The Soulful Tenacity of Chuck Simmons
As a recording artist on various small local labels, New Orleans native Charles ‘Chuck’ Simmons worked closely with one of the city’s great record men, producer/arranger Wardell Quezergue, for over two decades. There were some jewels among his sporadic releases from the mid-1960s into the 1980s; but none took him very far in the business, which is why you are reading about him here, of course. In 2001, Simmons first appeared on my radar via one of the Tuff City/Funky Delicacies CD compilations of Big Q production projects, Wardell Quezergue’s Funky Funky New Orleans, which included three of his sides, the two-part “Lay It On Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody”.
That’s where my quest for his records and more about the man began. Then, in 2003, Funky Delicacies released a fairly comprehensive CD compilation of Simmons’s work, Hustler’s Strut: Rare & Unreleased Lower Ninth Ward New Orleans Funk 1965-1978, revealing how much more there was to find and containing Kevin Goins’ fairly detailed and helpful notes covering the singer’s life and career(s). This overview would not exist without that information, which I have distilled and supplemented with some of the records and additional factoids I’ve come up with over the past decade.
I’m starting more or less in the middle of Chuck Simmons’ recording career, before I backtrack to discuss his earlier work, because what I’ve collected on him so far is output from the 1970s. Those records are somewhat easier to find and not too expensive, though not always his best. His 1960s singles were fewer and, of course, now even more rare. None of his records ever had wide distribution. But let’s begin our listening session with a single containing a version of one of his funkiest tracks, paired with perhaps a career-best vocal performance.
“Lay It On Me” (W. Quezergue - C. Simmons - E. Small)
Chuck Simmons, F.C.W. 1001, ca 1976
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“Everybody Needs Somebody” (Frederick Knight)
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You know one thing. I can’t dance one lick; but, when I hear a groove like this, I got to move sumpin’. - Chuck Simmons, “Hustler’s Strut, Part 2”
This release of “Lay It On Me” is a spin-off of a spin-off. Its highly funkified backing music originally appeared on an earlier Chuck Simmons two-part single, “Hustler’s Strut”, from 1973, recorded at Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s new Sea-Saint Studios. From what I’ve learned in the last few years, the session band probably included the dangerous Herman Ernest on drums, Ralph Richardson (?) on bass, guitarist Teddy Royal, and Sam Henry on keyboard, along with a horn section led by Quezergue, who produced, arranged and co-wrote the tune with Elliott Small and another collaborator. “Hustler’s Strut” was released by Simmons’ own extremely low-profile label, Broom Records, and pursued the old, unreliable formula of trying get a hit by inciting a new dance craze, but it didn’t click. As Simmons’ told Goines, he always thought the fairly consistent lack of radio play his records got was due to his inability to participate in pay to play with the DJs.
Rightly thinking that the music track was not the problem, Simmons and Quezergue later decided to re-cycle the tune. They recorded new lyrics for it that were even more generic than before. doing away with the dance angle and substituting simple pleas to get some action. The result, “Lay It On Me”, still in two-sided format [hear Part 1 on Youtube], was released on the Move label (#107). which I think Simmons also owned, and met with a better reception, at least partially disproving his theory about the DJs. Even with scant promotion, “Lay It On Me” got spins on several New Orleans stations, showed up on local jukeboxes, and was popular for a while in clubs around down, but did not progress beyond that initial buzz.
Over the next decade or so, Simmons and Quezergue would resurrected the song, at least Part 2 of it, several more times. Our featured single on the one-off F.C.W. label contained that part of “Lay It On Me” together with “Everybody Needs Somebody”, a rousing soul groover written by someone from outside the New Orleans sphere, R&B muti-tasker Frederick Knight. Goines indicates that “Everybody” was cut in Baton Rouge in 1976; and I’ve since learned that it was probably done at Royal Shield Studio, owned by the father of singer Cynthia Sheeler. While Simmons pretty much rapped the basic verses and did some shouting on “Lay It On Me”, lowering and roughing up his voice, his singing on “Everybody Needs Somebody” was outstanding, his tenor strong, pure, and expressive, making it definitely one of his best recorded efforts.
“I’m Wondering About Your Love” (J. Broussard-R. Williams-C. Washington) Charles Simmons, Hep’ Me 165, ca 1978
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Somewhat later, Simmons, using his given name, cut this single at Sea-Saint for Senator Jones’ Hep’ Me label, which also used Part 2 of “Lay It On Me” for the flip side. “Wondering” was another nice slice of upbeat soul with a rewardingly dense, multi-rhythmic Quezergue arrangement that again put Simmons' voice right in his sweet spot, certainly his most effective range, making for another performance worthy of repeated plays. The song was co-written by his long-time music partner, Joe Broussard, along with Ralph Williams and Carol Washington, all of whom were part of Quezergue’s production team going back to the 1960s.
