September 25, 2008


[UPDATED 3/17/2012]

Having last focused on some Wardell Quezergue productions that were more toward the mainstream, I thought I'd feature two examples of his unique brand of funk, most evident in the early 1970s, when he was recording virtually all of his projects in Jackson, MS, at
Malaco Studios. I've visited this period before on various cuts with the Big Q touch by such artists as King Floyd, the Barons Ltd, Elliott Small, Denise Keeble, and Larry Hamilton; but there are more worth exploring. So, let's try a side by one of Quezergue's more obscure vocalists; and then we'll turn to one of his most successful.

As you regulars may have noticed, I've been collecting records on Quezergue's Pelican label for a while now - there weren't that many. Of the four artists featured on the label’s short run, only C. L. Blast ever established any career name recognition. My latest Pelican find is this rare white label promo I scooped up last year that seems to have been the last release. It came out at a time when Pelican was briefly distributed by Atlantic Records, due to the success of Quezergue's work with King Floyd. When Floyd's first single for Malaco's Chimneyville label, "Groove Me", was taking off in 1970, Atlantic jumped in to distribute it nationally and push it to the chart-tops, agreeing to take on Pelican as part of the short-lived deal. When Floyd's follow-ups didn't do as well, and most of Quezergue's other productions failed to interst them, Atlantic opted not to renew their agreement with Malaco, a major set-back for the entire operation..

"Sho-Nuff The Real Thing" (W. Quezergue - A. Savoy)
Curtis Johnson, Pelican 1920, 1971
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Certainly not well-known today, Curtis Johnson recorded just a handful of singles in his time, a few of which found at least limited acceptance in the prior decade. I first heard of him on two Tuff City CD compilations* of Quezergue productions; and what I know of the singer’s background comes mostly from Michael Hurtt’s notes to one of those, Sixty Smonkin' Soul Senders.

Johnson came to New Orleans from Wichita Falls, Texas in the early 1960s; and, by 1963, had started a vocal group, the Sonics, who became popular around town fairly quickly, soon recording two singles for Cosimo Matassa's White Cliffs label: #208, "Just Like Delilah" b/w "So Tired"; and #230, "Come Home Baby" b/w "Crescent Walk". Of those, "Come Home Baby", modeled after the Impressions, had some limited success locally.

Acquainted with Wardell Quezergue already, Johnson approached him in the mid-1960s about recording solo; and the producer, who had a stake in the Nola and Hotline labels, was agreeable, arranging material by several songwriters for a session. The resulting single, "If You Need Love" b/w "I've Got To Get Away From You", was released on Hot Line (#911), just prior to Guitar Ray's "Patty Cake Shake" in 1967 [note: Sir Shambling points out that these sides also appeared on Whurley Burley 201]. The A-side was a fairly standard mid-tempo soul dancer; but what stirred interest was “I’ve Got To Get Away From You”, a slower number that Quezergue gave the Stax/Volt treatment. Johnson got down and gritty on it; and the song received considerable airplay in the area – yet, still not enough to break out of the region into markets around the country. Quezergue moved on to other interests, leaving Johnson without a follow-up single, and forcing him to start working for a living. After a few years, Big Q gave him one more chance to score, bringing him to Malaco to record "Trying to Win You Over" b/w "Sho-Nuff the Real Thing" in 1971.

"Trying To Win You Over", was the straight-forward, moderately paced, and fairly generic soul top side; but the flip was another matter. I've chosen it as an example of Big Q's penchant for quirky rhythmic experimentation; but "Sho-Nuff The Real Thing" was really not Johnson's best vocal showcase, as he seemed overwhelmed, or maybe unnerved by having to deliver something equivalent to what King Floyd was having success with at the time. Maybe funk really wasn't his thing.

As I've noted previously, Quezergue’s standard operating procedure at Malaco was to pre-record the backing instrumental tracks with the in-house studio band, creating a distinct part for each player. He did this pretty much in his head just prior to the sessions; and it's interesting to hear the results of his obviously mathematical mind at work in these fine-tuned, precisely interacting instrumental and vocal rhythms bouncing back and forth off each other like some little perpetual motion engine. The resulting poly-rhythms may be too calculated to be pure funk – but what else do you call this music?

Unfortunately, instead of being uplifted and supported by the arrangement, Curtis Johnson’s singing gets kind of run over and chewed up by those unrelenting cams and pistons. While that surely was a production faux pas, it’s still a fun B-side to groove to.

