June 18, 2011

The Sissy Variations or The Queen of Funky Dances

[Updated and revised 9/4/2011]

This session’s batch of New Orleans vinyl contains songs associated with a dance called the Sissy, also known as the Sophisticated Sissy, the Sissy Strut or Sissy Walk. In all, there were six such dance records that came out of the Crescent City in the mid to late 1960s. When I considered doing a post one the ones in my collection, I realized that I really didn’t know much of anything at all about the dance itself, beyond the song titles and whatever lyrics there were that I could decipher.


At that point, as always happens with these things, my OCD research mode kicked in; and I was off on various tears and tangents, trying to wrap my brain cells around when, where and how such a dance and the songs it spawned came to be. Once I got into it, I found out about quite a few R&B and funk records that referenced the Sissy from around the US, besides the New Orleans numbers. These were released mainly between 1964 and 1969. And though the craze died down after that, it's possible that the dance never quite died out in New Orleans.


ON THE ORIGINS OF THE SISSY


From the 1950s onward, American rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and pop music was rife with songs about dances, aimed mainly at teenagers, or the nearly-so, comprising the post-World War II Baby Boom generation. Some of the songs promoted a particular dance (Mess Around, Madison, Twist, Mashed Potato, Popeye, Monkey, Pony, etc), while others sought acceptance more or less by association, name-checking a list of current dances over a groove intended to make bodies move.
Either way, record makers sought to latch on to a popular dance tend, or even create their own craze and cash in, either on the local level or, for the really big payoff, nationwide. Occasionally a dance went viral, creating a demand for the latest record(s) associated with it; but a far larger proportion of dance songs weren't big sellers, if not complete duds nobody heard. Even the few that were significant dance hits had a short shelf life, soon supplanted in pop culture’s relentless obsession for and pursuit of the new.

Many dances arose in the African-American community, with some becoming popular enough to cross over the deep racial divide of the time via radio, jukeboxes, and even TV, to be picked up by young whites; but many steps and moves did not. As it looks now, the Sissy was never adopted by white dancers to any significant degree; and even over on the other side of town, it stayed underground in the nightclub environment, and thus was enjoyed by a somewhat older crowd.

 
[For a much more thorough, well-researched study of dance fads (which I regret I didn't know about before I embarked on this venture), I recommend Tim Wall's Wallofsound blog post, which is taken from his chapter on the subject in the book, Malnig's Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader. I appreciate his helpful comments on this post. I always hope this process will be a participatory learning experience as well as a groovefest.]


With the passage of more that 40 years, information on the origins of the Sissy is scant, leaving much of the story subject to supposition and conjecture, including where the dance started, and why it might have been called the Sissy in the first place. How did it catch on and spread around the country with such a name during the repressive times? "Sissy" has long been a pejorative term for men thought to be wimps, or less than masculine, not to mention its outright homosexual implications.

As JD Doyle points out on his massive Queer Music Heritage website, there is evidence in black culture of songs using the term "sissy" in blues recordings from early in the 20th Century. Ma Rainey did "Sissy Blues" in 1926, and Kokomo Arnold's "Sissy Man Blues" first appeared in 1935. These songs definitely weren't about dancing, but indicate that blacks have called gay men "sissies" in common usage for a long time. After learning where the first Sissy dance record was released, and later hearing from people who saw the dance done in New Orleans, I have concluded that it is quite possible that the Sissy actually began in the gay community.

My initial hunch was borne out when I got an eyewitness account from my friend
, Willie West, the great soul singer and performer whose career spanning over 50 years is still going strong. He gigged regularly at dances and clubs in the city during the 1960s, when the Sissy, or Sophisticated Sissy, as he heard it called, was around. So, I hoped he had first hand knowledge about the dance; and I’m glad I asked, because Willie had some revealing things to say about it:


I remember the Sophisticated Sissy. It was a dance that the gay guys started where you wave your arms around and switch your booty. I never did it, but saw it in the clubs. It caught on with the straight people. I don't think the white people knew anything about it. It was mainly the black community imitating the way the gays switched and sashayed around. That's how "Cissy Strut" came about, the Meters song, from that dance [well, in an indirect way, as we'll see]. The New Orleans music was funky. I didn't know the dance traveled outside. . . . I thought it was a product of the city and stayed in the city.

I have recently been in contact with George Porter, Jr., legendary New Orleans bassist and member of the original Meters, one of the most influential funk bands of all times. Both he and his wife, Ara, recalled seeing the Sissy danced at the Nite Cap, a local club, where George had a regular gig in 1966 and 1967 along with drummer Zig Modeliste, and guitarist Leo Nocentelli, as part of Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, the band which would soon transform into the Meters. While he told me that West's description of the dance was close to what they saw, he also said, "I don't remember gay guys in the Nite Cap. I'm not saying they were not there. They were just undercover....Where [the Sissy] came from, I have no idea." But Ara Porter helpfully added that "everybody did the dance, straight and gay."