The soul singing Simmons did in the mid-1970 would prove to be his highest quality work, but he still had some good performances to commit to tape. Before moving on, though, it’s time to go back and get the story of how he got started on his musical path and first came to the attention of Mr. Quezergue.
* * * * * * *
Born in 1938, Chuck Simmons’ first nine years were spent with his family living near downtown New Orleans. They then moved East, out across the Industrial Canal into the lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s many musically fecund neighborhoods. Fats Domino, ten years older than Chuck and yet to be discovered, lived nearby. Simmons did the rest of his growing up there, becoming a boxer and auto mechanic, but not contemplating a performing career until the late 1950s, when he became friends with Joseph Broussard, who had just moved into the neighborhood. A budding songwriter, Joe encouraged Chuck to start singing; and they began working on music together over the next few years with the goal of making records someday.
Aiming high, in 1965 the pair auditioned for Allen Toussaint, the top producer, arranger and writer in the city. He didn’t think Chuck was quite ready to record as a featured vocalist and passed. Undeterred, they then approached Wardell Quezergue, co-owner of Nola Records and Toussaint’s main music business rival at the time. He too thought the pair were still green, but saw promise in their writing skills and determination, and so agreed to mentor them.
From there, Simmons formed his first band, the Royal Imperials (impressively redundant!), and got a small local label, PJ Records, interested in putting out a 45 on them. The result was “Do The Sissy” b/w “Why Should They Pay” (#107), recorded at Cosimo’s studio and billing them as Charley Simmons & the Royal Imperials. Quezergue did the arrangements and helped out with the mixing of the record. Quite funky for the time, though a bit sloppy in execution, “Do The Sissy” was a dancer fashioned after James Brown’s newly emergent kind of groove thang, on which Simmons didn’t actually sing but rather repeatedly said the song title or just “sissy” and issued some emphatic screams and grunts; but he settled down for some emotive balladry on the other side. Although local DJ Shelly Pope gave it some spins, no one else picked up on “Do The Sissy”; and it quickly fell by the wayside. Goines dates the single as 1965; but that seems to be a bit early. I’m not sure when the Sissy dance started getting popular in New Orleans; but Simmons’ number is the only local song I know of that referenced it before Curley Moore’s “Sophisticated Sissy” came out in 1968. Up in Memphis, Rufus Thomas had a separate release on Stax with the same title as Moore’s in 1967. Whatever the exact date, it is clear that Simmons and Quezergue were exploring funk early on; and they would continue to participate in the development of the genre.
The Royal Imperials disbanded soon after their record came out, due to the death of their drummer. So, under Quezegue’s guidance, Chuck took solo billing as Charley Simmons for his next studio venture, establishing his own label, Broom Records, to release “Do The Funky Broom” b/w “Make This A Better World” (#001), which Goines puts in 1967. Living up to its title, the A-side sought to get yet another new dance started and had a mid-tempo, highly syncopated groove. A clockwork Quezergue arrangement, it provides clear evidence that he had already worked out the basic mechanics of his own signature approach to multi-instrument, poly-rhythmic funk several years before going to Malaco to produce his most well-known hits.
The other side had a similar but less intense feel; and both likely featured Smokey Johnson on the drum kit, since Quezergue used him on a lot of sessions in the 1960s and also had produced and arranged Smokey’s own funky Nola 45s. Interestingly, Goines also relates that Quezergue recruited Art Neville and Leo Nocentelli as organist and guitarist respectively on the “Funky Broom” session. At the time, the pair were part of Art’s combo, the Neville Sounds, who would soon to go to work for Toussaint and become the Meters. Yet, once again, Simmons saw his promising single receive only brief, limited airplay before being put in the reject box.
After Cosimo’s recording operation was shut down by bankruptcy, Quezergue began seeking other venues for his projects. Probably late in 1969, he went to the relatively new and well-equipped Malaco studio in Jackson, MS and worked out a deal with the owners to develop artists and material to be recorded there using mainly the house band and shopped to various labels for release. First up early in 1970 was a vocal group that Big Q and Joe Broussard assembled, the Unemployed, which included Broussard, Simmons, Ronald Walton, Michael Adams, and George Quezergue, the producer’s son. The first single they cut at Malaco was the two-sided “Funky Thing” which was picked up by Atlantic and released on their Cotillion imprint that spring. “Funky Rooster” b/w “They Won’t Let Me”, followed in 1971. The sides with “funky” in the titles were basically one trick riff tunes with unison singing that didn’t do much to advance the Unemployed or he cause of funk for that matter; but "They Won't Let Me" was funky without calling attention to it, a fine upbeat groover that could have been a Barons track. Sales were lackluster at best. Their failure to connect with the public and certain internal problems soon broke the group up; but, by that time, several of Quezergue’s other Malaco productions were reaping big dividends with hits for King Floyd (“Groove Me”) and a young female singer who Simmons had introduced to Quezergue, Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff” - written by Broussard, Williams and Washington).
