TRACKING THE BIG Q FACTOR, PT 1
TRYING TO MAKE THE BARONS RULE
Wardell Quezergue began working with the Barons, a New Orleans-based soul vocal group, when they recorded a 45 for Senator Jones in the late 1960s. That convergence of talent is as good a place as any to start my meandering and understandably limited retrospective on this recently departed musicians’ musician, known on many record labels from the era as Big Q, whose body of work is as impressive as it is immense.
Over the last seven years, I’ve done a number of posts related to his handiwork (see a partial list below); and, for the next month or two, I will be featuring more varied and revealing sides that I hope might give some insight into his legacy. Although the music he worked on was not always identifiably New Orleans in its sound, he was very much a product of the city, steeped in music from an early age, who brought his own uniquely valuable sensibilities to bear on every project he touched.
Back in 2007, I did my first post on the Barons (recently revised); which includes an overview of their recording career, plus a nearly complete vinyl discography. If you are not familiar with their work, you might want to refer to back to that, since I will be focusing mostly on the records at hand this time. The group and their music have intrigued me ever since I first heard them on a Funky Delicacies compilation some fifteen years ago; and I have been hunting and gathering their records ever since.
As I noted in that post, male soul vocal groups were few and far between on the New Orleans recording scene of the 1960s; and, the more I’ve thought about it, that seems to have held true across the South, as well, though I can’t figure out why, or am I just missing something obvious? In any case, when the Barons started out in the mid-1960s, there were many groups such as theirs getting national radio play; but the majority were from northern metropolitan areas. Just considering some of the more obvious ones, Chicago had the Dells, Impressions and Radiants, while in Detroit, on Motown-related labels alone, there were the Contours, Four Tops, Miracles, and Temptations. And let’s not forget the Intruders out of Philadelphia and New York’s Little Anthony and the Imperials. But, in their own hometown, the Barons pretty much had the niche all to themselves.
The five years or so that Wardell oversaw their recordings for several record labels was an interesting period in his long career, because it seems evident that he altered his musical approach in an attempt to get the Barons exposure on the national level, which he obviously felt they deserved. That meant making a choice to give the group a sound more in line with what successful soul-pop groups on the US charts were doing.
Generally speaking, Wardell’s forté involved imparting a distinctive sound and feel to a song to make it stand out, the better to become a hit - think of Earl King’s “Trick Bag”, “Teasin’ You” by Willie Tee, Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’”, or King Floyd’s “Groove Me”, for just a few of the best-known examples. His genius was providing a fresh slant to the music with his deftly crafted arrangements; but, in the case of his early work with the Barons, he took a more expedient route.
NON-GREASY KID STUFF
The release of “Kid Stuff” b/w “As Sure As You’re Born” on Shagg 711 in 1968 helped Senator Jones get established in the precarious world of running independent record labels. A few months earlier, his first venture, the Black Patch imprint, quickly crashed after its only release, a strange, idiosyncratic single by Rockie Charles, failed to find a quirky enough audience, and became a money-losing learning experience. Jones would prove to be a resilient businessman with a knack for the hustle, and kept his low-budget projects going by hook or crook while many other local label owners folded. Shagg was the first of his many bounce backs, though it proved to be ill-fated as well..
As Jones told Jeff Hannusch in The Soul of New Orleans, “Shagg was a nickname a lot of artists called me.” He had actually started using it for his company name with the release on Black Patch (“a division of Shagg Records, Inc”), also numbered 711. To fund Shagg’s start-up, he convinced several local businessmen to back him; and, for the lead-off single, Jones recruited the Barons, hiring on Quezergue (shown both as “Big Q” and “D. C. Wardell” on the credits) to take charge of production and arrangement.
Wardell’s formerly successful Nola Records partnership was well on its way to unraveling after a five year run, which is why he was again freelancing. It’s not clear if he brought the Barons to Jones’ attention or not; but, in any case, Shagg was where producer and group first collaborated; and it appeared to be a promising start.
Cosimo Matassa, who recorded the sessions for this single at his Camp Street studio, liked ”Kid Stuff” enough that he paid Jones cash up front for the right to distribute the 45 through his company, Dover Records; but, although the song got significant local radio play and was quickly in demand; success was short-lived. Dover’s quick slide into bankruptcy and Cosimo’s loss of his facilities to the IRS sank his entire enterprise, taking down most of the independent labels in town like Shagg that relied on his services. Had that not occurred, ”Kid Stuff” might even have had a shot at gaining a regional, if not national, audience.
