WILLIE WEST: A GENUINE SOUL SURVIVOR
LAST UPDATED 12/23/2013
The tag of Soul Survivor may be over-used; but it is well-suited to Willie West, another gifted singer and songwriter from the New Orleans area who has never gotten the breaks he deserved or credit he was due, despite a long and active career in music. The subject of my prior post, the late, great Eldridge Holmes, made some outstanding records with Allen Toussaint, but never could get a career established in the music business. By contrast, West, a contemporary and label-mate of Holmes on Deesu in the mid-1960s, currently has half a century of performing and recording under his belt, and at 66 is going stronger than ever. He has never let undeserved professional disappointments, health setbacks, or relative obscurity to the general public get in the way of his ability and drive to entertain, and still has faith that he can reach a wider audience.
Although I had read Jeff Hannusch's profile of West in The Soul of New Orleans, heard his early singles on Tuff City/Night Train (Best of Rustone) and Ace (Frisco Records Story) CD compilations, and owned copies of some of his work with Toussaint, it was not until I heard his hip, funky "Said To Myself" on grapevine's now deleted Crescent City Funk CD in 2002 that I really got the bug to pay him more attention. That inspired me to track down a copy of the hard to find, Allen Toussaint-produced Warner Bros. single with "Said To Myself" on the B-side. It took a while, but I got the record and began to do more research. I recalled that Larry Grogan had done a post on Funky 16 Corners about West's Josie recording of Toussaint's "Fairchild"; and in going back to re-read it, I saw in the comments that West himself had left Larry an appreciative note that included his email address. So, I decided to see if I could go to the source and find out some more about him and the sessions for the Warner Bros. 45. After some emails back and forth, he graciously agreed to take some time to speak to me by phone a few months back from his current home in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, where he and his wife moved after Katrina. We ended up talking at length about many aspects of his long career in music, and still could not cover it all. So, information I've gathered that didn't come from Willie West directly is supplemented by what I've learned from Hannusch's writings and Michael Hurtt's useful notes to The Best of Rustone, among other sources.
West has worked with some of the most significant names in New Orleans popular music; and an overview of his career reveals much about the ins, outs, ups, and downs of the entertainment and recording business there. This is a long piece, because I came up with a lot of information. Take it a bit at a time – it will be up indefinitely, and the audio will be active for a good while. I hope you will find it rewarding. A vinyl discography for West is included at the end of this feature, as well.
COMING OF AGE IN MUSIC
Born and raised just a little more than an hour's drive south and west of New Orleans in the rural community of Raceland, LA, Millard Leon (a/k/a Willie) West hit his teenage years in the mid-1950s, when the nearby big city was having its maximum impact on American popular music; and there were tons of classic R&B, blues, and early rock 'n' roll records on the AM radio airwaves, jukeboxes, and home turntables. Graced with a pleasing, adaptable voice and the desire to perform, by 15 West was lead vocalist for the Sharks, a band he got together with his guitarist cousin and two other high school friends. They played hits of the day by the likes of Elvis, Eddie Bo, B.B. King and Elmore James at both white and black clubs in the area. When he could, West started hanging out just up the road around promoter Hosea Hill's famous Sugar Bowl club in Thibodaux, LA, which regularly featured nationally known R&B and blues acts. West was too young to get in, but would sometimes watch from the windows. There he got to see and/or meet performers such as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Chuck Willis, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, and the popular blues showman Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones), whose home base was the Sugar Bowl. Slim's partner and protégé, James 'Thunderbird' Davis, befriended West, tutored him in the blues, and dispensed valuable performance tips from time to time. When Guitar Slim died on tour in New York in 1959, the Sharks even backed Davis on some club dates when he returned to Louisiana.
Around the same time, West was recruited by a new label, Rustone, based in Houma, LA, which was owned by another promoter, Dorothy Lee, along with partners Tony Conino and Lee Delcambre. Recording as Little Willie West, his debut, which was also Rustone's first release, was cut at Cosimo Matassa's busy studio in New Orleans and backed by the Sharks. When it failed to get any attention, Ms Lee next went with West's own soulful ballad, "Did You Have Fun" and promoted the record by betting two disc jockeys at WXOK in Baton Rogue a bottle of scotch each that they couldn't make it a hit. Rising to the challenge, they played "Did You Have Fun" so much for the next few months that it became number one at the station. As a result, stations in New Orleans added it; and the song began to catch on there, too. That attracted Chess Records, which was active in the city at the time, represented by A&R man/producer Paul Gayten; and they re-released "Did You Have Fun" nationally on their Checker label. But, it seems the company didn't continue Dorothy Lee's promotional ploy; and the song never broke out beyond the region.
