Tracking Lee Diamond
This week, we go back to the late 1950s and early 1960s to hear some sides by Wilbert Smith, better known by his stage name, Lee Diamond, who for over a decade was a multi-instrumental backing musician, songwriter, and vocalist. I find him an elusive figure, because, while his name can he found in credits and as a featured artist, and there are references to him in various written pieces on the music of the period, I've uncovered very little direct information about his life. Early in his career, he worked behind several popular R&B artists, including one of the biggest names in 1950s rock ' n roll; and in the mid-1960s, before fading from the scene, Diamond had a hand in co-writing one of the classic New Orleans soul songs. I guess those are pretty good hooks to hang a story on.
While references to Wilbert Smith/Lee Diamond in print usually always say he was from New Orleans, I have found very little about his early background and upbringing. The earliest mention of Wilbert Smith I've run across is a listing as drummer (?!) on a Roy Brown session in Cincinnatti in 1951. From the Crescent City himself, Brown was a rock 'n' roller before the term was coined and used many hometown players in his band and at sessions for Deluxe Records. Around 1954, the trail picks up again; and we find Smith playing tenor sax in the road band of Shirley & Lee, the Crescent City teen singing duo who were having much chart success on Aladdin Records. While in Nashville on tour, Smith and the band's drummer, Charles Connor, also from New Orleans, were recruited by a young, flamboyant singer from Macon, GA, 'Little Richard' Penniman, for his new band, the Upsetters. Little Richard had done some recording by this point for RCA in 1951/1952 and Don Robey's Peacock label in Houston in 1953 without commercial success, but was developing a powerful and outrageous stage act, playing the hard-driving R&B coming to be known as rock 'n' roll. He and the Upsetters soon became an in-demand, word-of-mouth band working around Georgia and surrounding states out of his home base of Macon. Meeting Lloyd Price at a show there, Richard got a referral from the star and sent a demo tape he made with the Upsetters to Price's label, Specialty Records, in Los Angeles. Though the label owner, Art Rupe, and his new assistant, Bumps Blackwell, were initially cool to the offering, persistent phone calls from Richard (you can just imagine!) caused them to reconsider and eventually buy out his contract with Robey. In 1955, a session was set up for the singer in New Orleans, where Specialty had already been recruiting and recording local talent (notably, Price). Leaving most of his band behind, Little Richard departed for the city and began making rock 'n' roll history.
That first session and many of his subsequent ones in New Orleans were backed by the choice house band at Cosimo Matassa's J & M Studio, including Earl Palmer, drums; Frank Fields, bass; Huey Smith, piano; Lee Allen, tenor sax; Red Tyler, baritone sax; and Justin Adams, Ernest McLean, or Edgar Blanchard, guitar. This core group played on an incredible number of hit records in the 1950s and influenced the sound of rocking R&B for years; and it was Little Richard's supreme good fortune to have cut his seminal hits with them. Fast becoming a rock 'n' roll star, Richard recruited a new version of the Upsetters as his touring band, keeping Smith, who by now was calling himself Lee Diamond, and Connor, and adding, among others, two sax men he had met at his Peacock sessions in Texas, Grady Gaines and Clifford Burks. Though they were almost constantly on the road, Richard began insisting to Specialty that he record with his own band; but the label only released a handful of sides utilizing the Upsetters. Two of those, "Keep A Knockin'" and "Ooh My Soul", cut on the fly at a radio station in Washington, DC, while they were on tour early in 1957, are legendary for capturing some of the big, high-energy sound of the horn-heavy band, driven by Connor's locomotive beats.
As the well-known story goes, by October of 1957, it was over. The conflicted Richard had suddenly quit the music business for religion. That left his band without a front man and many booked dates to fulfill. In order to finish a tour of the Mid-West, the Upsetters, now led by Grady Gaines, hired singer Dee Clark in Chicago to be "Little Richard" for the rest of the tour; and Diamond started alternating between piano and sax, as needed. In the South, they became James Brown's backing band for a time, when the singer was given some of Little Richard's remaining open dates. Charles Connor and Lee Diamond had moonlighted backing Brown while they were in the first version of the Upsetters in Macon. It is there that Connor opened Brown's ears to New Orleans drumming for the first time, as Brown didn't just create funk out of thin air. He and many of his subsequent drummers were influenced by New Orleans rhythms. Lee Diamond had even played sax on Brown's first single, "Please, Please, Please", and co-wrote a song with him, "Chonnie-On-Chon" in 1956. After wrapping up the touring, the Upsetters returned to Chicago and signed on with Vee-Jay Records, cutting a single there for the company's Falcon label (#1009) with Clark as front man. At the same sessions, they also recorded two R&B-styled instrumentals, "The Strip" b/w "Upsetter", released under the name of the band on Falcon 1010, plus these two remarkable sides written by and featuring Diamond on vocals.
