It has definitely been too long since I posted something from the late, great Willie Tee. So, to at least make a dent in that deficit, I’m offering up (with, of course, the usual bunch of semi-random factoids, opinions of questionable merit, and digressive musings) some tracks of his from back when the 1970s were just kicking in, then moving on up to that bicentennial year....
A Capitol Idea
“Reach Out For Me” (B. Bacharach - H. David)
Willie Tee, Capitol 2892, 1970
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
Bacharach & David? Pop composers extraordinaire, yes, but pretty much the antithesis of soul or funk. How Willie Tee briefly came to be crooning their tune is part of a tale I’ve touched on before, but need to update now that I've heard the results of the music business machinations involved.
As the 1960s wound down, Tee’s modest 1965 hit on Atlantic, “Teasin’ You” (originally released on Nola) and two less successful follow-ups, were history. He had done a few more records for the Nola group of labels and even started his own imprint, Gatur, partnering with his cousin, Ulis Gaines, who also owned a piece of Nola. But both labels were soon sucked under by the financial sinking of their local distributor, Dover Records (a story told many times here). Following that, he had several lean years on the recording front, though he gigged steadily in the French Quarter with his band, the Souls. He also wrote and arranged tracks for Margie Joseph’s first two Volt singles in 1969. Meanwhile, his own career seemed on the verge of a dramatic rebound as his friend in the jazz world, ‘Cannonball’ Adderly, who had long been impressed with his musical and vocal chops, used his clout to get Tee a deal with Capitol Records.
Under the direction of Adderly’s own influential producer at Capitol, David Axelrod, who brought in big-time arranger H. B. Barnum and a host of the best LA musicians, including Earl Palmer, Tee recorded a high-budget, orchestral production LP in 1969, I’m Only A Man, geared, it would appear, to break him nationally as some kind of middle of the road, slightly anachronistic pop artist. Cutting edge it was not. This was at a time when other performers and composers of Tee’s caliber and abilities were increasingly intent on keepin’ it real and starting to get down funky. Thus, I would describe the album as, at best, misconceived, stuffed as it was with overblown arrangements of material that ranged from schlocky (“People” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”-?!?- being the most obvious clunkers) to passable, but passé. Only the first five cuts are diverting enough to keep me awake and would have been much less tolerable back then, had I heard them when I was in my early 20s. Not that Tee did a bad job on any of them - his singing throughout this commercial misadventure was fine. But, why does this LP usually go for well over $100.00 in the collectibles marketplace? More because of its rarity than content, I'm afraid. I don't own it; but an Axelrod devotee burned the tracks to mp3s for me to review, which I greatly appreciate, since I now no longer feel the need to keep bidding on it.
Capitol released two singles off I’m Only A Man, featuring several of the better cuts. The first (2369), in 1969, had the title track (by Gamble & Huff?) backed with “Walk Tall”, written by Tee’s friend and Adderly’s bandmate, Joe Zawinul; but it didn’t do much business. Next, they tried “Reach Out For Me”, with “Love Of A Married Man” on the flip, an underwhelming Addrisi Brothers concoction that, even with its "bigger must be better"arrangement, was too inconsequential to make the album. Considering the contenders, “Reach Out For Me” may be the best thing on I’m Only A Man; and you can probably gather from this promo 45 side why they wanted to make it a single. Though not really top shelf B & D material, the tune was chock full of pop hooks and had some chart action when done originally by Lou Johnson, followed by Dionne Warwick, both in 1964. I guess those drinking the production koolaid in 1970 thought they might make it rise again. But the opposite occurred; and subsequently the LP's trajectory headed directly to the cut-out bins.
Anyone looking for a shred of the natural soulfulness of Tee’s earlier work, the smooth, hiply casual delivery of his Atlantic sides, or his emotive balladry, or even a hint of the funk that was to come from him, will not find it on I’m Only A Man. I can’t understand what kind of artist Adderly and Alexrod thought Willie Tee was or should be, or why they did not use more of his own material. “Bring On The Heartaches” was, I think, the lone Tee composition on the LP. In the process of trying to re-invent him, they obscured, if not ignored, his genuine artistry.
Interestingly, I’ve read that during the course of his three year involvement with Capitol, Tee recorded enough instrumental tracks (likely jazz) to fill several albums, using mainly local players such as guitarist George Davis and saxophonist Earl Turbinton, Tee’s brother. To the best of my knowledge, none of that material ever saw release, which certainly multiplies the disappointment of this episode of his career.