I also got a chance to check in with my friend, Teddy Royal, a still active jazz and funk guitarist and composer from the New York area, who moved from there to New Orleans around 1970 to play in King Floyd's road band, the Rhythm Masters. As I suspected, Teddy witnessed the Sissy, too, in New York nightclubs before he moved south. He told me it was pretty wild - lots of arm and hip action.


From those insights, I have gotten a little clearer the picture of what the Sissy was all bout. Certainly provocative for the times, the Sissy probably did cross over, but from the gay community to the straight, even as it remained essentially a black dance. It seems to have been a good-natured goof on the mannerisms of effeminate gay males devised to be danced to groove-heavy R&B music. Naming it the Sissy would have been in a sense wryly ironic, playing with the term others had used as a put-down. I'm sure straight people who saw it in clubs took to the dance for both the humorous aspect and the over-the-top, let it all hang out movements.

Even in New Orleans where licentious revelry abounds, it must have been edgy, associated with a subculture few people yet openly acknowledged; but I guess the fun people on both sides of the fence had with it allowed the dance to become not just accepted and but popular. But that genesis of the Sissy would likely be why there is not much more than a mention about the it in articles about 1960s dances, and certainly no step diagrams!


As for the song that first referenced the dance, that seems to have been “The Sissy” by Bob (Relf) and Earl (Nelson), which appeared in 1964 on the small Chene label out of San Francisco, surely no coincidence. The duo was based in Los Angeles (though Earl was originally from Lake Charles, LA) and had their most memorable hit the previous year with another dance tune they wrote, “The Harlem Shuffle”, released in L.A. on the Marc label. After that charted, they followed up with other, less successful dance songs, including “The Sissy”, also an original. More than likely, they geared it to the place where the dance was already coming on strong.

Hearing “The Sissy” [sorry the audio’s not too good at that link] for the first time, I was struck by how much the music and arrangement seem inspired by Major Lance’s big, Curtis Mayfield penned dance hit, “The Monkey Time”, from the previous year, but lack that impact. Bob and Earl’s lyrics called the Sissy a new, “funny little dance” and claimed that “you’ve got to be a little shy to let her know that you’re her guy.” Hmmm. Anyway, they went on to describe some of the moves: sliding, dipping, putting your hand on your cheek, then your hip, and plenty of shaking it - fairly generic dance song patter, and not very revealing, which was the way on other Sissy songs with vocals.


I think the early date of the record makes the West Coast, and particularly San Francisco, long a gay mecca, the plausible point of origin for the Sissy; but how it spread to other major metropolitan areas of the US, remains open to speculation.

 
DEFINITELY A FUNK CONNECTION

Between 1964 and 1970, there were over fifteen songs associated with the Sissy released on singles in the US; and I tracked down and listened to all I could find, helped out immensely by Mr. Fine Wine’s
Downtown Soulville WFMU radio show playlists and audio archives, seemingly inexhaustible veins of musical information, plus some more YouTube “research” that you’ll find in some of the links farther along. The dominant similarity I noted on nearly all Sissy records was that the music was strongly rhythmic, if not outright funk-oriented to varying degrees. Interestingly, the rise of both the Sissy and funk music coincided, certainly making the dance one of the first directly associated with the style. From the start, the groove angle has been what really fascinates me about the phenomenon as it relates to New Orleans, the essential, elemental funk nexus in the US. So, it's not surprising that's where the next Sissy-related record appeared and that the city produced more of them than any other part of the country.

DOIN’ THE SISSY IN THE HOME OF THE GROOVE

It's not a stretch to say that certain New Orleans dancers were early Sissy adopters, given the city's active gay community and social scene, and the fact that the second known song to name-check the dance,
“Do The Sissy", came along in 1966. As I mentioned last year in my post about Chuck Simmons, Ninth Ward auto mechanic and soul singer, the track appeared as the A- side of the very first single by Simmons and his band, Charley Simmons and the Royal Imperial,s on the tiny, short-lived PJ Records label, with an uncredited Wardell Quezergue providing arrangement and production assistance. An upbeat groover aspiring to James Brown’s feel-good, brand new funk bag that was so hot at the time, the song’s strong point was its drumming, and featured some nice breaks. The rest of Chuck’s band weren’t slackers, either, offering up a decent approximation of that JB thang. Short on lyrics, Simmons pretty much just shouted out “Sissy” at random points amidst various grunts and Brownian screams, managing to eek out a rhyme with, “Hold that groove. Keep the beat. Do the Sissy all in the street”, which could have happened come Mardi Gras day in the French Quarter, when so many things are possible.

