James Rivers: It Ain't Over Yet
Back in September, we got to catch Jon Cleary's new band, Piano, Bass & Drums, at Tipitina's Uptown in New Orleans. I guess, after calling his previous group the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Jon was looking for something a bit less hyperbolic in a name. Despite the generic branding, his impressive, re-configured group (absolutely monstrous in their own right) put on a memorable show. Joining Jon, who played a lot of acoustic piano that night, were Matt Perrine on acoustic bass and tuba (the great James Singleton has played acoustic bass on some later gigs), and drummer extraordinaire, Doug Belote, with an extra-special guest sitting in, blowing hot saxophone all night, the cool and classy James Rivers.
I hadn't seen Mr. Rivers play since a split gig he did at the Rock 'n' Bowl some years back, which, as I recall, was marred by a bad sound system (and/or operator thereof); so it was a sweet pleasure to hear him in this much more favorable context, complementing and accentuating Cleary's always funky, soulful sounds. As I listened, it occurred to me that I had some cuts by Rivers that I had been meaning to post for a long time; and I actually remembered to dig them out of the archives, so we could celebrate the man and his music again while he is still very much with us.
I've done several previous posts on Rivers and his work, which you can refer for a bit more background:
Hearing Mr. Rivers (includes a partial discography)
A Second Line Mambo
I suppose featuring James Rivers right after I've put my seemingly endless Eddie Bo series on hiatus works into the great scheme of things, since Rivers did a lot of session work for Bo in the Seven B days of 1966 - 1967, although that's not a connection we'll explore right now. But we will see and hear a single by the reed man from around that same period. I'll follow that up with something from about a decade later that Rivers laid down for Senator Jones. For no special reason, these three tracks have "it" in the title.
The Kon-Ti Key
As I noted in some research I did for Soul Detective back in 2007, the Kon-Ti label was owned by Lionel Worthy, an auto repairman who had a recording studio set up in a building behind his business, which was located at 2823 Conti (some pronounce it "con-tee", some "con-tie") Street, in the Mid-City area of New Orleans. Worthy cut records there for his own labels as well as doing some projects for others, probably between 1967 and 1968. Besides Kon-Ti, he had also set up the Eight-Ball label earlier; and the two had a combined total output of around a dozen known singles in their brief run. As shown in my discography noted above, James Rivers did at least four singles** for Eight-Ball (you can hear sides from one of those at that Soul Detective link). According to the R&B Indies, Eight-Ball was distributed by Cosimo Matassa's Dover Records operation, which was shut down by the IRS around 1967/1968, as was his studio. That debacle likely took Eight-Ball under with it, as it did so many small local labels that relied on Cos' services. Kon-Ti probably also suffered collateral damage, as it looks like Rivers' first single, which we'll focus on here, also went through Dover before dropping from sight. Worthy seems to have attempted to get the few later singles for the label manufactured elsewhere; but that still would have left him with very limited options for getting his records promoted and out into the marketplace. The title of this first track neatly, and surely unintentionally, summed up the state of the record business in New Orleans at the time, reminding us that the reason the releases on these labels are so hard to find now is that they were hard to find 40 years ago!
"It's All Over" (James Rivers)
James Rivers, Kon-Ti 1160, ca 1968
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A choice track that doesn't seem to has been comped. . .yet (more on that in a minute), this Rivers minor key original is one of the jazzier takes (that I have heard) he did for Worthy. The groove was definitely bossa nova influenced, and kudos to the unknown drummer for just the right touch of subtle syncopation he brought. As a matter of fact, what makes the entire piece effective is the understated way it was delivered, letting the beat and subdued, moody feel pull you in, perfectly setting up Rivers to rip into his fine solo. Then, after a short but effective piano interlude, the group lightly sambas to the fade. Usually, I find it hard to tolerate background vocalists on instrumentals; but I'll even give a nod to the singers who were tastefully used here.
