August 21, 2010

Richie Hayward: Little Feat's Funky Heartbeat

My style has grown with the band. It started out heavily influenced by blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz. Then it got more specific as I got into other kinds of American folk music and other roots music. I discovered New Orleans along the way and that made a big difference - it loosened me up. - Richie Hayward in Modern Drummer, 1995.

I was so sad to hear the news last week about the passing of beat-master Richie Hayward, drummer and co-founder of Little Feat, which has been an incredible roots rock band since before there was a term to describe it. Although I’m a guitarist, I seem to have always locked into the drummer first when assessing music live or on record; and Richie Hayward got my attention from the get-go back in 1973, when I first heard the Feat doing Dixie Chicken”*, from their album of the same name. Back then my groove fixation was evident (loved soul/funk music, African and Latin music, and intense drummers like Billy Cobham) but unfocused - more of an instinctive gut (butt?) reaction somewhere deep in my DNA than something I could articulate (still trying!). It would be several years yet until I heard Meters’ records (LPs first). Later, in 1978-79, I had a consciousness-expanding, life-changing experience in a club (Jeds) in New Orleans one night, listening to the Neville Brothers for the first time, when instinct became idea and I suddenly realized that I was in the Home of the Groove (I didn’t quite have that name yet, though), an incredibly rich wellspring of poly-rhythmic music that I had to explore. I'm still at it.....

Anyway back to Richie and his band. So, I quite naturally got into Little Feat’s
grooves, impressive playing*, and albums of the 1970s, all of ‘em. Richie had such a fluid, natural way of breaking up the beats. Whether he was being subtle or slammin’, he had that tight-is-loose, zen-like drumming zone down. There were definite New Orleans influences in their writing and playing, which blossomed at the time of
Dixie Chicken; but that really only became apparent to me gradually over time as I began to seriously assimilate the funkier side of what the city had to offer. But right then, it was enough to dig ‘em for what they were - groove monsters. I was fortunate to hear the Feat play Memphis,with their leader, the incredible Lowell George, in 1976 on a split bill with Bonnie Raitt (who was/is a Feat devotee herself). The band was incendiary that night and pretty much blew Bonnie’s fine ensemble away, doing not only their standard tunes but lots of inventive jamming with incredibly dense and complex rhythms that could not have happened without Mr Hayward’s immense skills.

Years later, in 1988, when Little Feat re-grouped with Craig Lee Fuller singing lead, I was in the audience for their first performance, which, acknowledging their musical debt to the city, took place on the Riverboat President in New Orleans, again with Bonnie Raitt on the bill, a Jazzfest nighttime concert. That was a joyous night for everybody. It was so cathartic to hear those tunes live again by most of the guys who made ‘em happen and were having such a blast. Sure, the irreplaceable slide guitar and voice of Lowell George were sorely missed; but, to his credit, I thought Fuller (who was pretty nervous that night) did a commendable job then and
during his stint with the band. Particularly notable to me was seeing Richie Hayward doing his thing in New Orleans. He sounded so at home locked-in to the rhythms of the city - an amazing feat in and of itself for someone who did not come up in or near the culture. He was so open to it and adept at expressing it that he actually became a New Orleans drummer, able to channel the spirit, though he grew up in Iowa and spent his career thousands of miles away on the Left Coast (and on the road, of course).

So, I wanted to pick a song that at least gives a glimpse of what he was about when doing his thing, and could have chosen so many. But I decided on “Down Below The Borderline”, because, to me, it’s got so much in it of a particular New Orleans funk band with rock leanings that rubbed off so much on that Southern California rock band with funk leanings.

“Down Below the Borderline” (Lowell George)
Little Feat, The Last Record Album, 1975
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

The Little Feat and Meters/New Orleans connection has long been evident**. I’m not breaking any new ground here, nor am I an expert on Little Feat history; but I would suspect that Lowell George and Hayward probably first got into the Meters when that group and Allen Toussaint became labelmates of the Feat on Warner Bros. In 1972, the company released Toussaint’s influential Life, Love & Faith album backed by the Meters, whose Cabbage Alley LP produced by Toussaint also came out on the Reprise subsidiary that year. WB also had a new deal with Toussaint to administer his songwriting catalog. So his music and the Meters’, too, was getting a major push to artists on the label and the music business in general at the time.