Over the course of the next year or so, Big Q was busy with more production work on Floyd, Knight, and other New Orleans artists such as the Barons, Joe Wilson; and Elliott Small; but he also recorded an album’s worth of solo material on Simmons that Broussard contributed to, though the project would come to naught when Malaco balked at releasing it, claiming the prolific Quezergue was giving them more product than they could handle. Disappointingly, the project was shelved and remains unissued to this day. After Floyd’s “Groove Me” cooled off, Atlantic began using the studio to record their own artists but backed off from their agreement to distribute Malaco’s in-house productions, leaving the company with limited choices for getting music into the marketplace. They issued singles on Floyd and several other artists on their own Chimneyville imprint, but distribution was spotty at that point, as were sales. Querzergue continued to work with the temperamental Floyd for a while until the two had a serious falling out. He also did some arranging for other Malaco sessions; but by 1973 he had changed his recording base back to New Orleans, when the Sea-Saint complex came on-line and the city’s recording scene once again picked up. He assisted on various Sansu projects there, and also took on some production work for Senator Jones’ labels.
Meanwhile, Simmons had to wait several years to get a record released again. Fortunately, he had his mechanic business to fall back on to keep food on the table for his family, as he would never have any substantial paydays from his music ventures. His first project to see daylight at Sea-Saint was the unsuccessful Broom 45, “Hustler‘s Strut”, as discussed, which he followed with the somewhat better-accepted make-over, “Lay It On Me”, on the Move label. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Simmons, Broussard, and Quezergue continued to work on material together, which led to subsequent 45 releases by the singer, including F-W 10001 (with the impressively deep “Runaway”), plus F.C.W. 1001 and Hep’ Me 165 featured above. There were later more singles on Move, plus an LP and a few 45s for Ria.
After a brief descent into disco with the confusingly titled “We Always Doing The Rock”, a/k/a “Doing the Rock”, (Move 777) in the late 1970s, which came out as a two-part 45 and a 12” single and received only club play, Simmons and his team went back to soul and funk in the 1980s.
“Am I Grooving You” (J. Broussard-G. Williams-C. Washington)
Chuck Simmons, Move 2001, early 1980s
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Another track that Goines says was recorded in Baton Rouge (probably several years before its release), “Am I Grooving You” was a solid Quezergue production like “Everybody Needs Somebody” with a bright, engaging vocal by Simmons; but, although it does groove, the song doesn’t flow as well. The structure and melody line of the verses seem awkward and hard to sing, enough to distract from the addictive chorus. Still, I prefer the song to the flip side, “Something’s Going On In My Home”, an upbeat, funky, but cliched take on the oft-told “my woman’s got another man” story line that to me doesn’t rise above average in any department; and the cheesy synthesizer patches used on that track, though trendy at the time, have not aged well. As might be expected by now, this record, too, failed to get a hearing on the radio.
Simmons’ final Move single (#4077), “Don’t Create Complications” b/w “Kid Stuff”, came out in 1983 (my copy is date-stamped on side 2), and again had Quezergue in charge. Definitely uncomplicated, the top side was mid-tempo funk without much fire, or even smoke, that Simmons delivered an octave below his normal range, limiting what he could do with it. Meanwhile, “Kid Stuff”, a nice ballad originally recorded by the Barons on Shagg in the late 1960s and penned by the Broussard-Williams-Washington team, had potential, but Simmons’ vocal never locked in and sounds under-rehearsed. Leaving aside the fact that both tracks again had the soulless synths buzzing and tweeting around, the main problem with the single was in the singing; and I’d guess that Simmons may have simply not been able to afford to buy more studio time and get it right.
1983 was also the year of his final single (#182) for the Hep’ Me label, “”No One Can Love You Like Me” b/w “Love Motivation”, which both seem rather underwhelming to me; but, strangely, as Goines points out, it was one of the more successful records of Simmons’ career, with the bluesy top side getting enough airplay to qualify as a local hit, opening doors for him into some lucrative club work for a time. Since he had done better records that didn’t get recognized, I think it was just the luck of the draw this time.
