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.
This single 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 1969 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 the Street Parade material (which had earlier been issued by Charly Records on LP and CD), 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 45 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.
In 1970, as I've learned, Sansu also leased two songs from Earl's sessions to Wand, which appeared on single # 11230, "Tic Tac Toe" b/w "A Part Of Me". The label also had an option on another set of songs " Mama & Papa" / "This Is What I Call Living", and even assinged #11232 to the anticipated single and listed it in their catalog; but, when the first record failed to get significant radio play and generate sales, Wand bailed out on releasing the second 45, though it remains shown in discographies of the label to this day. [Thanks to WFMU's Mr. Fine Wine for getting to the bottom of that mystery. See my 2015 update]. Nothing else happened with Earl's Sansu material until 1979, when Sehorn, for reasons unknown, issued a 45 on an in-house label, Listening Post (#104), with "A Mother's Love" as the A-side and "Mama & Papa" on the flip. That record was born to be obscure. [see my feature on it in the same 2015 post referenced above.]
As I noted earlier, in later years, the Street Parade LP was issued by Charly (1981) and then on a CD (1990) with all of the session material [both of those long out of print]. The complete sessions were re-issued as Street Parade on CD by Fuel 2000 in 2003 (and again in 2011, it appears), and by Aim and Tomato (but as New Orleans Blues) in 2005. If you want to hear all the tracks with Earl backed by the Meters, I suggest you grab one of those CDs before they go out of print again. Don't forget, the Fuel has Bill Dahl's helpful notes. Or, if you can tolerate the mp3 format, download 'em from various outlets. Now, on to the record at hand.
"Tic Tac Toe" (Earl K. Johnson)
Earl King, Wand 11230 A, 1970
"Tic Tac Toe" was not included (at least with that title and those lyrics - read on) on the session compilations, 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 the compilations, I found the accompaniment under another title, "Do the Grind", with completely different lyrics. Interestingly, both songs 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 just release that one. Find a digital copy and 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 here 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 "Do the Grind". Still, this is a fun track to get down to, even if the instructions for doing the dance lose me: "You make a tic with your left foot and a tac 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
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. It 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 quality on this 45, as well as the CD re-issues, is very good. Again, I highly recommend your picking up Street Parade in some form, as there are rarely heard Earl King songs with great playing by the Meters 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, through no fault of his own, lost an excellent shot at getting some national recognition for his efforts, due to a counterproductive business decision by Sehorn.