That same year, the original Little Feat reconfigured and began their true funkification. In those more musically adventurous days, it was still a pretty radical direction for a rock band to go. George recruited second guitarist/vocalist/writer Paul Barrere, plus bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton (Merry’s brother), both from the New Orleans area, who had been playing with Delaney & Bonnie. The
Dixie Chicken album was the greased-up, humidified result. They had quickly found their groove and pretty much did not look back, though they certainly would put their own spin on the New Orleans feel. As I have noted before, their moving, perfectly paced take on Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” on that LP remains the best version ever of the song.

Taken from their ominously titled,
The Last Record Album, which may have signaled some growing internal strife, “Down Below The Borderline” is probably a good window into the state of the band at the time. While the songs had some serious funk going on, there was an element of jazzoid fusion to some of them, as evidenced by keyboardist Bill Payne’s somewhat dissonant solo here. That tendency to jam-out and experiment would prove to at times work counter to George’s soulful, Southern rock-oriented emphasis on more structured songs; and the differences would strain the unity of the group up until his death in 1979.

There is no doubt about where George copped this tune’s feel. It’s real strong on the mid-1970s Meters. Hayward played the drums with a deft touch - syncopated for sure but not heavy-handed or busy, allowing the rest of the band (I don’t hear Clayton’s congas on this track) to layer in their respective counter-rhythms, mixing up a fascinating, if slightly abstract, interpretation of the Crescent City’s pulse.

Richie Hayward’s loss is a blow to the band, which continues to this day, his many fans and admirers, and family, of course. But his musical legacy has been well-documented and remains available for discovery and appreciation. Obviously, Richie truly revered New Orleans music, but went beyond merely copying what he heard. He brought it into his creative process, making it his own, while keeping the heritage identifiable. A rare gift indeed. Early on, I learned a lot about New Orleans funk before I even realized it, listening to him with the Feat. I just had to offer up props for that. Thanks Richie. It’s been...unforgettable. Long may your beats be heard.

You know that you’re over the hill, when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill. - “Old Folks Boogie”, Little Feat

*Check out even more live Feat on YouTube.

**It's also no secret that Little Feat were one of the inspirations, outside the obvious ones at home, for New Orleans' own funky roots rock aggregation, the Radiators.

NOTE: Those wishing to contribute to a fund for Richie’s family, may read more and do so at Sweet Relief.

August 20, 2010


Did I mention that Willie West will be at the Ponderosa Stomp this year????
Thought so.

'Til then, dig....

Also check out "I Got the Blues" from the same set. Smokin'.

[UPDATE: These were shot at a showcase Willie did in St. Paul, MN at the Minnesota Music Cafe, in December, 2008. Players include Jimi 'Primetime' Smith on lead guitar, Dan Bredell on guitar, Scottie Miller on piano, Toby Lee Marshall on B3, John Wright on bass, Zoot on sax, and Hyepockets on drums.]

August 18, 2010

Some Other Sides of Soulman Charles Brimmer

[UPDATED 3/4/2012]

New Orleans’ own
Charles Brimmer, who will be performing at Ponderosa Stomp #9 this September in his hometown, is best known for the deep soul material that was his primary bread and butter during much of the 15-plus years he spent as a recording artist, from the mid-1960s into the early 1980s. Because of that, I haven’t featured many of his records here, attempting as I do to keep the emphasis on the groove. But, he did occasionally go more for rhythmic, even funky, expressions; and I have previously featured two examples: the totally out of character, two-part, gimmick-gone-wrong laugh-riot, “Kung Fu Man”, recorded for the JB’s label in 1974, and the bouncy, “Just Another Morning”, a 1975 album cut and 45 B-side for the Chelsea label. You can read over those linked posts in the archives as you see fit; but, for a good, quick overview of Brimmer’s career, I recommend Red Kelly’s at the B-Side blog. As well, those of you having Jeff Hannusch’s tome,
The Soul of New Orleans, can, of course, access his chapter on the singer for more details.

