The Importance of Herman Ernest, Part 2
In case you were wondering, I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth. . . yet. I’m just way behind on my posting after festival month down here and all. I made it to the French Quarter Festival, up to Memphis to help my dad celebrate his 86th birthday, then three days of JazzFest (you’ve got to pick your shots when the price gets so high), some of Festival International in Lafayette, and various side events and gigs. I also did taxes somewhere in there, which was not the least bit festive. In whatever rare, brief pockets of free time available, I’ve been working on this long-delayed final installment of my two-part post on the late master groove-keeper, Herman V. Ernest, III. In drips and drabs, I finally got it done.
As before, I am only focusing on examples of his playing that I have on vinyl. But there’s much, much more on digital beyond that. I’m hoping you’ll get inspired to do your own research and seek some of that out, because good things regularly happened when Herman was in the band. To date, we have gone from his earliest known (at least to me) recording date, 1971, into the first decade of his career as a studio musician. This time I’m backtracking to pick up some more of his 1970s sessions before moving into the 1980s.
Only in his 20s during the period I’ve covered so far, Herman came on strong and proved himself quickly, as discussed in Part 1, taking advantage of opportunities that came his way. Impressively, within a year of the doors opening at Sansu Enterprises’ Sea-Saint Studio, he earned a place as one of the principal drummers, working on often rigorous sessions for in-demand and demanding producer Allen Toussaint, who has worked with the best and always holds the players he uses to a high standard.
Not long after Herman made his mark on LaBelle’s Nightbirds and Phoenix albums (see previous post), Warner Bros sent the Sansu team a production project that would prove to be quite a contrast to the dynamics of those LPs. I am bringing it in because the connection Herman made through his work on the sessions proved to be a significant stepping stone to higher profile road work and more national exposure.
In 1975, keyboardist and vocalist William D. ‘Smitty’ Smith, a busy L.A. session player with some impressive credentials on the mainstream music scene of the day, came to New Orleans to record a solo album for Warner Bros. He brought in half the songs on the LP, three of which he co-wrote with Eric Mercury and two with David Clayton Thomas. Toussaint composed the others, as well as arranging and producing all the tracks, of course. The usual impressive array* of local talent was on hand to make the music happen, including Herman, who drummed on every cut.
SMITTY’S GOOD FEELIN’
“Fooled Ya” (William D. Smith - David C. Thomas)
William D. Smith, from A Good Feelin’, Warner Bros, 1976
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
Even with Toussaint’s involvement, there was nothing really exceptional about the material on A Good Feelin’, and the pacing was generally slow. Smith’s vocals were serviceable, nothing more. Maybe I am reading too much into things (such is blogging!); but I have the feeling that Toussaint was not particularly inspired on any level by this project, though he certainly delivered an album that was competent and professionally done. Still, as I’ve said before, Toussaint not fully engaged could still run circles around standard fare pop record production; and the quality of his arrangements and the playing by the Sea-Saint session crew afforded the record its share of above-average musical moments.
“Fooled Ya”, written by Smith and Thomas is one of the few upbeat songs on the album, and shows what Herman could contribute on just an average day at the office, proving Dwight Richard’s point from the last post that an important part of Herman’s value on a session was that he “could make a groove out of anything”.
Toussaint’s poly-rhythmic modus operandi is well-displayed on the song, interspersed as it is with instrumental syncopation. But, the arrangement presented the rather odd conjoining of a vamp that echos “Big Chief” on the verses with an otherwise disco feel elsewhere. Deftly navigating the unusual cross-genre terrain, Herman managed to make the concept cohere, punching out some funk, yet syncing it to that consistent beat meant to make bodies hustle across dancefloors. His ability to artfully resolve such a drumming dichotomy was clearly becoming a specialty.
Although A Good Feelin’ went nowhere in a hurry commercially, Smith came away from the project impressed enough with the drummer that he brought the rhythm section of Herman’s club band, Cypress, along for one of his next jobs, arranging and playing on a new Richie Havens album.
*[Players on A Good Feelin’: William D. Smith, piano/ Allent Toussaint, keyboards/ James Booker, organ/ David Barard, bass/ Herman Ernest, drums/ Steve Hughes and Leo Nocentelli,, guitars/ Alfred ('Uganda') Roberts and Kenneth ('Afro') Williams, congas/ + 9 piece horn section]
RUNNING WITH RICHIE
1976 found former 1960s counter-culture troubadour and soulful folk-rocker Richie Havens transforming into a pop artist, having recently signed with a major label, A&M Records. It seems he was looking for a new band to go along with his new sound, and, in recruiting Smith for the initial album project, Havens got a potent one in Cypress. Going to Hollywood that year, Herman, bassist Tony Broussard, and guitarist Darryl Johnson participated on the tracking of the LP, The End Of The Beginning; and, duly satisfied with the results, Havens hired them to back him on the road, as well.