As Simmons told writer Kevin Goins in the notes to the Funky Delicacies compilation CD on his career,
Hustler’s Strut, they decided to put out a dance record thinking it would have a better chance at getting played on the radio; but significant spins were not in the cards, either because the label lacked the clout to make it happen or the Sissy wasn't quite ready for prime time, maybe both. It is possible, though, that the 45 found its way onto some jukeboxes around town and reached its target audience of local dancers anyway. Meanwhile, a Sissy record from a different Southern music center broke out in a big way.

At some point after Simmons’ release, the Sissy seems to have become known as the Sophisticated Sissy. I don’t know what caused that upgrade, or whether it signified a change in the dance itself; but the transition first became apparent in my old stomping grounds of Memphis, TN, thanks in part to none other than one of the kings of cool dance records, Rufus Thomas.


RUFUS & FRIENDS HELP SOPHISTICATE THE SISSY

In June 1967, Stax Records released
“Sophisticated Sissy”, written by Sir Mack Rice, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, and Joe Shamwell, and performed by Thomas, an irrepressibly energetic novelty song specialist and WDIA disc jockey. The record made it into the top 50 of the national R&B charts, ending a three year hit drought for Thomas, as Rob Bowman states in his excellent notes to The Complete Stax Singles 1959 - 1968, adding that “the Sissy was a big dance at the time.”

As with a lot of Rufus’ records, “Sophisticated Sissy” was funky in that Memphis style, with the drums holding down a medium tempo two and four pocket, while the bass licks provided much of the counter-rhythm, supplemented by sparse piano chords on various offbeats and some syncopation in the horn lines. The way the lyrics run, both Sissy and Sophisticated Sissy are used to refer to the dance that everybody is doing down at the disco when the singer comes in and is shown how to do it right by “five sweet girls” (hope he checked IDs).


Written by the cream of the Stax tunesmiths, Thomas’ “Sophisticated Sissy” is lyrically one of the best of the genre, although it didn’t delve into details on how the dance was done - probably wouldn’t have been broadcast if it had. Notably, it fades with Rufus calling out the names of some cities and regions around the country, which was an often-used device in dance songs to lock-in a national connection, which worked just fine in light of the response. The Sophisticated Sissy was on the scene.


Just a few months after Thomas' hit, Roscoe Bowie from the Washington, DC area tried to get a piece of the action, releasing his hard driving, instrumental dancer,
"Broadway Sissy", on the TEC label. With almost a rock feel (shades of "Gimme Some Lovin'"), it had some tricked out drumming on the breakdown, but was just too frenetic to be considered funk. Great record though it was, I think it pretty much stayed local, leaving the door open for New Orleans to come back with a another Sissy spin.

CURLEY SCORES AT HOME WITH HIS OWN SISSY


In 1968, June 'Curley' Moore,Jr. recorded a separate “Sophisticated Sissy”, released as a two-part 45 done in a uniquely New Orleans fashion, but surely inspired by both Thomas’ record, which likely had done well there, and the growing popularity of the dance itself.

Moore had his own track record in the novelty song market, having been an original member of the highly successful New Orleans vocal group, the Clowns, who fronted pianist Huey Smith’s show band and sang the many funny catch-phrase songs Smith wrote and recorded from the late 1950s into the early 1960s. After lead vocalist Bobby Marchan left the group to go solo in 1960, Curley took over for him; but the hits stopped coming, causing the group to leave Ace. Smith took the group to producer Dave Bartholomew and the Imperial label, where they made some more good records in the same vein, but without any more commercial success. By 1962, they had calling it quits.

One of the many idiosyncratic vocalists on the local scene, Curley had a nasal but pleasant, recognizable sound, with a fairly limited range. His next significant recording date came around 1965, when he worked with producer/arranger Wardell Quezergue and songwriter Earl King on a 45 that had “Soul Train” on top, a rhythmic but strangely melancholy sounding song, which I featured here in 2007. With lyrics that borrowed from Chrs Kenner’s 1962 “Land Of 1000 Dances”, name-checking a number of dances and locales around the country, the tune was a great vehicle for Moore’s voice. It did quite well locally, appearing both on Quezergue’s Hot Line and Nola labels, but didn't break out into other areas of the country.

From there, Curley signed on with Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s Sansu label and production company, cutting three singles during 1966-1967, billed as ‘Curly’ Moore. Though several of the sides held promise, none of Sansu’s releases were being properly promoted by their ostensible national distributor, Bell Records, and by 1968 the label had been shuttered, unable to get any action going on its numerous talented artists.


Meanwhile, after the departure of Eddie Bo from production duties at Joe Banashak’s various labels, Huey Smith came on board and was making some successful local records on Instant with two groups he had put together, the Pitter Pats and the Hueys. Impressed, Banashak gave him the green light to record other artists; and Smith began to write and produce some trend-setting sides, starting with his former front man from the Clowns.

