November 28, 2010

Gentleman June's Boom Boom, Part 1

Esteemed New Orleans drummer Albert ‘June’ Gardner, who passed away on November 19th at age 79, had a career in music spanning over 60 years. For an overview, read his obituary by Geraldine Wyckoff from the Louisiana Weekly. ‘Gentleman June’, as he came to be called by those who knew him, was a low-keyed, versatile professional valued and respected by those in the know in the music business; but he remained unrecognized by the public at large until he began leading his own traditional jazz group, June Gardner and the Fellas, somewhat later in life, gigging at various clubs around town and doing annual sets in the Economy Hall tent at Jazzfest for many years.

The Gondoliers, ca 1949

In the late 1940s, not yet 20 years of age, he began getting attention as a part of guitarist Edgar Blanchard’s popular band, the Gondoliers, playing numerous local clubs such as the Dew Drop and the Pelican. Booking agent and promoter Percy Stovall began representing them; and, besides their own work at various venues, they often backed singers of the day such as Roy Brown and Chubby Newsome in the New Orleans area. By 1949, Blanchard and the Gondoliers were in Houston, Texas for an extended run at the Bronze Peacock club, owned by Don Robey, who also had just started the Peacock label. They backed Papa Lightfoot and Norman Dunlap on two separate releases for the label and recorded a 78 (#1514) of their own for Robey; but, due to poor sales, no more sessions resulted. After they returned to New Orleans, Blanchard disbanded the Gondoliers in 1950 for a few years to take a position in Roy Brown’s road band. Gardner also played on the road with Brown during the decade but only backed him in the studio a few times. As far as I can tell, he never did did rejoin the Gondoliers after Blanchard re-started the group.

Like many R&B musicians of the day, especially in New Orleans, Gardner’s musical preference was for jazz; but, other than a stint touring with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton's band mid-decade, the jump music that came to be called rock ‘n’ roll paid the bills. By the late 1950s, though, he was back at home playing regularly at the Joy Tavern in a jazz combo fronted by saxophonist ‘Red’ Tyler that included Allen Toussaint on piano, Justin Adams, guitar, and Peter ‘Chuck’ Badie on bass. Tyler was also an in-demand studio musician, who had come up in Dave Bartholomew’s band to become a regular at Cosimo’s studio, and was doing a lot of work for Johnny Vincent’s Ace label as a session leader and arranger. After fellow saxophonist Lee Allen got a hot hit with “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee”, Vincent green-lighted an instrumental album project on Tyler, who recruited Gardner, Tousssaint, and bassist Frank Fields, along with Rufus Gore on second sax for the sessions.

“Double Whammy” (A. Tyler) 
Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler and the Gyros, from Rockin’ & Rollin’
Ace LP, 1959 (Ace [UK] re-issue, 1986)
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While I am no drum expert by any means, I have not found that June Gardner was ever considered a particularly innovative player, but he was solid, tasteful groover able to handle most any style from traditional jazz to bebop, and from R&B jump to soul, and even some funk later on. On this tune, his New Orleans roots show a bit in the underlying syncopation of his kick drum and snare as he propels the mid-temp rocker right into Danceville.

Most of the other songs on the album were more straight ahead. I featured one of the most rockin’, “Snake Eyes”, along with the great jazz-noir “Lonely For You” in my 2009 feature on Red Tyler. But one track in particular stands out, as it diverged from the rest into the tropics of Latin-jazz with particularly impressive percussive results.

“Peanut Vendor”
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

An instrumental take on the much covered Afro-Cuban rumba song, this brief version is surprising for its complex percussive underpinnings and Caribbean feel, with Adams guitar and Toussaint’s faint piano combining to suggest a steel drum at times. Gardner, at the poly-rhythmic center of the tune, seems to have been playing mostly his tom-toms, joined by shakers, cowbells and few other beaten objects. The breakdown in the middle with Tyler’s hard riffing over the various beats is cool enough, but, for local flavor, a chorus of shouted “Yeah’s” punctuate his playing in true second line style - another recorded example of the city’s musical and cross-cultural links to the islands farther South.

It may have been Tyler’s arrangement, but Gardner was a integral part of making it work so well.

In 1960, June got a call from Sam Cooke, asking him to join his touring band. New Orleans bandleader Joe Jones had recommended him to Sam, who wanted to replace Leo Morris, also from the Crescent City, later to change his name to Idris Muhammed and do quite alright for himself in the world of jazz. Morris came back home and took June's seat at the Joy Tavern gigs, while Gardner would work mainly as Cooke's road drummer until the singer was shot to death in 1964.

