Street Parading With Earl; Mardi Gras a la Jess(i)e
As I mentioned in my note on the last Toussaint post, we started out the evening last Saturday shivering in a cold North wind to view the annual Krewe du Vieux parade, which winds through the Faubourg Marigny and French Quarter. As you can see from their website, Krewe du Vieux is a large aggregation of paraders of various bents (and I do mean bent) whose yearly Carnival themes are highly satirical, pointedly irreverent, and, as much as possible, in incredibly poor taste. Kicking off the Carnival parading season in New Orleans, KdV's general theme this year was The Magical Misery Tour, a jaundiced assessment of the city in re-hab, I guess you could say, with plentiful reworked Beatles song titles - including the inspiring, "We All Live In A Jell-o-shot Machine" from the sub-krewe of Mama Roux; or, for a take on the state of political leadership, there was "David Vitter's Lonely Whores Club" from the Krewe of L.E.W.D.
For the past several years, an impressive assortment of brass bands have rolled with the parade - such as the Soul Rebels and Rebirth (pictured) to name but a few. Are there bigger, more well-organized, less offensive parades? Yes. Carnival season is full of 'em. But, having just the right swagger to their staggering struts, Krewe du Vieux has got to be the funkiest parade going.
So, several weekends of partying already behind me (we went to Offbeat's Best of the Beat award show the weekend before last), it's time to continue the roll through the figurative streets of the Home of the Groove with a tune written and performed by Earl King and backed up by the Meters, with Allen Toussaint arranging and producing. Now, let's get back on the parade line. . . .
"Street Parade PT 1" (E. K. Johnson)
Earl King, Kansu 101, ca 1970
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"Street Parade PT 2"
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Another stone fan of New Orleans grooves, Larry Grogan, posted Part 1 of this single back in November on Funky 16 Corners. Beat me to it, since I was patiently waiting for Carnival to get into swing. So, at the risk of redundancy, I'm going with both sides of "Street Parade", one of several tributes to Mardi Gras-related festivities by the late, great Earl King. Of course, Earl wrote the perennial favorite, "Big Chief", which Professor Longhair recorded back in 1964. Earl sang the lyrics (and whistled) on that single, too. He also penned "Mardi Gras In the City", which appeared on his impressive Black Top comeback album, Glazed, in the late 1980s.
As I have written before (March 17, 2006, to be exact), Allen Toussaint cut at least an album's worth of original material on Earl King back about 1970, if not earlier, that his production partnership, Sansu, shopped around. Atlantic expressed interest in the project, put ultimately were unwilling to spring for a cash advance, and the deal fell through, never to be revived. Sadly, all those tunes were left moldering in the can, save one, the two-part "Street Parade", which came out as a one shot single on the Kansu label. I assume that this record was released during Carnival season to maximize the chance for some local airplay and sales; but I have no way of verifying that, unless someone remembers it from back then and can tell me.
The rhythm section for these sessions was surely the Meters, who had started out a few years earlier as the Sansu house band and had quickly become a hit-making group on their own, and were still Tossaint's first call session men. If you listen into the music on "Street Parade", you can hear an absolutely infectious second line groove, highly syncopated parade drum beats, worthy of Zigaboo Modeliste, one of New Orleans' funkiest. On bass would be George Porter, Jr., whose playing dances around the drum rhythms with a feel similar to the patterns of a tuba player in a brass band. In more of a supportive role are the guitar and organ of Leo Nocentelli and Art Neville respectively. Toussaint really came up with some inspired horn arrangements for the tune that goosed up the celebratory atmosphere considerably, making superfluous the canned crowd noise added in later. All in all, he managed to create in the studio an effective approximation of a marching band funkin' it up out in the streets.
King seems to have been genuinely enthused, too, giving up a great vocal performance. With all this going for the record, it's a tragic that it and the entire project fell by the wayside. "Street Parade" at least should have become a seasonal classic up there with Al Johnson's "Carnival Time"; but it was largely forgotten until a series of re-issues of the Sansu sessions appeared, beginning in 1981 on Charly (LP and later CD), and more recently Fuel 2000 and AIM, all entitled Street Parade.
I read a short internet piece on this song that said it was recorded at Toussaint and Sehorn's Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans; but Sea-Saint was not ready for sessions until 1973. "Street Parade" and other Earl King songs done for Sansu were recorded elsewhere, quite possibly in another city, as Cosimo's studio has closed down. The Meters recorded numerous sessions in Macon, GA at Capricorn Studios during the period. So that is a possibility, too, aling with Atlanta.