Though he doesn’t get a lot of credit for doing so, Smith was one of the people on the local recording scene, along with Quezergue, Eddie Bo and Allen Toussaint, responsible for bringing funk more prominently into the mix in the mid to late 1960s. During his tenure at Instant, records he produced on Moore, Larry Darnell, Lee Bates and Skip Easterling helped make overt the funkiness that had long been percolating in the city’s popular music, ushering in the start of a new era. Without a doubt, “Sophisticated Sissy” was one of the turning point tunes in that regard.




“Sophisticated Sissy, Pt 1” (H. Smith - B. Brandon)
Curley Moore, Instant 3295, 1968

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

“Sophisticated Sissy, Pt. 2”
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Huey Smith wrote this with Brenda Brandon, who collaborated (probably as lyricist) on quite a few of the records he produced for Instant. While it’s definitely different and even less sophisticated than Thomas’ Stax hit, both do have a few lyrical similarities: alternating the use of Sissy and Sophisticated Sissy in the chorus, and name-checking other parts of the country. Smith and Brandon included Louisiana, too, on Part 1; but I can’t quite make out what Moore is singing there. They added New Orleans to the list on Part 2. You also hear Moore calling out some other dances on Part 1, echoing “Soul Train”; and, more importantly, the lyrics gave a taste of how the Sissy was done. Here’s my approximation:


You looks a bit, and you shake your hips.
You wiggle around and let your backbone slip.


I've always thought that the near universal dance phrase “let your backbone slip” was probably code for pelvic thrusting. Not all that revealing, the rhyme is at least some confirmation of what Willie West saw going on in the clubs, especially the hip shaking. Focusing on the music, if you go back and listen to “Soul Train”, it’s obvious that Smith simply appropriated the changes from that song’s verses and used them as the basis for “Sophisticated Sissy”, adding an instrumental turn-around here and there for linkage. While the tune was certainly no great creative achievement, what set it apart and made it work was the funky drumming.

Obviously, Smith realized this and set up the arrangement to immediately engage backsides. The song starts with the drummer playing the song’s get-down, broken-beat groove solo for the first six bars; and my bet is that it was the masterful Smokey Johnson capturing the rhythmic high ground with an off-kilter yet in the pocket strut that transformed this otherwise rather pedestrian effort into a dancefloor filler. Smokey, who gave New Orleans music of the 1960s so many memorable grooves, had also supplied the more subtle, bossa nova-like syncopation on “Soul Train”; but this time he must have been given carte blanche by Smith to exercise his prerogative, because he didn't hold back. His attack took everybody else along for the ride and made Rufus Thomas’ Stax track seem stiff by comparison.

When New Orleans did the Sophisticated Sissy, funk was coming forward in the popular records of the day, having long been present in spontaneous, buck-jump second line dancing to brass bands at street parades and the polyrhythms of drumming by Mardi Gras Indians and in other African-based rituals. In a city where party is not only a verb but a way of life and the term "loose booty" was surely coined, this new dance found fertile ground to grow in.

Given that atmosphere, it shouldn't be at all surprising that, as Joe Banashak told Jeff Hannusch in I Hear You Knocking, Moore’s “Sophisticated Sissy” became a “big record around town”; but unfortunately again for all concerned it didn’t extend much beyond the city limits.


[Note: Flashing forward to 21st Century New Orleans, the Sissy, or some form of it just might live on in the Sissy Boom, a dance done to the city's unique hip-hop bounce music, or in a popular local fringe phenomenon, gay rappers doing hyper music that has come to be called "sissy bounce". These are emerging from the underground thanks to YouTube and revealing articles
such as this and even the New York Times; but any connection to the older version is mere speculation....so far.] 


TRUE SOPHISTICATION ATTAINED

It is impossible to discuss the many Sissy records without acknowledging two homegrown instrumental hits that served to put the name, desensitized to “Cissy”, back onto the national charts and airwaves, this time full-frontal funky.




“Sophisticated Cissy” (Neville-Porter-Modeliste-Nocentelli)
The Meters, Josie 1001, 1968
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio



Also in 1968, Sansu Enterprises’ newly hired studio backing band took the emerging local funk scene to the next level, achieving national recognition for the fresh sound of their own early instrumental recordings. Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn had recruited Art Neville and the Neville Sounds from their highly successful gig as house band at the Ivanhoe club on Bourbon Street. Art had set the group up like Booker T & the MGs, as a combo with B-3 organ and guitar as lead instruments, plus bass and drums, but diverged in their approach, focusing on a sound where, as Art put it in The Brothers Neville, “Rhythm became everything. . . As opposed to playing songs, we were flat out grooving, vamping on beats that could go on for an hour. . .Ain’t nothing like low down grooves to get folks dancing."

