Of Gaturs and Indians
After Atlantic's interest in Willie Tee faded with his record sales around 1965, he made a few more records for Nola and related labels* (Hot Line and Bonatemp) that achieved almost instantaneous obscurity. His inability conjure hits certainly wasn't due lack of talent, but I think had to do with his jazz influenced, more musically sophisticated style of soul that was somewhat ahead of its time. Added to that, the poor distribution of his releases and scant promotion did not help maintain his profile with record buyers and radio. The marketplace at the time was much more friendly to label-mate Robert Parker, whose 1966 novelty item, "Barefootin'", became Nola's biggest record. Around 1967, with bad business blood beginning to separate the label's owners, Tee and his cousin, Ulis Gaines, a co-founder of Nola, formed their own label, Gatur (GAines-TURbinton). But it was a bad time for a music business start in New Orleans, especially one linked to studio-owner Cosimo Matassa through his Dover distribution company. Cos' entire business assets were seized by the IRS, including master tapes for numerous independent record companies. With no material to release, nowhere in the city to record new tracks, and no distributor, locals labels such as Nola were effectively shut down. Tee's first single on Gatur, the odd "I Peeped Your Hole Card" b/w "She Really Did Surprise Me", was a casualty of that debacle, as well; and the new label was put on hold as soon as it had begun.
As the 1960s came to an end, Tee did songwriting and production work on a single for the promising, young New Orleans soul singer, Margie Joseph, newly signed to the Volt label out of Memphis; but that record was another bust. Then, in what seemed to be a reversal of his fortunes, Cannonball Adderley (see post below) helped get Tee an album deal with Capitol, which resulted in I'm Only A Man in 1970, an album I still do not own – though not for lack of trying. Capitol was where Adderley was signed; and he, along with his keyboardist, Joe Zawinul, had high regard for Tee's many talents. Zawinul even credited Tee as a big, early influence on his approach to funk. While Tee's first LP effort turned out to be another commercial non-starter, the 1970s would soon prove to be a very productive and influential, if not lucrative, period in his career.
Pretty much back at square one, Tee and Gaines reactivated Gatur Records; and Willie began developing and expressing his own take on the funk that was flowing freely on the local music scene. He called his studio band the Gaturs and, over the next few years, released nine singles on the label under his own name or that of the band. In 1971/1972, ATCO picked up the Gaturs’ first single, "Cold Bear" (featured here 7/4/2007) b/w "Booger Man"; but nothing much came of that, either. Still, Tee persevered, creating an atmospheric, funky soul/jazz sound that was distinctly his own thing. An excellent example of what he could do with just a simple arrangement is this Gaturs side:
"Gator Bait" (W. Turbinton)
The Gaturs, Gatur 510, ca 1972
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
A compelling bass pattern and percussion with minimal drums kick it off, laying down a groove that immediately baits its hook. As soon as the chords of the central riff begin, there’s a surprise. Tee's playing a Wurlitzer electric piano, which immediately gives the track an intimate, impressionistic jazz-oid vibe. Steeped in reverb "wetness", the track imparts a sense of depth or distance that differs from the generally up-front, "drier" recorded sound of the Meters. All the elements of a strong funk tune are here: the layered percussion from drummer Larry Panna and likely Alfred 'Uganda' Roberts on congas, Erving Charles' bass line that won't quit, and an obligatory wah-wah guitar; but it's Tee's floating keyboard work that takes the track into some sort of dreamland dimension where we commune and dance with the spirits. Both he and Charles toss off short, hot solos to boot. No clichés played here, as Tee re-interprets the language of funk with his own finely tuned sensibilities, creating an intriguing and enjoyable musical hybrid within the confines of an under three minute single side. I also love that random street patter the players interject along the way.