"Carry On" (Maria Tynes, Wardell Quezergue)
Jean Knight, Stax 0116, 1972
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

By contrast to Curtis Johnson’s funky dilemma, Jean Knight’s take on “Carry On” is a perfect example of how well-arranged funk is supposed to work. The highly rhythmic, interlocking parts are there, but in a more complex interplay of textures and dynamics that Knight’s voice is at one with, creating a living, breathing, dancing organic whole. This was producer/arranger Quezergue at the top of his game; and it is hard to understand why “Carry On” did not keep Knight on a winning streak, after her leadoff Stax smash of “Mr. Big Stuff” in 1971 (which had be recorded at the same 1970 session with King Floyd’s “Groove Me”), and the sound-alike follow-up, “You Think You’re Hot Stuff”.

This third single of Knight’s five for Stax is certainly one of their strongest team efforts, a fine party record that is admittedly light in the lyric department, but a guaranteed booty loosener. Strangely for Knight, after her first rocket-propelled hit, her Stax ride was all downhill. The story goes that Stax found Big Q and his team simply too quirky, and wanted Knight to record material from some of the label’s impressive stable of writers – but Quezergue refused to work those songs up, in effect killing the deal and Knight’s chance at continued success on a big time soul label. I’m all for funk and New Orleans flavor – but it seems a shame that she missed out on such an opportunity, whether it would have come to anything or not, seeing as Stax soon would go under. Still, Jean Knight’s work with Quezergue was one of the big success stories for a New Orleans artist, even if recorded in Jackson for a Memphis label. And the charming diva did carry on and is still performing, working her stuff to this day.

Jean and Wardell at the Best of the Beat, 2008
Photo by Dan Phillips

*Wardell Quezergue's Funky Funky New Orleans and Wardell Quzergue: Sxity Smokin' Soul Senders.

Note: I've just this past weekend learned of the passing of the great New Orleans groovemaster, Earl Palmer. I'll be working up a feature on him him soon. Also, I'd like to dedicate this post to my friend, Charles Dangeau, a fellow radio host on WEVL for many years, who passed away last week. Charles had just an amazing musical knowledge and a deep, deep collection, which he shared with listeners weekly on his program, the Night Train, for over two decades. I learned a lot and heard so much great music listening to Charles, and always enjoyed our conversational excursions, too. When his health got worse and he could no longer get to the station, he sold his records to another volunteer at the station, who took over his show and keeps playing cuts from Charles' legacy. You can hear Steffen do the Night Train Thursdays from 9:00 PM to midnight, US Central Time, on the WEVL Memphis broadcast stream. Boogie on, Charles. This funk's for you

September 10, 2008

Movers and Shakers With The Big "Q" Factor

Today's tracks come from sessions produced by the great Wardell Quezergue in the mid-1960s featuring two undeservedly obscure artists, Guitar Ray and Sammy Ridgley. Though neither of these song about dancing is funk-related or has an identifiable New Orleans sound, their strong, move-motivating grooves are undeniable. It's hard to understand why the records didn't get these guys some recognition, at least in New Orleans. Blame it on the vagaries of the music business, and the small, under-funded labels with no clout that put them out.

My introduction to both tunes was on the Funky Delicacies/Tuff City 2002 double CD compilation of Quezergue productions, Sixty Smokin' Soul Senders, which was/is a good resource for hearing some very hard to find sides, despite the poor condition of some of the vinyl sources and inadequate mastering on the analog to digital transfers. Having heard them first was a great help when I chanced on auctions for the 45s, as I knew they were well worth pursuing.

"Patty Cake Shake"
(Raymond Washington)
Guitar Ray, Hot Line 912, 1967
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Guitar Ray, whose actual name was Raymond Washington, recorded just over half a dozen singles in New Orleans from the late 1950s to 1968 (see the discography below). I don't know much about him, other than finding a few incidental mentions on liner notes and in Jeff Hannusch's very useful book, The Soul of New Orleans, which included the revelation that Washington was a cousin of Earl King. So, perhaps he had a genetic predisposition to join the local music scene.

Around 1959, Washington got the opportunity to do some sessions for Vin Records, owned by entrepreneur/huckster Johnny Vincent (Imbragulio), who had recently started the company as a subsidiary to his successful Ace label. Based in Jackson, Mississippi, Ace at that time recorded primarily New Orleans artists, usually at Cosimo Matassa's studio located in the French Quarter. Huey Smith and the Clowns, Frankie Ford, and Jimmy Clanton were Ace's biggest sellers. Vincent had recently hired Mac Rebennack, a talented teenaged guitarist, bandleader, and songwriter who hung out at the studio, to develop new artists and run sessions for him; and one of those artists was Ray Washington, who cut a number of songs with Rebennack . From those, Vin released one single in 1960, featuring Washington's own composition, "I Know", a catchy mid-tempo R&B number, backed with "I Never Realized", likely a ballad. The record failed to get noticed and became a one-shot deal by default, as nothing else from those sessions was issued. Around this same time, Washington also recorded a single as Guitar Ray for the local Invicta label, which was distributed by Joe Banashak's Instant Records. Apparently, it was the first 45 issued by Invicta, which only was in operation a few years, and was no more successful that his Vin release.

