Sansu 70s: Allen, Lee, and Lou
As you may have noticed, I haven’t been in the posting mode for the past few weeks. Instead, I’ve concentrated on research and more collecting for posts to come, plus some all-important field work last weekend, taking advantage of perfect weather to catch the Krewe du Vieux parade through Faubourg Marigny and the French Quarter and check out the Bywater scene in the Upper Ninth Ward, which continues to blossom. But, now it’s time to get back to blogdom, ‘cause, Mardi Gras will be rollin’ before we know it.
Having delved into Allen Toussaint’s own 1970s recordings last month, I want to get to some songs from and thoughts about two significant album projects he developed for Lee Dorsey and Lou Johnson early in the decade. It’s all a part of my highly irregular but ongoing features on Sansu’s busy production for-hire operation that lasted until the early 1980s. I hope to get to many more of these this year.
ALLEN & LEE'S CAN DO ATTITUDE
I always felt uninhibited when I produced sessions for Lee. - Allen Toussaint, as quoted by Ben Sandmel in his notes to Yes We Can...And Then Some (Polydor CD, 1993)
Perhaps nowhere in his work with Lee Dorsey is that statement more evident than on the classic 1970 Polydor LP release, Yes We Can, recorded at Jazz City Studio in New Orleans. It is replete with Toussaint’s uniquely inventive writing and tight, compelling arrangements, including, but not limited to, the two-part title track, and “Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley”, two songs better-known through subsequent cover versions. Although no musicians were credited on the LP cover, Sansu’s studio production band, the Meters, who also had a successful recording career of their own going on, are acknowledged to have done the basic tracking on the sessions; and their ability to represent and define the grooves as Toussaint intended served his adventurous songwriting perfectly. Of course, his own always apropos piano work can also be heard throughout the album, along with a horn section well-chosen to render his charts
You may recall from my prior post that Allen’s partner in Sansu Enterprises, Marshall Sehorn, brokered a deal for Dorsey with the Polydor label in 1970 after Amy Records, which had released virtually all of Lee’s singles and two LPs since 1965, was swallowed up in the merger of Bell, its parent company, with Columbia Pictures. A long-established German enterprise, Polydor had just entered the US market in 1969 and was not yet a major player when Toussaint delivered Yes We Can to them. Although it later would be considered among the best work Allen and Lee did together, record sales when it mattered were mediocre for reasons still hard to fathom; but it may have been due to Polydor’s lack of clout at the time, rather than for lack of trying.
In addition to the LP, Polydor issued at least seven singles on Dorsey between 1970 and 1973, containing a mix of album tracks and other tunes; but nothing Dorsey did for the label in either format brought the once frequent hit-maker back into the spotlight. Two of the three tracks I’m featuring are 45 issues of album cuts, while the other only appeared on the LP. Until recently, the songs were known mostly to collectors and serious fans of Dorsey and Toussaint. Then two got a boost when covered by a high-profile fan.
“Tears Tears and More Tears” (Allen R. Toussaint)Lee Dorsey, Polydor 2-14055, 1970
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Don’t be fooled. Toussaint’s short, rather formal piano intro is just a head fake that momentarily suggests the song will be something other than the bouncing and infectious romp it quickly becomes. Once “Tears” starts rolling, it quickly grabs hold and won’t let go, its insistent, single-key structure focusing the groove to induce full-body motion, dancing close to the edge of funk. Yet, Toussaint cleverly built the organic drive of this tune without employing a conventional drum set. I don’t hear a kick drum at all; and the snare is only used on the introduction up until the congas kick in, then it seems to drop out for good. For the remainder of the song, congas, tambourine and some cymbal strikes provide the highly effective, syncopated underpinnings, reinforced by George Porter, Jr.’s pulsating, in-the-pocket bass work, while the horns attacked with punches and slurs.
Powerhouse singing was never Dorsey’s thing. Given the material Toussaint wrote for him over the years; Lee’s delivery style was usually easy-going; but he rose to the exceptional occasion on “Tears”, turning in a spunky performance that stood up to the demands of the song without over-singing. Meanwhile, hardy backing vocals by Toussaint and, possibly, Willie Harper, helped hammer home the chorus.
Certainly, the track deserved a shot at radio play, at least as much as the more spare and conventionally funky fun of “Sneakin’ Sally Thu The Alley” on the other side, or the linear, highly syncopated title song, another one-chord vamp which also appeared on a Polydor single (actually, make that two singles, one as a two-parter, the other not). In fact, “Yes We Can”, with its peace and love pep rally lyrics, ended up being the only session cut to have any significant chart action for Dorsey, getting into the bottom end of the Top 50 for a few weeks before it faded.
