July 29, 2010

MARGIE JOSEPH'S FIRST IMPRESSIONS

[Updated 8/5/2010]

I first paid serious attention to the exceptional Margie Joseph about 25 years ago, after hearing her on a compilation and discovering that she had New Orleans connections, and began collecting her output in various formats. Except for her early work, her records are still fairly easy to come by, not too expensive, and worth seeking out. Collector’s Choice has re-issued all of her Atlantic albums on CD; and much of her work is available to download, too, at various sites.

The female recording artists of her era from the New Orleans area were few and far between; and Margie is certainly among the best of them. While Soul Queen Irma Thomas did not make many records from the late 1960s until the 1980s when she signed with Rounder, Margie was at the height of her career during the 1970s. Merry Clayton was also active around the same period, but had left New Orleans while young and made her way in the music business mostly outside of the hometown sphere. As great a singer as she is, Clayton has been best known as a backing vocalist, and her solo recording career, while notable, has not been as extensive as Margie’s. Though, as we’ll see, Margie did have assistance from some distinctive local talent back when she got her start, much of her professional story, like Clayton's, has taken place apart from the city where she was discovered; and little, if any, of her session work went down on her home turf. Due to the quality and sheer number of her recordings, including some substantial hits, and the fact that she was signed to only well-known, nationally distributed labels throughout her most active years, Margie’s career stands out; and she deserves props for how much she accomplished.

Having grown up in Gautier, Mississippi, near Pascagoula on the Gulf coast, Margie Joseph was a gospel-singing university student in New Orleans with secular aspirations in 1967, when she was recommended to prominent local radio DJ Larry McKinley, who heard the immense potential in her voice and became her manager (and, later, her husband). Getting her some initial recognition performing with jazz great Cannonball Adderly, McKinley soon began grooming Margie for a recording career. Her first sessions took place in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, probably late in 1967; and the results were released by Okeh Records on two singles, “Why Does A Man Have To Lie” / “See Me” (7304) and “A Matter Of Life Or Death” / “Show Me” (7313). But they had little chance of success, since Okeh’s corporate parent, Columbia, was not doing much with the label at the time and would phase it out over the next few years. As my 45s below show, promotional copies were distributed to radio stations; but that is likely as far as any push went.

I chanced upon her Okeh singles online not long ago and grabbed them, having read mentions of their existence. I had never seen or heard either one. At the time, I was researching a post about one of Margie’s earliest 45s for the Volt label, which was to be her next stop; but, since the story began with the Okeh records, I’ve backtracked to include them and tease out a bit more information for the merely curious, or just plain obsessive (you know who you are). So, here’s what the young Ms Joseph was puttin’ down on her true recording debut




“Why Does A Man Have To Lie” (L. Diamond - G. Davis)
Margie Joseph, Okeh 4-7304, 1967
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

“See Me” (L. Diamond - G. Davis)
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

There is not much documentation about these sessions (at least that I have found); so, it is fortunate that the 45 labels reveal some important details. Even though the sessions took place up North in Alabama, there were definitely some notable New Orleans participants in the creative woodshed. Holding the songwriting credits on all four sides of these two singles was the team of George Davis and Lee Diamond, both of whom have HOTG treatments at the links provided. In 1967 they were in the midst of their greatest success, Aaron Neville’s mega-selling #1 R&B chart hit of their deep soul song (actually Davis wrote most of it), “Tell It Like It Is”, on Davis’ newly established Parlo label. But, as you may recall or can find in the archives, the rapid success of that song also precipitated a chain of events that caused the financial downfall of not only Parlo but pretty much the entire tight-knit New Orleans recording scene. But, that load of trouble had not yet hit the fan.

Beside his broadcasting endeavors, Larry McKinley had been involved with managing and developing artists, concert promotion, as well as behind the scenes interests in various Crescent City recording ventures over the years. Thus, as Margie’s manager, he took co-producer credit on this first single along with Diamond, who likely was more involved in the musical details along with Davis, the designated arranger. It makes sense that McKinley would have given the writers the commercial direction he wanted for Margie’s kickoff, the popular Mid-Southern soul sound flooding onto the airwaves from the studios of Stax in Memphis and Fame in Muscle Shoals at the time; and, to their credit, Davis and Diamond delivered. Seasoned musicians themselves, they got that feel, which was effectively rendered by the session band, likely the legendary rhythm and horn sections at Fame.