“Kid Stuff” (J. Broussard-R.Williams-C.Washington)
The Barons, Shagg 711, 1968
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
The simply structured, mid-tempo “Kid Stuff” lent itself well to Wardell’s layered arrangement, which derived most of its rhythmic drive from engagingly syncopated bass work, with additional texture provided by counterpoint horn lines. Singing impeccably, the Barons completed the attractive package, delivering thinly veiled hormonal teen lyrics about a guy trying to convince his girl that they’re old enough to stop playing around and get serious - immediately, if not sooner.
Composed by head-writer Joe Broussard, with Ralph Williams and Carol Washington, who were vital parts of Wardell’s production team, “Kid Stuff” indicates that all involved had their sights set on the mainstream for this group. In a common record business tactic, they hoped to compete with popular soul groups of the day by appropriating elements of their sound. Such a calculated ploy was likely the result of how difficult it was for records on small local labels with no promotional budget to even break-out at home, let alone in metropolitan markets father afield. Any exploitable advantage would have seemed fair game.
Interestingly, in this month’s OffBeat tribute to Quezergue, Deacon John Moore, who played on many sessions for him and may be the guitarist on these very songs, recalls Wardell saying he never listened to what was on the radio, lest it unduly influence his arrangements; but, I don't think he kept that shut off. No one operates in a vacuum in the pop medium, nor can they re-invent the wheel with each new song. Whether or not he was aware of what the current national charters were doing, it’s obvious his writers were. “Kid Stuff” seems fashioned on the same general musical and lyrical themes as the huge crossover hit that year, “Cowboys To Girls”, by the Intruders, which the highly influential team of Gamble and Huff wrote and produced.
Vocally, the Barons seem to have had the flexibility to handle whatever style Team Q threw their way, as is aptly demonstrated by the flip side of this single, an impressive foray into grittier Southern soul that exudes a distinctively Memphis vibe.
“As Sure As You’re Born” (A. Savoy)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
Written by Albert Savoy, who was one of the founding member of the group, this hard-driving dancer sounds like it was birthed in some back room at Stax and intended for a Sam & Dave and Otis Redding match-up. Instead, the Barons got to work out on it. As with the top side, if you didn’t know it was all done in New Orleans, there would be no way to tell just listening to it, aptly demonstrating that Wardell, his writers, and the players had the chops to pull off most anything they. tried.
Yet, a national break-out would prove elusive, but not for lack of trying.
MOVING ON TO MODE
After the shutdown of Shagg, it took Senator Jones a while to regroup; but he would go on to release many more records, including another for the Barons a few years later. Meanwhile, the group wound up on the Mode label for their next two singles, probably due to Wardell’s connection to its owner. Contrary to information in the R&B Indies (valuable, but not infallible), Senator Jones was not involved with Mode. Rather, according to Aaron Fuchs of Tuff City (who has re-issued much of Quezergue’s 1960s output - amidst controversy), Ulis Gaines, one of Wardell’s partners in the failing Nola label, started Mode as a fall-back side project. There were just six known releases during its brief flash in the pan; and, on at least half of those, Gaines went with what he knew worked and had Wardell run the sessions for the Barons’ pair, plus one by the mysterious Klicky Robinson, whose deliciously obscure single preceded theirs.
Having never heard the Barons’ initial 45 for Mode (#507), I don’t have much to say about it, other than that the sides were “Are You Here To Stay” written by Joe Broussard, Albert Savoy, and A. Winfield, and ”Love Is So Real” by Broussard and Sterling August. I’ve only seen a label shot of the “Love Is So Real” side. These days, all of Mode’s quite limited output is hard to come by. In fact, few copies likely got into anyone’s hands at the time, either. But, the Barons’ second for the label (#508) was leased by Shout in New York for national distribution, and is a bit easier to come by in that form.
“Society Don’t Let Us Down” (R. Williams-J. Broussard-C. Washington)
The Barons, Shout 242, 1969
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
If you saw the very short list of some of Wardell’s memorable arrangements I did for OffBeat this month, you know I included this one. There were so many to choose from; but I really do think the song proved to be a surprising exercise for Big Q and the writers, in pursuit of a winning sound for the Barons. In this case, they were going after the funkified, imprecisely named “psychedelic soul” approach of a huge hit from the fall of 1968, “Cloud Nine”, by the Temptations. That group and their Motown writing and production team took a leap of faith themselves when they made the record, changing their direction to follow the lead of Sly and the Family Stone’s intense and popular new style. It paid off impressively, and won the Temptations a Grammy to boot. Again, such is the imitative essence of pop music.
