Charles Brimmer: The Bitter With The Sweet?
For those of you who actually follow along here, I’m finally putting up some promised cuts by Charles Brimmer from his last album, Soulman, on Chelsea. When I did my earlier post on him in August, I was looking forward to his scheduled performance at the Ponderosa Stomp; but he didn’t make it, having been taken off the bill for unannounced reasons by the time the show rolled two weekends ago. I hear that he is just not interested in being onstage anymore, which is too bad, as he would have had a highly receptive audience at the House of Blues that night.
There were certainly enough good to great acts at the event to make up for that disappointment, though. The sets by Wallace Johnson and Willie West, the first two on Saturday night, were excellent, if too brief, and ably backed up by Little Buck Sinegal and a re-constituted version of the Topcats. As I first walked in to the main room that night, Buck and the band were burning on “Monkey In A Sack”, his La Louisianne funk classic, to warm up the lucky scattered attendees who got there early. The band did an incredible job accompanying a variety of acts that night, including Barbara Lynn, a true Gulf Coast soul treasure, still at the top of her game and looking fine. The real revelations for me came on the Friday night show, though, seeing performances by Atlanta-based Tommy Brown, and the Relatives from Dallas. Brown, now 80, is a wildly energetic jump-blues shouter and jokester, who has been performing since the 1940s, but was unknown to me. I had read a while back about the Relatives, a gospel group backed by a get-down funky band; but had not heard them before. Their set hit on all cylinders and thoroughly blew me away. In fact, virtually all of the performances were well worth seeing both nights; and the shows ran pretty smoothly on track. Fez’s off to Dr. Ike and the Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau, keepers of the flame. [see photos]
But, enough recap. Back to Brimmer and Soulman. As I said in the August post, the LP was the second and last of his career, the follow-up to Expressions of Soul, which had sold well due to the inclusion of his 1975 deep soul hit single, “God Bess Our Love”; but, by the time Soulman came out, the buzz created by that hit had faded, and subsequent singles on Chelsea resulted only in diminishing sales. Not having a new hit to lift it, the second album, though well-done, could not overcome the downward trajectory. Although I stated last time that Soulman is generally agreed to be the better LP, after repeated listening, I have to say that both have their attractions. Soulman noses ahead for me due to more and better upbeat material, improved arrangements and playing, and Brimmer’s voice, which seems much more seasoned and expressive, gritter where needed, with a fluid range. Perhaps this had something to do with the intense touring he did as a result of the earlier hit, with all that singing giving his tenor more character and improving his control.
Of the eight tracks on Soulman, half were groovers. So, I’ve picked two of those to go with this time, both notable in their own way.
“Play Something Sweet” (Allen Toussaint)
Charles Brimmer, from Soulman, Chelsea, 1976
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
One of two Toussaint compositions on the album, “Play Something Sweet” was covered by a number of national artists of the era, including Maria Muldaur, B. J.Thomas, Frankie Miller (a Toussaint production), and Three Dog Night, who had a big hit with it in 1974. I believe that Brimmer’s version was unique in one sense, at least. He was the only local artist to record the song back then. Toussaint didn’t even put it on any of his own solo albums. For some reason, though, Brimmer’s team changed the lyrics of the chorus slightly to say “play me some old time blues”, rather than Toussaint’s intended and more poetically effective “brickyard blues”; but, still, this take, arranged by Raymond Jones, while not groundbreaking, was a strong and solid mover. Anything less would have been unthinkable, since the LP, like its predecessor, was recorded at Sea-Saint Studio, Toussaint’s home turf.
As on most Senator Jones productions, no roster of session players was provided on the LP cover; but Jones generally had access to many of the fine musicians available for work around the studio on any given day. I had originally thought that James Booker was the likely pianist on this track, due to the inventive and intricate keyboard handiwork that enlivened the proceedings from start to fade. But though Booker was regularly playing sessions at Sea Saint, none other than Mr. Brimmer himself has informed us [see his comments to this post] that Anatole Domino, Fat's son and the singer's brother-in-law, was responsible for enhancing this enjoyable performance.
On the album’s other Toussaint-penned offering, the soul-stirring “With You In Mind”, Brimmer gave it an effective and more nuanced performance, befitting the varied dynamics of the tune. Ray Jones was a capable arranger, but certainly no Toussaint. So, one naturally wonders what wonders might have befallen this project had the master himself handled the sessions. That thought may have occurred to Brimmer, too, since he told Jeff Hannusch that he was never satisfied with the production quality of his Chelsea releases, feeling Senator Jones cut too many corners.