GETTING TO NEW ORLEANS
Around 1961, West did one more single for Rustone, which went nowhere, because the label has not having any repeat success getting airplay for their records; and by 1962, Rustone had closed up shop. So, West moved to New Orleans to get work, and soon landed gigs singing with popular groups such as Edgar Blanchard and the Gondoliers, Oliver and the Rockettes, and Deacon John and the Ivories. Along the way, he met trumpeter Warren 'Porgy' Jones, who was doing A&R work for a new local label, Frisco Records, which, like Rustone, was headed by a woman, in this case, Connie LaRocca, originally from San Francisco. Jones became West's manager, got him signed to the label, and produced his first two Frisco releases in 1963. They were run of the mill pop-ish affairs with fairly weak arrangements that West's strong vocals could not salvage and Frisco could not sell. So, Wardell Quezergue was called in to produce the next one, "Don't Be Ashamed To Cry" b/w “Am I The Fool", on which the singer was shown as Lil Willie West (which he was using on stage), with both sides written by Al Reed.
"Don't Be Ashamed To Cry" (Al Reed)
Lil Willie West, Frisco 111, 1964
Despite some audio distortion in the grooves of this Katrina-christened 45, the quality of West's vocal shines through, thanks to the nicely rendered, sympathetic Quezergue arrangement. This is the best of the singer's early sides and should have been his ticket to bigger things; but, even with classier songs and production, the single fared no better commercially than his other Fricso releases and was West's last for the label. Singer Danny White was Frisco's main focus; and West rightly feels that White often got the better material, arrangements and promotion. Not that it helped all that much. Although a popular local singer, White's recording career refused to blossom; and LaRocca, lacking strong sales and facing increasing distribution problems, ceased operation of Frisco by 1966.
A FATEFUL MEETING AND A FALSE START
Meanwhile, his lack of a hit record didn't keep West from working regularly as an entertainer around town. Not a mere stand and deliver singer, he worked the entire stage; and with agile dance moves and a versatile, expressive voice, he had a reputation for getting his audiences fired up. While with Frisco, he had by chance met Allen Toussaint at Cosimo's studio, and found that Toussaint was familiar with his work. It wasn't long after Frisco's demise that Toussaint convinced his business partner, Marshall Sehorn, to sign the singer to the newly formed Deesu label, part of their Tou-Sea production company. Added to the roster in 1966, West would continue to work on various Toussaint-produced projects for the better part of the next decade.
To my mind, Willie West's debut single on Deesu, "Hello Mama" b/w "Greatest Love" was not the greatest way of saying hello. What he was given to work with were two tracks that had already been recorded by Toussaint and Sehorn's main hit-maker, Lee Dorsey. The two Toussaint compositions had appeared on Dorsey's 1965 Amy LP, Ride Your Pony - Get Out My Life, Woman. Since they not been on 45 before, I guess the producers figured the songs were fair game for recycling; so, they recorded West's vocals over the previously used backing tracks. The results weren't bad; but the material was not Toussaint's best; and, having been written for Dorsey's limited range, the tunes did not offer West much to work with.
"Hello Mama" (A, Toussaint)
Willie West, Deesu 306, 1966
I've included "Hello Mama" as the case in point. Sorry that my near mint copy suffers from a bad pressing that makes the sonics somewhat fuzzy. But, it's good enough to hear what was going on. Musically, the best thing about the side to me is Toussaint's Professor Longhair-inspired piano work on the intro and running along during much of the song. Otherwise, it's a run of the mill track (for Toussaint) that didn't make much of anybody take notice of Willie West. The gimmicky, spoken verses during the breakdowns didn't quite work on Dorsey's version; and West couldn't make them sound any less lame, either; but, still, working with the hottest producer/arranger/songwriter in town was promising.
