Respecting 'Red' Tyler
When we were in New Orleans two weekends ago for my step-daughter's graduation from Loyola (we're proud - and relieved!), my wife and I got a chance to go out that Saturday night and catch a tribute to saxophonist Alvin 'Red' Tyler, a free event at the Contemporary Arts Center put on by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. Red, who passed away in 1998, was a talented, dependable constant on the local R&B and jazz scenes in town for some 50 years and was definitely overdue for some formal props. While living, this solid, humble gentleman was probably too much taken for granted, even overlooked, in his own hometown, not being a showboater, but rather a genuine ensemble player even as a leader of his own groups and on sessions. But the musicianship he displayed was always first rate. So, the high quality of performances presented that night at the CAC and the admiration and respect shown for Red certainly went a long way in making up for the 11 year delay in honoring him postmortem for his many accomplishments.
The evening was divided into music segments highlighting his R&B and rock 'n' roll session work as well as his long-time devotion to jazz. These were separated by discussions about and remembrances of Red by people who knew him well, such as jazz vocalists Germaine Bazzle and Ed Perkins, legendary musician and educator, Harold Battiste, and author, filmmaker, radio host and Breath Of Life blogger, Kalamu ya Salaam. Things began with a brief audio/visual overview of Tyler's career. Then the musicians took the stage. Performing over the course of the concert segments were a top of the line aggregation including drummers Albert 'June' Gardner and Johnny Vidacovich, bassists Chris Severin and George French, saxophonists Roderick Paulin and Thaddeus Richard, trumpet master Clyde Kerr, Jr., guitarist Steve Masakowski, and musical director of the program, pianist David Torkanowski (who also surprisingly got up during the rock 'n' roll segment and blew some pumpin' baritone sax!). Bazzle and Perkins also sang with the band, as did French; and all were outstanding. Most definitely, it was a memorable show that I'm glad we could attend. My thanks to David Kunian of WWOZ for hipping me to the tribute and suggesting that I do a post about Red. Duly inspired, I am more than glad to oblige.
STARTING NEAR THE TOP
From Harold Battiste's bio on Tyler in the well-done booklet included in his limited edition, four LP retrospective box set, New Orleans Heritage Jazz 1956 - 1966, I learned that Red did not play an instrument until he returned home from the service in the late 1940s, but had been fascinated by music since childhood, particularly jazz from brass bands to Earl Hines. Like many other musically inclined young WWII-era ex-enlisted men, Tyler used his GI-bill benefits to attend Grunewald School of Music on Camp Street in New Orleans. There he quickly learned the rudiments of the saxophone along with theory and arranging. In fact, Tyler said his studies and instrumental abilities came almost too easily for him. Soon after completing his courses, he was given the chance to play in the Clyde Kerr Band, which also allowed him entry into the musicians union. Clyde Kerr, Sr., an influential local musician and educator whose son later played regularly with Tyler, had a band full of serious players; and the experience of performing live in that company surely pushed Red to continually improve his skills. Union membership gave him the opportunity for other gigs and even some work on the road. Then, in 1949, he caught a real break when drummer Earl Palmer recommended him to Dave Bartholomew who had one of the most popular big bands in town. They were playing jazz and swing when Red joined, but soon began backing R&B singers such as Tommy Ridgley and Jewel King. Lew Chudd of Imperial Records had recently come to town and hired Bartholomew to scout local talent and produce records for the Los Angeles-based label; and, using his own impressive band, Dave began doing sessions on Ridgley, King, and the then unknown Fats Domino at Cosimo Matassa's first studio, a small room (10 x 12!) in the back of his record store, J&M Music Shop, on Rampart Street. That put Red in on the ground floor of the emergent New Orleans recording scene.
Those were exceptional times; and Tyler was off on a whirlwind of recording activity. In addition to tenor sax, he also played baritone, increasing his opportunities for horn section work, as more and more labels came to town to record and catch some that New Orleans magic. Much of the band on those early Imperial sessions became the core studio players in New Orleans R&B and rock 'n' roll for the next decade; and with them Red participated in countless sessions for various labels, backing Fats, Shirley and Lee, Lloyd Price, Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Paul Gayten , and Clarence 'Frogman' Henry, among so many others. What set those studio musicians apart was their ability to contribute creatively to each project, coming up with collaborative arrangements on the spot that gave the sides a fresh, innovative sound that helped change the face of popular music. Unfortunately, their arranging skills usually went uncompensated - but session work was plentiful and paid well enough that the players did not rock the boat to demand their due. Red was particularly gifted at those "head-arrangements" and was a valuable resource on most any session.
