May 19, 2010

Dennis Lee Abides On Sunday Afternoon

In the midst of working up the last post, trying to find some label shots of Dennis Lee's other 45s to peruse for information, I ran across one on auction: Jenmark 104, "Sunday Afternoon" b/w "Funky Penguin". The labels looked pretty worn, but the surface condition was said to be VG (Very Good - which in collector parlance actually means having a reasonable amount of wear and tear); so I went for it.

I had heard "Sunday Afternoon" before on an archived broadcast of Mr. Finewine's fine Downtown Soulville show on WFMU. If you are not familiar with the station, their broadcasts and archives are a great resource for hearing hip, obscure and very hard to find music of many varieties, including plenty of old R&B, soul and funk. In addition, their Beware of the Blog manages to be funny, absurd, and informative, often simultaneously. (end of uncompensated plug)

Anyway, back to the pursuit. Upon hearing the song, I knew I needed me one, but didn't have any luck finding a copy until this popped up last week. As luck would have it, the other bidders dropped out before I reached my limit; and I got it. But, when the record came in the other day, I looked it over thought about sending it back. Calling the playing surface VG was somewhat of a stretch. It looked like it had been used for dinnerware - a dense web of scratches and other strange blemishes overlaying the grooves. Still, the stylus and tone arm of my 'table can track it just fine, though there are plenty of snaps, crackles and pops to be heard. Since the 45 is so hard to find and one in better condition likely hard to afford to boot, I'm keeping this one. But, for your ears, I have run the digitized audio through the filtering software I have that does a fairly decent job at picking out the noise while keeping the musical information intact. This record really put it to the test.

But the geeks and groove-hounds know this stuff already; and the rest of you probably don't really give a flip. So, with the disclosures and disclaimers out of the way, let's listen and discuss why I think this one is worth the trouble.

"Sunday Afternoon" (Dennie Lee - Edwin Williams)
Dennis Lee & Notables, Jenmark 104, ca 1972
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

This song first jumped out at me because it definitely has a discernible atmospheric feel-good quality that matches its subject matter, a great cha-cha kinda groove, and a terrific vocal performance by man of mystery, Dennis Lee. Repeated plays have only reinforced this to me. The sense that comes across here is that he is one utterly cool dude; and his smoothly casual delivery sells it with confidence.

The instrumental backing was fairly sparse and simple. Listening closely, even on this mp3 I think you can hear a nylon string acoustic guitar, bass, congas with a snare drum played mostly on the rim, a little cheapo organ, an electric piano (Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer) kept in the lower register, some fairly unobtrusive female backing vocalists, and a muted trumpet that verges on annoying. While the horn might have been a good choice sonically for the track, the player didn't have much to offer. His best notes were at the beginning; and the rest of the time he sounded like the giant droning mosquito that almost ruined that party in the park.

Basic as it is, I like the general arrangement. Each instrument had a fairly simple musical and rhythmic part to play; and they combined to create a nice, uncluttered flow that Lee floated his vocal over with ease. Unfortunately, on the ride-out of the song going into the fade, the accompaniment started to fall apart. It's weird. All the players and the girls just kind of lost their way and drifted out of the groove, like they thought the song would fade earlier than it did and stopped paying attention. What saved things was Dennis, the dude, who seemed unfazed by all this and continued to croon with aplomb all the way through. If you follow his vocal, which most folks would do, it doesn't really much matter about the band.

An example of the whole being more than the sum of the parts, the track likely had its off-the-cuff sound because co-producer (along with Charles Brimmer) and label-owner, Senator Jones, didn't like to burn money on studio time getting things tight and right. He went with good enough; but maybe that's part of the charm of the whole exercise. It has a spontaneous, live quality to it that might have been lost on a more perfect take.

Hardly a creative, breakthrough composition, "Sunday Afternoon" may be a bit generic-sounding; but it's hard to get out of my head. There were many such songs of the era that had a similar kind of flavor and subject matter about hanging out with your baby on lazy day, "Groovin'" by the Young Rascals from the prior decade being the most obvious one. In this scenario, the dude brought some wine (in my imagination, Ripple, appellation funqué) to set the right mood for his lady, who is surely at one with her hot pants. Caught up in my reverie, I'm transported lakeside, and can almost feel myself turning that screw-off cap to take a slow swig of the cool, sweet, fruity alcohol. It has a heady radiator coolant aftertaste with just a hint of benzene finish. Good times. Now, about those hot pants. . . .

Excuse me. I actually don't recall my experience with Ripple back in the day being quite so, um, romantic; but some music rolls a little movie in my mind; and "Sunday Afternoon" does the trick. It's a portal to a place and time where stone cool Dennis Lee still abides. Feel free to add it to the soundtrack of your next daydream. It's coming up on hot pants weather, for sure.