Recently, I lucked into one of Brimmer’s more hard-to-get 45s that I had never heard; which turned out to have a great groover on it with excellent credentials. His rare upcoming appearance at the Stomp moved me to gather it up with a few others sides I have on hand and lay them out for consideration, in hopes of offering more of a feel for what else Brimmer could do besides the soulful balladry for which he is rightly revered by fans of deepness. Listening to these convinces me that he was a much more well-rounded artist than I have given him credit for up to this point.

“What’s That You Got” (Dave Bartholomew)Charles Brimmer, Broadmoor 202, 1968
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Damn funky track. It’s right up there with other cutting edge tunes coming out of New Orleans ca 1968, comparable to what Allen Toussaint was having the Meters put down for Lee Dorsey, Betty Harris and the like, for example. I don’t have any documentation for the players on this single; but, since label-owner Dave Bartholomew was involved with the production (with possibly Wardell Quezergue doing some arranging behind the scenes), I’d guess Smokey Johnson, who had a long history with both of them, was mixing it up on the traps.

You won’t find the the B-side,”Memphis Woman”, by one Tommy Ricardo here, because the awkward, amateurish, one dimensional song gave the vocalist nothing of value to work with. In fact, I find it an strange choice for Brimmer, even as a flip. Fortunately, the top side more than makes up for it, with his smooth tenor handling Bartholomew’s simple yet slightly suggestive and oddball lyrics (“makin’ your head pop out”!?) with ease, riding atop the undulating, get-down groove.

But let’s backtrack a bit to see how Brimmer came to be on Broadmoor in the first place, and try to shed a bit more light on his start in the record business. Apparently, a few years earlier, around 1964/1965, while still in high school, Brimmer and his brother, Ivory, cut a single credited to Charles & Ivory, “My Little Baby” / “My Soul’s On Fire”, a mid-tempo tune backed with an upbeat dancer, released on a tiny New York (?) imprint, Geneva N.Y.C. My first knowledge of it was Red Kelly’s mention in his piece on Brimmer; and, while I’ve found no other written documentation about it, I have since seen a label scan and heard the sides. Nothing readily identifies the brothers on the record other than their paired first names; but Mel Lastie is shown as having arranged the horns, giving us another New Orleans connection, at least. Soon thereafter, probably 1967, Charles was signed to a small local label, A.B.S. (Always Better Sounds), run by Camille Incardona (a/k/a Incadon) and the ever-active Quezerque. His first first solo effort, “The Glide” / “I Need You I Do” (#110), was promising, getting some airplay in town and significant, if modest, sales.

For the next single, Incardona contracted with Bartholomew to produce and release it on his new Broadmoor imprint. I would suppose that she took that course because A.B.S. was one of the many companies shut out of the market by the demise the local distributor, Dover Records, due to owner Cosimo Matassa’s bankruptcy. Surely Bartholmew’s legendary reputation and the fact that he had recently released a Broadmoor single of his own (which I have covered previously) and two by Fats Domino, with whom he had such massive earlier success in the 1950s, was an attractive incentive to go with his operation. Things continued to look encouraging, when Brimmer’s first Broadmoor release (#123), “Now She’s Gone, Gone, Gone” /“Black Is Beautiful” (the former written by Brimmer - the latter by Bartholomew), also got a good local response.

As a result of his increasing public profile, Charles got the opportunity to to join the hottest young working band in New Orleans, David Batiste and the Gladiators, gaining valuable performing experience covering the R&B and soul hits of the day. Incardona was also involved with managing artists; and I think she handled Batiste and band, as well. So, the combination would have made financial sense for all.