You'll note on the labels that the tracks were arranged by Theo(dore) 'Teddy' Riley, a fine jazz trumpeter, who also played on the record, as I found out after being contacted over a year ago by a company looking to put this song on a compilation. Since it still hasn't been commercially re-released, as far as I can tell, I won't give away my source; but I did some research for them on it. In return, I learned that James Rivers told them that the line-up on the single, that he could recall, were Riley, bassist George French, and perhaps Marcel Richardson on piano - he wasn't sure. To me, the pianist here sounds more like Edward Frank, who had a particular sound in that he played only with his right hand, having lost the facility in his left due to a stroke years earlier. I know that the well-respected Frank, who also produced records, used Worthy's studio during this period - so he's a good candidate. Rivers also didn't remember the names of the singers, but said they were a trio - husband, wife and a friend - new to recording.
In all, this side is certainly among Rivers' best, and worthy of seeing the light of day again. The flip side was no slouch either, though it had a totally different feel.
"Get With It" (James Rivers)
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This one came out of the brass band, street parade tradition with its joyous, struttin' second line feel. A thoroughly New Orleans number. Rivers and Riley got fired up in a hurry, trading echo riffs and delivering strong solos. But, when it was time to give the pianist some, the instrument was almost lost in the mix. I can hear enough of it, though, to realize that it was a two-handed performance, ruling out Ed Frank and making me think it must be Richardson, at least on this one.
I got this single shortly after I moved to Louisiana, and, frankly, didn't pay it much mind, until I received that inquiry about it and listened again. Glad I did. It's an example of the kind of impressive stuff that could come out on small label releases, generally meant for just local consumption and hoped-for modest returns for the label owner. Such records were often used by the artists as a short-term means to get gigs, rather than seen as avenue to the commercial mainstream, which would have been a pure stroke of luck. Certainly, no one was considering that the music and records themselves would be prized by collectors many decades later, especially after many of these labels vanished as suddenly as they appeared with the demise of Cosimo's business model.
Yet, a few small label owners regrouped and endured, and some new ones formed, providing a continued outlet for local music and musicians. The 1970s would find Rivers recording for one of the survivors, a man who hustled and stayed in the game a long time.
The Senator Steps In
Once Allen Toussaint and his partner, Marxhall Sehorn, of Sansu Enterprises turned their main production focus away from singles and onto LPs for their own acts and assorted outsiders in the early 1970s, a gaping hole was left in the New Orleans singles market that a number of local labels were left to fill. Of those, Senator Jones, who had been running small, flash-in-the-pan record outfits in New Orleans since the mid-1960s, succeeded in gaining the majority of market share, operating the Superdome, Hep' Me and J.B.'s (a/k/a J-Bees) imprints, the latter two having the majority of his 1970s output, mainly singles, but a few albums as well. Before Toussaint and Sehorn built and opened Sea-Saint Studios around 1973, recording venue choices were limited in the Crescent City, since Cosimo's operation had been sold off to pay for back taxes in the late 1960s. Some work went to Knight Studio in Metairie and other small facilities in the area, but producers who could, including Jones and Sansu , went out of town. Senator Jones often used Deep South in Baton Rouge, until Sea-Saint came on line. From then on, the majority of his sessions were there, using the many great players in town who regularly hung around the premises seeking work.
Although he occasionally leased singles to nationally distributed labels and for a while had Johnny Adams signed to Chelsea Records, most of Jones' productions were just for the local market. He was shown as producer on the records, but that had more to do with his financial interest. He did not really oversee the recording phase himself, using leaders and arrangers such as Raymond 'Ray J' Jones, Wardell Quezergue or Sam Henry to run the sessions. On his instruction they would crank out backing tracks in a kind of assembly line operation with as few takes as possible to keep costs down; and various singers would come in and overdub their vocals later. Understandably, many of those records sounded rather sterile or musically generic, with only a few having the quirks, sparks, or outright fire of the records of earlier days, or what Toussiant was often cooking up in the same building. So, when Rivers began recording on J.B.'s in the mid-1970s, that was scene he came into.