Finally, those of you who have heard the re-issue CDs will have noted that King's song "Am I Your Dog", has exactly the same backing track (without the crowd and parade noises), but with entirely different lyrics. Why, I don't know. The music for "Street Parade" is so obviously geared to the spirit and context of that song that it sounds incongruous used with other lyrics. Maybe when "Street Parade" tanked, Earl went back and cut new lyrics in hopes of getting a second chance with the track. Obviously, that didn't happen. But, don't let that little lingering mystery affect your party mood in the least. Let's ditch this history lesson and celebrate the way Earl intended. Hit me!!!!
"Mardi Gras" (B. Reddicks)
Jesse Hill, Pulsar 2412, ca 1968
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From what I've read, Jessie Hill did pretty well for himself after re-locating to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. He was then a one-hit wonder for his 1960 recording on Minit of "Ooh Poo Pah Doo", an original, arranged and produced by Allen Toussaint, that got up to #3 in the R&B charts. But when he didn't have a successful follow-up and gigs became scarce, Hill headed for the Left Coast, which already had a sizable contingent of New Orleans artists living and working there. After meeting up with old friend Mac Rebennack and producer Harold Battiste out West, Hill pretty much sidelined his performing career and devoted himself to songwriting. He and Rebennack collaborated often and started their own publishing company, I Found It Music. Diverse artists from Sonny and Cher (Battiste was their music director) to Aretha Franklin recorded their songs, allowing Hill to make a fairly comfortable living. But, occasionally, he still recorded on his own for labels such as Downey, Wand (with Shirley Goodman, as Shirley and Jessie), Chess, and Pulsar, a Mercury subsidiary. Rebennack had a production deal with Mercury and involved Battiste, Hill, Shine Robinson and Dave Dixon on many of the projects. That seems to have continued at the new Pulsar label which released Hill's "Mardi Gras" b/w "Free And Easy" around 1968, arranged by Battiste who co-produced with Rebennack as Halmac Productions. By the way, you'll note that the "i" was left out of Jessie's name on the label
"Mardi Gras", for all it's talk of Creole ladies second lining and the like, was not destined to be a Carnival favorite or anything else. It seems to have fallen on deaf ears, or off a cliff. The only two copies I've seen have been promos - maybe it didn't get released commercially after all. Other than Hill's easily identifiable, hoarse, phlegm-fest of a delivery, there's nothing much of New Orleans to the sound of the record until the horns break into "Saints" for a few bars; but there's some funkiness down in its groove. Starting off with a wah-wah guitar riff that repeats as a sing-along after each chorus, it kicks into a pumping soul-rock feel and stays there. The drums have a touch of syncopation, which is enhanced by the driving percussionist, likely 'Didimus' Washington again on congas. I love the song just on its own terms. It's a cooker in its own way: and it probably has playing on it at least some of the HOTG contingent in L.A. at the time: 'Shine' Robinson and Rebennack on guitars, maybe John Boudreaux on drums, as well as Didimus, for example.
I found out about this song on Funky 16 Corners back in 2005 and speculated there in the comments about the songwriter credit to B. Reddicks, thinking this might have been an alias for Jessie Hill. I still have no verification of that. As a matter of fact, the BMI database shows the writer as Beatrice Reddicks, who also has six other songs registered - none of which sound familiar. It's very odd that, as a prolific songwriter surrounded by the likes of Rebennack, Robinson and others of their circle, Hill would cut a single where neither side was written either by him or his friends. If you have any insight on this, let me know.
As Rebennack relates in his Dr. John autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon, he and Hill, among others out in La La Land at the time, had a vision of ensconcing themselves at some record label, quietly taking over production duties, generating their own material that hometown musicians would play, and recreating the salad days that they had prior to coming West, when the Crescent City was a hotbed of hit songs with an identifiable sound and sessions were plentiful. Perhaps the newly formed Pulsar was part of the plan, but it soon imploded. Battiste and Rebennack found out that it was more or less just a tax write-off for Mercury that was not on the up and up. They had gotten to cut some good records on Hill, Robinson, and King Floyd that got no push from the label and died on the vine. Of course, Rebennack by that time had taken up his Dr. John persona, finding his path to fame with the Battiste-produced Gris Gris album on ATCO, to which Hill contributed. In the early 1970s, Hill cut his whacked-out Naturally LP for Blue Thumb that also took a bullet train to oblivion. Later in the decade, his luck running on empty, he returned to New Orleans, gigging sporadically until his passing in 1996. Certainly not world famous, Hill has long been revered at home for his fun-loving, nonsense songs and as one of the uniquely gifted, colorful characters who have enlivened the musical culture of the city. Not a bad legacy. So, when you're swingin' at Mardi Gras (maybe seeing mushroom people pop up at some point), raise a go-cup to Jessie, won't you.