Three more solo Broadmoor singles followed for Brimmer: #133, which reprised “Black Is Beautiful” backed with “Man Has Landed On The Moon”; #201, “The Feeling Is In My Heart” / “Mr. Teardrops”; and our feature. Of those, “The Feeling Is In My Heart”, a stone smooth groover with a mainstream sound, was his most popular release of the period, getting strong airplay in the area and affording him better bookings; but Charles grew dissatisfied with his recording contract, having been promised an album that A.B.S./Broadmoor never could deliver. As a result, he refused to make any more singles for them. But, the dispute soon became moot, when Bartholomew gave up and shut the label down after less than an dozen releases. New Orleans had become an increasingly unfavorable place to run a record company, with Cosimo’s studio operation (the only adequate one on town) having been seized by the IRS after Dover went out of business.

Even without any new singles out, Brimmer remained a popular entertainer and began singing with another in-demand local soul band, Oliver and the Rocketts,in the early 1970s. After seeing Charles perform, the wheeling-dealing, Senator Jones entered the picture and convinced him to cut another record. Up to that point, Jones had been a guerilla-style record producer, starting micro-labels just to record and release a few 45s on the cheap, then moving on when they didn’t hit. While he continued that approach to some extent for years, he was in the process of starting one that would prove to be much longer-lasting, Hep’ Me.

Jones had Charles record “Afflicted”, an O. V. Wright B-side which had come out about a year earlier (1970). For the back side, Jones used “Your So Called Friends”, a slow-burner, soul monologue piece that Brimmer had written. The single was just the second release on Hep’ Me. Where Senator was running the sessions at the time is unclear; but I suspect he was already going to Baton Rouge, using facilities there until Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans became available a few years later. Not only did Brimmer’s new record do pretty well around the South, but it was his own song that got all the attention, rather than “Afflicted”. Willie Mitchell at Hi Records in Memphis offered to lease it, as they had national distribution, and do an album with him, but Charles was still legally entangled with Incardona/Bartholomew, and the deal did not go down. While he was going through the process of getting out of his previous contract(s), Jones gave him work writing and producing for other artists on his labels, which leads us to Jenmark.

“Acton Speaks Louder Than Words” (Charles Brimmer & Louis Jones)Lonnie Jones, Jenmark 103-A, 1972
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
“You Got To Do Better” (Charles Brimmer & Louis Jones)Lonnie Jones, Jenmark 103-B
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

This record doesn’t turn up too often. As beat-to-crap and appreciably warped as mine is, it miraculously still plays; though, as you can hear, it’s pretty noisy. I got it for three bucks out of an otherwise uninteresting box of cheapies in a shop and am still happy to have it. Copies in better shape get real pricey. For those of you who don’t have the time, budget or obsession for a vinyl artifact, you can find the songs in much better condition on the Tuff City/Funky Delicacies CD comp, Funky Funky New Orleans, Vol 4 (which is what I will source for the webcast stream, later).

You may recall that a few months back I posted another Jenmark single that Brimmer was involved with as co-producer (and likely arranger), Dennis Lee’s groovy “Sunday Afternoon”, which was the release that followed this one. As I noted then, Charles also produced the very first Jenmark 45 (#101), which was also by Lonie [sic] Jones (no relation, I would guess, to the good Senator). I’ve checked my print archives and googled around, but haven’t found out anything more about Lonnie Jones than those two singles. Like Lee, he disappeared. from the annals of music after recording his sides.

Charles Brimmer has recently informed me that his co-writer on these songs, Louis Jones, was in fact, Lonnie Jones. I had assumed Louis and Lonnie were two people and appreciate being set straight. Maybe now I can find out some background on Lonnie for a future update.

While I don’t own #101, I have seen scans and heard clips, enough to tell that both Lonnie Jones records were well-produced and arranged projects; but I find the cuts on this 45 to be superior from the ground up. Obviously, Brimmer had very good instincts for upbeat material, too.

“Action Speaks Louder than Words” came down strongly on the rock side, highlighted by pulsating conga work and a hot lead guitar; but I think the other side should have been on top in terms of Jones’ vocal performance and the overall groove, which was more back in-the-pocket and swingin’. Potentially so radio-friendly and easy to sing along to, “You Got To Do Better” could have been a contender as the A-side on a label with some clout.

