In Pursuit of Bo-Consciousness - Part 7
[Updated 11/24/2009 with Instant 3283]
Although the two would never exactly bond professionally, Joe Banashak hired Eddie Bo not only as a producer, arranger, and writer, but also as a recording artist. Starting in 1966, Bo worked primarily on projects for the Seven B label, including his own releases, and also did writing and production duties for Instant, Alon, Tune-Kel and Busy-B (busy he was). His impressive catalog for Seven B has been discussed and featured by Larry Grogan at his Funky 16 Corners web-zine and blog, and, of course, by Martin Lawrie's Eddie Bo Discography; and I encourage you to look into those sources, if you haven't already. There was so much good Seven B material of Bo's to get into that I will have to come back to it at a (much) later date. I'll be focusing here on just a few of the other interesting records Eddie oversaw for Banashak at the time.
Alon After Allen
Instead of returning from his stint in the armed service to reinvigorate Banashak's foundering multi-label, record-making enterprise, Allen Toussaint, who had run the studio operations and been the creative catalyst for Mr. B's many labels since 1959, quickly realized that it was time to move on. While still nominally with Banashak in 1965, he was hired on the side by independent record promoter and deal-maker Marshall Sehorn to write and produce a number of songs for Lee Dorsey. Sehorn shopped the tracks to Amy/Bell and had an immediate hit with "Ride Your Pony". Having done some covert work for Sehorn before his army hitch, assisting with the production of Dorsey's first big hit, "Ya Ya" and producing a release for Bobby Marchan, Toussaint readily agreed when Sehorn proposed that they go into partnership and form a new production company on the strength of the Amy deal on Dorsey. His departure left Banashak even more at loose ends, needing a creative, resourceful A&R man in the studio to replace Toussaint and fashion musical raw material into finished products the public would want to hear and buy.
As discussed in Part 5, Banashak had a chance encounter with Bo at Cosimo's Studio in 1965 which resulted in Eddie helping to liven up Earl Stanley's production of "Pass the Hatchet". That led to Bo writing "Timber" and producing it with Chris Kenner on lead vocal. The single was released on Atlantic in the name of Candy Phillips for unknown reasons; and I speculated that the project had been set up by Banashak mainly to see if Bo could be a fitting replacement for Toussaint. And whether it went down exactly like that or not, Bo soon became Banashak's new main man.
One of the tasks Bo's boss assigned was picking up the slack at the Alon label, which had been originally set up around 1962 as the main imprint for Toussaint's projects. Ever since Toussaint had been in the service, the label had not done particularly well. The fine vocalists that Allen had written for and worked with, such as Benny Spellman, Eldridge Holmes and Willie Harper had fallen by the wayside; and Banashak was still releasing to little avail the instrumental material that Toussaint had recorded in Houston with the Stokes, a short-lived group he had formed at his army base. That state of affairs was the main reason Toussaint decided to jump ship. About the only promising artist Banashak had left on Alon was a young, expressive white vocalist named Skip Easterling.
Jeff Hannusch relates in The Soul of New Orleans that Banashak had signed Easterling several years earlier on the strength of a demo tape the singer, a teenager at the time, had brought in. Toussaint was already in Texas doing his military duty; so, Banashak had Skip overdub vocals onto various unissued songs that Toussaint had written, recorded and left behind. These were released on a succession of Alon singles, starting with "Don't Let Him (Come Between Us)" b/w "Sugar Blocks" (#9012). Though Easterling's singing was tentative, the A-side got a lot of local airplay in 1963. Encouraged, Banashak quickly followed up with "Wishing Well" b/w "You Sit and Cry Alone" (#9014), which also got local airplay but was lost in the shuffle as the pop stations shifted more and more to the onslaught of music from the British Isles. Running out of suitable material for the singer, Banashak decided to abandon pop and try to get Skip into the soul market, having him re-cut vocals on two tracks that Toussaint had done with a singer named Johnny Myers around 1961, "Little Wonderful Girl" and "Shiny Gold Ring". Myers version of the former tune, as "Wonderful Girl", written by him and Lou Welsch, had been released on Instant 3243 in 1962 along with "Lonely Fool", which Toussaint penned.
Easterling's single was released in 1964 on Alon 9017; and, as the singer recalled to Hannusch, "Shiny Gold Ring" was deemed enough of a soul song to be pitched to the black stations in town. Skip called it "one of the worst songs I ever cut"; and, understandably, it did not get far (Toussiant likely did not write it, as the title is not listed in BMI). Thus, things stalled for the singer until Toussaint came back to town and wrote and produced two good new songs: "All For You", which sounded like something written with Aaron Neville in mind, and the upbeat, catchy but rhythmically tricky "Run Along To Mama". They comprised Easterling's next single (#9030) early in 1966, which went nowhere, while Toussaint literally went somewhere else, setting the stage for Eddie Bo's coming to the rescue.