May 15, 2010

Do The Funky Penguin/Belly

Life and the grooves go on. Getting back to music posting, if I remember how to do this, I've got some 45 sides up for consideration from two guys who recorded under the last name of Lee - though, in one case, that wasn't actually his last name. The other, maybe yes, maybe no. He's a mystery man. The only reason I've put them together here is that they both made dance records that actually lived up to the "funky" in their titles. And as far as I'm concerned, it's way past time to get back to the funk.


"Funky Belly" (Warren Lee)
Warren Lee, Wand 1194, 1968
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

For additional background on Warren Lee Taylor, who appeared as Warren Lee on most of his records, please see the links below* to the two previous posts I've done on him. During his recording career, which spanned the 1960s and extended a bit into the next decade, this singer and songwriter worked with some of the best producer/arrangers in the city - Eddie Bo, Wardell Quezergue and Allen Toussaint; but, despite some of his records doing well locally, he never found a substantial national audience. His somewhat gravelly voice was serviceable with a limited range, similar to Chris Kenner, a contemporary who also made some worthy dance records in his day.

Toussaint and his business partner, Marshall Sehorn, picked Taylor up in mid-decade; and his first two singles on their Deesu label had clear hit potential. The A-side
s, "Star Revue" (1965), written by Taylor, and Toussaint's "Climb The Ladder" (1966) were upbeat, infectious dancefloor material. The former was popular in New Orleans both on the radio and at Taylor's gigs; but the next release for some reason failed to get much air-play (maybe it was the semi-suggestive lyrics - see below). He followed those with the self-penned dance number, "Underdog Backstreet", on Tou-Sea in 1967, a much less intense, mid-tempo mover produced by Quezergue with Taylor talking his lyrics rather than singing, in the same sort of style as Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back". It too received lots of local DJ spins, but, like the earlier singles, couldn't seem to get heard much beyond the city limits.

Right about that time, the bottom dropped out of the local music market due to the demise of Cosimo Matassa's Dover Records. The company represented most of the small labels in New Orleans, manufacturing, distributing, licensing and marketing their products, but began to experience cash-flow problems around 1966 and soon hit the skids when it could not get additional financing. As a result of owing steep back taxes, all of Matassa's business assets, including recording equipment and the master tapes he held, were eventually seized by the IRS. I have read that even before the company went of out business, DJ's outside of New Orleans were refusing to play anything Dover sent out, as the wheels were no longer being greased. This disaster also took down most of the labels Dover represented, including Toussaint and Sehorn's Tou-Sea production company; but, luckily, the two had the resources to regroup, because their biggest hit-maker, Lee Dorsey, was signed to a national label. They soon set up Sansu Enterprises, revamped Deesu, and started the new Sansu label, developing and releasing material by various artists, as well as leasing singles to outside labels.

In 1968, the partners heard Art Neville's combo, the Neville Sounds, in a French Quarter club and straight-away hired them to be the new Sansu production band, re-named the Meters. Thus, when Warren Lee was brought back in for another try at marking a chart-climber, he had just the right players on hand for his turn to the funky side. "Funky Belly" kept to his dance record modus operandi; but the Meters took the song way down in the groove thanks to drummer Zig Modeliste's broken-up strutting that furnished a fresh set of moves. Notably, on this production, Toussaint, contrary to his usual micro-managed approach to arranging, simply allowed the Meters to be themselves, with the result that the instrumentation had the uncluttered yet provocative signature sound of their own Josie releases, which were just starting to hit. To that he added some effective horn section support, resulting in a backing track that Taylor couldn't help but feel. His vocal performance was so infused with the rhythmic thrusts of the tune he sounds like he was dancing in front of the microphone.

Sehorn placed the single with Wand Records out of New York, which offered a chance for national exposure; but nothing much happened. As Taylor related to Jeff Hannusch in
The Soul of New Orleans, he was disappointed and perplexed to learn from influential local DJ Larry McKinley that the song was considered too sexually suggestive for airplay - pretty much due only to the use of the word "belly". This in a town noted for its Bourbon Street strip joints and licentious Mardi Gras revelry, among other moral peccadilloes. It meant that the record would not even have a shot at breaking out at home, let alone getting any farther. Hypocrisy, thus, trumped funk and ruled the day.