As Jeff Hannusch relates in The Soul of New Orleans, Cosimo Matassa referred Red to Johnny Vincent, owner of Ace Records, one of the first independent labels operating in New Orleans (though technically based in Jackson, MS). Vincent was looking for someone to oversee sessions and began using Tyler, who did a lot of work for the label in the later 1950s on an informal, ad hoc basis. After providing stealth production on records by the likes of Frankie Ford, Jimmy Clanton, Joe & Ann and even James Booker, in 1959 Red was given the chance to record his own instrumental LP for Ace, Rockin' and Rollin'. Vincent probably was spurred to do so by the success Tyler's frequent saxophone partner, Lee Allen, had with his 1958 single, "Walking With Mr. Lee", and album of the same title for Ember Records (which Red contributed to), plus Allen Toussaint, who had his 1958 instrumental debut LP on RCA, The Wild Sound of New Orleans by Tousan, and also utilized Red as a player and co-arranger/co-writer. Of course, there were plenty of other instrumental releases on the radio and in jukeboxes in those days by Bill Doggett, Ernie Freeman, Plas Johnson, and a host of others; and Red certainly had the chops to run in that company.
I've got several cuts up for auditioning and discussion from Red's own releases on Ace . But first, let's hear one of James Booker's sides that had Red's participation.
FROM ACE TO A.F.O.
"Teen Age Rock" (James Booker)
Little Booker, Ace 547, 1958
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This was young Booker's third release on as many labels, having first recorded a single in 1954. at the ripe old age of 14, produced by Dave Batholomew for Imperial (#5293), and then one for Chess (#1637) in 1956, a duet with Arthur Booker [no relation], credited to Arthur and Booker and produced by Paul Gayten . When this 45 was made, Booker was still just 19 and the keyboardist in Joe Tex's touring band. Tex was based in New Orleans at the time and signed to Ace himself, doing rock 'n' roll more or less in the style of Little Richard. According to Hannusch in I Hear You Knockin', Tex suggested to Vincent that he record the always remarkable Booker; and a session was set up, probably with Tyler in charge. Supposedly, Booker was to do two versions of an instrumental he had written, with one side featuring him on piano and on the other side, organ, which he had not been playing all that long. That's how it was originally recorded. Before the 45 was mastered, however, Vincent seems to have had second thoughts and got Joe Tex to overdub a vocal on the A-side, "Open The Door". The resulting patch job, done in the days when overdubbing was a rather crude process at best, had Tex's vocal drowning out the band's instrumental backing, leaving Booker's piano hard to hear. The single was issued anyway, credited to Little Booker, which had also been the keyboardist's alias on Imperial. There was no mention of Tex on the label of "Open The Door". I've chosen to feature the more compelling flip side. Although it was Booker's first recording on organ, he really cut loose.
The appropriately titled, "Teen Age Rock" was a raucous little mover kicked off by Charles 'Hungry' Williams' seriously grooving solo drums. Frank Fields was on bass, Lee Allen on tenor sax, and Tyler on baritone. Booker hit the keyboard running, flashing some of his killer virtuosity and getting a great sound out the instrument. Not that anyone noticed at the time. I'm sure with the sonically impaired A-side, DJs dumped this record without even flipping it. Can't blame Red for that, though. Johnny Vincent was notorious for messing with perfectly good tracks. Hannusch relates that Booker took great offense when he heard what had been done and skipped out on his contract, soon leaving Tex's band, as well. A few years down the road, he got revenge of a sort, when he briefly wound up in Houston and recorded some fine instrumental organ sides for Don Robey's Peacock label; and, on the first release, the now classic "Gonzo" became a substantial hit on the R&B and pop charts. It would be Booker's only big record. Later in the 1960s, he recorded more organ numbers as part of Lloyd Price's instrumental project, This Is My Band. Booker had no more releases until 1976, when he made the solo piano LP, Junco Partner.
Meanwhile, as noted, Tyler recorded his own sessions as a featured instrumental artist for Ace in 1959, resulting in the release of two 45s and that LP I spoke of. While the music was not groundbreaking, Tyler cut a nice batch of mostly original tunes that were well-played and up to date contenders.
"Snake Eyes" (Tousant [sic] - Tyler)
Alvin 'Red' Tyler, Ace 556, 1959
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There was some collaboration between Red Tyler and myself which was really terrific. He was really good at puttin' things together in the studio. He knew how the studio and recordings functioned so much better than I did at the time. - Allen Toussaint to Rick Coleman in the notes to The Complete 'Tousan' Sessions (Bear Family).