In the mid-1960s, Washington recorded again as Guitar Ray, this time for Hot Line in New Orleans, which was a subsidiary of Nola Records. Wardell Quezergue, one of the principals of the companies, did most of the production and arranging for them - as shown on the label: "Arr by Wardell ". Probably released in 1967, the singer's own "Patty Cake Shake" appeared on the second of Washington's four singles for Hot Line. It was a fairly straight-ahead dancer, with streamlined instrumentation - drums, congas (or bongos?), bass, guitar and horns - that emphasized the rhythmic elements of the song, all locked into a tight, spring-loaded, high energy groove, probably propelled by el supremo beat-man, Smokey Johnson. The bass/drums/percussion and vocal intro that Quezergue set up pulls you right into the action; then the horns pounce for the turn-around before the first verse. Washington's way with the lyrics was relaxed and hip, perfectly phrased and paced throughout. To me, "Patty Cake Shake" rates right up there for pure pop pleasure with Robert Parker's "Barefootin'" on Nola, another prime Quezergue production of the period, even sharing some similar guitar work, either by George Davis, or his studio protege, Deacon John Moore. Both tunes are good examples of compositions and arrangements aimed directly at the dance-floors of the pop mainstream. While Guitar Ray got nowhere close to the limelight with his, Parker enjoyed the biggest hit of his career, probably because his song just had more personality going for it.

By the way, the B-side of this single was no throwaway. "New True Love", another Washington original, proved to be a well-written and effectively sung soul ballad, amply demonstrating that Guitar Ray wasn't just some lightweight popster . After two more unsuccessful tries to connect with the record buying public, he left Hot Line behind and hooked up with the ever-hustling Senator Jones, who was just starting one of his small, short-lived labels, Shagg Records, in 1968. As Jones related in The Soul of New Orleans, he was working in a local record store when Washington stopped by one day with his guitar to audition some songs, just recently out of the hospital following a nervous breakdown (!). Liking what he heard, Jones set up a session at Cosimo's new Jazz City Studio, enlisting arranger Clyde Toval to work with Washington on the songs. The resulting 45 became Shagg's second single (#711): "I'm Never Gonna Break His Rules" b/w "You're Gonna Wreck My Life". The latter song turned out to be a radically re-vamped take on Howlin ' Wolf's "How Many More Years", transforming it into another outstanding dancer with dynamic horn charts. But it hardly got heard at the time. As Jones simply put it, "The record didn't do much." Faced with another commercial disappointment, and for whatever other reason, perhaps his precarious mental health, Guitar Ray made no more records for Jones or anyone, for that matter, as far as I can tell, dropping off the radar after that.

Besides "Patty Cake Shake" appearing on the previously mentioned Funky Delicacies compilation, another of Guitar Ray's Hot Line sides, "Ball And Chain", saw the light of day again there. Also, his earliest A-side, "I Know", was included on WestSide's CD, The Vin Story. As fate would have it, "You're Gonna Wreck My Life" has been discovered lately by Northern Soul fans in the UK and become very popular on the dance club scene, which has driven the price of a copy of the original Shagg single to ridiculous heights.

Life, it seems, is all about timing, whether good or bad. I wonder if Ray Washington is still around to appreciate the irony of his semi-fame with a 40-year delay. One good thing about all the attention is that Grapevine in the UK re-issued that Shagg side on an affordable 45 with one of Vickie LaBat's ultra-rare tracks on the flip. Maybe we'll get to that one of these days. At this point, though, I still prefer "Patty Cake Shake".

