Cool Yule Stocking Stuffers
For the very early grades. . .my classmates included Allen Toussaint and James Booker, guys who would influence my life in ways I couldn't begin to imagine. They would both grow up to be two of the baddest piano playing dudes. . . James was a genius. We're both Saggitarians, and we were both altar boys. . . .Booker taught me so much stuff. Anything he heard, he could duplicate, from Frederick Chopin to Tuts Washington, with all stops in between. - Art Neville in The Brothers Neville
A couple of holiday treats for you, featuring two players whose connections go way back.
"Big Nick" (J. Booker)
James Booker, Peacock 1923, 1962
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
In the alternate universe that is HOTG, this James Booker B-side is most definitely a Christmas tune. First there's the title; then the way chilly tone he generated on the Hammond organ. As I am fairly non-traditional about the seasonal music, that's plenty good enough for me.
This cut and "Cross My Heart", a take on the Johnny Ace ballad, were on Booker's final of four instrumental organ singles under his own name for Don Robey's Peacock label. While the record faded away as quickly as its two predecessors, the keyboardist's first of the series contained "Gonzo", which was was a substantial national hit, the only one he ever had.
The instruments used on "Big Nick" pretty much mirrored "Gonzo", including the flute - an unusual R&B instrument in those days. I’ve never run across any documentation on who the other players were on any of Booker’s Peacock sessions, which were done in Houston, although I’ve read that a fellow New Orleans pianist, Ed Frank, produced and arranged them. Since the first time I heard it, the hip, lightly syncopated bossa nova beat and jazzy feel on this tune never fail to lock me in.
Booker was overflowing with influences. As Art Neville noted, from an early age, pretty much everything the prodigy ever heard could come out of his fingers at any given moment. Of course, his main mode of expression was the piano; and his overwhelming, florid virtuosity on it certainly eclipsed his far more tame organ technique. Still, he had an expressive, playful touch on the electronic keyboard and influenced other local players, including his old school buddy, Art.
Both Neville and Booker were born on December 17 - Art in 1937 and James in 1939. Although James did not record very much on the organ under his own name - the Peacocks and one earlier B-side for Ace as Little Booker - his playing was featured on several singles that drummer Earl Forest recorded for Duke around the same period, and on a later LP by the Lloyd Price band. He also played the instrument a lot over the years as a side man. Of course, Art became THE organist in New Orleans popular music as a part of the distinctive, groundbreaking funk sound of the Meters.
“Lonesome and Unwanted People” (Leo Nocentelli)
The Meters, from Cabbage Alley, Reprise, 1972
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
Another song from the HOTG holiday songbook. It even mentions Santa Claus. What more do ya want?
The Meters first album for Warner Brothers’ Reprise label, Cabbage Alley, produced by Toussaint and his Sansu Enterprises partner, Marshall Sehorn (he made the deal), marked their move into material with substantial lyrics, stepping up their game from the minimalist, mainly instrumental funk they recorded for Josie the prior three years. This not often heard message song by guitarist Leo Nocentelli also features Art on lead vocal, piano, and, of course, Hammond organ, George Porter, Jr, on bass, and Zig Modeliste on drums. Although the album cover and later (28 years!) CD re-issue on Sundazed don’t mention the recording venue, I believe the sessions were done at Jazz City Studio in New Orleans, which engineer Skip Godwin took over for a time after Cosimo Matassa got shut out by the IRS and bankruptcy. That’s where Toussaint’s first LP for Warner Bros, Life, Love and Faith, was done with the Meters backing him up. Both albums came out in 1972.
Warner Brothers was a pop label at the time and years away from becoming a corporate giant. Back in those days, they were willing and able to take a chance on some fairly exotic musicians from New Orleans and had wisely signed Toussaint to a songwriting and record-making deal; and the Meters were packaged in with that. As Leo recalled, the Meters and Tower of Power were the first funky R&B bands the label had. Quite frankly, I don’t think the company ever figured out how to effectively market the Meters, although they hung in for four albums over six years. The commercial rewards were slim; but just having the band on the roster increased the label's hip cred - back when that meant something. Not that it did the band much of any good financially.
A few weeks ago, George Porter, Jr. and his band, Runnin’ Pardners, played the Blue Moon Saloon here, as I mentioned in my sidebar mini-review. These days, on his own gigs, he’s doing lots of these songs from the Meters back catalog that the other members of that amazing band just flat won’t play at their few reunion gigs. As George rightly figures, there is some great material back up in there that rarely ever gets covered - and the songs need to be heard. So, he’s covering them himself! I’m sure there are plenty of album cuts and B-sides that the Meters never played after they were recorded. More’s the pity. Thank you George for breaking them back out and performing them live for new and old audiences alike.
As you groove to this one over the holidays, I hope you’ll take the suggestion to consider all the neglected, under-represented, forgotten people on this planet and be moved to find out about more about them and what they need to survive and thrive. We all can afford to break out of our own instant gratification routines sometime and do something good for somebody else.
Dig it. Right now. Right now.
Peace. Hope Big Nick is good to y'all.