December 05, 2010

Gentleman June's Boom Boom, Part 2

According to Mac Rebennack in John Broven’s Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans, the main reason June Gardner didn’t get more session work in town prior to his joining Sam Cooke’s touring band was that he played “too straight”. That has to be taken in the context of New Orleans’ unique musical environment where messing with the beat (in a good, poly-rhythmic way, of course) was expected of any drummer. On the 1950s scene, you had the brilliant Earl Palmer, before he left to pursue demanding and lucrative West Coast session work, and the other creative drummers who took his place on the majority of local studio dates, such as Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams, John Boudreaux, and Smokey Johnson. By comparison, Gardner did seem straight; and, since he joined Cooke’s band in 1960, he would not get a chance to record in New Orleans and show any of his own hometown flavor for another four years or so.

After his return in 1964 or 1965, having upped his game backing an artist whose style merged R&B, gospel, soul and pop, new opportunities and circumstances quickly arose for this versatile drummer. Producer Wardell Quezergue, who had recently started Nola Records with two business partners, set him up to record instrumentals as a featured artist; and the resulting sessions were released on two singles for the Hot Line subsidiary and on an LP distributed nationally by Mercury. At the time, Quezergue was also developing instrumental tracks with funk drumming pioneer Smokey Johnson, but took a more straight-ahead approach on most of the material he produced and arranged for Gardner, aiming more for the mainstream rather than the hipper, more rhythmically discerning local market.

“99 Plus 1” (W. Quezergue)
June Gardner, Hot Line 118
*, 1965
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Gardner’s first single for Hot Line had as it’s top side this Quezergue composition, a bluesy saunter built around a simple central riff and featuring the distinctive George Davis on guitar. Though the drums are mixed up front a bit, there is nothing here that really stands out about June’s solid, swinging playing. Strangely, few of the tunes he cut in this period really seem designed to call attention to the drums in the way that Smokey Johnson’s Nola records did. Quezergue liked to have the entire arrangement worked out in advance of a session, down to individual instrumental parts. So, though Gardner’s name was on the records, by design he mostly remained an ensemble player on the productions, not stepping out or doing much improvising.

In terms of instrumentation and tempo, “99 Plus 1” is fairly typical of almost all the tracks they cut, whether originals or covers, though on some, a sax was prominent instead of guitar, and several featured a dash of James Booker’s uncharacteristically subdued organ or piano work. Walter Payton was the bassist of record; and Big Q used his own substantial horn section on the sessions to embellish and accent his arrangements.

That said, the flip side of this 45 proved to be the lone exception to the formula, and has become one of June’s most memorable cuts because of it.

“Mustard Greens”
(A. Gardner)

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Had there been more tunes like this, Gardner’s ranking in the annals of proto-funk would have been much higher. “Mustard Greens” was exceptional out of his recordings for Quezergue not just because it was June’s own composition, but due to his highly syncopated, broken-up drumming, which was the main attraction. Nothing subtle or uptown about it.

I originally featured this one back in 2005, and wanted to put it back up, as I think it is so significant in revealing June’s creative side and lending him credibility as a funk drummer, too - a style he did not get much of a chance to put onto tape. Obviously, he had it in him.

To me, the Tequila-esque structure of the changes is way beside the point of this poly-rhythmic spree. The song starts off with just the drums laying down the wicked, intentionally off-kilter beats that don’t really straighten out for the entire 2:25 run, though his ride cymbal is a steady guide through a lot of it. The rest of the band just jumps in and makes a tune out of it, atop the undulating, shifting percussive bottom end. Where exactly did this tricky stuff come from? Not quite Latin, not quite second line, Gardner hit on (for him) a quite unusual hybrid approach here that moved into Smokey’s territory, and even reminds me of some things James Black would do later for Eddie Bo and Toussaint (think “Riverboat”). Though fascinating, fun, and an incitement to buck dance, this groove proved to be a B-side flash in the pan, as it was nowhere close to repeated on the rest of the sessions, which went down another path altogether.

At some point in 1966, Nola secured a deal with Mercury for the release of an instrumental LP on Gentleman June to appear on the Emarcy imprint. The name of the label was the phonetic spelling of the company (Mercury Record Corp) initials; and their main musical focus was rather uptown jazz. So June’s inclusion was significant; but I have no idea what sold them on the project.