But Jenmark certainly had none, with its scant six releases having a very short shelf life. Beside the two singles by Lonnie Jones, and three by Dennis Lee, the only other record on the label was a two-parter by Ray J (Raymond Jones - again with the Jones’!), “Lost Girlfriend” (#105) which joined the others on the bullet train to obscurity. I’m pretty sure Brimmer was involved with the Ray J 45, too, as Raymond Jones happened to be the musical director in his band. Ray would record more in the early 1970s on Hep’ Me, as well as arranging many sessions for Senator Jones’ artists, including Charles’ most successful project, which got so big so fast that out of town clout had to be called in.

After his trainwreck of an ill-conceived record, “Kung Fu Man”, in 1974, which fortunately hardly anybody heard at the time, Brimmer needed a change of luck and to get back into his zone. The chance soon came when Jones enlisted him to cut a single version of Al Green’s 1974 hit, “God Blessed Our Love”, a churchy, romantic ballad which had been burning up the Southern airwaves, but was only available as an LP cut. As Hannusch tells the story, Jones, learning of the need for a 45 version, spirited Charles and his band, who were already doing the song on stage, up to Baton Rouges’ Deep South Studios in 1975 to cut it as the two-part God Bless Our Love”. He then gave an advance copy to a radio station in Slidell, just east of New Orleans, which began playing it immediately, creating a huge overnight buzz about the record in the area. Orders quickly starting coming in for the as yet unpressed 45. Lots of ‘em. But, Jones’ reach had exceeded his grasp - he didn’t have the cash or credit to press-up enough records to meet the growing demand. To avert disaster and, of course, cash in, a local record distributor alerted the Chelsea label in Los Angeles, who heard the ka-ching all the way out there and agreed to lease the single from Jones and get it into the marketplace fast. As a result, “God Bless Our Love” became a huge seller locally and nationally, getting Brimmer loads of radio exposure and allowing him to tour for nearly a year. To this day, it is considered the very definition of deep soul.

Chelsea followed up with at least three more singles on Charles, which sold respectably, and also funded Jones to make two LPs,
Expression of Soul, in 1975, and Charles Brimmer: Soulman, the next year. Here are the funkier cuts from that first album:

“Love Me In Your Own Way” (Charles Brimmer)Charles Brimmer, from Expressions of Soul, Chelsea 508, 1975
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
“The Music Is Funky (Is It Alright)” (Charles Brimmer)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Also appearing as the B-side of Chelsea 3030, paired with another cut on the LP, “I Stand Accused”, “Love Me In Your Own Way” has a distinct Memphis soul direction to it, thanks to arranger Raymond Jones and writer Brimmer, who seems to have imbued it with an obvious Al Green/Willie Michell influence that dovetails nicely with the source of the hit that spawned the LP. Though the composition could have used some fine tuning, it’s still an effective track that reflects well on the singer’s ability to deliver some grit, grind, and groove along with the smoldering, emotive material that dominates the rest of the album.

I usually shy away from tracks that reference their own funkiness, since outside of James Brown, most of the time having to say your music is funky means it probably isn’t. But “The Music Is Funky (Is It Alright)” manages to escape the trap, although there’s not much going on beyond it’s vamp. From the sound of the vocal chatter here, I’d say this was something Brimmer and band probably did in their stage show - but it’s hard to get the live energy and party atmosphere transported from club to studio intact, which is what guest arranger Clyde Toval attempted to do. So much can get lost without the immediate feedback from an audience. Such is the dilemma of the recording experience in general, when you get right down to it. Studio and stage are two separate worlds that rarely ever converge.

I get the impression that Chelsea rushed this album out to capitalize on the success of the first few singles, leaving not much time to fine tune the production any further. Even so, it represented Brimmer’s talent well enough, and sold respectably. But there is general agreement that his second and final album for Chelsea,
Soulman, was better, though it generated no new hits and sold poorly. With his career lukewarm at best at that point, Charles and Chelsea parted ways.

Stay tuned. I am going to get into some of
Soulman next month, in the run-up to the Stomp. I’m looking forward to seeing Brimmer perform there* and hope the response reinforces for him that his multi-faceted expressions have not been forgotten.

* Willie West, too!