The material on the LP was predominantly covers of popular tunes by the likes of Bob Dylan, 10cc, James Taylor, Steely Dan, Van Morrison, and the Doobie Brothers. On all but two of the tunes, ‘Smitty’ Smith did the arrangements and played with Cypress on the tracks. Booker T. & the MGs took over for the remainder. Not bad company to keep.
When I pulled out this LP and started reviewing the songs, though, I doubted that I could find anything much worth talking about here, not because the playing was in any way deficient, but just that everything seemed to have that safe, standard-issue record industry production approach. Then, finally, on the last cut of Side 2 (or, as shown on the cover, the “Faster Side”!!), I hit groove paydirt.
“Long Train Running” (T. Johnston)
Richie Havens, from The End Of The Beginning, A&M, 1976
A big hit in 1973 for the Doobie Brothers, the original version rocked along in its own way, mainly powered by the rhythm guitar attack and some peppy conga playing. The song became a staple of classic rock radio formats around the country, ad infinitum. But this take is something else again and should convert even fans of the Doobies to it’s turbo-charged groove, as Cypress upgraded the rolling southbound freight motif into a pulsing bullet train. Despite the myriad times I’ve heard the hit version on the radio over the years, the arrangement and musicianship here completely sidetracks the earlier record and can make it seem like a weaker cover version. Whether Havens had the right voice for the song is debatable; but, without a doubt, this young rhythm section could already operate on a higher level than the standard issue pop acts of the day.
Totally locked in, Cypress delivered an unrelenting, monster groove. Beginning with a fairly straight-ahead four-on-the-floor kick drum and back-beat snare attack, Herman introduced increasingly syncopated hi-hat intricacy as he picked up steam along the way. After the first percussion-fueled breakdown, he transformed the rhythmic thrust into a furiously funky locomotive shuffle that hauled a huge load of booty shaking rhythms on down the line. It’s a tour de force performance abetted by Broussard, whose fleet-fingered, galloping bass lines amplified the intensity along with Johnson’s churning rhythm work and fiery lead runs. Joey Oliver provided the organ embellishments, while Smith kept up on piano throughout, but obviously was just along for the wild ride.
Kind of a shame all that brilliance was brought to bear on a pop cover tune buried deep down on the LP - but it’s there to be marveled at, regardless. Havens and Cypress toured to support this album as well as the follow-up, Mirage, supplemented by David LeBolt on keyboards; and, from the live tracks I’ve heard, “Long Train Running” was definitely a highlight in concert, too. Two Bottom Line NYC shows, from 1976 and 1978, are accessible at Wolfgang’s Vault; and, on the latter date, the band let loose with an over 11 minute throwdown on the tune that is a wonder of dynamics, drive and endurance, especially on the part of Herman and Tony.
Havens brought Cypress back to Hollywood in 1977 to cut Mirage, which featured originals by Havens and other writers, wisely staying away for the most part from the pop covers approach. One exception was Havens’ interpretation of a Toussaint tune that ‘Smitty’ Smith had originally done the previous year.
“We All Wanna Boogie” (Allen Toussaint)
Richie Havens, from Mirage, A&M, 1977
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
I first heard this song done by Albert King on his Toussaint-produced album, New Orleans Heat, cut at Sea-Saint in 1978, and in which Herman did not participate. The groove and relative simplicity of the tune and lyrics fit well with Kings’ bluesy funk approach and gruff vocals. After that, I discovered Smith’s earlier take on A Good Feelin’, which had a more stripped down, somewhat less engaging arrangement than what Toussaint put together for King. Havens’ cover with Cypress plus Lebolt and Smith on keyboards, Paul Williams on rhythm guitar, and Gary Coleman on percussion, was recorded in between those two and outside of Toussaint’s sphere; but, of the three, it sounds best to me.
For one thing, it’s just got a hipper, more substantial uptown funk vibe and feel to it than the others, built around Herman’s struttin’ groove and understated syncopation. Broussard did some supple slipping and sliding on the bass strings, playing around with the beat; and Johnson’s lead guitar sounds positively Steely Dan-ish. Havens, who is credited with arranging all the basic tracks on Mirage, not only layered the instrumentation poly-rhythmically, a la Toussaint, but re-wrote the song in a way, adding a catchy repeating vamp and the mid-song instrumental solo section with a nicely contrasting set of changes, both of which enhanced the structure and flowed perfectly with the original concept. Nice trick. It takes a keen mind and great ear to improve on Toussaint. So, kudos to Richie Havens for going for it, which was surely made much easier having Cypress to work with.
