May 26, 2007

Knowing The Barons By The Company They Kept

[Revised and updated 10/14/2011]

I first became aware of the Barons, a New Orleans male vocal group (a rare commodity on the city's recording scene in the mid to late 1960s), only when Funky Delicacies/Tuff City released a compilation CD on them around 1996. It was a revelation; and I immediately started adding the tracks to my radio show playlists, and began searching for copies of their singles, too. At first, I didn't dig the Barons as much for their vocal abilities as for the producers/arrangers they worked with and the many groovin' rhythm tracks they sang over; but that's not to say they weren't fine singers. As their recordings reveal, they had outstanding versatility, and gave each song their all.

This three song feature includes one track they recorded with Eddie Bo, and two from their later association with Wardell Quezergue; but before we get into those, I want to give their career some context.

Not to be confused with several other outfits with the same name who recorded around the country in the 1950s and 1960s, the Barons, based in the Crescent City, formed in 1963 or early 1964 and included James Youngblood, Lloyd Shepard, who sang the falsetto leads, and the Savoy twins, Albert and Alvin. They were fortunate to get some early breaks, including their first shot at recording, with co-billing even, provided by the always enterprising Eddie Bo, who had them back him on the first single for his new Blue Jay label in 1964. The next year the group gave vocal support to Mike Watson on a single for the short-lived (only three know issues) Etah imprint, and followed that with their own promising, but instantly obscure debut 45 on the label.

Soon thereafter, the Barons were signed to Lynn’s Productions, a multi-state operation which included artist management, booking, publishing and numerous related record labels, with its nexus in Greenville, MS. The principals, Lynn Williams and Henry R. 'Reggie' Hines, also had a New Orleans branch that Hines had set up with bandleader/producer Al White. Among the other local acts they had at the time were Eddie Powers, Earl Stanley, and the Queenettes, a female vocal group. White took the Barons out on the road with his band, the Hi-Liters, playing frat parties, proms, clubs and pretty much any other paying gig around the South. In 1966, Folkways Records issued Roots: Rhythm and Blues, a compilation LP produced by Hines and White and tracked at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans, which featured a number of artists on Lynn’s roster and included three cuts by the Barons.

Despite that early exposure, they did not attract a significant local following until parting ways with Lynn's and coming under the guidance of Quezergue in 1968. That happened when the group came to the attention of hustler, promoter and occasional recording artist, Senator Jones. who was starting Shagg, one of the several small and often short-term labels he would run in New Orleans over the next decade or more. "Kid Stuff", from their first 45 for Jones, also the initial release on Shagg, was arranged and produced by Quezergue and became a local hit, increasing their bookings around the area. But Shagg soon went under as a result of the financial meltdown of its distributor, Dover Records; so, Quezergue likely steered the Barons to another small start-up label in town, Mode, where he handled the recording of their next two singles. But neither one of those stirred any interest, even though the second of them was leased to the New York-based Shout label for national distribution.

In 1970, Quezergue took a legendary busload of New Orleans vocalists, including the Barons, up to Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi to record. Out of those sessions, the Barons had two singles released, one of which is discussed below. By then, the group had changed personnel, losing original members, the Savoy brothers, who left to concentrate on songwriting for Quezergue's production operation. As noted in the comments to this post, Karl Matthews came on board for the Malaco sessions and stayed with the group for a later record on Super Dome, also discussed below, and at least one more on John Fred's Sugarcane label out of Baton Rouge. Even though the Barons effectively disbanded after that, I have found evidence of four other singles from the late 1970s or early 1980s credited to the group, one on Traci Borges' Sunshine Movement label (hear it at the In Dangerous Rhythm link below) and three on Gamma, a New Orleans label owned by David Perkins, who was a part of the group at the time [see the comments for more details]. Both Quezergue and James Youngblood are shown as co-writers on some of those sides.