A faithfully funky cover by the Pointer Sisters, re-titled "Yes We Can Can", appeared on their eponymous 1973 debut LP, and truly popularized the song, taking it near to the Top Ten. Meanwhile, ”Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley“ received much more attention through Robert Palmer’s cookin' version on his breakthrough debut LP in 1974, with musical support from members of the Meters and Little Feat.
“Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” (Allen R. Toussaint)
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Most days, this is hands down my favorite Toussaint/Dorsey package deal: a seamless, poly-rhythmic funk-sway groove, plus the absolutely perfect fit of Dorsey’s unadorned, effortless delivery with the raw, stripped-down arrangement. He neatly nailed the tricky cadence of the lyrics while still conveying their hopeful spirit. Like “Yes We Can”, it is one of Toussaint’s “message” songs*. Inventive, playfully worded, it implies more than it actually says - the general gist, more or less, being that it takes a village to improve the lot of our misguided, underpaid, downtrodden brothers.
Under Toussaint’s direction, drummer of record, Zig Modeliste, popped pretty straight backbeats on the snare (which sounds more like a timbale, actually), lightly syncopating the kick drum and occasional hi-hat pickups. Simultaneously, Leo Nocentelli’s two guitar parts, Porter’s bass, and the solo sax (Gary Brown?) navigate some intricate, complementary patterns around and about the beat. Speaking of those guitars, there was a nice contrast set up between them, one clean-toned with vibrato, repeating riffs on the verses and chords on the chorus, while the other improvised distorted, edgy lead guitar lines.
Both “Tears”, which oddly also came out on two singles, but on different labels, and “Who’s Gonna Help Brother” remained overlooked until Elvis Costello tackled them in 2006 on his well-received album collaboration with Toussaint, River In Reverse.
“Occapella" (Allen R. Toussaint) Lee Dorsey, Spring 114, 1971
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Two Toussaint songs on Yes We Can stand out in particular as quirky, unconventional little pop gems. The languid “Riverboat”, which I posted-up in 2006, is unique for James Black’s incredible guest shot on drums, issuing a slo-mo in real-time, inventively disrupted groove. A true rhythmic marvel, really too abstract to be called funk, the song’s minimalist, offbeat approach, calm surface with undulations below, is a workshop on creative arrangement in itself. No inhibitions there, or on “Occapella”, either. which comes at us from another unexpected angle, a melodic, whimsical little ditty about the spontaneity of musical expression that sounds like a track from some long lost children’s record.
It’s a great credit to Dorsey’s vocal charms that his singing worked so effectively in the different settings Toussaint created, sounding either innocently exuberant, positively idealistic, mischievous, or world-weary by turns. As with no other artist, Toussaint had an instinctive affinity for Dorsey’s natural style, and it seems never to have failed to inspire his writing, which is the reason Yes We Can is such a memorable collaboration.
This single with “Occapella” as it’s B-side had the second issue of “Tears Tears and More Tears” on top and was released in 1971 on Spring, not long after Polydor had taken over national distribution for the up and coming soul label, which also had Joe Simon and Millie Jackson, among others, on the roster. After the earlier “Tears” 45 failed to take off in the pop market, the company likely decided to let Spring have a shot at getting it heard; but, again, the tune met with indifference and slipped between the cracks, sealing its obscurity for years to come.
Back in 1972, I first encountered “Riverboat” and “Occapella” as cover versions by master arranger and eclectic song collector Van Dyke Parks on his Discover America LP. Another one of those gifted Warner Brothers creative tax-write off artists, Parks copied Toussiant’s arrangements closely and slipped the idiosyncratic songs onto an album filled mainly with his remakes of wonderful, old calypso gems, plus Lowell George’s “Sailin’ Shoes” for added quirk. Having been a distracted [some things never change!] counter-culture college student when Yes We Can first appeared, I completely missed its short life on the shelves. It took Parks’ intriguing tribute to Toussaint to hip me to the tunes; and, from there, I backtracked to the source. Since then, I have never tired of the many delights on Lee's best LP, which has been the subject of two CD re-issues over the past 15 years, but remains woefully under-appreciated.