Having sung from childhood in school and church, the proving ground for so many great soul singers, Margie performance on the material was strong and confident for a recording neophyte. She was relatively young at this point; but I think she must have been born a few years earlier than the 1950 date sometimes shown, as she states in her website bio that she graduated from Dillard University around the time she began recording. It’s a real shame the Okeh 45s got lost in the corporate business shuffle, especially this one, as both sides were radio-ready and worthy of competing in the Southern-soul marketplace.

One more comment on those label credits, before we move on. You’ll note that Larry Williams was shown as providing A & R supervision. A New Orleans native, whose recording career peaked early with his hits for Specialty in the late 1950s, Williams spent most of his career on the West Coast and was signed to Okeh as an artist and producer in the mid-1960s. Some of his best work for the label was with Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. Considering his background, it is not surprising that he oversaw these sessions for the company; and it adds just one more hometown element to the inception of Margie’s recording career.



“A Matter Of Life Or Death” (G. Davis - L. Diamond)
Margie Joseph, Okeh 4-7313, 1967-68
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

“Show Me” (G. Davis - L. Diamond)
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

While the label information is more scant on this second 45, I think we can safely assume that the participants were mainly the same; and likely the sides for both singles were recorded during a few successive sessions. Personally, I don’t think these Davis-Diamond compositions were quite up to the quality of the first two. But they’re pretty good. Not surprisingly, the funky B-side is my preference here, as its gritty groove beats out the rather ordinary tune on top. Margie over-sang “Show Me” at times, trying to put too hard an edge on it - but that was just a bit of vocal immaturity that she would soon outgrow. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable ride that has just a hint of its New Orleans roots showing.

In her website bio, Margie says that the next single she did was “picked up“ by Volt, a division of Stax, which seems to indicate that, when McKinley got her signed to the Memphis-based hit-making machine, they tested the waters by simply releasing tracks that Margie had already cut. Those sides appeared on her first two Volt 45s in March and October of 1969 and had long been in my sights, because I knew Willie Tee was involved with the project. Margie even suggests that Tee participated in her Okeh sessions, too; although, now that I have the singles, I see no evidence of that in the credits. But he and George Davis were friends and collaborators, and played sessions and gigs together in those days, too. And Tee had a strong Cannonball Adderly connection. So it’s possible that he started working with Margie earlier.

Having not sold well, her first two Volt issues weren’t mass-produced and are scarce now, 40 years on, not to mention pricey, being long coveted by Northern Soul collectors. Earlier this year, at one of my humble vinyl-only haunts, I finally found a cheap, beat-up copy of her second 45 for the label; but the better-known first issue, “One More Chance” / “Never Can You Be” (#4012), still eludes me and my budget.

Since you currently have a chance to hear those first Volt sides via the YouTube links just provided, let’s talk about ‘em a bit. On the labels, Larry McKinley was listed as the sole producer; and even though Tee wrote and most probably arranged both sides of 4012, he was strangely only credited as co-arranger, along with his brother Earl Turbinton, on the B-side. For this single, the production team abandoned the Memphis/Muscle Shoals thing Margie had going on Okeh, and, instead, went for a more uptown, big-band, jazzy soul sound. Cool enough, as far as it went; but the tunes were just a little too grown-up for this young woman still getting her feet wet. She seems somewhat overpowered by the arrangement on the top side, though she really nailed the bluesier B-side. At this stage, the approach was just not a viable commercial direction for her. Ideally, Tee himself could have and should have fronted these tunes at some point and taken them to the bank.

Probably recorded around the same time, the sides that would later that year become Margie’s second Volt single took a different tack, though no more effective in terms getting her onto the airwaves and record players.



“What You Gonna Do”
(Bobby Wommack)
Margie Joseph, Volt 4023, 1969
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

“Nobody” (Willie Turbinton)
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

On these tunes, the musical feel definitely had a more soul/pop direction, letting Margie loose on two upbeat dancers. The A-side, “What You Gonna Do”, penned by Bobby Womack, was definitely the stronger, hookier number; and Margie sounds more comfortable and on top of it than on Tee’s swinging, but somewhat less engaging “Nobody”. The latter has a great groove; but that strange, jazzoid bridge going on in the middle, while alluring to hipsters, certainly relegated the track to B-side status, as, I'm thinking, did the unappealing male backing singers.