Although “99 Plus 1” and “Mustard Greens” were included on the album along with at least one side, “Hot Seat”, from Gardner’s other Hot Line single (#918), I think Quezergue purposely fashioned the rest of the tracks, a few more originals and six renditions of more or less
current pop songs, toward a middle ground, hoping to appeal to a broader audience.
Bustin' Out, the well-executed result, left out the complexities of jazz to hit on the R&B side of pop, but did not result in significant sales.

“Hammerhead” (W. Quezergue)
Gentleman June Gardner, from Bustin’ Out, Emarcy SRE 66014, 1966

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Another of the Big Q’s originals, it was one of the few tunes on the album with even a drum solo, let alone some of Gardner’s syncopation going on - subtle in this case. With the exception of “Mustard Greens”, few of the LP tracks really reach out to grab you, making for a pleasant but not groundbreaking collection of songs that did not live up to its name. Many of them did not rise beyond background music, in my opinion. I think Joe Segal, who wrote the notes for the album, probably summed up the vibe best when he described June’s playing on it as “discrete swinging”, meaning it as a compliment. This drummer was capable of much more than that; and the fact that his talents were not more fully on display can only be chalked up to a production miscalculation. Quezergue’s instincts were usually finely tuned; and this conceptual misstep from him has long puzzled me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad LP, even if it was a commercial bust and doesn’t do much for me. I am trying to put it into context, rather than put it down. With the impressive talent assembled for the project, I am just truly surprised that the result did not have more to offer.

You don’t have to shell out for a pricey vinyl copy to hear for yourself. All the LP tracks and some lagniappe can be found the the Funky Delicacies CD, 99 Plus One, and via downloads, too, I think.

After this project, Gardner went to work for Allen Toussaint, doing various sessions, often with Walter Payton again on bass, up until the Meters were brought in to be Sansu’s in-house band in 1968. Most notably, he played on Lee Dorsey tracks from 1965-1967 on Amy, and was likely the drummer of record for quite a few Sansu artists of the period such as Diamond Joe, Eldridge Holmes, and Betty Harris, though documentation is spotty at best.

“Go Go Girl”
(Allen R. Toussaint)

Lee Dorsey, Amy 998, 1967

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

I thought I’d just offer a couple of examples of tracks I am pretty sure June was on. Of course, the Lee Dorsey song everybody cites for June’s playing was one of the biggest hits,
“Working In The Coal Mine”, with its smooth, stylized syncopation.

Recorded the next year, “Go Go Girl” is more straight ahead and upbeat; but if you listen closely, you can hear June quote the some of the “Coal Mine” beat several times throughout this song - a little trick the composer/producer used frequently, adding snippets of riffs in one song that refer back to an earlier song (or songs).

As did Quezergue, Toussaint meticulously constructed his arrangements, and expected his musicians to reproduce them exactly. Not just anybody could deliver with precision like that; and Toussaint was quite particular about who he used. So, it makes sense that June Gardner, once approved, was a regular, having the chops and temperament for the job. He and Toussaint also had a history going back at least to the Joy Tavern gigs.

“I’m Gonna Git Ya” (Allen R. Toussaint)
Betty Harris, Sansu 471, 1967

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

It’s likely that June was the drummer on some of Dorsey’s earlier Amy hits, too, such as “Get Out My Life Woman”, with its metronomic hit-hat and funky, push-pull kick drum foundation. On that song, Toussaint worked in some brief single note Professor Longhair-style piano riffs; and “I’m Gonna Git Ya”, with the sultry Ms Harris on vocal, had a similar approach, as Toussaint referred back to piano lines in “Get Out My Life Woman” and added a few more Fess-isms to boot. The tempo was slow and the drum pattern broken down to bare essentials of snare and kick - syncopated, but too abstract to be called funk. You can really hear the drummer being Toussaint’s equivalent to a programmable beat sequencer on this one. As unconventionally “simple” as it sounds, only a trained, technically adept (and very patient) drummer could have gotten it right; and, considering when it was recorded, I think that would have been Gentleman June, once again.