In the studio, their initial instrumental group recordings were between-session jams that Toussaint caught on tape. Realizing that the material was not only way cool, but marketable, Sehorn secured a deal for the band, renamed the Meters, with Josie Records in New York; and their first single taken from those jams was “Sophisticated Cissy” b/w “Sehorns Farms”.

Released late in 1968, “Sophisticated Cissy” got into the R&B charts and went as high as #7 by February of 1969. It was Sansu’s biggest hit since Lee Dorsey’s run a few years earlier. Simultaneously laid back and stone funky, the tune was just a snippet of what the band could develop live; but its soulful vamping was enough to convey the creative ways drummer Zig Modeliste and bassist George Porter, Jr. could mess with the beat and still stay in the pocket, while Neville and guitarist Leo Nocentelli improvised melodically on top. Given its pace, you wouldn’t think this song was designed for Sissy dancing; and there’s a reason for that.

At least on their earlier sides, the Meters did not have names for their spontaneous compositions; and it was left to Toussaint to title them for the records, since he didn’t have much else to do. From the get-go the band arranged and produced their own material, without getting credit for it, of course. Seeking a commercial hook, Toussaint named “Sophisticated Cissy” after the Rufus Thomas hit, as Art recalled; but, it just as well could have been going after the more recent local buzz of Curley Moore’s record.

The Meters, though, had a far different musical concept in mind. So, though it name-checked the dance with the variant spelling, “Sophisticated Cissy” wasn’t really conceived with the Sissy in mind. Ditto for their second release and next hit, “Cissy Strut”, which came from the same group of studio jams as the first and got up to #4 in April that year.



“Cissy Strut” (Nocentelli-Neville-Porter-Modeliste)
The Meters, Josie 1005, 1969

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

I’d hope that everybody is already familiar with these Meters sides; but I’m putting them up for their part in the Sissy/Cissy saga, and also for comparison with the other tunes. Listening to these against the others just shows how far ahead of the game the Meters were early on. It would take a long time for anybody else to catch up; and you could say that no one ever really did. Starting out, what they were doing actually was sophisticated music, closer to jazz than R&B, though geared for get-down dancing (as was early jazz, let's not forget). The pure funk impulse is about spontaneous improvisation by the players; and it’s an ensemble concept that goes way, way back in the city’s musical history.

I can see why Willie West and, I’m sure, a lot of people at the time linked “Cissy Strut” with the dance done in the clubs, and not just because of the title. I'm sure the stone funk groove seemed made for the Sophisticated Sissy. I even found a few references that indicated that the dance started being called the Sissy Strut, too, after this one came out.


YET ANOTHER SOPHISTICATED SISSY COMES TO LIGHT

I can’t get away from the Sophisticated Sissy as it related to New Orleans without bringing up the rarest record to use that name in its title, the highly elusive (and some thought illusory) “Dance of the Sophisticated Sissy” by the Bobby Williams Group.

I found the song title while going through Mr. Fine Wine’s playlists and show archives and was first able to hear it there. He indicated that the record was on Banashak’s Seven B label, but I did not find it shown in the almost complete Seven B discography in
The R&B Indies. Since there are sill unknown titles for #7032 and #7040, with #7037 questionable, on that list, I assumed that “Dance of the Sophisticated Sissy” probably was one of those.

When I contacted Mr. FW for confirmation, he told me that the only information his copy has printed on the labels are the logo, song titles (“Deatsie” is on the other side), name of the group, and some confusing matrix numbers - but no record number, or names of producer or arranger (and I have since seen a photo of another copy of that label - thanks, Kim!). This indicates to me it was probably either a test pressing, or more likely a very limited edition promo copy for radio play consideration. If any stock copies ever saw the light day, I’d be surprised - but you never know.


While poking around for more information on this record, I discovered that I actually have audio of the song in question on a vinyl compilation (Vampi Soul's two LP set,
In the Pocket With Eddie Bo) in my archives. I had not realized it, because, as I learned, the track is mis-titled on the comp, and I had never listened to the side with that track (I have a lot of the songs on 45s). I found out about that and the set's other problematic errors in Martin Lawrie's online review, or I probably wouldn’t have known what the song actually was when I heard it. I’m putting it up here in the pursuit of completeness, and because it’s at least interesting in its own strange way, though any relation to the dance it references is tenuous at best.


“Dance of the Sophisticated Sissy”

Bobby Williams Group, Seven B, ca 1969

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You may remember drummer Bobby Williams and his group because they backed Eddie Bo and Inez Cheatham on an earlier, well-known Seven B single (#7017) from 1968, “Lover and A Friend”, which was leased to Capitol along with #7018, the groundbreaking “Boogaloo Mardi Gras” by just the band itself, which
I discussed back in 2009. Renowned for Williams’ poly-rhythmic grooves, which he called simply “the bouncy beat” (flash forward 40 years to that local hip-hop I mentioned). Both of those earlier records were Bo productions and definitely prime examples of the new era of emergent funk in New Orleans.

