No Magic Wand For Earl King
Here's another New Orleans rarity that, like the previously posted Johnny Moore (Deacon John) 45, came out on the Wand label, based in New York. Wand issued a number of singles by New Orleans artists between 1966 and the mid-1970s, leasing virtually all of those tracks from various production companies in the Deep South - in this case, Sansu Enterprises.
It features the great Earl King, performing artist, producer, and, most significantly, one of the Crescent City's best songwriters for five decades until his passing in 2003. While Earl often favored a funky, soulful blues style when he performed and recorded his own stuff, he wrote many different kinds of pop and R&B for diverse local artists including Professor Longhair ("Big Chief"), Willie Tee ("Teasin' You"), Lee Dorsey, and the Dixie Cups. And, of course, his classics have been covered by Jimi Hendrix, Robert Palmer, Boz Scaggs, and Levon Helm, to name but a few. Until I ran across this DJ copy for sale online last year, I didn't know the record existed, although it is listed in various Wand discographies, as I've since learned.
Produced in 1970 by the principals of Sansu, Allen Toussaint and his business partner, Marshall Sehorn, the tunes on this single were part of an album project of all original material by Earl King, Street Parade, ably backed by Sansu's versatile, house band, the Meters. Sehorn got Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records interested in the album early on, hoping to place it with the company for national release. At the time, Toussaint and Sehorn were raising funds to build their own recording studio, after the demise of Cosimo Matassa's famous operation due to insolvency and IRS seizure. In Bill Dahl's notes to the Fuel 2000 CD re-issue of Street Parade, King related that Sehorn was trying to get a substantial advance for the album from Atlantic to help secure a large bank loan for construction; but Wexler would only agree to releasing the LP without any up-front payment. Sehorn refused to budge from his demands; and the deal broke down.
As a result, very few of King's songs from those sessions ever saw the light of day back then. Until I found this Wand single, the only song from the Sansu sessions that I knew had been released was the title track, which I wrote about back in January of this year. It came out in 1970 on Kansu, a small side imprint run by Toussaint and Sehorn. As I've recently discovered, Sansu also leased four sides to Wand, which appeared on two singles: 11230 "Tic Tac Toe" b/w "A Part Of Me"; and 11232 "Mama & Papa" b/w "This Is What I Call Living". Wand, for whatever reasons, was unable to help make the magic happen; and the few copies that were issued got undeservedly consigned to near oblivion, forgotten for so many years.
"Tic Tac Toe" (Earl K. Johnson)
Earl King, Wand 11230 A, 1970
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Although Charly and, later, Fuel 2000 and Aim released the Street Parade sessions on CD, "Tic Tac Toe" was not included (at least with that title and those lyrics - read on), nor has it ever been digitally re-issued, as far as I can tell. While listening to the single for the first time, I recognized something familiar about the backing track; and, going to my Fuel 2000 CD, I found that the accompaniment appears there under another title, "Do the Grind", with completely different lyrics. Interestingly, both versions are about dances. Though neither one is outstanding lyrically, King's vocal on "Do the Grind" seems to flow better with the funkiness of the Meter's backing, making me wonder why they didn't release that one. You'll have to find a digital copy to see what I mean.
Of course, on a song with as great a groove as this, worrying about the vocal is a trivial pursuit at best. Toussaint's arrangement here and elsewhere on the album project took advantage of the Meters' natural propensity to funk; and they didn't disappoint. It sounds as if the basic rhythm track was Zig Modeliste breaking it up on drums, with George Porter, Jr. on bass and Leo Nocentelli on guitar doing some rather simple (for them!) patterns. I don't hear a keyboard at all. Topping off the track were the typically tasty horn charts Toussaint layered in, which added some melodic supporting hooks and rhythmic counterpoint. Personally, I feel the horns were mixed a bit too far back on the single. They are much more prominent on the remastered CD version, "Do the Grind". Still, this is a fun track to listen and move to, even if the instructions for doing the dance lose me: "You make a tic with your left foot and a tack with your right. You dribble up on your toe. Pull your knees in tight." About the only part of that I could do would be the dribbling on my toe. It's a guy thing, and not at all suitable for the dance floor. So, let's move on. . . .
"A Part Of Me" (Earl King Johnson)
Earl King, Wand 11230 B, 1970
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Every breath you take. Every little step you take. . .
Hmmmm, I think Sting owes Earl King some royalties. Seriously, though, "A Part Of Me" is a great ballad with an effective performance from Earl and the band (with Art Neville probably on the organ), and a nice, no-frills arrangement by Toussaint - love the way that little intro grabs me. The song was originally recorded by Johnny Adams, as "Part Of Me", for the local Watch label in 1964, written and produced by King and arranged by Wardell Quezergue, and was a local hit, also doing well in New York City. Of course, no one could match Adams' smooth delivery, which leaped so effortlessly into the falsetto; but I actually prefer King's own version with Toussaint's deft, subtle restructuring. Also a part of Sansu's ill-fated project, this was probably the most straightforward song of the lot, and is about as subdued as you will ever hear the Meters.
I have no information about where these tracks were recorded. Again, this was a time when New Orleans did not have adequate recording facilities, which led Sansu to use studios in Atlanta, Macon, GA, and elsewhere for some of their projects. Wherever recorded, the sound on this 45 and the CD re-issues is very good. I highly recommend your picking up Street Parade, as there are some great songs and playing throughout, much of it quite rhythmic and well out on the funky side. The high quality of the project makes it all the more tragic that Earl King, through no fault of his own, lost an excellent shot at getting some national recognition for his efforts, merely due to a bad business decision that was completely beyond his control.