Long a favorite of mine, this thing is an unrelenting roller-coaster ride of a tune. Both "Snake Eyes" and the flip side, "Walk On" were co-written with Allen Toussaint and were likely unused material worked up for Toussaint's solo LP project on RCA from the previous year, mentioned above. I say that because the songwriting credits for these in the BMI database, show Toussaint as 'Al Tousan'. The sides were also included on Tyler's Ace LP, Rockin' and Rollin', from 1960. As Tyler told Jeff Hannusch, the players on his solo sessions were 'June' Gardner on drums, Frank Fields on bass, Justin Adams, guitar, Toussaint, piano, and Rufus Gore on second tenor sax. Other likely players on some tracks were James Booker on organ and Melvin Lastie on cornet. Of course, Tyler played both tenor and baritone saxes - though not simultaneously - and was the featured soloist.
While I do not have Tyler's original LP, I do have a reproduction of sorts from the mid-1980s released by the mighty UK re-issue label, Ace (no relation), Rockin' & Rollin', featuring all of Tyler's LP tracks plus a few other selected sides he produced for the US Ace label by Albert Scott, Joe & Anne, and Calvin Spears. In 1998, WestSide in the UK released a CD, Simply Red, containing all of the original Ace album tracks plus some alternate takes (with notes by Hannusch). It came out shortly after Red passed away; and it's too bad Red was not around to experience more people discovering his work.
"Lonely For You" (Alvin O. Tyler)
Alvin 'Red' Tyler, originally on Rockin' and Rollin', Ace 1006, 1960
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Also one of my favorite Tyler compositions, "Lonely For You" has that classic '50s minor key, film noir soundtrack feel that conjures up shady ladies, perpetually wet streets, and cigarette sucking private eyes investigating the gray areas of a black and white world. As I've noted before here, I'm a sucker for that semi-sleazy musical vibe. Red did a nice arrangement on this; and June Gardner's drum work was effectively understated. During the period, Gardner played regularly with Tyler's jazz combo (Toussaint and bassist Peter 'Chuck' Badie were the other members) at the Joy Tavern, but would soon leave the city to join Sam Cooke's touring band, a gig he kept until Cooke's untimely death in 1964. Leo Morris (Idris Muhammad), who had been Cooke's drummer, briefly took Gardner's seat in Tyler's band, followed by Smokey Johnson.
In 1960, Vincent spun off a second Tyler 45 (#576), using tracks from the LP, "Happy Sax" and "Junk Village". But none of Red's Ace records sold all that well. He told Hannusch that he was too busy with sessions to do gigs to promote his singles - besides, when he wasn't recording R&B, he wanted to play jazz. By 1961, Red had left Ace, but continued his bread and butter session work for other labels. It was then that he was approached by Harold Battiste* with an invitation to join him and an outstanding roster of other African-American musicians who were starting up their own label, A.F.O. (All For One), to give themselves more creative control and better compensation for their recording work. Impressed by the idea and the people involved, many of whom were fine jazz players themselves, both Tyler and Badie signed on as founding members and began working with the other co-owners on various projects, recording Prince La La, Barbara George, Willie Tee, Oliver Morgan, Jimmy Jules, Wallace Johnson, Eddie Bo, and Mac Rebennack, among other. Meanwhile, Red revamped his Joy Tavern group, bringing in other members of the A.F.O. staff, drummer John Boudreaux, Harold Battiste on piano and alto sax, and Melvin Lastie on cornet. They called themselves the A.FO. Executives and had as their featured singer a young woman Red had discovered, Tami (a/k/a Tammy) Lynn, who performed a mix of jazz standards, show tunes, and R&B.
"Ol' Man River" (J. Kern)
Tammy Lynn with The A.F.O. Executives, from New Orleans Heritage Jazz 1956-1966, 1976. Originally on A Compendium, A.F.O., 1963
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After playing together for several years and doing a bit of touring, the A.F.O. Executives recorded the album, A Compendium, in 1963 for their label. The LP contained many of their most popular nightclub numbers. "Ol' Man River" is an example of what they had to offer fronted by Lynn. It's a hip, syncopated swing arrangement that takes the tune far from Clichéville. Unfortunately for all involved, the label went under around that time, a result of a disastrous business deal involving the one big hit A.F.O. had, "I Know" by Barbara George, which was leased to Sue Records for national distribution. Sue principal, Juggy Murray, turned around and voided their contract out of the blue on a technicality and convinced George to sign with him, instead. The move deprived A.F.O. of it's major money-maker and closed the operation down in short order; and thus did a utopian music business dream dissolve. Disillusioned, the group hung together for a time and relocated to Los Angeles where Battiste had established contacts when he worked for Specialty Records and Sam Cooke. Those contacts allowed Battiste and some of the others, including Red, to do production, arranging and/or playing for Cooke's SAR label; but Tyler soon moved back home.