For whatever reason, McKinley used only an alias, “Consoul of New Orleans” (A typo perhaps? His publishing/production company was/is Colsoul), for the producer credit on this single with no mention at all of Tee outside of the writer’s parentheses. Since I first posted this, I have learned from a reader's comments [thanks, Lyle!], that McKinley told Rob Bowman, who wrote the notes to the Complete Stax/Volt Singles, Vol 2 CD box set, that Isaac Hayes actually did the main production work on "What You Gonna Do". Given the sound of it, that seems plausible, meaning that the track may well have been recorded in Memphis down on South McLemore. Willie Tee, and possibly his brother, too, still could have had a hand in producing and arranging "Nobody". It may even have been a track left over from the earlier sessions they worked on. However and wherever things happened, both sides of the single are musically notable for their big, horn-heavy sound and compelling, more complex drumming.

When this single fared no better in the marketplace than the first, Margie was fortunate that Stax/Volt didn’t give up on her; but a course correction was called for. Consulting with the Consoul, they brought in new co-producers, Fred Briggs and his partner, Darryl Carter, who both also had strong songwriting chops, which resulted in an immediate change of outcome.



“Your Sweet Lovin’” (D. Carter - F. Briggs)
Margie Joseph, Volt 4037, 1970
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

This top side of Margie’s next single, a low-down burner from Briggs and Carter put right in the funky soul pocket, was a decent sized hit, finally allowing her to connect with radio-listeners and record buyers. Even though she had moved away from the direct influence of New Orleans, she was on a promising new path.

With the new team, she recorded an impressive first album, appropriately titled Margie Joseph Makes A New Impression, with sessions at Stax, utilizing the Bar-Kays, and back in Muscle Shoals. Volt spun off a track from the LP that became her next hit 45, “Stop In The Name Of Love”, a captivating, soulful re-working of the Supremes’ warhorse. Sales of the LP were substantial; but the follow up, Phase II, in 1971 was not as successful. From there, McKinley and Margie made their move in 1972, taking up with Atlantic in a major deal that had Arif Mardin producing her next few albums, with excellent results. She had come a long way in just five years, immersing herself in the commercial mainstream to get there; but, despite some fine work for the Atlantic group, Margie never broke out to be as big a name as the artist she was often compared to, Aretha Franklin. But she can be proud of her achievements; and, if you check around, you’ll find that she is still singing, having come full-circle back to gospel, and sounds as vital and in the groove as ever.

6 Comments:

Blogger ana-b said...

Great piece Dan. I'd never heard the Lee Diamond/George Davis penned sides on Okeh. Thanks for that.

You gotta give it to Fred Briggs & Darryl Carter, the production on "Your Sweet Lovin'" is totally killer.

ana...

6:44 PM, July 31, 2010  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, ana. And I agree, "Your Sweet Lovin'" is killer stuff. I didn't mention it, but I think this may be one of the Muscle Shoals rhythm tracks.

The early intro to that song always puts me in mind of Dusty Springfield's "Son OF A Preacherman" for some reason, which was cut in Memphis at American - and I hear a little of Ann Peebles in the tune, too, who was coming along back then - one of my all-time favorite artists, who recorded in Memphis at the Royal House of Willie. There was so much great stuff coming out of the Bluff City - Muscle Shoals corridor back then - no wonder McKinley got Margie up into it. Irma recorded some good tracks in Muscle Shoals too for Chess, but got nothing - wrong time to be on Chess! Might post some of that soon.....

1:01 AM, August 01, 2010  
Blogger Colby said...

I always wondered why Margie Joseph and Merry Clayton never got more love in NOLA, being from these parts.....

3:10 PM, August 03, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great piece. "What You Gonna Do" is on "The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 2 (1968-71)". Liner notes say that according to McKinley, Isaac Hayes was instrumental in the production. Does this suggest it was recorded in Memphis?

Best regards,
Lyle

8:48 PM, August 04, 2010  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, Lyle! I only have the first Stax/Volt singles box. Was hoping somebody would have Vol 2. Yes, if Isaac did the production, it could very well be a Memphis session, at least the music. She could have cut her vocal either there or Muscle Shoals. And listening to the song again, it does make sense that IH was in on it. I'll update the post soon.

11:29 PM, August 04, 2010  
Blogger moreno man said...

Great Post!!!!!!!! I love it! Anything "Margie" is all right with me!... have you heard her version of "Tell It Like it is"... it's on a compilation album from 1988

6:02 PM, December 07, 2010  

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