Larry Hamilton: On Record (And In Parenthesis)
This week I'm back with more sessions from Malaco Studio in Jackson, MS, where, during the early 1970s, Wardell Quezergue produced/arranged a large batch of records for hand-picked, mainly New Orleans vocal talent such as King Floyd, Jean Knight, the Barons Ltd, and the artists featured today.
The more I explore the music from that period and place, especially the earlier sides, the more I get a sense of the soulful, funky little assembly line Quezergue had going. Working with songs written primarily by his hometown team, sometimes known as Pelican Productions, he created not only hooky, rhythmic arrangements, but took on and excelled at deeper soul material, as well. As he set thngs up, first Big Q would thoroughly teach the Malaco studio band an arrangement, making sure they could reproduce the msuic to his specifications; then the rhythm track was recorded. Finally, he brought in the singer to insert the vocal, having thoroughly rehearsed the performance beforehand to get it where he seeded it to be. All in all, it was an efficient operation that wasted no time experimenting in the studio, and left little to chance when the tape started rolling.
Today's segment of my ongoing saga about New Orleans music and artists recorded at Malaco focuses on an impressive singer and songwriter who worked with the Pelican production team, Larry Hamilton. He got an early start with performing, singing lead in the mid-1960s for the locally popular young soul-funk outfit, David Batiste and the Gladiators, while still in high school. Unfortunately he did not do any recording with them. He then joined a touring band called the Invaders that backed well-known artists, and came back to the Gladiators late in the decade.
In 1970, around the age of 20, Hamilton was recruited by Wardell and his staff to cut tracks at Malaco, which resulted in two singles under his own name, featuring songs he either wrote or co-wrote: Pelican 1233, featured here, and the even more rare Ham 101, featuring the exceptional "My Mind Keeps Playing Tricks On Me" b/w "Ain't Nothing Like That Funky Music". He sang on some tracks later in the decade at Sea-Saint that were never released, and did not record again, as far as I know, until doing a self-produced/released 12" EP in 1980. Later, Allen Toussaint chose him to be one of the artists on the roster of NYNO Records in the late 1990s, and produced Hamilton's enjoyable eponymous CD , featuring fine musical accompaniment and songs from the pens of both men. Ater NYNO closed up shop (good intentions don't pay the bills), Larry again went the DIY route and released his Love Is CD on 1999, and in later years turned to gospel singing. [Note: he passed away 12/28/2011 in his 60th year.]
After he cut his tracks for the Pelcian and Ham singles, which went nowhere, Hamilton worked as a writer for Big Q, participating on songs recorded by other of the impressive artists that the producer was working with at Malaco: Irma Thomas ("She's Taken My Part"), Jean Knight ("Save The Last Kiss For Me"), and, of course, two other vocalists featured today, Johnny Adams and King Floyd. Later in the 1970s, Albert King recorded Hamilton's slow-cooking lift of B. B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" called "The Feeling" on the Toussaint-produced New Orleans Heat LP; and out there somewhere is an Etta James track, "Get On Your Job", with his name attached (anybody have it?).
Take a listen and get a feel for Larry Hamilton both as a featured artist and writer.
Hole photo by Rick Olivier
"Gossip" (Michael A. Adams, Albert Savoy, Larry Hamilton)
Larry Hamliton, Pelican 1233, ca 1971
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Though it starts with some gimmicky, chipmunkish chattering, "Gossip" is no trivial novelty number. It’s more of a minor-key mini-sermon on the evils of talking trash, delivered with soulful sincerity by Brother Larry over a hypnotic, undulating groove, and offering yet another slant on Big Q’s production savvy. It’s got almost an understated Afro-pop feel to it, between the primal way it moves and how the horns are arranged. The only thing that briefly snaps us back to US soul territory is the instrumental break about two thirds through the song which shifts to a major key for a Stax-like guitar and horn-driven interlude before resolving back to the minor mode funk that dominates the tune. Out of left field, but somehow it works.
Speaking of funk, many of you are familiar with another song named "Gossip", written by the Meters' Leo Nocentelli and recorded in 1970 by Cyril Neville, who was backed by the band on his first solo outing. I have no idea which came first; but there's no real similarity other than the title. Although the Meters' were at their funky finest on that state of the art, linear groove, I frankly think the Pelican/Malaco collaboration is probably the better song overall. The lyrics are much more substantial on Hamilton's release, and his delivery is certainly more soulfully nuanced than Neville's; but there's nothing wrong with either of them. They just are different approaches.
The B-side, "Keep The News To Yourself", which I am not featuring this time, was a more conventionally structured R&B/soul outing, though it had a bass line inserted into it closely resembling that of King Floyd's "Groove Me", the first big success for Quezergue and the Malaco Groove Assembly Plant that same year. The producer used such offbeat patterns a lot after that, hoping to spark another break-out hit - but it simply didn't work as intended. The number, written by Hamilton, was well-played and performed, but really had nothing fresh to offer either lyrically or musically, and deserved its backing status on the record.