*The (New Orleans) Barons Vinyl Discography
"Gotta Have More"/"Come To Me" - Eddie Bo with the Barons - Blue Jay 154 - 1964
"I Dig Your Kind"/"Love Is A Losing Game" - Mike Watson - Etah 100 - ca 1965 (backing vocals)
"Clap Your Little Hands"/"I've Got A Feeling" - The Barons - Etah 102 - ca 1965
"Until The End", I Can Jerk All Night", "There's A Dream For You" - The Barons on the compilation LP, Roots: Rhythm and Blues, Folkways RBF 20, 1966
"Kid Stuff"/"As Sure As You're Born" - The Barons - Shagg 711 - 1968
"Are You Here To Stay"/"Love Is So Real" - The Barons - Mode 507 - 1969
"No More Baby Love"/"Society Don't Let Us Down" - The Barons - Mode 508 - 1969
"No More Baby Love"/"Society Don't Let Us Down" - The Barons - Shout 242 - 1969
"Making It Better"/Symphony Of Gratitude" - The Barons Ltd - Chimneyville 436 - 1970
"Love Power"/"Gypsy Read Your Cards For Me" - The Barons Ltd - Chimneyville 440 - 1971
"Some Kind of Fool"/"I'm So Lonely" - The Barrons (sic) - Super Dome 501 - ca 1973
"Some Kind of Fool"/"I'm So Lonely" - The Barrons (sic) - Alithia 6049 - 1973
"Got You Under My Skin"/"No More Tears" - The Barrons - Sugarcane 002 - 1975
"Stay As Sweet As You Are" (unreleased Sugarcane production by John Fred)
"Keep The Music Coming"/Same (Instrumental) - The Barons - Gamma 711 - early 1980s
"Lonely Afternoon, Part 1"/Part 2 - The Barons - Gamma 117 - early 1980s
"That's How Love Is"/"We Should Be Together" - The Barons - Gamma 1150 - early 1980s

"There's More Out There"/Same (Instrumental) - The Barons - Sunshine Movement 105 - 1980s (Thanks to Colin at In Dangerous Rhythm for this one - you can currently hear it there)

"Gotta Have More" (D. Johnson - E. Bocage - T. Terry)
Eddie Bo With the Barons, Blue Jay 154, 1964

I don't think I'm venturing out on too thin a limb when I say this side is one of the best records Eddie Bo ever made. It leads off with a nice little organ figure, and the drums drop a fascinatingly quirky and syncopated pattern that continues under the verses. It can't be classified as funk, but is certainly not your standard issue soul groove either. Smokey Johnson comes to mind as capable of such a groove; but I have found no mention of the session players. In any event, Bo's arrangement throughout is dynamic and masterful.

Admittedly, Eddie may not have been the consummate soul or pop singer; but the way he half sings/half talks his lyrics is just right, and ever so hip. His enthusiasm, punctuated by those squeals, is infectious, and his interplay with the Barons helps make the track a real stand-out performance. Everybody on the cut is way into it. They absolutely nail the thing. I loved "Gotta Have More" the first time I heard it on the Barons CD comp, and never get tired of it. I really lucked up finding a mint copy of the 45 I could afford along the way.

As I noted earlier, this was the first known release on Bo's Blue Jay label, which only lasted until 1965, issuing a total of five singles: four on Bo and one on Tommy Ridgley, all top quality work, with "Our Love (Will Never Falter)" being another forgotten classic. Bo only used the Barons on #154; and the single's lack of any significant commercial success was likely the reason.

Other than "Gotta Have More", I don't know that any of the Blue Jay sides are currently available on comps; but there might be a few that can be downloaded somewhere. For more information on Eddie Bo's work, don't forget to visit the superb discography at

"Gypsy Read Your Cards For Me" (Maria Tynes, Wardell Quezergue, Joe Broussard)
The Barons, Ltd, Chimneyville 440, 1970

As I said, the Barons were among the New Orleans singers that producer, arranger, and composer Quezergue took to Jackson, MS in 1970 to record at the recently opened Malaco Studios. The others were King Floyd, Jean Knight, Joe Wilson, and Bonnie and Sheila, a duo. Each artist/group recorded vocals for two sides at the vocal sessions, Quezergue having cut the backing tracks the previous week with the studio band, who would become the in-house regulars at Malaco: James Stroud on drums, Jerry Puckett, guitar, and Vernie Robbins, bass. Wardell played organ on the tracks; and, as I recall, the horn players were from his own own New Orleans band.

Backed financially by a businessman of questionable repute, Elijah Walker, Big Q had sought out Malaco due to the closure of the main recording facility at home, Cosimo Matassa's Jazz City Studio. Matassa has gone bankrupt running Dover Records, a distributorship for many small, local labels, after which the IRS seized all of his assets for unpaid taxes. In many ways it was a fortuitous move for Big Q's production operation, as Floyd and Knight scored their substantial hits there, "Groove Me" and Mr. Big Stuff" respectively, leading him to work very productively with Malaco over the next few years.

