January 09, 2011


Twelfth Night (January 6) has passed; and Carnival season is rolling. Even though the Saints’ season is now officially and regrettably past tense, it’s time to shake it off and play some appropriate music for the seasonal partying that will be running all the way up to March 8, Fat Tuesday, this year. While most any feel-good music with some funk and/or fun up in it might do, there are, of course, the Mardi Gras standards that come into play year after year. With today’s tracks we revisit the original version of one of those, plus a song from the Indians and Gators that’s not often heard, and a distinctly non-traditional tidbit from man o’ the month, Allen Toussaint.

Some of Dis, Some of Dat: The Making of “Second Line”

Long-time New Orleans bandleader Bill Sinigal was featured in a chapter of Jeff Hannusch’s second book, The Soul of New Orleans, due to his significant contribution to the Mardi Gras canon. He put together and recorded “Second Line”, a tune based in traditional jazz that has become one of the most widely known of the holiday genre. You can read more details of his back story in the book; but I do want to draw from it to provide some context, since Sinigal remains largely unknown outside of the city’s musical circles.

From the Uptown area of New Orleans, he was born in 1928, making him about mid-way between Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint in age. He took up saxophone as a youngster, essentially teaching himself how to play; and, like so many other musicians in the city, Sinigal attended Gunewald’s School of Music in the late 1940s, where he learned to read musical notation and further expanded his opportunities by taking up the bass.

Starting in the early 1950s, he played either sax or bass on stage with many of the hot artists on the local R&B scene, including a stint with one of a kind blues sensation Eddie Jones, better known as Guitar Slim, when he first came to town. Eventually Sinigal worked his way up to a slot in the Dew Drop Inn house band and frequently hit the road, hired on by various bands backing top artists. By 1960, he had a large family and had taken a regular day job in sales, but kept the music going by forming his own group, the Skyliners, to work on the weekends in the city and surrounding vicinity. He stayed so busy gigging that he never did much recording. In fact, his first and only session under his own name wasn’t until 1962-63, when he cut this song.

Through a producer he knew, Henry R. Hines, Sinigal was given the chance to bring the Skyliners in to record at Cosimo Matassa’s studio. They put a lot of songs on tape at the session, but only one made it to vinyl. Obviously well-chosen, it would go on to become a local standard.

“Second Line, Part I” (Bill Sinigal - R. Hines)
Bill Sinigal and the Skyliners, White Cliffs 200, 1962-63
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“Second Line, Part II”
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Initially titled “B-flat Blues”, the song was a popular part of the band’s live set-list and didn’t start out being directed toward Mardi Gras, according to what Sinigal told Hannusch. It was a variation on a traditional jazz marching band tune, “Joe Avery Blues”. The trumpet intro, played by Milton Batiste, was borrowed from a riff Dave Bartholomew had recorded in the 1950s at the top of his song, “Good Jax Boogie”. Batholomew also used the riff at gigs to call his band back from a break and had gotten it from another early 20th Century jazz tune, “Whoopin’ (a/k/a ‘Whuppin’) Blues”. As Sinigal freely admitted to Hannusch, he pieced his take together from various musical elements that had been played on the streets of the city for decades before the Skyliners took it for a ride. Interestingly, in later years, Batiste claimed he wrote it!

Sinigal played bass on the session, and, besides Batiste, other members of the group likely included James Rivers on tenor sax, Himas Ankle (!?) on baritone, Marcell Richardson on piano, guitarist Edwin Maire, and drummer Madison Marshall.

The tune was retitled “Second Line” for its release; and Cosimo made it the first 45 issued on his new White Cliffs label. Being a fresh take on the traditional, celebratory second line sound, the record seems to have started getting play in association with Mardi Gras early on; but, as popular as the song itself became over the years, ironically, the Skyliners’ version got lost in the shuffle.

After Cosimo’s recording operation was seized a few years later by the IRS for non-payment of taxes, the “Second Line” master tape was never recovered. So, no new 45s could be pressed for subsequent Carnival seasons. Over the years, bands covered Sinigal’s tune live, but he heard people still asking for the record a decade after its release. So, he suggested to multi-label owner Senator Jones that he put it out again. Never one to shrink from making a few bucks, Jones had saxophonist Alvin Thomas and a group called Stop, Inc. re-record it at a session in Baton Rouge for the 1974 Mardi Gras; and that is the version (J.B.'s 2602) most people hear to this day.

Here They Come

As discussed here many times over, the musical mash-up of Willie Tee’s band, the Gators, with Mardi Gras Indian songs by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias first took place in 1970 at a music festival at Tulane University in Uptown New Orleans. The occasion sparked an innovative blending of the city’s music and culture that endures to this day, bringing the elaborate, secretive Indian masking rituals, singing, and elemental percussion out of the backstreets and into wider recognition by merging them with essential instrumental funk grooves. The results eventually found their way onto record players and stages at home and around the world. The Indian phenomenon can still be found on the streets of the city at Mardi Gras and around St. Joseph’s Day (Super Sunday), though you have to know where to look; but they can now be experienced at festivals and other events, as well, year-round. Despite being knocked back by the man-made devastation set off by Katrina’s storm surge, the inspirational, creative vitality of the Mardi Gras Indian Nation endures.

For more details on the ground-breaking singles and first two LPs by the Wild Magnolias, see my previous posts listed below*.

