Did Saying Yes Lead to Mercy?
"You Beter Say Yes" (Johnson)
Willie Tee, Atlantic 2302, 1965
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This is the B-side of Willie Tee's final Atlantic single in 1965. I posted the other side, "I Want Somebody (To Show Me The Way Back Home)" on May 16. 2005 and have the audio link back in action there for a while. While I prefer that side for its funkier leanings, probably courtesy of drummer Smokey Johnson, "You Better Say Yes" is no slouch of a tune. Another Earl King (Johnson) composition and Wardell Quezergue arrangement, it's got the hip, easy swing of many of Tee's other Nola/Atlantic sides coupled with his fine, falsetto-laced vocal.
When I first heard this song, maybe fifteen years ago, after finding the record in one dusty bin or another, my first thought was that King had "borrowed" the main repeating riff in the song, played on guitar by George Davis, from Cannonball Adderley's jazz hit, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy", written by Viennese keyboard virtuoso, Joe Zawinul. I just left it at that until recently, when doing research and speaking with a friend and associate of Tee's, I realized that Tee, Adderley, and Zawinul were long-time friends, probably going back to the days when these songs were recorded. It was Adderley who helped Tee get a deal for his soul/pop LP, I'm Only A Man, with Capitol in the late 1960s. Checking further, I found Zawinul's copyright on "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" was registered in 1966; and Adderley's release date on his live recording of the tune was the same year, indicating that King did not get his riff from that record. At that point, I had one of those "hmmmm" moments, speculating about Zawinul copping the riff from Tee's single, instead of vice versa. Wouldn't that be a trip. It could have gone either way.
In 1962, Cannonball Adderley, along with his cornetist brother, Nat, and bassist Sam Jones, came to New Orleans to record a jazz album, In the Bag, at Cosimo's studio, using three fine young local players in the sextet on the date: Ellis Marsalis on piano, Nat Perrilliat on tenor sax, and James Black on drums. Those three were at that time also recording jazz and R&B sessions with Harold Battiste for AFO, the musician-owned label he headed. And, of course, Willie Tee did his first soul/pop sides for the label that very year, as well. Being a budding jazz pianist, Tee could easily have found a way to be at those sessions to observe and listen, as Battiste and Marsalis were his mentors. Joe Zawinul was already a member of Adderley's band by this point, though he did not participate in those New Orleans sessions. But I am sure this is where Tee's connection to Adderley and, thus, Zawinul began. Did Tee, Davis, or King hear an early version of "Mercy" somewhere in those years, or did Zawinul develop the riff he heard on Tee's 1965 record into his own famous tune? We may never know; but this kind of musical cross-pollination is common. It makes for an intriguing sidebar to the tale of Willie Tee's career.
Update: For confirmation of Tee's friendship with Zawinul and a general remembrance of the artist, the following is from Bill Roberts, Tee's recording engineer going back over a decade, As Bill wrote to me:
I worked with Wilson Turbinton, Willie Tee, off and on for over 12 years in the studio as one of his recording engineers and am truly blessed to have known him.. “Tee,” as I called him, was much more than a musician to me. We had countless conversations covering all walks of life; and the true gentleman he was shined brightly at all times. Wilson always put family first, and his was a family of musicians. Just a month ago, he laid to rest his blood brother and musical partner. saxophonist Earl Turbinton with whom he made the Brothers For Life album. Wilson’s daughter, Raquel, has her own albums, produced by her father.
Tee spoke of Joe Zawinul [both pictured above ca 1967 - thanks also to Bill for finding this photo on the net] almost every time we did production together. Both musicians were extraordinarily talented composers, arrangers, producers and…to top it off, friends and fellow collaborators. Just in the past few months, the pair had performed together at Joe’s “Birdland” in Vienna, Austria.
So, Tee did not leave this planet alone. It is not often that two musicians, 6000 miles apart, ones who worked together over the last 40 years, leave this place arm in arm. As someone who usually has a lot to say, I am speechless.
- Bill Roberts