"The Grass Looks Greener (On the Other Side)" (Edwin Bocage)
Skip Easterling, Alon 9033, 1966
(Tune into HOTG Internet Radio)
"Keep The Fire Burning (In Your Heart)" (Edwin Bocage)
Skip Easterling, Alon 9033, 1966
(Tune into HOTG Internet Radio)
Probably the best thing that happened for me was when Eddie came along. -Skip Easterling to Jeff Hannusch in The Soul of New Orleans.
Recorded in October of 1966, "The Grass Looks Greener" was exactly what Banashak had been looking for, a stone soulful and exquisitely sung tune that the R&B stations would jump all over - and they did. Soon after it's release, the song climbed to the #1 position on the local soul charts, helped in large part by incessant spins by DJ Shelly Pope. That really got Easterling's name out there. Already working regularly as a part of a band that played nightly at two Bourbon Street clubs (Earl Stanley, Joe Barry, and Freddie Fender were also members), Skip began getting gigs on his own in area black clubs after this record hit, and was always well-received.
Well-arranged and recorded, "The Grass Looks Greener" was one of Eddie Bo's top productions and deserved not only the attention it got at home, but should have broken out nationally. Though the song itself was rather conventional, Easterling milked the regretful, cautionary lyrics for all they were worth and sang with a fluidity and range that showed just what a great talent he had. He credits Bo for encouraging him to not sing like Banashak thought he should, but to make the song totally his own. Advice that he obviously took to heart and delivered on. Also of note are the supportive and well-sung backing vocals, probably done by the Triple Souls by this point. Finally, Bo had a chorus that benefited his songs instead of torpedoing them!
With an A-side like that, you might think a throwaway flip was in order - after all, how could it possibly compete. But, though it was surely overlooked, "Keep The Fire Burning" was one tough cookie of a soul-rock hybrid that could and should have broken out on its own, too. Easterling's performance was again exemplary as he held his own, refusing to be dominated by the insistent beat, vocally bobbing and weaving with finesse through the punches and stabs of the outstanding rhythm section and horns. That groove, impossible to ignore, was rendered by the drumming powerhouse, James Black, as Skip recalled to Martin Lawrie in an valuable interview linked above and found at sougeneration. The pounding four to the bar beat is similar to the groove found on several other Bo productions from the same period: the driving soul of "Hook, Line and Sinker" recorded by Art Neville for Instant (3276) in 1966, and Chris Kenner's "Cinderella", a strong Instant B-side (3280) from the same year. In the context of the times, I also hear a synchronicity of feel with two hits I recall from 1966: "Keep On Running" by the Spencer Davis Group, featuring another extremely soulful white boy, Steve Winwood, on vocal [how did a 50 year old whiskey soaked, chitlin' circuit voice get into that kid from the UK?] and "Black Is Black" by Los Bravos, whose lead singer interestingly also had a high tenor delivery in Easterling's range. I'm not exactly saying Eddie consciously copped a feel from either of those - but the songs were in (an on) the air back then; and even if he did, he made something unique out of it. "Keep the Fire Burning" would have been a worthy competitor for those tunes. Though radically different from the top side of Easterling's 45, it is another impressive example of Bo's ability to create a cracking track and is on my list of his career best work. It still hits on all cylinders and burns pure jet fuel.
As 1967 rolled around, Bo worked on just one more Easterling single, going with the fairly standard ballad format of "Just One More Time" (hear it at The Singing Bones) b/w a cover of "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands", issued next as Alon 9034. Skip performed them well; but the tune on top didn't have as much substance as his recent hit, while the B-side was marred by canned female screams, for phony added "excitement" - very likely Banashak's idea. Eddie followed that record with a production of two songs written and sung by the almost totally unknown Dave Reynolds, "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "Tears In My Eyes", on Alon 9035, a 45 so obscure it is not even shown on the EBD, although full Alon discographies do list it. The sides, blues and soul, respectively, both nondescript, would be Bo's last project to appear on Alon, as his relationship with Banashak was deteriorating. Easterling, on the other hand, remained under contract and recorded a few more 45s for Alon, at least one of which was produced by Earl Stanley, before Banashak shut the label down around 1969. Skip then was moved onto Instant, where he worked under the direction of Huey Smith, who produced some genuinely funky tracks for him in the early 1970s; but he never did get a chance to have real break-out record and remained off the national radar.
A Few Instances on Instant
But, back to 1966. Bo's multi-label projects for Banashak also included producing some sides for artists signed to his boss' oldest remaining imprint, Instant. As mentioned, Eddie worked with Art Neville on the impressively rockin' "Hook, Line and Sinker" b/w "Buy Me A Rainbow", a ballad written by Skip Easterling. I featured the A-side on a post in 2007 and have reactivated the audio there for reference. He also produced three notable Instant 45s for Chris Kenner.