"Did You Have Fun" (W. West/D. Lee/L. Delcambre)
Willie West, Deesu 314, 1966
Toussaint gave West a chance to shine on his next single, which featured a remake of his earlier Rustone hit, "Did You Have Fun". The producer’s new arrangement created a perfect setting for West’s emotive vocal. As you all know, I am primarily a groove-seeker; but West's flawless deep soul delivery, coupled with the classy musical support and subtle flourishes Toussaint brought to this tune, are so killer that I had to include it. This version of the song can definitely be viewed as one of the highlights of West's recording career and should have garnered him a more substantial hit. But, again, it only got local attention, because the music business got in the way.
Deesu was distributed by studio-owner Cosimo Matassa's Dover Records, which pressed and sent records up the distribution chain. At this time, the operation was financially over-extended and under IRS investigation, hampering its ability to get records out. Soon thereafter, the hammer really came down when the IRS seized Matassa’s recording and pressing equipment, inventory, and master tapes for unpaid taxes. He declared bankruptcy; and the numerous small labels, including Deesu, that depended on Dover for exposure and sale of their product were effectively shut down, as well, many never to recover. To say the least, it was a monumental setback for the city's independent music scene and the struggling artists whose talent it represented, including those on Deesu - West, Eldridge Holmes, Warren Lee, and Maurice Williams, among others - who saw their records slip into oblivion.
Toussaint and Sehorn were more fortunate than most in the Dover debacle, because their main bread and butter man, Lee Dorsey, was on Amy, a national label removed from the local troubles in New Orleans. Thus, they had the resources to regroup and continue, re-naming their production company, Sansu, around 1968. The partners hired Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, who would soon be called the Meters, as their house band, set up the Sansu label, re-established Deesu, and struck new deals with larger labels for access to national markets. For whatever reasons, maybe just too much else going on, it took Sansu a while to get Willie West worked back into the recording line-up. In the meantime, he was performing with one of the most popular groups in New Orleans at the time, Deacon John's psychedelic funk-rock band, the Electric Soul Train.
MOVING AND GROOVING INTO THE 1970s
By 1969, the Meters were having hits in their own right, with Toussaint and Sehorn placing their singles and albums with nationally distributed Josie Records. When Toussaint began work that year on two of his own songs, "Fairchild" and "I Sleep With The Blues" for West's next single project, the Meters would have been on the sessions. West is not exactly sure, because the tracks were recorded before he was brought in to lay down his vocals; but he's certain that Leo Nocentelli was playing the guitar. During that period, Toussaint was on an acoustic guitar kick. The instrument showed up on some of his own recordings, on several of Eldridge Holmes' later Deesu tracks (which were definitely backed by the Meters), West’s sides, and on Lee Dorsey's Yes We Can sessions.
Rhino's erroneous repro
"Fairchild" (Allen Toussaint)(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
"I Sleep with the Blues" (Allen Toussaint)
Willie West, Josie 1019, 1970
Never having scored the rare original version of this record, which is usually only seen in promo/DJ format, my copy was supposed to be a reproduction that was done for Rhino's limited edition What It Is! box set of singles. The mix on the re-issue is also what is heard on their CD set and on at least one or two other CD compilations. Unfortunately, as I have learned through the help of other collectors, all the re-issues are wrong.
I first found this out when I heard audio of an original DJ copy that Larry Grogan had found and posted on his fine Funky 16 Corners site. It was a decidedly different mix, more raw and in your face with a full horn section blowing on some highly active charts. The re-issue version has no horns and a much more subtle mix, as I will discuss below.
For a long time, I thought the DJ copy might be an aberration of some kind. Several regular commenters and I sought a stock copy long and hard for comparison, but came up empty. Finally, none other that the extraordinary collector/DJ, Mr. Fine Wine, of WFMU and beyond contacted me the other day  to let me know that he had heard both; and the stock and DJ copies are musically identical to each other. You can hear audio of a promo copy of "Fairchild" posted by another WFMU DJ, Brett Koshkin, on their blog. And, by the way, you can see from the photo on that post that Rhino got the label design wrong, as well!
Thus, I can conclude that the re-issuers have been perpetuating a mistake for years now. I don't know where in the chain of events that they got hold of the alternate mix they have been using. Somebody unfamiliar with the original maybe just picked the wrong version on the reel (the alternate mix actually is better balanced). Or perhaps the original version got lost over the years, and what they used was all they found. However, I will say again that those working on the re-issue projects seem to have been unaware that what they had was not the original 45 mix. They really need to consult serious collectors on these projects. Kudos to Mr. Grogan and Mr. Fine Wine for their expertise. I'm sure they are available for the next time.