“My Sweet Thing” (Willie Mitchell)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
Another thing Charles Brimmer has brought to our attention in his comments is that the composer of this song as well as one of the LP’s big ballads, “I Love Her”, was THE Willie Mitchell - Memphis music master. As the singer states, "He personally gave it ["I Love Her"] to me at his studio in Memphis. He told Senator to go back to New Orleans and duplicate it. Of course, he could not do it." I'll admit that before hearing from him I had my doubts about the authorship of both these tunes credited to the great Poppa Willie.
[A geekish digression: Neither song is shown among the nearly 300 on Willie Mitchell’s BMI list of registered compositions. But, searching the databse by title, both songs show up with "Willie Mitchell" as writer, but showing no BMI affiliation for him! Strange. After finding that at first, I was tending toward the idea that the “Willie Mitchell” credits may have been a contrivance used by Senator Jones to give the LP more cred in Southern soul markets. He was always working some hustle. I thought that both "My Sweet Thing" and "I Love Her" might actually have been written by Brimmer himself.
Now that the singer has verified that the tunes were actuually penned by Mitchell, the only remaining confusion has to do with BMI. There are three separate but related writers’ registrations for “My Sweet Thing” in BMI: Willie Mitchell (Ancy Music & Senator Jones Publishing); Mitzi Mason and Senator Jones (also, Ancy Music & Senator Jones Publishing); and Charles Brimmer (Swing Beat - which is the publishing arm of Tuff City’s empire). Odd indeed. Ancy Music wasn’t one of Mitchell's publishing companies. Meanwhile, Mitzi Mason, on the second listing, is a name that appears along with Jones on the BMI songwriting credits for many records that he “produced”. Typically, the actual records indicated different writers (probably the actual ones!) on the labels, while Jones’ name got registered in the spot that insured he got the royalty checks. I don’t know how Mitzi Mason was involved in all of it, if she even was. There was a pop singer in the 1950s with that name - but what relation she might have had with Jones is a mystery, and might have just been more smoke and mirrors.
Brimmer’s latter day credit on "My Sweet Thing" through Swing Beat suggests perhaps that Tuff City was as confused as I was about all of this. Many thanks to Mr. Brimmer for his clarifications. As for the rest of it, I certainly don't expect him to fathom the enigmatic ways and mind of Senator Jones.]
Now, back to the song, itself, which is a quirky little confection and a testament to the inventive musicianship of Willie Mtichell. Its clever construction and arrangement remind me of something that Wardell Quezergue might have cooked up for King Floyd when they were tolerating each other and making great records earlier in the decade. The seemingly off-kilter ascending.and descending repeating riffs laid over a 4/4 rhythm may be kind of a one-trick-pony gimmick, but I dig the tricky syncopation that resulted. Seems Brimmer got into it, too, his locked-in delivery alternating between soul grit and sugary falsetto highs. All in all, not your ordinary soul or funk outing by any means. Kudos to Ray Jones and the band for making it work so seamlessly that it seems more simple than it really was.
Of the other two upbeat tunes on Soulman, “Don’t Break My Heart” by Brimmer had the soulful infectious bounce of “Just Another Morning”, while “Your Man’s Gonna Be In Trouble”, written by Tony Owens, a musical take-off on the Bill Withers hit, “Use Me”, groove and all, was as well-rendered as it was derivative. I hope to get back to those at a later date.
As mentioned last time, Chelsea dropped Brimmer soon after, if not right before, Soulman came out. Either way, the record didn’t have a chance in the marketplace and likely had a limited pressing. That mine is a stock copy rather than a promo indicates that at least a few saw daylight before the curtain fell. After his deal unwound, Brimmer, tired of Senator Jones’ double dealing ways, severed ties and moved to Los Angeles to try to make it in the big time. He did not have much luck gigging out there, nor could he secure a record deal in that intensely competitive scene. One example of his work on the Left Coast can currently be heard via YouTube, an unissued cover of “Show and Tell” definitely directed toward the commercial mainstream. Not that it got him anywhere.
Finally, in 1983, Brimmer recorded one more single, this time produced by his brother, Ivory, at Sea-Saint. Once again, Senator Jones got in on the action, taking a co-producer credit. He couldn’t get a piece of the song, though, since it was cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover”, with an instrumental version on the flip side. The track had all the trappings of an early 1980s session, with synthesizers and a plodding drum machine on the backing track; but, despite the rather soulless accompaniment, Brimmer managed to pull off a nice vocal performance. Issued on the short-lived King Kokomo label (likely a Jones joint, as well), the single was a virtual non-starter.
Having supported himself and his family with his accounting skills over the years, while seeking his vocal fortune off and on in his spare time, Brimmer pretty much set performing and recording aside for the business world after that last record. If he has looked back from time to time, for whatever reasons, he has not been moved to step in front of a microphone again in many years. I’m sure the slot on the P-Stomp must have been tempting, though; but the music business memories may be more bitter than sweet for him. If he ever changes his mind about going public, I hope I can be there to root him on.