So, what did Tee do after that overreaching waste of his talent and potential? Homeboy that he was, he came back and funkified his life.
“Booger Man” (W. Turbinton, E. Charles, D. Charles, L.Clark, L. Pania)
The Gaturs, Gatur 508, 1971
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
OK. Tee’s life was certainly already steeped in the origins of funk coming up as a musician in New Orleans; and Smokey Johnson played on his Nola/Atlantic sessions, after all. But with the advent of bands such as the Meters in 1968 and Sam & the Soul Machine soon thereafter on his turf, is it any wonder that he started a funk band? He had probably already been playing some form of it on this club gigs. The vibe seemed to be hanging everywhere in the hot, humid air down there, and was surely a potent antidote to the musical morass he had gotten himself into with Capitol, where he was still technically under contract at this point.
By 1970, Tee had a recording and performing group together in New Orleans named the Gaturs after his previously owned record label, which he was re-starting more or less on the sly with his cousin. Their direction couldn't have been more different than what he had done for Capitol. As I have related before, on one of their gigs that year, the Gaturs played at Tulane University, booked by student and local music junkie Quint 'Cosmic Q' Davis. Also on the bill were the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians; and the two groups wound up jamming together. The synergy of the funk grooves with the Indians’ percussion and chants so blew Davis' mind that he began working on a way to get the sound on record. When that historic first project, a single, “Handa Wanda”, was recorded at Deep South in Baton Rogue later in 1970 (remember, New Orleans was without a recording venue at the time), Tee played keyboards, joined by various other serious local musicians, backing the Indians. During that same period, Tee and the Gaturs also started recording; and it is possible that they, too, used Deep South. Over the next couple of years, the band laid down material for the ten singles released on Gatur before it folded, some billed as the Gaturs (4), some as Willie Tee (6).
From their first Gatur release (#508), both “Cold Bear”, which I have featured previously, and “Booger Man” were group collaborations, probably coming about either as in-studio or bandstand jams. The former is upbeat with more going on musically than this B-side, which isn’t much more than an extended block chord piano vamp with a vaguely Curtis Mayfield funk feel. Taking the pace at a mid-tempo strut, Tee’s excellent drummer, Larry Panna (not “Pania” as the writer credits show), played it simply but perfectly in the pocket, while the other instruments syncopated around the beats. To me, the coolest thing on the track is the intro, just bass and tambourine at first, drawing our attention immediately to the groove from whence all else flows. Other players in this stable core rhythm section besides Tee, who also likely overdubbed the organ part, and Panna were bassist Erving Charles and guitarist Louis ‘Guitar June’ Clark. As many of you know, this single was leased to Atlantic’s Atco imprint, which gave it national distribution, but not much promotion, if any, it would seem, as it quickly faded.
Speaking of not owning certain Willie Tee records, of the four Gaturs 45s, I have only this one in my archives, plus a reproduction of the Atco version re-issued a few years ago, from which I featured “Cold Bear” earlier. So far, I own just one of the Willie Tee 45s on Gatur, as well, which we’ll get to (more or less) shortly. No way can I afford what the dealers are getting for them and have never stumbled onto one out at a garage sale or flea market somewhere, though there’s always hope! Anyway, I’ve heard most of those other sides on the Funky Delicacies CD compilation, Wasted, which is recommended as a low-fi but enjoyably useful reference tool until the real thing comes along via some windfall.
“Sweet Thing” (W. Turbinton)
Willie Lee [sic], Gatur 511, 1971/72
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
My copy of this single appears to be a subset of rarity. Both labels have a typo turning Tee into Lee, an error which is not on all of the pressings of #511. Others I’ve seen show Tee’s name correctly. So, this might have come from the first run. Anyway, the 45 was the second of the six on Gatur credited to Willie Tee. ”Sweet Thing” was the B-side, with “Man That I Am” on top, a direct, effectively arranged and sung soul-funk ballad that puts anything on that Capitol album to shame. Upping the ante, both sides were bigger productions than on the Gaturs’ instrumentals, putting strings and horns into the mix.
Though not much lyrically, “Sweet Thing” offered up an energetic, infectious funk groove that had Panna simultaneously breaking up beats and driving the song forward, ably assisted by some intense conga playing, possibly by Alfred ‘Uganda’ Roberts. Tee did a lot of nice, intricate electric piano riffing throughout; but his major contribution to the sweep of the song were the complex, swirling string charts, accented by the horns - attention-grabbing and impressive arranging. Charles’ bass work was, as usual, supple, lively and effective, though he used a strange expression of the second note in the first of each two bar phrase in the verses, delaying it until it almost sounded “wrong” in order to further twist the undulating syncopation of the track.