Rivers had at least half a dozen singles issued on J.B.'s in the mid to late 1970s, and two LPs - (almost) all instrumental, mostly soul and funk. Over the years, I've acquired several of his singles from this period but didn't have either LP on vinyl* until I found a brand new re-issue of Thrill Me at Domino Sound in New Orleans last year (still available at Dusty Groove). I don't know who put it out, but it seems to be an exact replica of the original. Only the $10.00 (or less) price gave it away; and I was glad to find it, not just for the vinyl, but for the blurry front cover shot, which belongs in the borderline sleaze hall of fame; plus, the back has some bio information on Mr. Rivers, songwriting credit,s and miraculously lists the session players.
"Take It All" ( (Emmanuel Morris)
James Rivers, from Thrill Me, J.B.'s Records 101, ca 1976
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While most of the tunes on this album have that "Weather Channel" kind of generic, interchangeable, instrumental jazz/funk feel to them, they are still quite palatable and serve to get you movin ' to the groove. When I first heard it, "Take It All" reminded me of a tune I could not quite place. Finally it dawned on me that this song's main 16 bar set of changes with the descending chords in every other four bar section is very similar to Willie Tee's funky "Cold Bear", recorded by the Gaturs in 1971. It's not the only recycled riff on the album, either. The credited arranger and songwriter for half of the tracks, Emmanuel Morris, who also played bass throughout, was obviously also inspired on other tunes by licks from popular funk hits of the era by the Average White Band and the Cate Brothers. Of course, Rivers was just the main hired gun here, and didn't control the content, although he acknowledged to Jeff Hannusch that all the musicians collaborated on the "head charts" for these tunes, no matter who got the actual arranging credit. But his main job was to blow; and here he did so on alto sax with fluidity and style.
Looking over the listed musicians, there was really only one surprise: Wilbert Arnold (later known as 'The Junkyard Dog', who passed away just about a year ago) on drums, who must have been around 20 when he made this date. As far as I know, he was not a regular at Sea-Saint and had probably just joined Walter 'Wolfman' Washington's band at the time. However he got here, he's in excellent form on this record; and I particularly recommend another LP track, "Balls of Funk" (no foolin'), for his really broken-up stuff. Musically, that track is not quite as engaging as "Take It All", but is a rhythmic killer. I'll be adding it to the HOTG Radio stream soon. Besides Morris on bass, Teddy Royal played all guitar parts. Those of you who follow the posts here will recall that my friend, Teddy, was a regular at Sea-Saint in those days and played many Senator Jones sessions, as well as some of Toussaint's projects. Finally, Raymond Jones was on keyboards and got the arranger credit for the other material - no relation the Senator, I don't think, but his right-hand man.
A few years later, Rivers recorded another album for J.B.'s, Olé, which had some even more generic WC soul/funk stylings, some standards, and even an ill-advised blues with vocal. Those something-for-everybody records rarely work out. There may have been a 45 or two after that, but I don't have the dates or the records. As I pointed out in my 2006 post (linked above) on one of his J.B.'s singles, some of his best stuff came later, when he was a regular at Tyler's Beer Garden in the 1980s, playing with some fine young jazz guns, and recording The Dallas Sessions LP with them in 1985.
Despite the funky grooves I favor, I keep going back to the tracks on Kon-Ti 1160. There's something pure and genuine about those performances, revealing James Rivers in his element, it seems to me. I get the same vibe from him there that I got when he was with Cleary - very hip, tasteful, in control, and on top of his game. So glad he's still with us.
* [Both of Rivers' J.B.'s albums are compiled on the Mardi Gras Records CD, Best of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues Volume Three: James Rivers. Also, I just checked, and tracks from that CD are available for download at iTunes.] **Thanks again to Peter
for letting me know of the existence of Eight-Ball 2555, which is not shown in The R&B Indies.