More Goodbyes: Diamond Joe & Solomon Burke
[Updated audio 10-19-2010]**
I didn’t learn of the passing of Joseph ‘Diamond Joe’ Maryland until a friend mentioned it at the Ponderosa Stomp a few weekends back. Only later did I see that Larry Grogan, a big Diamond Joe fan, had done a tribute to him at Funky 16 Corners back in early September, and ana-b at the Singing Bones put up some of his tunes, too. I just haven’t been keeping up with the other blogs like I use-ta. Not enough hours in the day...or night.
Once I got that last Charles Brimmer post done, I had a chance to reflect on Diamond Joe and do some more research. While working on that, I heard of Solomon Burke’s death this past weekend and wanted to do a little something on that great man, too, even though his connections to New Orleans were tangential, at best. I’ve got a couple of things by him I’ve pulled from the archives that have the city’s touch. So, forgive me if I do just a brief (for me) combined post on these departed singers, linked only in the closeness of their untimely demise.
Catching Up On Diamond Joe
It’s surprising to me that I’ve never posted anything by Diamond Joe up to this point. Allen Toussaint produced and arranged all seven of his 45s, and wrote the majority of the sides, too. I’ve long had Joe’s first record on Minit, the self-penned, deep-deep, two-part “Moanin’ and Sreamin’” from 1961, plus two of his three Sansu singles, and a couple of his sides on compilations. In years past, I played his stuff on my Memphis radio show, as well.
If my defense, I guess one reason I had never done a retrospective on him here is that there has been little information on his career that hasn’t been covered. Five years ago, Mr. Grogan did a fine overview of the Diamond Joe oeuvre at his old web-zine; and he has also posted several of Joe’s songs on the F16C blog over the ensuing years. Then, ana-b, also deep into Joe, delved into some within the past year or so. So, I felt no urgency. Like Larry, I did not even know if Joe was still alive, until he was gone.
Without further disclaimers, let’s now hear one from this exceptional vocalist from the Houma, LA area. I’ve also got some recently obtained new information to share on this man who has been an enigma to fans and collectors for years.
“How To Pick A Winner” (Allen Toussaint)
Diamond Joe, Sansu 454, 1966
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
A favorite of mine since I first heard it on a Japanese compilation LP back in the 1980s, “How To Pick A Winner”, the plug side of Diamond Joe’s first Sansu release, is a well-crafted, engaging Toussaint composition and arrangement in the soul-pop mode, with a mid-tempo swing reminiscent of the “Teasin’ You” groove on Willie Tee’s single from the previous year. While he may have helped himself to some of that feel, Toussaint went on to create a seamless, distinctive song structure that had varied dynamics and a danceable rhythmic flow. The lyrics speak from the point of view of a guy who is unlucky in love wondering what it takes to make the right choice in female companionship. That he can’t decide whether to go by the “size, the weight, the looks, or the personality”, doesn’t bode well for his bettering his odds with the ladies. Such is our general cluelessness when it comes to love.
But what sells the song, at least in a metaphorical sense, is Diamond Joe's riveting, authoritative soul voice. There is nothing at all timid or tentative about his delivery. With power to spare, he nailed it, throwing in a few emphatic yelps for good measure, making for a song that to my ears should have had a much bigger commercial reaction than it did.
Sansu’s output at this time was being distributed nationally by Bell, but nothing on the label ever got very far out of the gate. One has to wonder why the results were so underwhelming for the quality Sansu artists produced by Toussaint and partner, Marshall Sehorn, such as Diamond Joe, Eldridge Holmes, Betty Harris, Wallace Johnson, and Art Neville. The domination of the airwaves by British Invasion and Motown records was part of the problem, I'm sure, but not all of it, since Lee Dorsey, with Toussaint’s assistance, was having substantial chart hits during this period on Bell’s subsidiary label, Amy. We can only assume that Bell might not have had the resources to push all products equally. Of course, in the crap shoot of making and marketing records, as in love, picking a winner is nearly impossible - sure things are rare.
Starting back in the late 1950s, Joe worked as bass player in the house band at Hosea Hill’s acclaimed Sugar Bowl club in Thibodaux, LA near Houma. Wallace Johnson remembered him to Bill Dahl in the notes to Get Low Down* as a “hell of a cat onstage”. I recently asked my friend, Willie West, about Diamond Joe, since they were both from the same general area and era, and he sent along this great remembrance:
Yeah, I knew Diamond Joe. He was from a little town outside of Houma called Mechanicville. He never lived in New Orleans full time. Never wanted to.
We all worked together and were very good friends. I met him when I was playing with the Sharks [Willie’s band as a teenager in the 1950s]; and he played bass with our band sometimes, and sang too. I hung out with him. He'd pick me up in his car, and we pestered the girls. He was a ladies man and had a girl or two in every town along the bayou. He used to wear diamond stickpins and diamond rings, was flashy and that's how he got the nickname. His brother used to sell fruit from a fruit truck, and Joe'd hunt him down to get money from him. His brother would fuss at him; but he'd always reach in his pocket and give him 30- 40 bucks so we could go hang out at the little bars and drink wine and chase the girls. We'd laugh and carry on. Those were good times.
He worked with Hosea Hill’s band - taught himself the bass after he came out of the service. He mainly was a bass player, but would play and sing at times, and occasionally would come up and front the band.... Mainly, though, ‘Thunderbird’ Davis would front Hosea Hill’s band. I don't think Joe ever fronted his own band, at least that I can recall. He was a real showman, would jump around and clown with his bass.