He started playing with pianist Ed Frank's band, but found session work less frequently in New Orleans. The recording business was changing - and where local R&B was concerned, not for the better. In the mid-1960s, Tyler, session guitarist/bassist George Davis, and Warren Parker started a production company, Par-Lo Enterprises. Their first major project was developing a song Davis and songwriter Lee Diamond had collaborated on, "Tell It Like It Is". They recruited singer Aaron Neville to record it; and the result seemed a sure-fire hit, except that they could not get any local or national record label to put it out. Undaunted, they decided to release it themselves on the Par-Lo label in 1966 and got Cosimo Matassa to handle it through his distribution company, Dover Records, which served many small labels. After giving popular local DJ Larry McKinley a cut of any publishing royalties, he started pushing the record; and it and caught fire around town, selling 40,000 in its first week of release, according to Jeff Hannusch. That amount of attention and demand caused the record to break in other markets and start climbing the charts, eventually becoming a #1 R&B record and #2 Pop, a crossover colossus that sold in excess of two million singles. Par-Lo/Dover rushed an LP out which also began selling. But....you may know the story here....in their success were the seeds of their demise. Dover was distributing the records as fast as possible, trying to keep up with demand, shipping them on credit to middlemen and retailers. When Neville's next few single failed to take off, things cooled off rapidly; and Dover could not collect much of the money it was owed or pay their record manufacturing bills. When the IRS came calling, Dover was unable to come up with taxes due, either. As a result, Matassa was bankrupt and had his asserts seized by the IRS, effectively taking down not only Par-Lo but many of the other poorly funded independent labels distributed by Dover. Soon, much of the recording business in the city had crashed. That chain-reaction implosion, plus the changing popular tastes brought on by the music of the British Invasion (much copied from New Orleans artists, ironically), dug a deep crater that only a few of the more stable local labels climbed out of. Things were never the same.
Also lost in the collapse was the second release on Par-Lo (#102), a fine instrumental featuring Davis on guitar backed by Tyler called "Hold On Help Is On the Way" that I featured in my tribute to Davis last year. The demise of Par-Lo devastated the partners. For his part, Tyler looked around at the smoldering rubble of his recording livelihood and decided it was time to move on. He continued to play jazz in clubs, with June Gardner and others, but took a day job to support his family. His group, the Gentlemen of Jazz, played for many years around the city; and he began a long working relationship with jazz chanteuse, Germaine Bazzle. In the 1980s, when Rounder Records came to New Orleans to record classic artists such as Johnny Adams and Irma Thomas, Red began doing sessions for them. As a result, he had the opportunity to record two fine LP/CDs of his own for the label, Heritage and Graciously, backed mainly by members of Astral Project, Johnny Vidacovich, Steve Masakowsk, David Torkanowski, and bassist James Singleton, a new generation of top notch jazz players in the city. After retiring from his job in the 1990s, Red devoted his time to playing jazz and touring as a part of Dr. John's horn section until 1998, when a heart attack took him at the age of 72.
Through the 1970s into the 1990s, Red and his group were regulars at Jazzfest; and it was there that I first saw him, in the late 1970s, one afternoon at my first Fest, when I ducked into the jazz tent to escape the rain and encountered something unexpected. I did not know of Red Tyler or Germaine Bazzle then; but, once in the tent, I could not leave, even as the rain shower stopped. Red impressed me so profoundly that day with his deep, calm demeanor and beautiful tenor sax tones. There was just something genuine and spiritual about that dapper cat - a true jazz Bodhisattva. I was an instant follower and made it a point to know more about him, back-tracking his amazing musical journey through my reading and growing collection of recordings. That whole festival was certainly a mindblower to me - but, 30 years on, I still remember that hour in the jazz tent most of all.
*Note - Harold Battiste heads The AFO Foundation. At their site you can find out more about the organizations' activities and history and purchase CDs featuring their founding members and later generations of players. Please do!