As Martin pointed out in his review, when he mentioned "Dance of the Sophisticated Sissy", there is no evidence that Bo was involved with this record, though it was a Seven B release of some sort. Bo had bailed on Banashak and gone over to the Scram label in 1968. Instead, the project could have been supervised by Bo’s successor, Huey Smith, or maybe was an independent production submission under consideration for release. The BMI database does not list this title; so, who wrote it also remains unknown.


At any rate, it’s kind of a hybrid of garage-rock and R&B; and the only link to the Sophisticated Sissy seems to be its oddly classical sounding title.Not really an artfully crafted or arranged instrumental, either, the tune doesn't seem to have been designed to be a dance record. From the plodding intro onward, the first half of the song gathers some steam but is underwhelming groovewise and not helped by a series of awkward ascending and descending chord progressions. You have to wait until over halfway through for the fun to kick in, when Williams’ second line inspired drum break comes from out of nowhere and seems to wake everybody up. In the final minute or so, things finally start coming together. The playing and even the mix improve; but, just as it gets better, it fades. Too little too late. I think the title was just tacked on as afterthought to pick up some hoped for buzz from the previous Sophisticated Sissy records. Musically flawed as it may be, I’m sure this kind of oddball rarity could bring in big bucks on sale or at auction. But as a true Sissy record, it didn't qualify for prime time.

SOME KIND OF SCRAM SISSY SCAM?

The last of the known New Orleans Sissy singles involved the previously mentioned Scram label and producer, writer, arranger, and actual artist Eddie Bo in what may have been another one of his bait and switch ploys, using the name of another artist who did not even appear on the record. The late Mr.Bocage’s methods of making and promoting music could be unorthodox and scattershot, his nature at times impish and enigmatic. Even those who directly questioned him about these things never came away fully understanding his motives. Of course, all of this adds to the mystique of his recording projects, while frustrating those of us trying to suss out the actual circumstances and details behind the fascinating, sometimes hard to find records he brought to the world.


Before we get into the song, let’s try to clear up this business of the artist named on the label. Sonny Jones was a New Orleans blues and R&B singer whose career started in the early 1950s, when he was known as
Little Sonny Jones. When Bo parted ways with Banashak in 1968, he moved over to help Al Scramuza re-start his Scram label, which hadn’t been active for several years. At the time "Sissy Walk" came out, Jones actually was one of the artists besides Bo himself cutting sides for Scram and had one single issued that he actually sang on, “Seven Days” / “Stolen Moments” (#114), which directly preceded “Sissy Walk”, and at least one unissued track, “I Wonder”.


You can find the impressive, deep “Seven Days” and “I Wonder” on the Night Train CD, The Best of Scram Records. There is one other Bo-produced track attributed to Jones that I know of on the Funky Delicacies compilation,
Funky Funky New Orleans (first of the series), “Lighten Up”, which has the exact same backing music as “Sissy Walk”; but the lyrics are completely different and the vocal sounds nothing at all like either Jones or Bo. Instead, I peg it as an unreleased Walter Washington session (which I actually prefer to “Sissy Walk”, by the way). Still with me?

The bottom line is that the vocalist on “Sissy Walk” was definitely not Sonny Jones. How can I be so sure? Well, for starters, just listen to any track that Jones actually sang on and compare, including some of his
fine early records for Specialty and Imperial. There is also a more modern recording of him from a 1975 LP that was re-issued on CD by Black Top in 1995,
Little Sonny Jones New Orleans R&B Gems. But it really only takes one or two of any of his tunes to let you know that his voice was quite different than Eddie Bo’s. That said, such a Bo authority as Martin Lawrie in his Eddie Bo Discography still attributes “Sissy Walk” to Jones, saying that his voice and Bo’s sound “almost identical”. I respectfully beg to differ; and Larry Grogan has my back on this one - it's Bo.

As to why Jones got the credit on this single, I haven’t a clue. Might it have been a mistake on the part of label owner, Scramuzza, you say? Maybe Sonny did a version that didn’t work out, or that Bo thought he could do better himself, and so later overdubbed his own vocal. If Sonny’s name was still on the tape box or session sheet, Scramuzza could have sent it out to be pressed as by Sonny Jones. Yet, that seems way too easy, since Bo had done this kind of thing several times before, using another name on something he did, even on an earlier Scram 45, and would do it again.


Now that we’re totally clear on this (I sometime wonder why I have readers at all), here’s Bo’s contribution to Sissy-dom.