"Hattie Malatti" (L. Diamond)
Lee Diamond, Vee-Jay 272, 1958
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
"Mama Loochie" (L. Diamond)
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
As enjoyable as this single is on its own merits, it's obvious that Lee Diamond was nowhere near the level of the incendiary Little Richard - but, who was? Neither side exhibits a rocking groove as intense as Richard's best records, either, even though "Mama Loochie" has scattered lyrical references to "Slippin' and Slidin'". Still, there is a great, in-the-pocket feel to both sides that definitely reveals New Orleans roots and shows the band establishing their own sound. Their dynamic had changed due to the departure of original drummer Charles Conner, replaced by another New Orleans contender, Emile Russell, who had played with Pluma Davis' band backing Gatemouth Brown prior to signing on with the Upsetters.
These two cuts show that Russell's drumming style had a syncopated interplay between his kick, snare and cymbals - the polyrhythmic basis of funk. On "Hattie Malatti", his snare hits hang back just behind the beat, creating the pull of tension and release, augmented by his stuttering beats at the end of bars. Meanwhile, his foot definitely lays down another rhythmic counterpoint on the bass drum, though it is harder to hear due to the poor sonics of the recording. In all, it's an outstanding groove that I could easily listen to on endless repeat.
I thought that there wasn't as much going on rhythmically with "Mama Loochie", as Russell's snare work has a similar but simpler feel than on "Hatti". Then I noticed what he was doing on the bell of the ride cymbal throughout the song, overlaying another more complex pattern with somewhat of a Cuban feel, similar to what Hungry Williams brought into popular New Orleans drumming in that period. Surely Russell was influenced by it. I think these tracks provide further evidence of the funk feel emerging into popular music through New Orleans. It's definitely the kind of stuff we're always on the lookout for here at HOTG.
Before I move on, I've just got to give props to guitarist Nataniel Douglass (another veteran of the Pluma Davis group) for the remarkably hip opening guitar intro to "Hatti" that he riffed on throughout the song, even though it was probably lifted from Chuck Berry. It's tastefully done. And that saxophone section (Grady Gaines (doing the leads), Clifford Burks and Wilbert 'Lee Diamond' Smith (when not on piano) all on tenors, and Larry Linnear, on baritone) - it was massive. I'm sure heard live, these guys would have blown you clean away.
The Upsetters recorded at least four other songs for Vee-Jay** that were not released, including Diamond's cool "A Girl In Every City" which I featured here in 2004 from the Charly Upsetters-related LP, The New Orleans Connection. It's in play on the HOTG webcast. But by 1960, Diamond had left the group and gone back home. In New Orleans, he hooked up with Minit Records for two singles, "It Won't Be Me" b/w "Please Don't Leave" (#617) in 1960 and "Let Me Know" b/w "I Need Money" (#635) in 1961, working with the up and coming hit-producer, Allen Toussaint.
"It Won't Be Me" (W. Smith)
Lee Diamond, from Home of the Blues, Minit LP 0001
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
This track comes from my well-worn (well. . . worn-out is more like it) copy of the Minit compilation LP imprecisely titled Home Of the Blues, released just after Imperial had bought the New Orleans label, and featuring other cuts by Jessie Hill, Aaron Neville, and Ernie K-Doe. Off his first single for Minit, Diamond's "It Won't Be Me" is pretty much standard fare for New Orleans R&B of the period, not at all a bad thing; but it just doesn't have a strong hook like hits of the period that Toussaint produced, "Mother-In- Law", "I Like It Like That", "Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo", to name but a few. Still, the upbeat, stop-time tune has got some great rolling piano playing (likely Toussaint), pumping horns, and synco-shuffle drumming, more likely than not courtesy of John Boudreaux, that could definitely incite some dancing. Diamond's vocal here reminds me of Eddie Bo, who was cutting a lot of records for Ric in New Orleans at the time. On the other side's easy-going ballad, "Please Don't Leave", also written by Diamond, the singer moved into Little Willie John territory. So, I suspect the vocal similarities were an unsuccessful attempt at commercial gain through association. I'd be interested in hearing the Diamond's other two sides for Minit but have yet to run across them either on a compilation or the actual 45.
Somewhat after the Minit releases, Diamond got the chance to record another single through an association with John Marascalco, a Mississippian who had moved to Los Angeles as a young man and in 1956 walked into Specialty Records with some songs he had written that became hits for Little Richard. Marascalco, who knew Diamond and the Upsetters from back in those days, had since gotten into the record label business.
"Good Old Summertime" (Adpt. Marascalco)
Lee Diamond with the Challengers, Lola 100, 196?
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
"Nothing But A Playboy" (Joyner-Harshman-Marascalco)
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
The origins of this 45 are not clear. For starters, the sides, a revamped version of "Good Old Summertime" (adapted as a goosed-up dance song) b/w "Nothing But A Playboy", appeared on two different labels, Bourbon Street #100 and Lola #100. Marascalco owned Lola Records*, which seems to have been based in California, and also co-owned Infinity and several other small labels out there; but I don't have any information about Bourbon Street other than a brief discography in the R&B Indies, which shows only two other releases besides Diamond's. Marascalco probably had some connection to that single, too; but one wonders why he issued the same single on different imprints. To confuse things even more, the R&B Indies discography for Lola shows three different singles in their catalog designated as #100, and some of their other issue numbers are repeated as well. The date for this single on the discography is 1966; but, according to a table the R&B Indies provides elsewhere, the delta number used by Monarch Pressing that is stamped in the dead wax on the record indicates it is from July, 1962. As was often the case back then, the labels are undated.