A few years later, Simmons, Broussard, and Quezergue were involved in an album project put together by Maria Tynes for her own label, Ria Records. A singer and songwriter herself, Tynes had recorded briefly for the Uptown label in the late 1960s and wrote a song for Fats Domino that appeared around 1970 on the Fats Is Back album. Her connection to Quezergue and Broussard came about when she joined Big Q’s songwriting team, headed by Boussard, in the early 1970s, co-authoring numerous tunes for Jean Knight’s Stax recordings and for at least one Malaco artist.
As Simmons related to Goines, the Ria LP was financed by certain outside “investors”; and, although the production phase seemingly went well-enough, stressful subterfuge behind the scenes caused Chuck to ultimately withdraw from the music business for good. After the tracks were finished, one of the so-called investors absconded with the master tapes along with the money to pay for record-pressing. For whatever reason, it fell to Simmons to hunt the person down and retrieve the tapes. By hook or crook, a single, “Good Lovin’ Woman” / “Play Mate” (Ria 597), in 45 and 12”formats came out in 1986. The A-side was a cut from the LP; which itself would be released the next year. Titled (no joke) Slurpin’ after one of the songs, which was co-written by Tynes and extolled the joys of oral sex (fashioned after Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’”), the ill-fated, if not ill-advised, fiasco returned no dividends - you can’t make this stuff up. Had that title cut been done about 15 or 20 years later as a rap song, it might have made it. Meanwhile, that cover art is timeless...and priceless.
Though the album never made it to digital, vinyl copies can still be found online fairly cheaply. I think there are a few songs on it that make Slurpin’ worth the effort, other than just having one for the collector’s oddity it surely is.
“Send Me My Lil Woman” (J. Broussard)
Chuck Simmons, from Slurpin’, Ria, 1987
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Actually only three of the songs on the LP, including the title track, seem to have been produced specifically for the project. All the others, including “Send Me My Lil Woman”, were recycled masters of songs that Broussard had written and Simmons and Quezergue recorded years earlier. Most of those had been released on singles that we’ve discussed earlier, including “Lay It On Me” (Part 2, one more time), “Something’s Going On”, “Wondering”, and both sides of Hep’ Me 182. Quezergue and Tynes tinkered to some degree with all of them seeking a fresher sound. In a few cases that meant loading on extraneous, distracting electronic gimmicks that hurt more than helped. Fortunately, “Send Me My Lil Woman”, very likely cut in the late1970s and not previously issued, was not messed with too much other than the addition of a second vocal part.
A fine example of Southern soul written by Broussard (who had a hand in all of the LP material), the tune is a rarely heard example of Quezergue’s arranging expertise, matched by one of Chuck’s most expressive vocals. This lost gem is easily the highlight of Slurpin’, at least for me.
The Funky Delicacies CD on Chuck calls the song “Don’t Send Me No Doctor”, because that is what was written on a tape box (dated 1978 as shown in a photo on the insert) from Sea-Saint; but the track title shown on the Ria album is matched by the BMI database.
“You’re the Only One” (W. Sanford - J.Broussard)
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This minor-key winner seems to have been written for the album, too. Smooth and spare, “You’re The One” has a tastefully rendered light funk arrangement. Simmons sings the lightweight lyrics soulfully in a somewhat lower register than his 1970s material, and his simmering delivery makes them sound convincing.
The back cover of the LP lists the players on the mainly Sea-Saint sessions; but it doesn’t specify who played on what track over the more than a decade encompassed by the recordings. Still, it’s an impressive roster of mainly Quezergue regulars. With your indulgence, my guesses for the basic rhythm section on this track include Q’s right hand-man, Sam Henry, on keyboards, David Barard on bass, and Bunchy Johnson on drums. Amadee Castenell likely took the brief sax solo.
Surveying Chuck Simmons’ 20 plus years as a recording artist, it’s hard not to be impressed by the man’s sheer perseverance in the face of numerous obstacles, setbacks, and the often long odds of success. That drive and inspiration bordering on obsession seems endemic to Home of the Groove music and record makers; and those of us obsessively seeking to assimilate what they have wrought should be very thankful for it. Though not a top of the line singer, Chuck was a good one fortunate enough to be part of a multi-talented team who worked with him to make quite a few memorable records - even if relatively few people at the time got the opportunity to hear them. Learning of his many connections to the New Orleans music scene has helped me fill in more gaps in my limited knowledge of the city’s musical legacy; and I hope it’s done the same for you and maybe turned you on to more great tunes and grooves that have languished in obscurity far too long.
Note: Tracks from the Hustler’s Strut CD are also available for download from various purveyors and are worth checking out in any format.
~ Happy Holidays and stay tuned next week for some end of the year specials... ~