Too bad for Warren Lee and Sansu, as this one could have been a contender. The flip side, "Born In The Ghetto", could not substitute, as it was far too musically incongruous for its serious subject matter, sounding like a countrified Coke jingle. So, on Taylor's next record, they gave up on trying to start a new dance craze but nevertheless played the funk card again with "Mama Said We Can't Get Married", released in 1969 on Deesu, which seems to have been the B-side to the deep soul ballad, "A Lady". Borrowing heavily from Soul Brother Number One, Taylor along with the Meters gave a good approximation of high-energy Brownian motion on "Mama Said" that is fun to listen to, but ultimately less satisfying than "Funky Belly", at least to these compromised ears. After that record flopped, Taylor got his walking papers from Sansu and had only one other commercial release, "Direct From the Ghetto" b/w "So Suddenly" around 1974 on the very short-lived Choctaw label. The top side was a much more dramatic approach to the subject of life in the ghetto than his earlier attempt and had a big, effective arrangement to boot; but it failed to get noticed. Taylor continued performing live with his band until 1977, when he suffered a stroke that effectively ended his musical career.

Prior Warren Lee posts:
In Pursuit of Bo-Consciousness - Part 3
Dancin' On Deesu


"Funky Penguin Part I" (Dennis Lee)
Dennis Lee & Notables, Jenmark 102, ca 1971
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

"Funky Penguin Part II
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

OK. About Dennis Lee & Notables, I've got very little to offer and can only assume he sang lead on this record and used his actual name (which is also shown in the BMI database); nor do I know if he and his band were from New Orleans or not. We can suppose, though, that they were one of myriad young neighborhood bands of the era playing soul and funk and trying to catch a break in the music business. In Lee's case, he came up with a quirky dance song gimmick with a great groove and got the attention of label-owner, entrepreneur Senator Jones, who somehow managed to keep his shoestring operations going while most other small labels in the city bit the dust.

As with many of Jones' low-rent productions, the recording quality was rather sketchy; but Lee, his band, and the arrangement sound tight and top-notch. Sure, it was just a dance record with disposable lyrical content; but Lee definitely had easy on the ear vocal ability, and the Notables could lock-in a groove - making repeat plays a pleasure. Actually, I am having trouble envisioning a penguin-like dance being done to his butt-shaker - but, then again, I might be mistaken for a giant auk myself were I moving to it out in public (I dance best in the privacy of my own mind).

Jones first released the song as this two-sider - the flip being the instrumental version - on his Jenmark imprint, probably in 1971 or 1972 (there is what appears to be a likely recording date in the code below the publishing information on Jenmark 45 labels). It was the second release on Jenmark, with #101 having been Lonnie Jones' "She's My Baby" b/w "Treat Your Baby Right", produced by local soul singer, Charles Brimmer, who was also doing some recording for Senator Jones at the time on his new Hep' Me label. As the #101 label helpfully indicated, Jenmark was "A Division of Hep' Me Records". The R&B Indies discography for Jenmark lists only six releases; and three of them were by Dennis Lee & Notables. On #104, "Funky Penguin" was recycled to the B-side with the ultra-hip, latinesque groover "Sunday Afternoon" on top (I've got a copy of this coming in the mail), which was co-produced by Jones and Brimmer. Lee's voice was particularly appealing on that one; and I hope to bring it to you soon. Finally, Jones again shuffled sides, moving "Sunday Afternoon" to the B-side of #106, a real rarity, which had "Growing Away From Me" as the featured cut. Actually, only Lee's name was shown on the one label shot I've seen from that 45, the Notables being un-noted.

Other than those releases, I can't find any evidence that either Dennis Lee or these Notables made any more records. Which is a shame, because on the basis of just the couple of cuts I've heard, I'm a funky fan. If you have anything more on him, please let me/us know about it. It would be great to find out I'm wrong.

May 05, 2010

In the Sweet By And By

June R. Phillips 1924 - 2010

Lost my mom last Thursday, April 29th. It's doubly tough right on the heels of the death of my mother-in-law a few weeks earlier. There's no way to sum up all my mom and my dad have done for me over the years; but, because of them, I grew up surrounded by music and had the freedom and trust early on to explore so many things. They introduced me to New Orleans when I was a kid, little knowing what a profound effect it would have on me over the years. As hard as it was for all of us sometimes, they simply allowed me to be who I am and go for what I wanted and needed, having faith that I would do the right thing (eventually). What a profound gift that continues to be, and what an example to live up to. I certainly agree with many other people who have told me that my mom was a saint, even though it still hasn't completely dawned on me what that really means. Hope to figure it all out in the fullness of time.

I chanced upon this video of the late Juanita Brooks, who passed away earlier this year, and some great New Orleans players, doing a fine rendition of this old spiritual. It seems perfectly apt, as the sweet by and by is where my mom deserves to be, enjoying rolling good times forevermore.
- Peace

Note: Thanks to everyone who sent condolences to me on the loss of my mom and mother-in-law, whether in the comments here or by email, and to those who kept me and my family in your thoughts, or simply sent some positive vibes our way. It really meant and means a lot.