Perhaps to distinguish the Barons from other groups bearing that name, they were shown as the Barons, Ltd. when recording for Malaco. The songs they did at that first session, "Making It Better" and "Symphony Of Gratitude", became their initial single (#436), which came out right behind Floyd's "Groove Me" on Chimneyville, Malaco's fledgling in-house label. When that record didn't move, Quezergue tried again, doing a second session on the Barons, resulting in two sides, "Gypsy Read Your Cards For Me" b/w "Love Power", that appeared on their final release for the label later in 1970. Though both records were worthy efforts by all concerned, Floyd's success seems to have completely overshadowed them; and the label's national distributor, Atlantic/Cotillion, never got behind either record.

While "Love Power", from the second single, is a linear, driving, nearly one chord funk vamp (which we'll hear at a later date), the flip side, "Gypsy Read Your Cards For Me", has more of an ambitious, old school structure and arrangement. Adding a unique feel to this tune is the well-executed, just this side of cheesy Spanish-tinged intro/bridge that somewhat miraculously resolves into the funky groove of the verses with that fine pumping, staggered bass line. I think Quezergue really pulled a rabbit out of his hat on this track, showing off his studio expertise to excellent effect in creating an engaging, effective showcase for the vocalists.

As always, he came into the studio totally prepared, with the entire arrangement planned out just before the date to make it fresh. For the instrumental tracks, recorded first, he taught the band their parts and directed their playing to insure they had his intricate rhythmic constructions locked in. Then, before the vocalists came in, they were completely rehearsed on the ins and outs of each tune. No time was wasted in the studio experimenting, creating parts or doing "head" arrangements on the fly. As some who were there have said:

With all of those records, Wardell had every lick in his head before he came to the studio; every part, every nuance. He'd give you a little leeway, but not much — he knew the patterns he wanted the musicians to play and the accents; even the drum licks. And he rehearsed the vocalists as meticulously as he did the tracks. He didn't leave anything to chance. - Wolf Stephenson, co-founder of Malaco, in Mix, 11-1-2002

Wardell was a professor. Even before you got to the studio, you were rehearsed for the studio.That meant that your timing [was down], you were pronouncing the words correctly and [he] made sure that your expression and acting of the song was done properly. . . If he said it was good, clock it. It was good. He was a very unique person. It would be like a genius at work. He was amazing. He's low key, but he's amazing. - James Youngblood of the Barons, from Malaco Records: The Last Soul Company, CD box set.

A highly efficient approach for sure, under the direction of a brilliant, gifted gentleman; yet, it obviously took the great talents of all to reproduce what he had in his head and create appealing final products that had the potential not only to be hits, but sometimes absolute classics.

"Some Kind Of Fool" (JB, CW, RW, RK)
The Barrons, Super Dome 501, ca 1973

The dates of some Barons' records are hard to nail down; but I think this Super Dome single came after the Chimneyville records tanked, based on dates I could dig up for a few other singles on this Senator Jones label. By accident or intent, the record is credited to The Barrons, which makes it tricky to search for online. That extra 'r' spelling was continued when the single was leased to the Alithia label to try to generate some more national action. As far as I can tell, neither side made any impact at all locally or farther afield. Jones' right hand man, Raymond Jones (a/k/a Ray J) is credited as arranger; and the producers are mysteriously dubbed Dollars & Cents. Still, I have a strong feeling that Quezergue was involved at some level. For one thing, the principal songwriter on the track was Joe Broussard, who was an important part of Quezergue's production team, which, in essence, operated out of Broussard's home in New Orleans. Of course, the writers credits on this 45 are ridiculous, just initials - don't think I've ever seen that before. I had to go to the BMI database to pull out the names: Joseph Broussard, Carrol Washington, Ralph Williams, and Richard Caiton (RK?). Also, I think this multi-layered arrangement is just too intricate and funky not to have the Big Q touch, credited or not.

And, hoo boy, the highly percussive "Some Kind Of Fool" has got da fonk in spades (some pun intended) from bottom to top, starting with pounding congas and push-pull drum action. Bass and guitar notes percolate off each other, while the horns are inserted for rhythmic emphasis. The only straightly played instrument is the piano, well back in the mix. As with many Senator Jones thinly-financed sessions, the audio quality is a bit off and the band somewhat ragged, probably because not enough time was allowed to get things totally right. But they are good enough for a cookin' track. The players are unknown, as is the venue. If it was too early to have been cut at the new Sea-Saint Studios, it possibly could have been done in Baton Rouge. Lots of questions remain on this one. I'll keep digging to see if I can uncover any more. But, of course, you need know nothing at all about it to be a fool for this groove.

May 15, 2007

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..

May 10, 2007

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.