Toussaint's funky arrangement on my "Fairchild" from an alternate universe copy sounds spare and subdued by comparison to the original. For the basic tracks he used at least a couple of acoustic guitar parts (the leads likely overdubbed), bass, drums and just a dash of organ on what was essentially a single chord song built of various repeating riffs - another frequent Toussaint gambit at the time. Nothing was overstated in this mix, lending the track a direct, intimate feel that brought West's soulful vocal into sharp focus. By contrast, the added horns on the original single mix at times compete with Willie's singing. I have a feeling that he sang on the track before the horns were were added.
Nowhere near as melodic as "Did You Have Fun", this song required the singer to sell it more with the conviction and immediate appeal of this voice; and he did not fail to deliver. My sense is that all the Meters were likely present and accounted for on the tracks, but were just playing assigned parts. Remember that Toussaint often had very strict arrangements worked out for certain songs and expected them to be followed precisely. So, Zig Modeliste is likely drumming here, but not in his characteristic freely broken-up style. An innately creative drummer, he surely chafed under restrictions to keep it simple and hit only prescribed beats, and eventually stopped doing most non-Meters sessions for Toussaint. But on this one, we hear the band play the arrangement as it was given, pure and simple, clearing the way for the best from West.
The B-side, "I Sleep With The Blues", was not actually a blues at all but more of a conventional mid-tempo pop ballad, pleasant, but not all that substantial. Based on just a two chord change, it had the same instrumentation as "Fairchild", with the organ simply playing chords under the acoustic guitars. West did a nice job with the simple melody he was given. The one distinctive feature of this rarely heard Tousssaint tune was Zig's steady tom-tom beat throughout that sounds positively Native American. I am not sure what the producer was going for there. Also of note, since the re-issued A-side differed substantially from the 45, there seems to be no difference between the original and Rhino versions of this song. Go figure.
Toussaint and Sehorn placed the record with Josie; and it came out probably early in 1970. I am sure they were hoping to catch some of the Meters' success on the label; but, once again, West lost out. “Fairchild” got no push, as this label too was on a downward spiral of internal difficulties that would cause it to go under within about a year. He just couldn't catch a break from a solvent company.
UNDERCOVER WITH THE METERS ON BLACK SAMSON
After his only Josie single rode the bullet train to near oblivion, West's solo recording career went into hiatus for several more years, likely due to all that was going on for Sansu. Toussaint and Sehorn were focused on getting a deal for Lee Dorsey with Polydor, resulting in the classic Yes We Can LP, and recording other Meters-backed projects on Ernie K-Doe and Earl King. At the time, Toussaint also began to produce albums for outside artists such as Lou Johnson and Mylon LeFevre. Of course, the partners were still much involved with the Meters' career, too. With the demise of Josie, they shopped the band and Toussaint himself to Warner Bros., who signed both acts, enabling Toussaint to begin production on LPs for himself and the Meters that would appear in 1972. With Sansu Enterprises becoming a powerhouse production company, the partners decided to build their own recording facility in New Orleans; and, by 1973, Sea-Saint Studio was open and becoming active with in-house projects and more LP productions for national acts.
"Black Samson Theme" (Allen Toussaint)
(Special thanks to Gordon Fisher for uncovering this.)
Around that point, Toussaint was approached by Warner Bros. to do the soundtrack for one of the low-budget blaxploitation films being targeted at urban African-American audiences of the day, Black Samson ("Every Brother's Friend. Every Mother's Enemy."). He recruited at least some of the Meters to lay down the funky grooves, and Willie West to provide soulful vocals. I am not totally convinced that When the film came out in 1974, Toussaint's name was in the credits, but there was no mention of the band or singer. West told me that he and members of the Meters took offense at this and contacted the local paper to announce that they had done the soundtrack. They needn't have bothered, though, since the movie bombed and was gone in a flash. So fast, I don't think the soundtrack was ever released on LP, or, more appropriately, 8-track tape. My source for this audio, Gordon, tells me that there are just a couple of compete songs on the movie, anyway. I have yet to see it; although the trailer on YouTube probably has all the high points (A lion in a bar!? Plus plenty of car crashes, bad acting, and a fusillade of furniture and appliances), but only a hint of the music.