*[Toussaint's most profound messages among the session material delivered by Dorsey did not make it onto the LP. Instead, the soulful liberation poetry of "Freedom For the Stallion" and down-tempo karmic funk of "On Your Way Down" appeared on two separate Polydor 45s that were gone in a flash.]
WITH LOU IN MIND
In 1970-71, Lou Johnson, a gifted but rather luckless pop/soul singer with almost a decade of recording experience, signed with Volt, a division of Memphis-based Stax Records. He was green-lighted to record an album; but, for reasons not clear, the company chose not to produce it in-house at their legendary Memphis studio; or even at nearby Muscle Shoals. Instead, Johnson was sent farther downriver to work with Allen Toussaint. As far as I can tell, the Lou Johnson project was only Sansu’s second LP assignment on a non-New Orleans artist, the first having been the 1970 Cotillion album, Mylon (a/k/a We Believe), by pioneering Christian rocker (!) Mylon LeFevre and his band.
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Lou Johnson had embarked on a solo vocal career in the early1960s, signing with Big Top Records in Manhattan and working for a few years under the direction of a young songwriting-production duo which had some promise, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. In his early 20’s at the time, Johnson already had the vocal chops to handle their sophisticated pop material and arrangements, and recorded a number of them. As good as the sides were, only two proved to be even moderate hits for him, “Reach Out For Me” on Big Top and “Always Something There To Remind Me”, which appeared on on the Big Hill label. Bacharach and David soon lost interest in Johnson, as they began to have far more success producing Dionne Warwick on Scepter during the same period and beyond. In all, Johnson had about a half dozen singles on Big Top and four on the related Big Hill imprint between 1962 and 1966, when the unstable label(s) closed shop for good.
Interestingly, on his final Big Top release (#104), the company threw the production work to Sehorn and Toussaint, probably through Sehorn’s New York business ties. The top side was a cover of Barcharach-David’s “Walk On By”, which had been a huge pop hit for Warwick, just two years earlier. Toussaint turned it into a sauntering, horn-heavy soul vehicle for Johnson’s expressive voice, and also wrote for the flip side, “Little Girl”, which echoed somewhat Johnson’s earlier version of “Kentucky Bluebird”; but, with Big Top on its last legs, the single was a non-starter.
Around 1969, Johnson got a deal with Atlantic Records that gave him another promising shot at success, recording an LP, Sweet Southern Soul, at Muscle Shoals, backed by the legendary local rhythm section, the Swampers. None other than Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd handled the production, with Arif Mardin arranging. It was quite a team; but, the resulting well-executed collection of songs, released on Cotillion, proved too slow-moving and offered little variety or challenge for the seasoned singer. As a result, the project failed to draw attention to Johnson, and sales were sluggish, too, prompting Atlantic to quickly cut him loose.
That’s pretty much where Volt stepped in to pick him up. I wonder if they farmed Johnson out to Sansu, which had no history with the label, due to Toussaint’s previous work with the singer, or on his reputation alone. Whatever the motivation, from the ambitious sound of the resulting LP, Toussaint was clearly juiced to have the opportunity to work with the singer again; and, except for one Leo Nocentelli composition and two previously recorded numbers, he seems to have written all the songs specifically for With You In Mind.
[Note: Toussaint fans might recall that he also wrote a song titled “With You In Mind”, recording it himself on Motion in 1978. The song is nowhere to be found on Johnson’s LP, though; and I had wondered if he did a version of it that was not included for some reason. Odd to name the album for a song not on it; but maybe With You In Mind was just a title without a song at that point. A recent comment from Dave notes that likely the song's first appearance was on Frankie Miller's Toussaint-produced LP, High Life, in 1974 - a fact that I had overlooked. I checked the upgraded Library of Congress copyright database and discovered that the song was registered in 1973, which probably indicates it was not completed until around that time.]
For the most part, tracking sessions for the album were done in New Orleans at Jazz City Studio with new owner Skip Godwin and former proprietor Cosimo Matassa engineering. Background vocals and strings were added later at Reflection Sound in North Carolina, again through Sehorn’s connections. The LP notes neglect to say anything about where Johnson cut his vocals. So, until informed otherwise, I am assuming it was Jazz City, as well.