I wasn’t around New Orleans at this time, to my great regret. So I don’t know if any of the Gatur sides other than “Cold Bear” got onto the local radio much; but obviously sales were not robust, as most, if not all, of the singles are rare. But Tee kept moving and grooving despite the setbacks and indifference, becoming involved again with the Wild Magnolias, acting as writer, arranger, and bandleader (defacto producer, really) on their two highly influential album projects for Barclay. That and some European touring as a result of the albums’ popularity there, carried him up to the point where he got another shot at a major label release, this time with creative control.
“I Can Feel It” (Wilson Turbinton)
Willie Tee, from Anticipation, UA, 1976
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
Through contacts in the music industry, Tee was able to shop his next project, an album’s worth of new original material more musically sophisticated that what he had done on Gatur. He got a deal for it with UA (formerly United Artists) in 1976. The label allowed him to co-produce the record along with Skip Drinkwater, who was an in-demand jazz and funk producer/arranger for various major labels. Though Tee certainly wasn’t a hit-maker, he was given the nod perhaps because his writing and vocal abilities held such promise. In any event, he and Drinkwater worked well together in realizing Tee’s creative vision; and the results reflected that in all areas except the one most important to the corporate mindset, sales.
Utilizing essentially the same band Tee had on Gatur, rechristened the Gator Rhythm Section, including ‘Uganda’ Roberts on percussion, with the addition of brother Earl Turbinton on alto and soprano saxes, the basic tracking for the album was done at Studio In The Country in Bogalusa, LA (still operating to this day!). Keeping the New Orleans influence strong, Tee had his early AFO mentor, Harold Battiste, arrange the strings and horns, which were probably overdubbed in Hollywood along with some guests: guitarists Lee Ritenour and David T. Walker on several tracks, and percussionist, Victor Feldman.
I have posted several tracks from Anticipation previously here, including lengthy soul-funk twin pillars of the album, the title cut and “Liberty Bell” *, plus “I’d Give It To You”, which also appeared on the sole 45 taken from the album. “I Can Feel It” is another highlight, uptempo feel-good party music in the extreme with a punchy groove and rousing, multi-layered, rhythm-oriented arrangement that should have had the masses heading to dancefloors nationwide, were they not already there doing the Hustle to Van McCoy. Special mention on this outing goes to the brief solo turns by guest bassist Julius Farmer, who gets all over it from that point on out, and Tee on organ, plus the cool breakdown shortly thereafter. Without doubt, the track shows these guys to be a well-oiled machine hitting on all cylinders, and conveys the good energy and positive spirit of the entire project.
You’ve got to wonder what might have happened if Tee had been allowed to make this record, or something close to it, for Capitol back in 1970. Anticipation itself probably would have had a better response than it did, which was slim to none, had it appeared even a few years earlier, rather than during the dawn of disco. Idle speculation, of course. Life and musical careers often come down to timing, good or bad. At least Willie Tee had one more chance to try to appeal to a national audience by feeling it his way, making something classic to be proud of.
From my friend, Bill Roberts, who did audio engineering work later for Tee and was tight with him for years, I know that, in the last part of his life, Willie fought to reclaim the master tapes of this album from the complex corporate tangle of takeovers that had control of them, locked away in some storage facility. Tee wanted them back so that he could have the album re-mixed, re-mastered, and re-issued for the world to hear fresh and to leave behind as part of his legacy. But, sadly, he could never get to them. Hell, he didn’t even have a vinyl copy anymore, or anything to play one on, if he did. So, Bill asked me to burn my copy of the LP (bought for a buck back in the 80s - I’ve since scored an SS copy, too) to CD for him, which I was honored to do. Thing is, after Katrina, Tee was coming back into his own again, getting recognition on many fronts: teaching at Princeton, performing at the Ponderosa Stomp, gigging again in Europe...). He was so close to finally getting the props he was due. Then he was gone.
* [Note: re-reading the album notes today, I discovered that the backing singer on “Liberty Bell” was none other than the vocalist of the mysterious Baton Rouge group, The Sister and Brothers, Geraldine ‘Sister Geri’ Richard. Learn something new everyday around here.]