Dancing With Irma and Aaron. . .(For Dee)
Man, it's been a tough couple of months, what with my mom still in the hospital in Memphis, and then, on Easter Sunday, the sudden, unexpected passing of my wife's mother, "Dee". An endearing, funny, vivacious free spirit, Dee managed to enjoy life as fully as possible, despite ongoing health problems in her later years, remaining positive and quite active right on up to the end. She was a wonderful and generous mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and mother-in-law, and will be missed by her extended family and many friends.
Always quite a dancer, she loved many kinds of music and was a fan of Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas. So, I thought I'd post a mover from each of them, with a big dedication to Dee, who is surely second-lining through the hereafter even as we speak!
"What Are You Trying To Do" (Allen Toussaint)
Irma Thomas, Imperial 66137, 1965
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By the time Irma Thomas recorded the songs on this single in 1965 (the sultry "Take A Look" was the A-side}, her association with Imperial Records was already drawing to a close. As I have related in previous posts, she started her recording career with Ron records in 1960, making two classic 45s under the direction of Eddie Bo, then moved on to Joe Banashak's Minit label the next year. There she had five fine releases, produced and mainly written by Allen Toussaint. Several were strong local and regional sellers but failed to go farther. When Minit's national distributor, Imperial Records, was bought out by the much larger Liberty Records in 1964, they acquired Irma's contract and made her an Imperial artist, moving her recording sessions to Los Angeles and then New York. New producers such as Eddie Ray, Jerry Ragavoy, and Van McCoy were brought in, taking the sound of her records in a fashionable, uptown pop direction with frequently expansive arrangements, as opposed to the no-frills approach of her early releases.
Singing material by many fine songwriters, including some of her Imperial producers, Irma turned in numerous impressive performances during her run on the label. She led off with her own composition. "Wish Someone Would Care"; and her first few singles sold fairly well and rivaled in quality much bigger hits of the era by Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and the like. But, though she deserved to, Irma did not ascend to their level of popularity.
After showing that initial promise, her prospects diminished when her next five releases failed to connect with the public. So, Imperial sent Irma back to work with Toussaint in New Orleans, hoping that he could tailor the next hit for her. He did well, writing and producing the two outstanding tracks on this single, plus "Wait, Wait, Wait" and possibly one more track which appeared on her 1966 Take A Look LP (which I can't locate around here at the moment). But, as good as both sides were, the record did not break into the Hot 100, and Imperial cut Irma loose after one more try with James Brown producing that did no better.
"Take A Look"/"What Are You Trying To Do" has become a fairly expensive 45 to find in decent shape, due its popularity in the Northern Soul collectors' circles. This side is especially prized, as it is a great dancer with an outstanding arrangement, showing what Toussaint could do with a bigger budget than he was accustomed to. The pumping baritone sax and bass are exceptional, giving the groove both heft and syncopation below the in-the-pocket backbeat drumming and counterpoints of the other horns, string section, and backing vocals. Toussaint's mastery of cooking, complexly interlocking productions was obviously already well-developed. Irma too was on top of her game on both songs; and her performances easily equaled those of her other Imperial recordings.
Unfortunately, the mix of pop, rock and R&B acts on Imperial's roster became more and more weighted towards the pop as the decade progressed; and their promotion budget likely followed suit. That made competing with the British Invasion records filling the airwaves, store shelves and charts an ultimately impossible feat, even for a singer of Irma's talent. It must have been a stinging irony for her that she was remembered for many years only for the Rolling Stones having had a hit covering one of her impeccable Imperial B-sides, "Time Is On My Side"; and, truth be told, that in fact was how I first came to know of her back when I was a teenager in Memphis. It would be a number of years before I backtracked to the original and began my long-term, always rewarding fandom of the real deal, Irma Thomas.
Aaron Neville, Mercury 73310, 1972
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Here's another one Dee could have moved and grooved to, had it been more widely known. As has been often pointed out around here, B-sides can sometimes be more significant and/or entertaining than the songs intended to get the attention. There's no better example of that than Aaron Neville's rendering of "Mojo Hannah". The tune later became a part of the Neville Brothers' repertoire when the group got its start; and I'm pretty sure that the reason was that Aaron had recorded this great version for Allen Toussaint in 1972, backed up by his brother Art's funky little combo, the Meters.