On the live performance side, Gardner got back into jazz, joining pianist Ed Frank’s band in the 1960s, and later forming his own traditional outfit. As for recording, he played on only a few more sessions that I am aware of after Toussaint took on the Meters. In the early 1970s, he cut a good instrumental funk single for Senator Jones’ new Hep’ Me label as Gentleman June Gardner, “Tennessee Waltz” b/w “The Jolly Little Midget” (#105), that sank without a trace and eludes me to this day, though I have the tracks on the that Funky Delicacies CD compilation I mentioned. In 1978, Toussaint used him again for two tracks backing Albert King on his New Orleans Heat album, recorded at Sea-Saint. There may have been other random sessions he made in those days, too. If you know of any, let us know.

While he might have seemed too straight for the hometown recording scene when stacked up against New Orleans funkiest session drummers, June Gardner played with some of the best artists of his day, delivered the goods for some demanding producers, and could summon the funk when the occasion arose, as these few examples of his recording work show. That’s why “the man on the boom boom”, as he often humbly and humorously described himself onstage, will always have a room in the Home of the Groove.

*[Hot Line 118 appears to have been the label’s very first release. The R&B Indies discography of the label starts with it, as it has the lowest matrix numbers (174-1290/1291) in the Hot Line series. Why the release number led off with 118 is a mystery; and there were only three releases with numbers this low (118, 119 & 120). The remainder ran from #901 forward.]


Blogger Ophelia said...

Incredible post! And blog, for that matter! I grew up listening to this music on my grandpa Snooks' knee - definitely brings me back, although not as far as those who were there for the live recording!

Great job!

3:43 PM, December 06, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Blog......I love it & visit often....Happy Holidays!

4:15 PM, December 06, 2010  
Blogger ana-b said...

Excellent! Nice to finally get a clue as to who's playing on some of Toussaints pre-Meters stuff.

You mention that Gardner may done some other work with Toussaint after 1967. I've long wondered about some of K-Doe's "Here Come The Girl's" sessions. Sure doesn't sound like Modeliste playing on a good many of those tunes to me. In fact, I've often thought the song, "Here Come The Girl's" sounds like it was recorded a 2 or 3 years before it was released.

Any chance that might be Gentleman June on some of those tracks?

5:08 PM, December 06, 2010  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Snooks' granddaughter! Ophelia, glad you enjoy the blog. He is missed.

And, ana, June might very well have been on at least some of those K-Doe tracks from the eponymous LP. There's no documentation that I know of. I do think at least some of the Meters were on some of the tracks, including Zig; but, as you note, certain tracks do not have that Zigginess, even though Toussaint, pretty much assigned the drum beats - which is one reason why Zig quit doing sessions for him. But, still, June is a good candidate for those.

And happy holidays to all y'all, too.

11:59 PM, December 06, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You play such incredible stuff man. And you have such extensive knowledge of it. My visits here are an aural and intellectual pleasure.

12:28 AM, December 09, 2010  
Anonymous Jipes said...

I definitely love Betty Harris voice Dan ! Do you know this CD
Sehorn'S Soul Farm : 50 New Orleans Soul Classics [CD] ? Would you recommend it ?

Otherwise any Cd from this great artist ?

6:51 AM, December 09, 2010  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks again, y'all. I'm glad you find this information to be of some use and enjoy the music.

Good to hear from you, too, Jipes. The Sehorn's Soul Farm CD is a great collection of Toussaint productions/arrangements from the 1960s and 1970s by many artists. There was one here in the states on Sundazed called Get Down Low, focusing on the Tou-Sea/Sansu period of the mid to late 1960s; but that is now out of print.

As for a Betty Harris collection, I think the only one still in print is Betty Harris: the Lost Soul Queen. It's put out by Aim and is pretty mich a re-issue of the WestSide CD from the 1990s, Soul Perfection Plus, as far as I can tell. Most of the material is her work with Toussaint, plus at least one from her earlier releases on Jubilee.

8:24 AM, December 09, 2010  
Blogger Ophelia said...

@Dan He certainly is missed! I'm very fortunate to have my memories plus his music.

And that Betty Harris track has def made it into heavy rotation this week! Thanks again :)

7:02 PM, December 09, 2010  
Anonymous Jipes said...

Thanks Dan I'll go for it !

4:18 AM, December 10, 2010  
Anonymous Singing Lesson said...

I've long wondered about some of K-Doe's "Here Come The Girl's" sessions. Sure doesn't sound like Modeliste playing on a good many of those tunes to me.

1:08 PM, January 11, 2011  

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