“Sissy Walk (Pt 1)” (E. Bocage - A. Scramuzza)
Sonny Jones, Scram 115, ca 1969

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“Sissy Walk (Pt 2)”
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Except for a brief change on Pt. 1, this is one of those one chord wonder tracks with much more rhythmic emphasis than harmonic, making it not only suitable for dancing in general, but probably prime for doing the Sissy, though I don’t think the record caught on even locally.


As opposed to Bo's two-part funk monster hit with James Black on drums, "The Hook and Sling" (#117), which came out on Scram just shortly afterwards, “Sissy Walk” had far more subdued drumming, a softer, syncopated shuffle with some nice push-pull hi-hat action, over which the other instrumentation added an effective thrust and grind that makes the track worthy of repetition, more so than the lyrics, which were perfunctory at best. The overall feel and function of the tune still shows a fixation with the James Brown funk influence, but, as “Hook and Sling” would demonstrate, Bo was ready and able to move beyond the derivative into his own unique explorations, which I'm sure kept the Sissy dancers plenty busy.


As I mentioned at the start of Sissy Quest 2011, there were also a number of songs related to the dance from other parts of the country, most released in the same time frame as the New Orleans contributions. I’ve got details and audio links on the list below* for the ones not covered in the post. Pretty much all are great groovers. For some of these, the national hits by Rufus Thomas and the Meters probably had as much to to with the Sissy or Cissy in their titles as the dance itself - but it’s hard to know exactly where the motivation came from at this point. Good as they are, these others probably had no more than local or regional success, if that. Let me know, if I'm off about any of this shaky load of speculation.


All I'm sure about is that funk was beginning to bubble up all over back then, providing excellent conditions for those so inclined to let loose and do the Sissy in any of its variations.


*
THE SISSY LIST (OUTSIDE OF NEW ORLEANS)
“The Sissy”, Bob and Earl, Chene 103, 1964 [see post]
“Sophisticated Sissy”, Rufus Thomas, Stax 221, 6/5/1967 [see post]

“Broadway Sissy”, Roscoe and Friends, TEC 3012, 9/26/1967 [see post]

“Do The Sissy”, Albert Collins, Imperial 66391, 1968-1969 (Los Angeles) 

"Automatic Sissy", The Dynamic Walton Brothers, Big Hit 300, ca 1968 (Detroit)
“Do The Cissy”, The Stingers, Stax 0035, 1969 (neither funky, nor a Memphis group)
“Cissy’s Thang”, The Soul Seven, Soultex 103, 1969 (Dallas)
“Sissy Walk”, Freedom Now Brothers, All Brothers 42269, 1969 (Philadelphia)
"Sissy Walk", Billy Ball & the Upsetters, Apollo, 1969 (Indianapolis)

"Cissy Popcorn", Preston Love, Hudson 2011, 1969
“Sissy Football”, Village Soul Choir, Abbott 2028, 1971 (New York) "Sissy", Bugs Bower, Pip 8920, ca 1971 (New York) [not funky]
"Be Cool (Willie Is Dancing With A Sissy)" Joe Tex, Epic 50352, 1977 [honorable mention]


As Wallofsound notes in the comments, "Broadway Sissy" can be found on The Cleethorpes Story CD compilation; "Sissy Walk" by Freedom Now Brothers was comped on The Philly Sound Get Down - Funky Philly Instrumentals; and there's yet another instrumental with the same title (added to list) by Billy Ball & the Upsetters on the MidWest Funk CD.

 
[Again, many thanks to Mr. Fine Wine, Willie West, and Kim Segura for their help, and also to Wallofsound, and Kevin Coombe at a great resource,
DC Soul Recordings, for finding out the date of TEC 3012.]

17 Comments:

Blogger The Stepfather of Soul said...

I think the Village Soul Choir record comes closest to taking on the possible homosexual undertones of the Sissy with "Sissy Football," particularly in Part 1, where the lead uses the phrase "the sissies are doing it" a few times and for the "owww" hook line in the verses he says something like "you hear that sissy hollerin." But then again, Part 2 of the record is more of the standard "hands on your hips, let your backbone slip" variety.

7:16 PM, June 18, 2011  
Blogger Wallofsound said...

Thanks for this post. I learnt a lot. I share your fascination with the Sissy.

Just for complete-ists you can find the Broadway Sissy, credited to Roscoe & Friends, on the compilation CD The Cleethorpes Story, representing its incorporation into Northern Soul dance.

I have versions of Sissy Walk by Freedom Now Brothers [on The Philly Sound Get Down: Funky Philly Instrumentals CD], and Billy Ball & the Upsetters [Midwest Funk CD]

I also have 11 covers of the Meter's Cissy Strutt, many by jazz artists, just to show how the track took on a life beyond funk.