He was a paratrooper in the Air Force and used to tell me stories of jumping out of airplanes and all his other adventures. He was very smart and could speak Japanese and German and a couple other languages pretty fluently. He was a very good friend, and although I hadn't seen him for maybe 10 years, I'm going to miss him.
I asked Willie later how Toussaint, when he started working for Minit, might have gotten connected with Diamond Joe and brought him up to New Orleans to record. He wasn’t sure, but speculated that when Toussaint was playing piano in Shirley & Lee’s road band back in the 50s, they gigged at the Sugar Bowl; and he could have first met and heard Joe there. Willie also pointed out that Toussaint’s “people”, as we say down here, lived in the Houma area, too, and could have helped them find out about each other. Thanks to Willie for those great insights that help to see Joe more clearly as a guy for whom singing was really just a sideline; but one that could have paid off, had things broken differently.
As it was, he only had a few opportunities to score a hit during the five or so years he was recording; but luck and the business weren’t with him, even though Toussaint was in his corner. Having now heard everything he cut back in the 1960s, including his ultra-rare 1965 Instant single (3271), “Too Many Pots”/”If I Say Goodbye” **(these links to Mr. Finewine's WFMU archives were sent along by Travis, for which we all should be much obliged), I’d say that he gave each song his best shot; and his natural vocal ability along with Toussaint’s studio skills made many of them memorable and worth acquiring in whatever medium* works for you. For the small but impressive recorded legacy he left behind, the multi-faceted Diamond Joe can be considered an undisputed winner in my book. Learning more about him makes me wish we all had gotten to known him better.
*The Sundazed CD compilation, Get Low Down, regrettably out of print, has five sides from his Sansu/Deesu recordings; and a number of them plus some of his Minit material seem to be available for downloading from various outlets.
For a greater taste his output, check out these cuts on YouTube:
“Moanin’ and Screamin’”
“Hurry Back to Me”
“Don’t Set Me Back”
...and, as mentioned before, The Singing Bones, currently has hot audio on a number of Joe’s sides. too. [UPDATE: ana-b has now posted another Toussaint production of "How To Pick A Winner" with vocal by Maurice Williams over the same backing track! Check it out. Fascinatin'.
The Irreplaceable King of All Things Soulful
I’m not going into great detail on the life and long career of Solomon Burke, who passed away on 10/10/10, leaving us with a sign and portent, as befitting his regal stature. He was an immensely talented singer and entertainer whose career encompassed gospel, R&B/soul, and rock ‘n’ roll, often blurring any supposed distinctions among them, as well as bringing other styles, such as country, into the mix. I’ve been around long enough to have heard in real time segments of his prolific career from his early influential Atlantic sides all the way up to his amazing 21st Century interpretive albums with producers Joe Henry, Buddy Miller, and finally, last year, the late, great Memphis legend, Willie Mtichell. The music business is rife with hype, hyperbole, and just plain bull; but I don’t think it was an exaggeration when Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler called Solomon “the best soul singer of all time”.
“Get Out Of My Life Woman”** (Allen Toussaint)
Solomon Burke, from I Wish I Knew, Atlantic 8185, 1968
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
I didn’t choose this one as proof of King Solomon’s credentials; it's just a cool cover of one of Toussaint's classic compositions, with Solomon extracting all the gritty, resentful sentiment of the jilted-lover lyrics. He could dig down for the hurt. Of course, Lee Dorsey had recorded the original hit (on Amy) for Toussaint a few years earlier. Both approaches have their distinct charms.
A few days ago, I had posted Solomon's single version (Atlantic 2566) from my archives, which appears to be the same take, but, unfortunately, has an inferior mix, and fades about 40 seconds sooner. I had speculated that the LP version might have better sonics; and alert fellow blogger, Jeff (of AM, Then FM), dug it out of his stash for us to hear. Much appreciated! It verifies that the vocals are front and center, and the other elements better balanced, clean and clear. Don't know how Atlantic could have dropped the ball on the mix for the 45, seeing as the illustrious Tom Dowd produced and Arif Mardin arranged the track; but they did.
According to the Atlantic Records Discography at jazzdisco.org, this session was done in Memphis on or about March 15, 1968. The studio is not named, but I would assume that it was Chips Moman’s American Sound. The musicians aren’t identified either - other than unhelpfully calling them “the Arif Mardin Orchestra” - but may have included King Curtis and the Kingpins, or the fine house session crew at American, or some of both.
My other pick from the archives by Solomon isn’t sourced from vinyl. It’s from a CD released in 1994 on the New Orleans blues, soul and R&B label, Black Top Records; and I see that it was re-mastered and re-issued back in 2005 by Shout Factory. I highly recommend it.
“Good Rockin’ Tonight” (Roy Brown)
Solomon Burke and the Souls Alive Orchestra, from Live At The House of Blues, Black Top, 1994
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
It’s a track with awesome energy from a live show I wish I had witnessed. Performing in New Orleans, Solomon paid tribute the the city’s musical heritage on this final number by going back to the true beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, written and originally recorded by the young Roy Brown in 1947. Wynonie Harris covered it fairly quickly, and, as he was a big star at the time with a better studio production, he had the hit with it; but the HOTG roots of this tune are undeniable.
The band for this concert included several local players, including keyboardist Sammy Berfect (who excelled at gospel and R&B, and to whom Solomon gave a shout-out), bassist Lee Allen Zeno (from Lafayette), and numerous members of the outstanding horn section of over 20 pieces! With so much uplifting power coming out of the speakers from this little digital by-product, you can only imagine how mind-blowing it must have been inside the HOB that night in the presence of the King.
One so great may never pass this way again.
Condolences to the families and admirers of Solomon Burke and Diamond Joe, and deep gratitude for the music they blessed us with.