Aaron started out his recording career back in 1960 working with Toussaint for a three year run on the Minit label, an association that yielded some great sides but only one commercial success. "Over You", from his first single, charted respectably, just missing the top 20. As with many of the artists Toussaint worked with early on, their professional relationship was short-circuited when the producer/songwriter entered the service in 1963. In Aaron's case, it was revived in the late 1960s. By that point, his big 1966 hit, "Tell It Like It Is", was history; and he was at loose ends without a label deal.
When the Meters became Toussaint's session band in 1968 and stated having hits themselves, Sansu Productions, owned by Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, picked Aaron up and began recording him backed by the band, leasing three singles to Bell in 1969. They did not do much in sales, but several sides were outstanding. As you may recall, when Art Neville first formed the band that was to become the Meters, the Neville Sounds, his brothers Aaron and Cyril were members; but Art had to pare the group down to a combo to get a steady gig at a French Quarter club. So, Aaron, Cyril, and saxman Gary Brown were let go and joined up with keyboardist Sam Henry to form the core of a new, competing group, the Soul Machine, who became a popular local attraction, as well. Both Cyril and Aaron had serious heroin addictions; and Aaron's lifestyle at the time was erratic, at best. He sometimes engaged in criminal activity to support his habit and bounced from coast to coast to hang or hide out, maybe work a little, and then would head back home again to gig for a while. Because of that, Aaron never did record with the Soul Machine, though Henry and the band did lay down an album's worth of unreleased (at the time - since issued on CD), all instrumental sides. The band worked a lot in New Orleans, then relocated for a time to Nashville, where they had a steady club gig. Aaron would make an appearance with them there from time to time.
With all that energy spent getting nowhere, Aaron did not record anything for Toussaint again until he cut "Baby I'm A Want You", a cover of the David Gates and Bread lightweight pop hit, which Sansu got Mercury to release, but nobody much a-wanted to buy. That fact insured that the highly enjoyable flip side, "Mojo Hannah", certainly a more visceral, get-down affair, would go unnoticed. Hearing it on this single version (Rounder issued a different mix on their CD, The Classic Aaron Neville: My Greatest Gift) was a revelation, with the Meters and Aaron in a harder-edged, Southern rock mode. From the butt-kicking intro on, it was a shake and bake take, sliced, diced and deeply funky-fried by that incredible rhythm section. As the label attests, Toussaint enlisted Wardell Quezergue for the punchy horn arrangement; and you can hear brother Art on backing vocal along with, possibly, Willie West. As with many Sansu productions of this period, the track was probably recorded in either Atlanta or Macon, GA, as Cosimo's studio was no longer in operation; and Toussaint and Sehorn's own studio, Sea-Saint, had yet to open.
For more on the origins of this tune, written about a decade earlier by Andre Williams and Clarence and Barbara Paul (rather than the mystery folks named in the label credits) check my post on Tami Lynn's own hot version, which came out the previous year. Maybe Tami gave them an inspiration to cover it; or it could have come to them via family friend and otherwise bad-boy influence, Larry Williams, who had recorded it a few years earlier as "Louisiana Hannah".
The next year Toussaint produced another Meters-backed 45 on Aaron, the classic "Hercules" b/w "Going Home". The top side was an atmospheric, Curtis Mayfield-inspired groove with Aaron smoothly delivering a ghetto tale. Though it too failed to register, it has become over the decades an object of collector-cult devotion. He didn't record solo again until re-cutting "Tell It Like It Is" with the Chocolate Milk* rhythm section for Toussaint in 1976, which was released as an Island single, backed with "Been So Wrong". That was the year Aaron and his three brothers made their historic Antilles LP of Mardi Gras Indian songs,The Wild Tchoupitoulas, with their uncle, George 'Big Chief Jolly' Landry, and the Meters musical backing. The next year, Aaron recorded "The Greatest Love" b/w "Performance" for Polydor, again accompanied by Chocolate Milk, which did well in the New Orleans area. By then, or soon thereafter, Art and Cyril exited the Meters and joined up with Aaron and Charles to form the Neville Brothers band, and have kept the musical family together for three decades and counting.
^ Thanks to Dwight Richards for this information - see the comments section.