"Let Us Be" (Larry Hamilton & Elijah Walker)
King Floyd, Chimneyville 439, 1971
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Chimneyville was Malaco's newest in-house label, and had been set up to issue King Floyd 's "Groove Me" after both Stax and Atlantic Records had turned the song down. Fairly soon after it came out, "Groove Me" got a big push from a New Orleans DJ and became in demand locally. Attracted by the attention and sales potential, Atlanic stepped back into the picture with a deal to distribute the single, taking and option on any other promising records coming out of the studio. With the larger label's promotion and influence, Folyd's song shot up to #1 on the R&B charts later that year, followed quickly to #5 by the similar sounding "Baby Let Me Kiss You", early in 1971. Atlantic then agreed to issue an LP, King Floyd, on their Cotillion label. One of the album cuts, "Let Us Be", a md-tempo, rhythmic Southern soul number written by Hamilton (with Elijah Walker getting a cut via the co-writing credit) was released, with the funkier "Got To Have Your Lovin'" (by Joe Broussard and Michael Adams) on top, as Floyd's third Chimneyvlle 45, but did not do nearly as well on the charts or in the stores as the prior two.
Though it was pretty much a b-side and an album cut, I think "Let Us Be" was one of Hamilton's better songwriting efforts. It was right in the wheelhouse of Floyd's limited vocal range (he was never a power-hitter), giving him a decent melody to hang onto over some interesting changes, and an uncomplicated chorus. Meanwhile, Quezergue's arrangement offered a smoother groove with more subtle syncopation, propelled by the pumping bass and kick drum change-ups. As always, his horn charts were choice, too. By not falling back on rehashing the quirk of "Groove Me", Hamilton and Big Q helped Floyd make one of his more distinctive records, putting the feel midway between Memphis soul and New Orleans funk, appropriately recorded in a city located almost exactly between the two.
Players on the King Floyd album were identified as the Chimneyville Express Rhythm Section (a name that did not stick) and consisted of Jerry Puckett, guitar; Wardell Quezergue, piano & organ; Vernie Robbins, bass; and James Stroud, drums & percussion. The horns, the Chimneyville Brass, were Ed Butler, Hugh Garraway, Rick Thorley, Lee Komegay, Eddie Williams, Charles Wicker, and Perry Lomax. Background voices ("the Chimneyvillettes"?) were Jackie Dorsey, Annie Bass, and Katherine Dalvit.
The only other song of Hamilton's Floyd cut, "I Feel Like Dynamite" (co-written with Albert Savoy), from 1974 on Chimneyville 10202, revisited the more off-kilter funk of his first two hits. And, while the playing was spot on, the pieces well put together, and the vocal engaging, it still was more a funky holding pattern than a progression.
"More Than One Way" (L. Hamilton - E. Walker)
Johnny Adams, Atlantic 2834, 1971
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Meanwhile, back at the assembly line.... "More Than One Way" is pretty much boilerplate grooving from Big Q, the main assembler, another track calculated by Hamilton and his boss to ride the "Groove Me" slipstream to Hitsville. Of course, such was not the case; and we again point to the drawbacks of Plan A - too much similarity can breed, if not contempt, indifference in the marketplace. Then again, it is quite likely that Atlantic did very little to push this release around the country. Remember, if you will, that Jerry Wexler had also passed on Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff", cut at the same session as "Groove Me". Knight's single languished for a year before Stax picked it up and hit paydirt. For some reason, as Rob Bowman tells the story in the notes to The Last Soul Company, Wexler either did not get or did not dig Quezergue's hybrid funk productions, which admittedly were out of the ordinary. He took on "Groove Me" only after it was on the way to being a certified smash, made good money on it and the LP, and then simply let the rest of the Malaco releases slide.
Though boilerplate it may be, I dig this tune, which is certainly greatly enhanced by the vocal prowess of the great Johnny Adams, testifying on Hamilton's clever, truthful lyrics. Adams' had such a natural purity to his tone that his singing seemed effortless, making anything he wrapped his voice around sound like buttah. No melody to speak of? No problema for Mr. Johnny. He could get a lot of mileage out of just a few notes, bend, stretch, and goose 'em on up into the best damn little variations on a riff you've ever heard sung over and over for almost three minutes. In the course of his long career, Mr. Adams excelled at interpreting soul, the deeper the better, and sophisticated, jazzy blues. But, it's always a pleasure to hear him get hold of some funk - you don't often hear a voice of his caliber doing it. That's why, despite the abysmal commercial results of this record, Hamilton and Quezergue still ened up with something memorable. Johnny Adams took it higher.