January 28, 2009

When The Junkyard Dog Broke Out

As I mentioned in my recent CD reviews, or as you may have otherwise learned by now, one of New Orleans best drummers, Wilbert 'Junkyard Dog' Arnold, passed away the day after Christmas. A long-time member of Walter 'Wolfman' Washington's Roadmasters and one of the founding members of the New Orleans Rhythm Conspiracy, he was only 53 and will be missed, not just by those who knew and loved him, but by all who were moved by his exemplary musicianship.

One of many uniquely endowed New Orleans drummers, the Junkyard Dog's grooves were infectious, his technique remarkable. He deftly balanced the seeming contradiction in great funk drum work, exercising the creative freedom to spontaneously and continually recalibrate the beats in the free-flowing moment while still maintaining precise time management, expressing the essential feel of the music and putting it all in the perfect pocket for the other instrumental and vocal rhythmic elements to lock into.

It's impossible to sum talent like his up in a couple of performances; but I wanted to put up something to honor his memory. So, I picked these tunes not only because they display Arnold's talents fairly early on, before he was even called Junkyard Dog, but also because I've got 'em on vinyl; and this is pretty much a vinyl blog, after all. The rest of his work with the Roadmasters and beyond in my archives is on CD. If you are not already familiar with the JYD or the Roadmasters, I encourage you to pursue their recordings. But, for now, these two cuts should do quite nicely

"You Got Me Worried" (W. Washington)
Walter Wolfman Washington and Solar System, Hep' Me 161, 1981
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Both sides of this single, "You got Me Worried" and the instrumental "Good And Juicy", also appeared on Wolfman Washington's first LP, Leader Of The Pack, released on Senator Jones' Hep' Me label in the early 1980s. As you'll note, his band was called Solar System then; and they had been backing Johnny Adams regularly for a number of years. Although Wolfman had recorded a few 45s for Eddie Bo back around the start of the 1970s, he had mainly been a guitarist and bandleader working behind other artists most of this career. The LP was his first mature move towards breaking out with his own pack; and the Junkyard Dog was riding shotgun for that move.

Aspiring drummer Wilbert Arnold had become a tentative member of Wolfman's band as a teenager in the mid-1970s, starting off playing tambourine. Over the next few years, he took over the drum chair; and, by the time of this release, his well-developed skills allowed him to effectively mix it up. Especially note the kick drum virtuosity displayed on this tune, which he really ratcheted-up about two minutes in, under the guitar solo, and getting increasingly more tricked-out along the way. The take could have been more sympathetically recorded; but the entire band cooked nonetheless. Sitting in on keyboards was Sam Henry (formerly of the Soul Machine), who was a regular session player at Sea-Saint Studios where this was recorded; and he also arranged the horns. Washington, who learned a lot about delivery from his mentor, Johnny Adams, over the years they performed together, really dug into his vocal, getting worked up enough to let loose with some soul-shaking screams as the song intensified near the close.

Nothing much happened commercially with either this single or the LP at that point; but it was re-issued several times, on vinyl and CD, under various names, after Wolfman became better known. It definitely served its purpose in allowing Wolfman and the band to step out. When Rounder signed Johnny Adams a few years later, Washington and Arnold played the sessions for his first LP/CD release on the label, 1984's From The Heart, an excellent comeback record that helped kickstart a general New Orleans musical renaissance.

"Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" (Hal Jackson, Jr/Timothy Matthews) Johnny Adams, from From the Heart, Rounder, 1984
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

This was the lead-off track from Adams' first of many albums for Rounder and producer Scott Billington, an association what would last until the singer's death 14 years later. As originally done by Ann Peebles in the early 1970s on Hi Records out of Memphis with the legendary Willie Mitchell producing, the song was funky in its own right, but more low-down and brooding. Billington, Washington and Adams, with the exemplary assistance of Wilbert Arnold, picked up the pace and funkified it even further, giving it a more uptown, complex arrangement that was maybe a little too bright for the dark lyrics. Although I've got to give the nod to the original for better matching the mood (beside my being a stone Ann Peebles fan from way back), this recasting was still an impressive showcase for all concerned, including future Roadmasters Craig Wroten on keys and George Jackson, Jr. on congas, plus bassist Darrel Francis, Sr, and the legendary Alvin 'Red' Tyler, as part of the fine horn section with fellow saxman Bill Samuels and trumpeter Terry Tulos. As always, Adams' vocal was topnotch, a perfect combination of soulful grit, controlled intensity, finesse and fluidity.

Around the time this LP was cut, Billington began discussing a solo project for Washington; and, by 1986, Wolfman had signed with Rounder himself. For unknown reasons, the Junkyard Dog was not on his first Rounder release that year,
Wolf Tracks; but, soon thereafter, Washington had formulated the Roadmasters with Arnold and bassist Jack Cruz anchoring the rhythm section. They would remain an integral part of his stage band and every other album he made until 1998. After that, due mainly to Wolfman's personal demons, the band went a decade without a legitimate release. Unfortunately, Arnold's health began to deteriorate a few years ago; and he did not play with the Roadmasters regularly, nor was he able to make the sessions for Wolfman's 2008 comeback CD, Doin' The Funky Thing (reviewed here earlier this month). But he, his wife, Marilyn (Barbarin), and Cruz, did start another music project in the last couple of years, New Orleans Rhythm Conspiracy, making the CD, Dancin' Ground, which I also just reviewed. It has become the JYD's funky epitaph.

Having cut his teeth playing with Washington, backing Adams while still young, the Junkyard Dog had the opportunity to be schooled on music that had compelling dynamics, sophisticated changes, and intricate arrangements, allowing him to take his feel for funk far beyond standard-issue linear grooving. In their prime, the Roadmasters' fusion of soul, blues, jazz and funk could not be touched; and the JYD's playing was the catalyst, at once spellbinding and undeniably danceable. I'm sure those of you who you got to see him in his element at some point will agree. If you are new to this music, I encourage you to explore, listen to his session work on the first few Johnny Adams albums for Rounder, plus, of course, his consummate work backing the Wolfman. You'll see why this cat deserved his reputation as one badass dog.


Blogger rcs said...

I missed this news and am very sad to hear it. I had the privilege of doing a gig in the Quarter with JYD (I played bass) and I'll always remember the depth of his takes on the straight-up covers we were playing. After a while I gave up trying to anticipate his accents and just laid in the pocket (where I should have been all along.)

At one point the band leader threw me a solo (on "Green Onions" I think it was) and I flamed out about 3/4 through. I looked over at JYD and he was just laughing out loud, having a blast and keeping the groove.

Sorry he won't be around any more, but man he had some gigs.

1:24 AM, January 29, 2009  

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