“Injuns Here We Come” (Wild Magnolias - Wilson Turbinton)
The Wild Magnolias, from They Call Us Wild, Barclay, 1975
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On both of their albums for the French Barclay label, the Wild Magnolias collaborated with Willie Tee and producer Philppe Rault not only to combine their musical tradition with the band’s impressively in-sync funk sensibilities, but also to capture the spirit of the Indian experience, at times using production effects to induce aural analogs to the intense visual aspects of the Indians’ regalia and presentations. While nothing can really capture the experience of encountering the Indian gangs live on the streets, the material on the LPs, both the adaptations of their songs and new compositions by Tee, can be transporting, mind-altering, and booty-freeing.

From the second LP, originally available in the US only as an import, “Injuns Here We Come” issues forth pure musical energy that propels us along in the whirl of the Gators’ irresistible groove - the massive, multi-rhythmic drive of drummer Larry Panna, Ervin Charles’ expressive bass lines, plus the fretboard chops and wah-wah waves of Louis ‘Guitar June’ Clark.- interwoven with the Wild Magnolias’ percussion attack. Atop that churning force of nature,Tee releases some jazzy piano running and comping to augment the relentless, fiery call and response of Big Chief Bo and his tribe. Low down high art, for sure.

But, as usual, description does it no justice. Playing it cranked through some full range speakers and letting the groove flow over, around and through you will get you far closer.

*Mardi Gras Indian Variations
Three To Get Ready For Mardi Gras
Carnival Funk Convergence
New Suit
Indians Comin’
Hey La Hey

Mr. Mardi Gras and the One Man Band

Back in the late 1980s when I bought the Mr. Mardi Gras I Love A Carnival Ball LP, which states, “Starring Allen Toussaint” on the front cover, I had not heard any of it and held high hopes. He had not released a new album for many years, and this was chock full of Mardi Gras music, all of which was new to me. What would be not to like?

Though Toussaint wrote every song, I don’t think I ever played a cut from the album on my radio show, if that is any indication. The instrumentation essentially consisted of his using a drum machine, synthesizers, and likely electric piano to render the music tracks. His percussionist son, Reggie (Clarence R. Toussaint), who is credited as co-producing with his dad, probably also assisted with programming the drums. While Toussaint’s vocals were well done, as was the uncredited female lead on the last track, I found the the whole rather contrived exercise off-putting.

Of course I was even more of purist back then and wouldn’t touch anything with a drum machine on it, especially New Orleans music. In a city so rich in world class drummers, using programmable drums on anything other than a pre-production song demo seems a complete waste of available talent and means taking jobs from musicians who need ‘em. Same for synthesizers substituting for horn sections, string sections, etc. Still, to partially quote Bob Dylan, this old-school geezer is younger than that now. Going back to the LP again recently, I found at least a few songs that work to a degree for me in spite of the electronics. Your experience may vary.

“Come To The Mardi Gras” (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, from Mr. Mardi Gras I Love A Carnival Ball, Cayenne 800
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So, what do I pick? The most synthesized track on the whole damn album! Can’t help myself. After almost a quarter of a century, I now like this groove for some perhaps perverse reason. Maybe the allure is that it offers no stereotypical hooks (other than the lyrics) to link it to New Orleans or Mardi Gras. It’s got the kind of cheesy synthesized dance music sound rampant in the 1980s that I used to try to avoid. With its digitized syncopation and Toussaint’s subdued vocal complimented by some effective female backup, this stylized PR call to the Mardi Gras party seems about as far removed from Professor Longhair’s as you can get. But I've got to give the man credit for trying something different.

By the way, the “Mr. Mardi Gras” of this LP is not Toussaint, but Blaine Kern, who is depicted on the cartoonish front cover of the LP along with the keyboardist/composer. In fact, the drawing is credited to Blaine Kern Artists, Inc. The dominant float-builder for the major Mardi Gras parades since the 1950s, the wealthy Mr. Kern may have had a hand in financing the album; or may have even commissioned it. Anybody know?

Regardless, had Toussaint used a full complement of musicians on this project, I think the LP would have made it beyond the mere footnote status it rates. None of the songs ever became anything close to a Carnival classic; but the Wild Magnolias did cover two of them, “Mighty Mighty Chief” and "I Know You Mardi Gras", on their 1313 Hoodoo Street CD, which are definitely the more dynamic versions. Certainly, there’s nothing stopping Toussaint from someday doing an extreme makeover on the whole record, or even just a few tracks. I think it might be worth a shot.

Then again, maybe he just wants to leave it in the past (in which case, I am being no help). After all, his post-Katrina resurgence has certainly revitalized his musical muse; and Toussaint's masterful re-commitment in his recent work to keeping it real and getting it right as a composer, producer and artist makes his days as a one man band that much easier to forget.


Blogger olen said...

Great post as usual, had a lovely time grooving to the Injuns, then the toussaint synth tune caught me off gaurd, but was interesting to hear and funky in its own way. Anyway, Happy Mardi Gras and hooray for gambino's king cake!

3:42 PM, January 13, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, olen. Happy Mardi Gras to you. That Toussaint number probably won't ever show up on many holiday playlists. But it's been stuck in my head all week.

9:07 PM, January 13, 2011  
Anonymous Jipes said...

Happy Mardi Gras to you Dan and all the best for 2011. I was a bit sad by the lost of the Saints but well let's look for the next season !

I love the Wild Magnolias (i bought the CD on your recommendation and love it)

8:26 AM, January 14, 2011  

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