Similarities between “Society” and “Cloud Nine” are hard to ignore: the prominent wa-wa guitar, the galloping groove with heavy emphasis on the hi-hat cymbals and pumping bass guitar that intensifies on the ride-out, the breakdowns, the socially conscious lyrics, and the vocal likeness of each lead singer. While, the Temps’ tune may have been better written, I think the Barons held their own on the vocal front. Wardell’s spare but exciting, highly energized production, captured convincingly by the hard-core session band, had the heat to compare favorably with an outfit having a much bigger production budget and, I’m sure, a better equipped studio. In fact, a technical issue with this recording probably worked against "Society" getting any recognition whatsoever.
Although this 45 is in mint condition, the overall sound is pretty awful. The hi-hat was recorded so hot as to distort and then pushed up in the mix. To make matters worse, either the pressing was bad or the track was mastered with too much high frequency energy, making it painful to listen to at a reasonably loud level. To get something endurable, I used an equalizer to notch out as much of the cymbal hash as I could without unduly affecting other parts of the track. Hope you accept my non-purist compromise.
I’m curious if the Mode version had the same sonic problems, or if the fault was with Shout’s remastering. The Tuff City CD version, transferred from one or the other 45 (the notes don’t say which), sounds about as bad as mine does. If the entire run suffered from the same flaws, airplay would likely have been out of the question. If you have a copy of either version, let me know how it sounds.
“No More Baby Love” (R. Williams-J. Broussard-C. Washington)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
This track suffers to a lesser extent from the same high end problems as the other side, making it more probable that there was a mastering/pressing issue. But, with a little sonic tweaking, it too can still give us a good sense of what Big Q and crew were up to.
To my admittedly well-worn eardrums, the lighter impact of this decent flip side dancer refers back to an earlier Motown influence - definitely not any New Orleans identifiers to be heard here, either. As on the top side, it’s another number from Broussard, Williams, and Washington, who truly had a knack for fashioning material inspired by soul-pop radio hits, which Wardell then arranged to suit.
Lyrically, the subject matter of “No More Baby Love” revisits the writers’ earlier “Kid Stuff” theme; and the instrumentation provides another ideal setting for the Barons’ smooth vocal blend. Even with recycled lyrics and a borrowed musical base, this is too enjoyable to be a throwaway.
Ironically, Motown could have had Big Q’s services early on, had they realized how valuable he was when he and a group of local singers, writers, and musicians went to Detroit with Joe Jones in 1963 to offer their talents to the new label. Had Berry Gordy not passed on almost all of them, music history could have been quite different.
While I find the songs on the Shagg and Mode/Shout 45s to be well-executed pop fare, I’m definitely of the opinion that Wardell and his writing staff could have had just as much chance at a hit by fashioning something unique for the Barons, giving them their own signature sound and maybe even throwing in some local rhythmic flavor. Up to this point in the production playbook, what they had in mind for the group was musically derivative rather than truly creative, which significantly decreased the Big Q Factor of the proceedings; but a new direction was in the wind.
“Kid Stuff” made the Barons popular entertainers around town; and they opened shows for many big name artists as a result - but that’s pretty much as far as they got in their quest for the limelight. The production team’s fixation on giving the group the mainstream treatment persisted until Wardell moved his recording operations to Malaco in Jackson, Mississippi in 1970, where a sea change of creativity took hold, bringing into prominence the rhythmic complexities of funk that had been cropping up in his grooves over the years.
Next time out, I’ll feature some of that music from Malaco from the Barons and other fine acts who got the new Big Q makeover there. So, stop back by. I swear there won’t be so long a wait....
More On Big Q From the HOTG Archives:
Curley’s Melancholy Soul Train
Funky To A Fault
Sho Nuff The Q-Funk
Movers and Shakers With the Big Q Factor
Denise Keeble: Giving It Up
Larry Hamilton: On Record (And In Parenthesis)
Having A Double Blast
Here's King Floyd In His Prime
Kung Fu Man Vs Shaft...
Sugar and Spice
Quezergue Onstage and Behind the Scenes
The Staple Singers Get A Joy Ride
The Soulful Tenacity of Chuck Simmons
The Teddy Royal Story
Gentleman June's Boom Boom, Pt 2