THE FINAL VINYL
By the mid-1970s, West got the green-light for another recording with Toussaint, and began a songwriting collaboration with a frequent Sea-Saint session player, guitarist Teddy Royal, with West writing the lyrics and Royal working up the music. Instead of registering as co-writers, though, they agreed to take full credit on a couple of songs apiece, several of which were used on West's next project for Sansu. Toussaint produced and arranged the sessions, using the Meters again, except Zig, who was replaced by Herman Ernest, another of the Sea-Saint studio regulars. Out of the sessions, only one single resulted, "It's Been So Long" b/w "Said To Myself", which was released on a promisingly stable label, Warner Bros., in 1975. West recalls that another of his songs, "Chasing Rainbows", written with Royal, was also cut and slated for release; but I have found no evidence that WB ever issued it. A few years later, though, Johnny Adams would record an effective cover of the song (Teddy Royal got the writing credit), which appeared on his 1978 Ariola LP, After All The Good Is Gone, and also on 45. Included on that album was Adams' own impressive version of "It's Been So Long", with a big orchestrated arrangement by Wardell Quezergue.
"It's Been So Long" (Millard Leon West)
Willie West, Warner Bros. 8087, 1975
Warner Bros. first released a double sided DJ copy of West's "It's Been So Long". But, for my money, the harder to find stock copy commercial issue is the one to have because of "Said To Myself" on the flip. This top side was an uptempo soul-pop number with a definite Southern rock feel, thanks to Royal’s chord changes and Nocentelli's extended riffing. The writers and producers seem to have targeted the mainstream crossover marketplace on this number. But, once more, that was not in the cards, despite another strong performance from West.
By this point, Toussaint had become a very successful, in-demand songwriter and producer, who had all but abandoned the 45 medium to focus on albums. Obviously, he still believed in West's talent, taking on this project to give the singer another shot; but, for whatever reason, Warner Bros. didn’t hold up their end of the deal. Though a label rep told West that the single was sent to radio stations all around the country, the singer checked around and couldn’t find any DJs who’d heard of it. You can still hear a hint of bitterness as he recounts the tale. It was indeed an unfortunate finale.
"Said to Myself" (Millard Leon West)
Would that some DJs could have gotten hold of the record and flipped it over, because "Said To Myself" undeniably shows Willie West's essential soul credentials: the ability to express meaning inside the lyrics and evoke the emotion at the heart of the song with a voice that rewards repeat plays. Toussaint's economical, uncluttered arrangement, swaying with poly-rhythmic counterpoints, sets off West to perfection, allowing the singer to traverse the dynamics of the song with ease and grace. Though consigned to a humble B-side, this is a performance to remember: his last artful stand on vinyl in a heartless, soulless record land.
WHO DAT UP THERE WITH DA METERS?
With recording prospects slim to none, West continued to gig, joining another local band, the Renegades, in 1976, who had brothers Aaron and Charles Neville as members. He also worked solo on double and triple bills at clubs like Prout's Alhambra, where he would be booked with other popular singers, such as Johnny Adams or Aaron Neville, or both. His intense showmanship coupled with his choice of material would always win over the crowds. Then, out of the blue one day, he was in the Meters.
Willie West's tenure with the Meters is not widely known, since the facts do not appear in the "official" histories of the band I have seen, including the Neville Brothers' collective autobiography; but George Porter, Jr. has publicly acknowledged that West was a band member. After the acrimonious departure of Art and Cyril Neville right as the New Directions album came out in 1977, the Meters regrouped and tried to continue. West was immediately enlisted and began singing with them on the road and at home. As he told me:I was asked to join the Meters by Zig and Leo, when Art and Cyril had left the group already... just before the Meters did Saturday Night Live [a popular TV show in the US on NBC]. They actually stood the band up just before the show, and Leo, Zig and George had to scramble to find a keyboard player. David Batiste, the keyboardist of the Batiste Brothers, did SNL with them. I joined right after the SNL taping. They used David for a short while. Art returned for a short time. Then they had [yet another] falling out, and Art left for good. The Meters then used Fred Riley [?]; and after Fred was Craig Wroten. After Craig, they hired David Torkanowskiy and went on the road with Dr. John. They kept me on salary for awhile, but stopped paying me. So, when they returned from touring with Dr. John, I had moved on....