While I think the single was recorded in New Orleans, that is just a hunch based on several things: the fact that Diamond was in the city around that time, the rather complex drumming pattern that sounds at times like it might be by Hungry Williams, and the trumpet riff on the A-side that reminds me of Melvin Lastie's playing. So, were the Challengers credited here with Diamond an actual group or apocryphal? Hard to say; but I’m pretty certain they weren’t the band by that name that recorded instrumental cover versions of hits in the mid-1960s. I’m guessing this "group" was a made up name for some New Orleans players, maybe to be reminiscent of Diamond's association with the Upsetters (?). Any other suggestions?
This record is another example of Diamond doing derivative material, in this case from Marascalco. The updated "Good Old Summertime" sounds like it could be some lost side by Freddie Cannon, the Bostonian rocker who was having pop hits at the time quite similar to this. And "Nothing But A Playboy" seems a throwback to the Little Richard era. Not bad, but certainly not great or even very original. While Diamond's over-saturated, recorded in the red vocals were worthy, this 45 was a non-starter destined for commercial oblivion; and now, almost half a century later, it can sometmes be found in the virtual record bins of ebay.
In 1965, Diamond was writing songs with George Davis, a session guitarist, writer and arranger who had recently started a production company, Par-Lo Enterprises, with another session player, Alvin 'Red' Tyler, and Warren Parker. Diamond showed Davis an unfinished song he had, entitled "Tell It Like It Is", which still needed lyrics. Davis thought it was promising enough to include with other songs they had written together for use in a recording project on singer Aaron Neville. As Jeff Hannusch relates in his book, The Soul of New Orleans, Diamond was incarcerated shortly thereafter and could not write any lyrics for the tune. So, Davis set some down to finish out "Tell It Like It Is", which Neville recorded soon thereafter. A classic performance, the song surprisingly found no takers when Par-Lo offered it to labels in New Orleans and New York. This indifference forced the partnership to release it on their own hastily set up Par-Lo label, along with another Davis-Diamond song on the B-side, "Why Worry". Their faith in "Tell It Like It Is" and Neville soon paid off, as the record got airplay and started selling in New Orleans. Then, it began to spread out around the country, eventually charting and rising to number 2 before it was done, with sales of more than two million. But that extreme and sudden success proved to be the undoing of the partnership, its label and the local distributor, Dover Records, owned by Cosimo Matassa. Inexperienced in the business end of record sales, Par-Lo and Dover shipped out tons of singles on credit to meet demand, but were unable to collect their accounts quickly enough to cover their expenses - and went bankrupt. Aaron Neville never got royalties he was due on the sales, as a result. Probably the only people who made anything on the deal were the writers, Davis and Diamond, and their publishing company, who would have received royalties for the airplay, and may still to this day (I know that Davis is still with us and going strong).
But, whether he got ample rewards for his efforts or not, his contribution to "Tell It Like It Is" was certainly Lee Diamond's shining achievement in the music business. Hannusch never said why Diamond went to jail and for how long. But, I know he wrote several other songs in the mid-1960s, two of which, "I Caught You In A Lie" and "Yak Yak Yak" were recorded by Robert Parker on a couple of singles for Nola Records after his initial big 1966 hit, "Barefootin'". As kindly noted by Travis in the comments section, Sir Shambling's fine site showns Diamond as writer of Marilyn Barbarin's first single, "One Little Word", on the Nola label. Also, there is evidence that later Diamond made at least one more record, teaming up again with George Davis for "Nobody But You" b/w "You Were Made For Me", billed as George & Lee on the local International City label around 1971 (anybody got a copy?).
Although I lose his trail after that, I have found out through a contact that Lee Diamond passed away in 1981. What we know about him, just through his association and connection with some major names and events in New Orleans music history, makes for an interesting back story to the records and session listings bearing his name. Because he hung in through the good times and the hard times of his business, he left behind a nice little legacy that is well worth remembering.
* [Note: I almost forgot to thank Andi Grabsch, who last year sent me a detailed comment on my first Lee Diamond post from 2004 (linked above), concerning the Lola single and label. I did not know anything about them and began researching further because of his information. He has since done extensive research on Lola and other of Marascalco's related labels, which can be viewed on his website. It's in German , which is not a probelm for some of you; but, even if you are like me and can't read it all, the discography and label scans are informative in themselves.
I appreciate the heads up, Andi. Because of you, I've found out a little more about Diamond and Lola Records. Maybe, we'll both learn even more, if there is somebody else out there with a few more pieces to the puzzle.]
** Pete Hoppula has an extensive online Upsetters discography that you should defintely take a look at, as it extends to CD comps of some of their early recordings.