“Twistin’ The Night Away” (Sam Cooke)
 Sam Cooke, from Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, RCA (1985)

Here’s a fine example of June in performance with Cooke, playing one of Sam’s big hits right in the pocket with the snare on the two and four, while keeping a swing beat on his ride cymbal, inducing anyone within earshot to move to the groove, and all done with an easy authority.

Recorded early in 1963 by Cooke’s label, RCA, at a set of shows at the Harlem Square Club in Miami, Florida, the album was not released at the time, maybe due to Cooke’s untimely demise the next year, or because it presented a much rawer version of Cooke, the soul entertainer, as opposed to the more sanitized studio sound that the company had developed as his image. In any event, the recording did not appear commercially until 1985. That night, the band consisted of just two of Cooke’s regulars, guitarist Cliff White and Gardner, supplemented on that tour by saxophonist extraordinaire King Curtis and members of his group, the Kingpins.

Curits’ blowing on his two solos, not to mention Cooke’s energetic, throaty delivery, and the support of the slammin’ band, really took this little dance ditty up multiple notches, turning it into the pumped up party song the original had only implied. In that spirit, the obviously inspired Cooke appropriately wraps up the song by encouraging the crowd to take out their handkerchiefs and wave ‘em around, a la second line celebrating in New Orleans. Obviously, he had the right drummer for the occasion.

After Cooke’s tragic end out West, June Gardner came home and began working sessions and playing clubs. Next time, I’ll revisit a post I did five years ago on his solo recordings from the mid-1960s, expanded to consider some more material, including session work he did for Allen Toussaint. So, come on back for more boom boom.

November 11, 2010

Good Stuff Beyond The Fluff: Toussaint, Fayard & The Stokes

As discussed about a week back, the elusive Allen Toussaint songs, “Younka Chunka” and “How Tired I Am” were sold or leased by Joe Banashak to the Uptown label, which issued them on a 45 in 1965. They featured Al ‘Billy’ Fayard on lead vocal, backed up, as far as we know, by the Stokes, Toussaint’s production band while he was in the service in Texas. Inexplicably, that single was issued in the name of K. C. Russell, a fiction instigated I suspect by the California-based record company, though I am not really sure why. It certainly didn’t make the record any more saleable.

Most, if not all, of the sessions Toussaint recorded with the Stokes were done at a Houston studio in 1964; and, from those, Banashak released nine singles on the Alon label, not counting the songs that Uptown later took. Six of those records consisted of instrumental pop songs written in an attempt to cash in on Al Hirt’s cover of “Java”, which Toussaint wrote and originally recorded. Most of them were fairly insubstantial exercises, and just one had any significant commercial impact, the well-titled “Whipped Cream”, from the very first Stokes single (9019). Actually, its success on Alon was limited; but Herb Alpert covered the song the next year and took it to MOR hitdom. As the “Younka Chunka” single shows, the remainder of his work with the Stokes, the songs with vocals, turned out of be the more fascinating products of Toussaint’s creativity and the group’s talent. Of those, the two other singles featuring Mr. Fayard are my focus this time.

“Doin’ Sumpin’ Part 2”
(Naomi Neville)
Al Fayard, Alon 9020, 1964
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

“Doin’ Sumpin’ Part 1”

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

I am reversing the order of the parts because I think they were mislabeled by Banashak. But, of course, you can listen to them both ways and decide for yourself. It seems to me that the side shown as Part 2 was intended to be the strong lead-off, with its distinct, attention-getting introductory calls of “Ay Yi Ya...” and the rudimentary verses Fayard sang before breaking down into his improvised banter. The other side simply continued the established instrumental groove along with Fayard’s shout-outs. It doesn’t make sense as Part 1 in my book.

Despite that, the whole of “Doin’ Sumpin’” is a real keeper for groove hounds and dancers. It sounds like something Toussaint might have written with Jessie Hill in mind. The drums have a loose, syncopated stutter-step strut that Toussaint locks into and works out on with his patented percussive piano comping. Interestingly, although the song certainly pre-dated the proto-funk groovin’ that Ramsey Lewis would take to the bank in 1965 with his instrumental version of “The In Crowd”, both have a somewhat similar approach. Had the timing been right and Alon’s distribution and promotion more effective, ”Doin’ Sumpin’” might have garnered a lot more attention. Fayard may not have been the greatest of singers, but he made up for what he lacked melodically with his enthusiastic delivery - very “up” and infectious, from the way he handled the verses to his running commentary beyond them, goosed-up in spots by some wild screams (shades of his former Westbank bandmate, Ronnie Barron!). All around, it’s an impressive little R&B record that just gets better with repeated plays.