Obviously the band had some difficulty keeping the keyboard slot filled; and, though they played some dates on the East Coast and continued to gig locally at clubs such as Tipitina's, Jed's, Rosie's, and the Kingfish in Baton Rouge, the wheels came off the band pretty much for good within a year or so, after the Dr. John tour. When he was with the group, West not only ably covered vocal duties on some of the band's original material, but helped them get over with unfamiliar crowds.We played in New York at an outdoor festival. This is the first time I went there with them. They were playing their stuff, "Cissy Strut", and the audience wasn't into it. The first band had fired them up; but [the Meters]. . . had played about 20 minutes with the people just looking at them. I told Leo, "You can't keep playing your music, man. Can't you see they're not into your stuff?" I told him to kick off "It's Your Thing" by the Isley Brothers, and I starting singing. Then we went into James Brown. . . The people went nuts. Then we slipped "Hey Pockey Way" and "Fire On the Bayou" in there and the band realized what they had to do. . . . We played a show in Boston opening for Elvin Bishop. It was supposed to be for three nights. And when we came on the first night. . . we had all them kids dancing around and screaming; and by the time Elvin Bishop had to come on after us, they were just lost. Do you know, they cancelled their next two nights. We put so much fire on 'em. I was running across the stage like Mick Jagger.
Somewhere around then.. . .
"No More Okey Doke" (A. Neville-C. Neville-G. Porter, Jr.-J. Modeliste-L. Nocentelli)
The Meters, featuring Willie West, live at the Showboat Lounge, July 25, 1977
Well, we don't have video; but for some direct audio evidence, here is Mr. West with the post-Neville Meters, including an unidentified keyboardist and a wacko MC, at the Showboat Lounge in Metairie, LA, the summer of 1977. The gig was broadcast on WNOE in New Orleans at the time, and is one of several the Meters did from the Showboat that are floating around. Last December, I featured a selection from an earlier show that year, when Art and Cyril were still on-board. But, this is the only set I have found of West with the Meters - or, as Zigaboo was already calling them, the Funky Meters.
Although the audio is far from ideal, this song and the handful of others from that night show the band was still smokin' and gettin' down funky, even with George, just a MONSTER on the bass, trying to go into the chorus a couple of bars early at the end – after all, it was a new song back then. Despite being a new addition, Willie shows he could flat sing his ass off and hold his own running with the big dogs. My wife saw a similar configuration of the Meters with West in 1977 at the Cahoots club in Baton Rouge and can attest to the singer's flamboyant style. He was dressed in his soul cowboy outfit - hat, big belt, and boots - all in black and silver, and really worked the crowd, as she recalls (for some reason, she didn’t take notes). Of course, she and probably the rest of the crowd were confused as to who this wild Willie West guy was, since he wasn't on any of the albums; and the inner-workings and dysfunctions of the band were not common knowledge at the time. Still, none of that mattered in the hot, party atmosphere they generated. Too bad, so sad, that it could not have lasted longer, since, as Willie relates, there were also studio recordings:I recorded eight or nine songs with George, Leo, and Zig. Art might have played on some; I'm not sure. . . These were all new songs, but never came out. . . . I don't know what happened to the album I did with them. They broke up shortly after that; and it was never released. I've asked Zig and Leo if they have copies of it, and nobody is admitting any knowledge of its whereabouts. Disappointing.
To say the least! Of course, when the Meters took the big bucks to re-form (NOT reform), in 2005 and 2006, it was kept to just the original feuding four. Not even a mention of Cyril or Willie. You can kind of see why they might not want those sessions with West to surface. The paydays stayed strictly 4-way. Had they been able to hold together longer, maybe they might have brought back the other vocalists, and even resurrected the unissued material; who knows.
About "No More Okey Doke". It doubles the irony to hear West singing this song that appeared on New Directions and had been co-written by all the band at the time, including Cyril, who recorded the vocal. If you listen to the words, it is about betrayal, break-up and change . Surely, it was no accident it was the lead-off track on the album from a band in seething turmoil most of the time. The next track had Art singing "I'm Gone". Telegraphing some new directions, indeed. But, the song has taken on a new life and meaning after Katrina and the Federal Flood in New Orleans. Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk started including it in their intensely funky sets, making it an anthem for a defiant city that truly will never be okey doke again.