And speaking of hybrids. . . . During this same period, Tee began his collaboration with Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, uniting the primal Mardi Gras Indian music Tee often heard as a youth with his own unique blend of musical styles. The Indians were long a sub-sub-culture in New Orleans, even though they had an over 100 year tradition of masking on Carnival Day with elaborate hand-sewn costumes of feathers and beads, roaming their neighborhoods displaying their handiwork, performing ritualized (and, early on, actual) battles with other tribes, and singing their mysterious, rhythmic songs. In February of last year, I told the tale of how Tee and the Indians got together. What resulted from the initial, historic, but rather crude recording session bringing the Indians and funk grooves together, was that French label owner, Philippe Rault of Barclay Records, was inspired to record an entire LP on the Wild Magnolias in 1973, followed by a second in 1975. On both projects, Willie Tee ran the sessions (though got no production credit), composed and arranged the instrumental backing, contributed some compelling new material to supplement the traditional Indian songs, played keyboards, and lead the musicians, many of whom were from his own band. His brother Earl, played soprano sax throughout, providing a sometimes eerie, sometimes vaguely Middle Eastern feel to the tracks that heightened their exoticism.
"New Kinda Groove" (Wilson Turbinton)
The Wild Magnolias, Barclay, 1975
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
"A New Kinda Groove", from 1975's They Call Us Wild, is certainly a fitting example of what Tee brought to the party. As the song title implies, he did impart an influential, new kinda thang not only to the Indian tradition, but to the diverse musical culture of his hometown. This tune is a classic of the "funk-sway" genre found in Tee's work on Gatur and with the Wild Magnolias. He puts a patented swing to the syncopation, producing a proud strut that honors the Indians’ significance while embedding their vibe in a contemporary musical setting. While the Barclay LPs were not released in the States until Polydor brought out CD versions about 30 years later (which went out of print by the end of the century), they were still incredibly influential on the local scene, and provided national and international recognition for the Indian phenomenon.
I'll be featuring more from the Willie Tee catalogue down the road. I hope that what I've laid out in the past few weeks on the main page and in links to past posts with re-activated audio suggests to you how great a contribution he made to the music of his hometown and the planet – pretty remarkable for a man who never hand all that many commercial releases and was only known to the general public for a lone, fairly lightweight hit that really didn’t scratch the surface of what he was about.
As driving a creative force as he was, Tee humbly saw himself as a conduit for the expressions of higher powers. Bill Roberts, a gifted, golden-eared audio engineer and producer, worked with Tee from the mid-1990s to just recently, recording countless hours of Tee’s spontaneous composing. He shared with me this description of the artist at work in the studio; and I think it is a fitting way to close and a great way to remember what Mr. Turbinton was about:
When I worked with Tee, we would build a track simply with him performing all of the instruments on the Kurzweil K2000 V3 (keyboard/digital workstation). He typically started with drums and percussion, then added the bass (he would hear a bass line in his head and write around that), and then built the entire track working from there. This would not take long at all, 30, 45 minutes. I might suggest a cello or a flute or something here and there. He would try it and usually say, "Yea!". I feel confident that I was just expressing verbally what Tee was going to do anyway - he was in charge.
After he got the track built up, he would get another idea and work on that, starting a new set of channels to lay another new song. One thing that really sticks in my mind is what he would say after we'd have the tracks built. It would go something like this:
"Do you hear how they have those horns coming in and out of the melody? I like how they used the tambourine in those spots." He was referring to music he just created as though "They" had done it, that it came from somewhere else. He was like that. He considered himself a vehicle for the music to be performed "through", rather than giving himself the credit alone for its creation.
Bill Roberts - Balanced Mastering
God rest and bless your soul, Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton.
*These can be found on the Tuff City/Night Train CD, Teasin' You, if you don't mind that the tracks were transferred from vinyl, some of which was obviously in bad shape. Suggestion to the compiler(s): next time, spring for digital audio restoration software or (harder to find) for near mint copies of the records, if you can't get the master tapes. [Note: According to Aaron Fuchs, owner of Tuff City, Tee was paid substantial royalties generated from sales of his material and sampling by other artists.]