This 45, the second release of Stokes material on Alon, was followed by Toussaint’s own vocal turns with the group on the down-tempo gems “Go Back Home” / “Poor Boy, Got To Move” (9021), which I mentioned last post. Then, after a few more of the instrumental 45s came out, Fayard was back on the mic for a final vocal turn with the Stokes, the pair of remarkable, high-energy rockers on which he was billed by his nickname.

“I Get Mad, So Mad” (Naomi Neville)
Billy Fayard, Alon 9028, 1964

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

“I Don’t Know”
(Naomi Neville)
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Along with “How Tired I Am”, the B-side of the Uptown single, these upbeat tunes reveal that Toussaint had perceptive ears for what was fresh and contemporary beyond his bread and butter R&B - the sound that the Beatles and other up and coming British bands (and various young American groups, too) were bringing to the airwaves that changed the face popular music in short order. It’s intriguing to hear him take a shot at the pop/rock market, utilizing Fayard and the Stokes for the experiment, during that brief window of time.

“I Get Mad, So Mad” was the best of that subset. Dispensing with the horns and piano to work in the combo mode of two guitars, bass and drums, Toussaint wrote a really cookin’ track and arrangement. While the beat stayed pretty straight ahead, the guitar and bass parts wound tightly around each other in rather intricate patterns that gave a springy, dynamic energy to the track. The hip 12-string guitar intro was very au courant, while the middle eight section picked up on those 1 - b7 chord changes turning up more and more frequently in the songs of the era. Even though Fayard’s vocal here is nothing spectacular, he had a knack for fully committing to the performance and making it work on sweat effort. In addition, his rough and ready sound was perfect for this genre - kind of similar to Alex Chilton in his Box Tops days (which were still three years in the future!).

“I Don’t Know” was a simpler, less intense number with another danceable beat and the same instrumentation; but, clocking in at less that two minutes, it was really no more than a B-side toss-off. Every time I hear it, though, the track makes me think of Billy Joe Royal’s hit,
“Down In The Boondocks”. Both songs work with a similar syncopated bounce to the beat; but the more well-developed “Boondocks”, written by Joe South, couldn’t have influenced Toussaint in 1964, as it wasn’t released until the next year. Maybe South heard this track somehow, but that’s a stretch. Chalk it up, I guess, to the synchronicity going on in the world of music and beyond back then. [Note: pushing this session much into 1965 would mean Toussaint was already out of the service and working on the Lee Dorsey project that made "Ride Your Pony" a hit, after which he parted ways with Banashak and Alon by that summer. Unless convinced otherwise, I still think all Fayard and the Stokes tracks came from 1964, or very early in 1965 at the latest.]

Still, all this reinforces that the leader of the Stokes had impressive and versatile pop sensibilities, even prescience, maybe. With a more concerted effort, he could have made his mark in that realm, too, as he did numerous times as a vital part of his hometown music scene in the Sixties. During the following decade, those multifaceted skills would serve him well, as he took on the role of producer and writer for numerous artists from outside the Crescent City sphere.

Toussant’s productions with Al/Billy Fayard and the Stokes have never been given much attention. As many fans of this music realize, a comprehensive Alon compilation hasn't been attempted as yet - but surely needs to be. Until these records came my way, I hadn’t really paid this small segment of Toussaint’s career much mind, either; but the more I’ve listened, the more I realize that at least some of his output for Alon constituted more than just a musical desert topping.

>>>Note on the players. Over the years I have found two listings of personnel for the Stokes: one from Jeff Hannusch’s piece on Toussaint’s career in I Hear You Knockin’ (he doesn’t say where he got it), and the other as shown in the notes to the first of two LP compilations of Stokes material on Bandy, The Stokes - with Allen Toussaint, from the 1980s. Since the lists are identical, I assume they came from the same uncredited source. The band as shown consisted of Ronald C. Inzer, trombone; Hugh M. Preston, Jr., tenor sax; Samuel Lillibridge, trumpet; Carl E. Hayes, Jr., guitar; Aldo F. Vennari, drums; Al D. Fayard [sic], percussion; and, of course, Toussaint on piano. Since the Billy Fayard single had at least two guitar parts, they were either overdubbed, or another player (such as, say, Deacon John Moore) was brought in, probably from New Orleans - but that is idle speculation at this point. Also, in his notes to the second Bandy LP, Hannusch calls Fayard the drummer/vocalist of the Stokes, not even mentioning Vennari. I don’t know how to take that, or if drummer and percussionist were considered interchangeable; but I would suspect that Al/Billy, who was the only other member of the band from the New Orleans area, if he did play the drums, likely did so on the songs he sang, with perhaps Vennari handling the lighter pop instrumentals - but, again, I may be way off-base on that. Corrections and outright enlightenment are always welcome.

[Update 2/9/2012: As I learned via a comment to this post from his nephew, "Billy" Fayard passed away yesterday.]