Raymond Washington (Guitar Ray) Discography
Ray Washington - Vin 1017 - I Know / I Never Realized - 1959 or 1960
Guitar Ray - Invicta 501 - Keep On Trying / Little Red Spinning Wheel - ca 1960
Guitar Ray - Hot Line 904 - Ball And Chain / You've Got Something - 1967
Guitar Ray -Hot Line 912 - Patty Cake Shake / New True Love - 1967
Guitar Ray - Hot Line 914 - Funky Pete, Parts 1 & 2 - 1967
Guitar Ray - Hot Line ??? - Ain't That Soul / True Love Of A Man - 1968
Guitar Ray - Shagg 711 - I'm Never Gonna Break His Rules Again / You're Gonna Wreck My Life - 1968

"Shake A Shake Sue" (S. Ridgley-T. Ridgley)
Sammy Ridgley, Kings Row 451, ca 1967
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

You'd think that with a brother who was one of the most well-respected (though hitless) R&B and soul vocalists in New Orleans for almost 50 years, and having a quite decent set of pipes himself, Sammy Ridgley would have a higher music profile, at least in his own hometown. But it seems he only had two 45s issued in the 1960s, plus one late 20th century CD to his name, while his late older sibling, Tommy, had dozens of releases. The brothers were part of a large family (17 children) from the Shewsbury area, just West of New Orleans, right across the parish line, and got much of their early musical experience singing gospel music. An uncle, Bebe Ridgley, was a traditional jazz trombonist of note, as well. Tommy got his first break in music in the late 1940s, singing with Dave Bartholomew's band, followed by a long career as a recording artist and bandleader. Sammy's path is less clear, although the brief bio on his website and MySpace page alludes to at least a semi-professional career as a singer, performing with the Operation Plus Band and playing clubs in and around the Crescent City. He continues to perform to this day, having appeared at the 2008 Jazzfest. Had we all not been dodging hurricanes recently, I would have tried to make contact with Mr. Sammy for this piece. But I'm way behind in my posting as it is. So we'll just have save that for another time.

As with Guitar Ray, I became familiar with Sammy Ridgley’s scant vinyl recordings through Tuff City compilations. The 1998 Night Train CD, New Orleans Soul A Go-Go, contained a cut from his Hit Sound 45, the dynamic mover, “Locked Up”; and Funky Delicacies’ Sixty Smokin’ Soul Senders CD set features both sides of his Kings Row release.

The brief booklet notes on the latter release state that Kings Row 451, “Shake A Shake Sue” b/w “ I Heard That Story Before”, marked Ridgley’s debut as a recording artist and that his manager, Wallace Johnson, a fine singer in his own right who worked primarily with Allen Toussaint, was responsible for getting Wardell Quezergue (Big “Q”) involved with production on the project. The A-side was co-written by Ridgley and his brother, Tommy, with the B-side being a fine rendition the soulful ballad that Tommy had previously written and recorded. If I could venture a hunch, I'd say that the older Ridgley likely was the financial backer for this record, which dates from around 1967.

Quezergue did another fine job with this arrangement, giving it the sound of something hitmaker Wilson Pickett might have cut at Muscle Shoals around this time - certainly a commercially viable approach, at least in principle. While Sammy Ridgley is no Wicked Pickett, he does a very credible vocal on this number, another great dancer about dancing which manages to start out quoting a bit of Chris Kenner , a subtle hint as to its city of origin. There's some intense riffing from the percolating bass and lively lead guitar, likely George Davis or Deacon John again. As with the Guitar Ray track above, Smokey Johnson is certainly a likely suspect for the fine, in-the-pocket drumming. And, those backing singers are hot! I'd trade the reedy " Patty Cake Shake" girls for 'em any day.

Ridgley's "Locked Up" b/w "I'm Dreaming" (Hit Sound 437) was probably cut and released several years later from the sound of it, especially the fuzz-tone lead guitar. It's worth seeking out and hearing. Like I said, it was a mover, too, and fun to listen to; but I find it somewhat inferior to "Shake A Shake Sue". One thing Sammy had Guitar Ray beat on was the obscurity and brief shelf-life of the two record labels he recorded for. Seemingly both existed to release just one single, before disappearing just as quickly as they formed: exotic flashes of sub-atomic entities engendered in the music-biz super-collider.

A longer lasting product has been Sammy's 1999 CD effort released by Kolab in New Orleans, Midnight Rendezvous, which has its moments. I've had the quirky groover "Mardi Gras Chief" from that in play on HOTG Radio since Carnival season.

September 07, 2008

Post Gustav (Pre-Ike?) Update: Music Add, etc.

I've just added more audio to the big Willie West post thanks to a friend of the blog from Glasgow, Scotland, who discovered a copy of the Black Samson movie floating around the internet and managed to rip the theme song for me and us to hear. I'll leave the audio up another week or so before it all goes into rotation on the radio stream. . . . .

Thanks to everyone who sent out positive vibes and written well-wishes during the last hurricane episode. I've taken down the Gustav-related hurricane information and will hope I don't have to give you more about Ike. But, ya never know. Hurry up, November.

Stay tuned, another music post is brewing in my mental tropics.