabulous Fantoms kicked their songwriting quality and output up a notch and gotten the opportunity to record more often earlier in their career, it seems very likely that their local and national impact would have been greater, like another fine young local band, Chocolate Milk, who signed with RCA in the mid-1970s. Of course, CM had Allen Toussaint in their corner, producing their early albums; but, still, the Fantoms were a good band from their inception and their sound, while somewhat generic, continued to improve. They should have had more of a shot; but, like too many other worthy New Orleans acts, they didn't get one, leaving their legacy in the hands of re-issue labels, rare record collectors, and fans of obscure grooves like us.
*Thanks to heap big record collector and dealer "Trent" for this 45!
[8/2/2007 - This update just in from our long lost commentator, Dwight Richards, a man outstanding in his field, that being the drummer of Chocolate Milk. He writes:
Dan, Dwight here from C.M. I know it's been a long time, but as you can guess, I have been busy in New Orleans with housing issues. But, man, you never cease to amaze me. When you find a piece of history like this I simply have to comment. The Fantoms were one of several popular groups in New Orleans. They actually recorded before CM became popular on the scene. I believe there is the possibility that CM's horn section may have been on that project. I can't remember because before we formed CM , all of us played in several different bands. I played in at least five bands myself. Rubino Barnes, the bass player you mentioned was and still is a good friend of mine. He went to the same high school as me. In fact he was still in high school when he recorded with the Fantoms. I was very envious!! Your analogy to CM is spot on! All of the bands played the same clubs, so we all knew each other and there was FRIENDLY competition. I can't remember all of the members of that band, but they were a funky bunch. Members of that band, like many bands from New Orleans, came from St. Aug. high school which populated many bands of that era. For your music detectives, NOTE: The forerunner of Chocolate Milk was called The Deacons. This band also recorded a couple of singles. one song may have been called "Sissy Walk" or something like that. (yeah yeah yeah I KNOW!) I wasn't playing the drums in that incarnation, but it would be a hoot to hear it. -Dwight (field reporter)
How absolutely fanfriggintastic to hear from you, Dwight! I should have known that this post might be the key to you checking in again. Hope your housing issues are getting squared away, as I know this is a major challenge for those who have returned home to the Crescent City. I've tried to contact you numerous times over the past year - so email me or call when you get a chance. Thanks so much for your comments and for that strong hint for a future HOTG posting topic (I'll get to work on it). Hey, I'd like to talk to your friend, Rubino/Robino, sometime, too, as there is so much I don't know about the Fantoms. As always, your contributions mean alot. Peace.