4:45 AM, June 19, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Have not heard Part 2 of the VSC single, SOS; but, they are playing around with the gay aspect on Part 1. Saw your interesting post on this record, too. Strange group. I have one of their less crazy 45s.

Also, much thanks for the additional info, Wallofsound. Many will be glad to know some of the Sissy stuff can be found on CD (I forgot there was a version on Midwest Funk, I have that here somewhere!).

"Cissy "Strut" was/is a very influential record. Easy to see why the jazzers took to it.

10:12 AM, June 19, 2011  
Blogger Wallofsound said...

Just to put the Sissy into a bit of context, it comes quite late in the dance fad era when black dances had stopped crossing over into white youth culture with quite the same speed and impact. If any of your readers want to find out more about this context they may find my chapter on late 50s/early 60s dance fads in Malnig's Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader. There's an extract at http://wallofsound.wordpress.com/2007/09/19/rocking-around-the-clock-teenage-dance-fads-1955-to-1965/
Sadly, I didn't touch on the Sissey as, like you, I couldn't find out much about how it was danced, and I ended my analysis at 1965.

10:42 AM, June 19, 2011  
Anonymous Kozzie said...

First off - great analysis of the "Sissy Phenomenon", I've been trying to find out how the dance is done for years, anyone with a link to a video would be very welcome.

3:15 PM, June 20, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, Mr. Wall, for that link. Looks like excellent information. I will link up to it on the post soon. I've been tracking down some more non-New Orleans Sissy songs, too.

Thanks,as well, Kozzie. I think a lot of us would find vintage Sissy video helpful, and entertaining. Will post it or a link if anything comes my way.

4:53 PM, June 20, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

them too they recorded the Cissy or the Sissy

Rockin' Jake: Sophisticated Sissy

George Porter's Joyride:Cissy Strut

King Herbert & the Knights: Sissy Strut

Earl Van Dyke: Cissy Strut

Willard Posey Reunion : Cissy Strut

Johnny Lewis Quartet : Cissy Strut

3:05 AM, June 21, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks. Granted, LOTS of people have covered Meters' tunes over the years, including, of course, "Cissy Strut", which was even done by the Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band, it seems (I've got to get that one!).

I'm more looking for other original Sissy or Cissy songs, though, not cover songs so much, especially those that cropped up in the mid-1960s to ealry 1970s.

I've added a couple of more to the list at the end of the post that come from outside NOLA. I've heard a short clip of "Automatic Sissy", an instrumental that is not really a funk tune, but uptempo and pretty hot. Not sure about "Sissy" by saxman Bugs Bower. Can't locate audio, but the time seems about right.

8:29 AM, June 21, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do the Sissy by Albert Collins
came out on Imperial
but was produced by Bill Hall
it's hard to believe it was recorded
in Los Angeles??????

9:38 AM, June 21, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Well....not sure where it was recorded, but Collins was living on the West Coast, I think the L.A. area, at that time, and had signed with Liberty/Imperial in 1968, which was based there. Though he could have recorded in any studio, I still would call him a L.A. artist at that point.

That Bill Hall produced it still doesn't tell me a lot, although Hall started out in Beaumont, TX
and recorded some of Collins' early 60s hits. Hall could have produced the session in L.A. Just don't know.....

Don't know anything about the writer of that single, Stephen Hollister, either, other than he wrote quite a few tunes, according to BMI.

2:06 PM, June 21, 2011  
Anonymous sewa mobil said...

Very nice, thanks for sharing.

12:20 PM, June 26, 2011  
Anonymous Mr. Fine Wine said...

Great work, Dan. Wherever Albert Collins recorded that single, it sure has a New Orleans feel to it, doesn't it?

2:46 PM, July 12, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Appreciate it, Mr FW, and your input, too. As for Mr Collins' Sissy tune, I hear a distinct Meters influence there, for sure.

8:03 AM, July 13, 2011  
Blogger bigsteveno said...

Excellent work, man. You should get a Pulitzer Prize for this. Or how about one of those Macarthur genius grants to further your research? Keep up the good work.

7:16 AM, July 22, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Much thanks for your encouragement, bigsteveno, but, unless they've lowered the standards of those awards tremedously, I won't hold my breath..... Which leaves funding option "L", winning Lotto (if I rmember to buy a ticket). Seriously, I do get a few donations a year for HOTG, which I GREATLY appreciate, helping out with the bandwidth costs. Then again there are those who suggest I pay THEM to read this stuff.

8:29 AM, July 22, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks a million for putting pieces together. Keep doing it! (Too bad no photos or footage of the sissy!)

9:20 PM, September 03, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

I continue to edit and update this post, anon, for clarity and to add more info. So stay tuned....

1:41 PM, September 04, 2011  

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