Having been effectively laid-off by the Meters, West started singing around town again. He joined the Uptown Rulers, a large funky aggregation of singers and players led by his friend, Bobby Love (a/k/a Robert McLaughlin) who he had gigged with in Deacon John’s bands, the Ivories and the Electric Soul Train. Aaron and Charles Neville were also in the Uptown Rulers for a time; but soon left to join Art and Cyril and start up the Neville Brothers Band. The UR band broke up within a couple of years and, from there, West gravitated to the wilds of Bourbon Street, where the work was plentiful, if uninspiring, and was a regular there for nearly 20 years.
About a dozen years ago, he was done with the Mall of Debauchery, but kept performing elsewhere in and out of town. He teamed up again with Bobby Love, who produced and played on West’s first CD, From West With Love, in 1999. He followed it in 2000 with When Love Ain't There, produced by Carl Marshall. His most recent CD, When You Tie The Knot, came out in 2002. All feature West's soulful treatment of various R&B and blues material, including his own originals.
While many of his contemporaries have passed on or been sidelined by illness, West considers himself blessed to still be performing. Crediting his wife for urging him to stay healthy and get regular medical checkups, he was fortunate to have a routine screening detect the early stages of prostate cancer, allowing it to be treated and cured - making his survivor designation that much more appropriate.
In the aftermath of Katrina, the Wests decided to try their fortunes elsewhere; and, since making their way to Saint Cloud, outside of Minneapolis, a couple of years ago, Willie’s career has been revitalized. He put together a band, schooled them in his style of soul and blues, and began getting work at the Dakota Jazz Club and other venues in the area, where he found more respect and better paying gigs than New Orleans had to offer. Recently, he has several CD projects in the works. He maintains an active schedule**, as can be seen on his MySpace page. [Update 2011: Willie has recorded two 45s released in the European market by Timmion Records (see discography and sleeve shots below), and appeared at the 2010 Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans. He will do his first ever New York City show in Brooklyn, February 26, 2011.]
Considering his background, the way he came up in the business, West rightly sees himself as an authentic performer, deeply rooted in soul and blues music that he learned from the masters. And, after all that he has been through over the years, the good breaks and the deals gone bad, he keeps on keeping on, singing at the top of his game and still connecting with his audiences, never having lost the fire, determination, and potential to make a bigger name for himself in music. He has paid more than his share of dues for it; and if anybody should be in line for more success, Willie West is the man.
Asked if he had some closing words for my readers, he gave me one of his favorite movie lines, saying, "Tell 'em I'm coming, and I'm bringing Hell with me!"
So, look out for Willie West!
WILLIE WEST VINYL DISCOGRAPHY
Rustone 1401 (Little Willie West) - You Stole My Heart/Sweet Little Girl - 1960
Rustone 1403 - Did You Have Fun/A Man Like Me – 1960
Checker 965 - Did You Have Fun/A Man Like Me - 1960
Rustone 1406 - It's No Use To Try/Willie Knows How -1961
Frisco 107 - I'm Back Again/Lost Love - 1963
Frisco 108 - You Told Me/I Need You Love (Baby) - 1963
Frisco 111 (Lil' Willie West) -Don't Be Ashamed To Cry/Am I The Fool- 1964
Deesu 306 - Greatest Love/Hello Mama - 1966
Deesu 314 - Did You Have Fun/Keep You Mine - 1966
Deesu 317 - Baby Baby I Love You/Face the Music - 1966/67
Seven B 7037 (?) - Did You Have Fun/Keep You In Mind [sic] - 1969
[possible re-issue of Deesu 314 sides -which would be strange- or an error]
Fraternity 1019 - I Sleep With the Blues/ Fair Child – 1969
[note: probably an error in listings, as per Bob at The R&B Indies]
Josie 1019 - Fairchild/I Sleep With the Blues - 1970
Warner Bros. 8087 - It's Been So Long/Said to Myself - 1975
Timmion 019 - The Devil Gives Me Everything, Part 1 & 2 - 2009
Timmion 023 - Lesson of Love, Part 1 & 2, - 2010
I greatly appreciate the research assistance of Jon Tyler of the Complete Neville Recording Chronology and Bob McGrath of The R&B Indies and forthcoming Soul Discography.
Here's a clip of Willie at the above Southpaw show, courtesy of Skeleton Pete.