“Who Am I” (Allen Toussaint)
Lou Johnson. from With You In Mind, Volt 6017, 1971
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I get the distinct impression on this album that Toussaint’s paramount goal was to create material and arrangements worthy of Johnson’s versatile voice, and let his performance answer the question posed by this song, since, despite his recording experience, Lou was still relatively unknown to the general public. As on Dorsey’s Yes We Can, Allen likely again built the tracks on the firm foundation of the Meters pliant playing. [Frustratingly for us detail geeks, no players are listed on this LP either]. An enticing blend of uptown horn and string charts complemented the band’s down to earth accompaniment; and the results lent Johnson a variety of tempos, textures and melodies to work with, balancing pop concepts and one theatrical experiment (the over eight minutes long “Transition”), with the more visceral soul and gospel feel at the heart of his vocal style.
“Who Am I” is a prime example of that balancing act. Interwoven horns, strings, a tasteful vibraphone, and Toussaint’s churchy piano were shaped into a somewhat unusual song structure. The first half has a standard verse chorus format. Then, a new section begins and keeps repeating, becoming one long, ever-building ride-out over which Johnson and a female chorus channel their own choir-like intensity until the fade. The field day Johnson had with the dynamics of this song reflects what can be found throughout the album. It afforded him a showcase that should have had audiences lining up to buy his records and hear him live for years to come, had fate and the music business been so kind.
The song also appeared as the B-side of an apparently one-shot Volt single (#4055), dated March, 1971, with the far different “Frisco Here I Come”, another album cut, on top, The 45 label does not even reference the LP, which probably should tell you something about Volt’s enthusiasm.
“Frisco Here I Come” (Allen Toussaint)
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As if to compensate for the torpid pace of Cotillion’s Sweet Southern Soul album, Toussaint devised this up-tempo, Dixie-fried rocker (with strings!) to bring out yet another facet of Lou's impressive abilities, and it worked well. The groove is driven by a pounding locomotive shuffle and pumping bass, and embellished by Nocentelli’s raunchy, over-driven lead guitar riffs, some swirling organ work (Art Neville?), and. . . those strings. Ordinarily, I ‘d say no way can they contribute to a song like this; but, listen to the percolating pizzicato (plucking) on the bridge sections - funky violins - who knew?
“Wrong Number” (Allen Toussaint)
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One of two previous recorded Toussaint songs on the album, the smooth, melodic “Wrong Number” was originally done by Aaron Neville back in the days of their work together for the Minit label, 1963, and was a good one to revisit with a singer of Johnson’s high caliber.
For Neville, Toussaint set the song as a simple, straight ahead ballad to showcase that delicate, angelic voice; but, on this update, he raised the tempo and let Zig Modeliste funk up the groove, allowing Johnson to bear down with a grittier edge and evoke elements of gospel, blues and soul - at least on the first three quarters on the tune. At that point, Toussaint turned the tables to have the song resolve into a slower, ¾ tempo end-piece that sounds like some mid-1960s Bacharach-David out-take. It’s a clever reference back to Johnson’s earlier days that might have been awkward in less capable hands; but the musicians don’t bat an eye at the switch, and Johnson’s voice instantly mellows out to accommodate the change-up with a classy ease. Still, the average listener wouldn’t get the reference, which might make the segue seem like a gimmick without purpose. I’ll call it an artifact of Toussaint’s obvious admiration for Bacharach's work.
As clever and enjoyable as With You In Mind may be on various levels, I seriously doubt that those in charge at Volt found it to be the record they were looking for, nor did they seem to know how to market any of it. I’ve seen precious few copies of the LP over many, many years of going through record bins and listings. The copy I was lucky enough to buy on the cheap back in the mid-1980s is a promo. Likely, the run of stock copies was limited and quickly remaindered; and, as far as I know, the album was the only work Sansu ever got from Stax.
Toussaint’s mastery of stylistic fusion in his music and arranging has always been both the definition of his original genius and, often, his professional Achilles heel. What made his productions stand out and brought accolades from fellow writers and musicians did not often translate into heavy radio play and substantial sales during the 1970s. Still, the few commercial successes there were kept record labels lining their artists up at the Sea-Saint doorway throughout the rest of the decade, seeking his musical mojo, but not really grasping what it was all about.
The irony in all this for poor Lou Johnson was that, while Toussaint created an outstanding vehicle for his vocal abilities to shine, the material wasn’t what the singer needed at the time to earn public acclaim through the Stax/Volt portal. He probably should have been dong tunes that were genre-specific by writers like Porter and Hayes, Steve Cropper or Al Bell to have had a shot. But that wasn’t the hand he was dealt. Johnson’s recording career followed this album into oblivion; and his worthy voice never found a successful outlet to the world at large - certainly a tragic and unintended consequence of the project for all concerned.