The first consisted of two tunes written by Kenner under his nom de plume and wife's maiden name, Tessie Mae Marshall (to avoid paying Fat Domino or the IRS - likely both!). "I'm Lonely, Take Me", was an impressive deep soul turn for the singer, who got up into his falsetto a few times, and "Cinderella", a lively dancer that Martin at the EBD nails as inspired by Jr. Walker's "Shotgun". I've been harboring a hunch that the similar grooves on "Cinderella", Neville's "Hook, Line and Sinker", and "Keep the Fire Burning", may have all been rendered by James Black, who has been confirmed as playing on Easterling's record. I have no back-up; but it's worth a thought.
"Cinderella" (T. M. Marshall)
Chris Kenner, Instant 3277, 1966
(Tune into HOTG Internet Radio)
Released just after Art Neville's single, this was the most simple and bare bones of the three compelling tracks I mentioned and is a good mover once you get past the strange start/stop horn and vocal introduction. The singles being sequential, it would make sense that most or all of the same players were used. The arrangement was just driving drums, guitar, bass and horn lines that seem a bit James Brown-ish. Kenner's singing on both sides of the 45 was very good, indicating that Bo had the good luck or expertise to keep Chris at least somewhat sober during the sessions. Kenner was not a musician; and his songs were mostly kept in his head (and the leakage was surely substantial). Considering his murky mental state most of the time, it surely took a lot of patience to coax the material, like this fantasy about Cinderella's dancing prowess, out of him and get it into some sort of acceptable form. Obviously, Bo had a way with the guy, persevered, and got some good takes.
The second Kenner single Bo contributed to was a somewhat funkified throwback. I say "throwback" because, musically, this tune is nothing more than a re-make of the classic, "Junco Partner" or "Junker's Blues" covered by many New Orleans artists over the years in various forms, sometimes with different lyrics. Fats Domino cut it as "The Fat Man" in the late 1940s, and Professor Longhair soon thereafter did it as "Tipitina" (and later in the "standard" form, too), for example. The original song, which pre-dates the R&B era and came out of the New Orleans barrelhouse piano tradition, definitely became a New Orleans anthem, a tale of dope addiction and its consequences. Anyway, it was on its familiar blues structure that Bo and Kenner fashioned their more up-to-date take-off.
"All Night Rambler, pt 1" (T. M.Marshall)
Chris Kenner, Instant 3280, 1966
(Tune into HOTG Internet Radio)
"All Night Rambler, pt 2"
(Tune into HOTG Internet Radio)
Recorded late in 1966, about a month after Skip Easterling's "Keep the Fire Burning" session, the two-sided rocker had some obvious New Orleans funk to its groove, primarily in the syncopated kick drum and the interplay of attacks by rhythm guitar and Bo's piano professor keyboard work. As he had on "Timber" and "Cinderella", Eddie stuck with an uncluttered arrangement, better to emphasize the visceral elements of the playing that drove the tune; and he kept to that approach on his final known production for Kenner.
"Shoo Rah" (T. M. Marshall)
Chris Kenner, Instant 3283, 1967
[Added 11/24/2009] I had not included this cut in my original post yesterday, because I still don't own the 45 and, not having seen the label, was under the impression that Sax Kari produced it. Well, first thing this morning, my cohort Peter dropped an email on me and politely said that I had missed this single, and included scans of both labels to make his point. As I have said often, I do not know much more than a smidgen of everything there is to know about New Orleans R&B, nor do I own all the records - but I do have vinyl, digital, and even tape audio archives that cover a great deal of it, with which I try to make connections as I enjoy the sounds. This blog is meant to be a learning experience for all of us. So, I actually do appreciate it when my ignorance is pointed out.
In this case, I'll plead semi-ignorance, since I already knew about Kenner's song, "Shoo Rah", at least; but not the flip, "Stretch My Hand To You", which I assume is a ballad. I had included the top side in a post I did back in 2005 on the occurrence of a good number of New Orleans songs having to do with Shoo-Rah, a name or a dance whose origins are obscure and, according to one voluminous commenter back then, possibly ancient.
The song was one of Kenner's linear groovers, free of any distracting chord changes, and comes from deep inside 1000 (give or take) dances land. His vocal ran a simple, sing-song, child-like melody that is echoed in Bo's horn charts. It's a reminder of my premise that the Shoo-Ra song at some point may have been a playground game chant. Turning Kenner's lack of musicianship into a virtue, Bo made his song all about the primal, polyrhythmic, trance-inducing beat, getting down to basics and bringing Bo Diddley, the hand jive and second-line reveling to the party, as he did on his own "Just Like A Monkey" (see Part 6) several years earlier. There is a real synergy going on between the two songs that is well worth checking out, as they both point toward Eddie's upcoming full-out funk.