As things often go in the continual record industry crapshoot, neither of Havens’ albums did well enough in the marketplace to encourage A&M to renew his deal after Mirage. When the related touring finally played out during 1978, he and the band separated as well. Herman went back to doing sessions at Sea-Saint, including Lee Dorsey’s Night People LP, featured last time, and another now nearly forgotten project Toussaint was producing for the great soul/blues belter, Etta James.
Mirage inner sleeve, L-R: Tony Broussard, Herman, Smitty Smith, Darryl Johnson, Dave LeBolt(?), Richie Havens.
It is at this point in the story that audio engineer Danny Jones came into the picture at the studio, and over the next few years worked on numerous projects that involved Herman. I met Danny in the 1990s at a NARAS (now called the Recording Academy) function, as I recall, when he was back living and working in Memphis. At the time, he graciously consented to an interview for my radio show and imparted tons of valuable information about the New Orleans phase of his recording career. I subsequently moved to Louisiana and he to Texas; but we got reconnected when he discovered the blog; and, recently, he generously shared more with me about those remarkable days and his memories of Herman.
Arkansas-born, Danny had been a professional drummer earlier in his career, playing on the road with numerous big name acts. Then, he decided to exit the tour bus and became a studio engineer and producer. In 1978, he was working in Memphis when Marshall Sehorn, who had heard one of his recording projects, contacted him about coming to work for Sansu. After going down to visit the Sea-Saint facility in New Orleans and meet with Sehorn (Toussaint was out of town at the time), Danny sensed that working there would be a great opportunity and soon joined the staff. He didn’t really know much about Allen Toussaint at the time; but would work regularly with him on numerous projects over the next 5 or 6 years. As a result, Danny has nothing but high praise and respect for his former boss, considering him, in no uncertain terms, a gentleman and a genius.
The Etta James project was the first thing I was on at Sea-Saint. It was already well underway when I got there..., which was in 1978. All four of us [the engineering staff], me, Skip [Godwin], Roberta [Grace], and Cos [-imo Matassa] worked on it. - Danny Jones
Tracking for Etta James’ album, which was being recorded for Warner Bros, had started earlier in the year; and, as Danny states, by the time he got involved, many of the basic backing tracks had been cut.
Herman had played on those and is, in fact, the only drummer credited on the album jacket. So, I was surprised to hear from Danny that, when he engineered the recording of three later songs on the LP - “Don’t Stop”, “Night By Night”, and “Wheel of Fire”, another local drummer who would become legendary, Johnny Vidacovich, had done those sessions. Quite possibly, that was because Herman was back out on the road with Havens for a few more dates. Still he did the majority of the drumming on the LP.
In addition to getting the music down, Danny had the enjoyable and enviable honor of engineering some of Etta’s vocal sessions; but the entire project soon was stopped in its tracks. Having heard the work in progress, higher-ups at Warner Brothers decided to pull out, ending their contract with the singer. According to Danny, Etta said the reason they gave her for doing so was that the record was “neither fish nor foul”, meaning they felt the material didn’t easily fit into any established demographic-driven commercial radio pigeon hole, which would have made the record hard to promote and market. Of course, going in, somebody should have considered that neither Toussaint nor James had a reliable history of fitting neatly into commercial formats; but, when it did dawn on them, they cut their losses, shutting off the monetary spigot. Sansu put the tapes in storage and went on to other things, while Etta’s management shopped around for another deal to hopefully finish the nearly completed LP. In 1979, RCA got a notion and became involved, allowing work to briefly resume; but, they too soon withdrew.
It wasn’t until 1980 that MCA took up the challenge and funded the completion of the album. Released on their T-Electric subsidiary, the LP was titled Changes, after one of the tracks, written by Carole King. As far as Danny is concerned, it was a very appropriate title for what the vagaries of the music business put Etta and Sansu through to get the record to market.
“Mean Mother” (Willie Hutch)
Etta James, from Changes, T-Electric, 1980
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
“Mean Mother” was one of two songs on the album written by Motown artist and songwriter Willie Hutch, who likely specifically created them to be strong, low-down funk vehicles for Etta’s imposing vocal prowess. On this early session, Toussaint and the studio crew helped realize that intention, generating a roiling bed of poly-rhythmic cross-currents that provided plenty of support for the soulful power of the singer’s attack. Her screams on the second half of the song are positively scary. Capturing dynamic moments like that is what good audio engineering is all about.