Although none of his work with Kenner delivered commercial rewards, all in all, Bo produced tracks that stand with the singer's best recorded work, including the few singles he cut with Toussaint and "Sick and Tired" on Imperial back in 1957. No small feat.
Also in 1967, Bo wrote and produced one more Instant single (#3291), "Good Thing Goin'" b/w "Key to My Heart", by a group, maybe invented for the occasion, called the Rainbows. Sounding kind of. . .um, loose and relaxed, the A-side had the vocals rather low in the mix. The female group and seemingly Eddie himself sang in unison about having a good thing goin' and repeated "let the good times roll" a lot. Unfortunately, they sound so lethargic that every time I hear it I nod off - a reverse-effect party record, for sure. And the B-side was really no better, a musical plodder with more unison vocals, although a pleasant female singer takes a verse or two on her own, but can't overcome the palpable inertia. What was that record about? I haven't a clue why Bo bothered to wake up enough to hit the 'record' button. The release could only have been some sort of contractual payback that Bo left behind to further irk his former boss.
While in Joe Banashak's employ for those couple of years ending about 1967, Bo's energy mainly went into writing and producing records on himself and others for Seven B, many of them very good, a few downright brilliant. It was on some of those sessions that he began to consciously incorporate more funk into the proceedings, laying the groundwork for his future direction. Add to that body of work the other label projects he did, a few of which I've touched on here; and one can say that Eddie's time with Banashak was a real creative watershed for his career. The only problem was that, except for the first record he did with Skip Easterling, none of that work had much commercial impact at all; and his boss began losing confidence in him and finding fault with Bo's output, claiming unjustly that most of it sounded "off". Such sniping and micromanaging of his productions surely did not sit well with Bo. So he quit to pursue his hits elsewhere. Banashak seems to have ignored the fact that the entire New Orleans record business was going down the drain right about then (which was certainly none of Bo's doing!). His labels never did rise again, and began closing down after Bo's departure, until there was only Instant left by the early 1970s - but by that time Banashak had gotten religion and lost interest.
Eddie would soon go to work for Al Scarmuzza's perfectly named Scram and related labels for a while, before setting up a new batch of imprints and going it on his own by 1970. I have featured some of those records in the past and hope to do more down the road. But for now, before I get back to other funkier explorations, I want to leave you with a coda to this series, a song and production from one of Bo's own later labels. It is not the kind of record I feature often; but it is a rarely heard example of just how classy and accomplished Bo's producing and arranging skills could be.
"Live" (Edwin J. Bocage)
Tommy Ridgley, Ridge-Way 0005, 1970?
I featured the A-side, "Spreading Love", also in 2005 and you can read more about it via the link. I have little more to offer as an update! I got a copy of the single several years ago, but the label was faded out. It's fairly hard to find and hasn't been comped, as far as I can tell. But last week I found a near mint copy (a bit warped - but plays fine and looks new) for $3.00 at a record sale in New Orleans! It was a sign. Listening to it again, I realized how effective Bo's arrangement is here, tastefully employing strings into the mix, too - not a common occurrence. An often contradictory character, Bo could lay down greasy funk, rockin' R&B, and sometimes compose silly, absurd little songs - then turn around and drop something this refined on you.
As I speculated in my earlier post, surely Eddie was looking for this single to get picked up by a larger label. Didn't happen; and as far as I know, it was the only release on Ridge-Way. Since the label says "Bo Sound Productions", it probably is from around 1970, though it has a mid-1960s feel to it - maybe he wrote it back then. Cosimo's White Cliffs company had the publishing on it; and that went under with Matassa's other businesses by 1966 or so.
The sentiments of the lyrics are way cliched; but Ridgley's perfectly inflected, beautiful delivery coupled with Bo's uplifting musical backing makes them fresh and poignant - and a fitting tribute to the composer and supremely talented New Orleans record man, who did a lot of living and an astounding lot music making while he was among us. If you've followed this series up to now, I hope you'll agree that the world is a better place for Eddie having moved and grooved through it.
[Once again, many thanks to my colleague, Peter, for the scans of Alon 9033, as my copy had lost most of its labels due to Katrina water damage before I bought it and is even more illegible than his! He also allowed me to see and hear both sides of Alon 9035, and, as noted above, sent me scans of Instant 3283 and let me know that Bo had a hand in getting it issued, as well. That information was also soon brought up in the comments to this post by Isosceles Diego. Further props to ana for the needed scan of Instant 3277, and for audio linkage for Skip Easterling's "Just One More Time". Much obliged to all y'all.]
[1/3/2010: The Singing Bones currently has has one of Bo's Seven B sides up, check it!]