The underlying foundation for all that syncopation was Herman’s dependable groove, a perfect cocky strut that he punched up with self-assured funkitude on the turnarounds and spontaneous fills, giving the track that zen-like, simultaneous state of being loose yet tight, off the cuff but right in the pocket. His partner from Cypress, Tony Broussard, played bass on the entire record, which also had Leo Nocentelli and Steve Hughes on guitars, Toussaint, Robert Dabon, and Sam Henry,, Jr. on keyboards, and percussionist ‘Afro’ Williams. The horns on this track and several others were arranged by noted R&B multi-tasker Dunn Pearson and probably overdubbed in New York City.
Ultimately, though, MCA’s gamble in getting Changes to market did not pay off; and the LP was quickly remaindered. A shame, really, as it is a great record and highly recommended for its with plentiful grooves and worthy performances by all. I’ve featured a cut from it before and will revisit it again, I’m sure, as it was one of Toussaint’s overall funkier productions of this era. If you do some hunting, the vinyl is usually not that expensive to pick up. Look for other cuts to taste on YouTube, too. It’s never been re-released on CD.
[Etta has been in poor health lately; and our thoughts and best wishes go out to her.]
After appearing on several tracks of Dr. John’s 1979 Tango Palace album (see prior post), cut in in Hollywood, Herman again returned home and began a busy run at Sea-Saint. On one particularly notable project, Patti LaBelle returned to make an album that would get her and the Sansu crew at least briefly back into the charts.
PATTI GETS RELEASED
I have to tell you, I love [Released]. It was my first chart record. It probably could have gone higher, but it was Patti’s last record in her contract with Epic...and she ended up not re-signing with them. The song, “Release”, was in the disco charts for about a minute and a half and made a little noise there. Then, “I Don’t Go Shopping” went maybe into the Top 20 R&B [actually, it got up to #26]. The album was in both the R&B and the pop charts for a while; and I was hoping it would have done more. You know, a couple of years ago I went on the internet surfing around, and I think I found cuts from the album on nine different CD compilations. - Danny Jones
After the breakup of her vocal group, LaBelle, in 1977, Patti LaBelle stayed with Epic Records as a solo artist and made four albums over the next three years, culminating with Released in 1980, on which she worked again with Toussaint. In contrast to the Etta James record, LaBelle had the the mainstream squarely in her sights, and Toussaint’s production accommodated that goal with suitable arrangements, impeccably performed by the assembled musicians, mostly Sea-Saint regulars, that insured top-notch accompaniment for Patti’s amazing voice. Though it wasn't an unqualified smash, Released hit its intended niche, sold respectably and, as Danny noted, made a decent chart showing.
Toussaint worked up three of his compositions for the LP, while LaBelle and her musical team, James ‘Budd’ Ellison and Edward ‘Rev’ Batts, wrote most of the others. As drummer of record on the entire project, Herman served up grooves geared to what the producer and artist were going for. On the several upbeat numbers, that involved a distinct disco feel. As always, though, Toussaint’s arrangements slipped in enough counter-rhythms to give the songs a distinctive character. Probably the most effective and impressive of those was his big, multi-instrument tracking session for “Get Ready”, which started off as a rather straight ahead dancer, but developed a compelling Latin-funk feel over its course.
“Get Ready” (Lookin’ For Loving)” (Patti LaBelle, James Ellison, Edward Batts)
Patti LaBelle, from Released, Epic, 1980
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
Skip [Godwin] cut the basic tracks [on Released]; and I cut most all of the vocal tracks, instrumental solos, strings and other overdubs. I figured Allen was going to have Skip mix the record. So I went to Allen and said, “....I’d just like you to know that I’d like to have a shot at it, or at least part of it.” And he said, “Well, let me consider that.” A couple of days later, he had a meeting with both of us, and gave us both lists [of the cuts he wanted each to mix]. We didn’t have automation; and on one of the songs, Skip did the mix, and Allen didn’t like it and gave it to me; and I didn’t like my mix either.... It was “Get Ready”. So, I left everything set up on the console with a note for Skip, “This mix is too much for one person. Will you come in here with me and let’s get this thing mixed together?” It took both of our hands mixing that. In my career at Sea-Saint that’s the only one that required another engineer to sit in with me to mix. There was a lot of moving to do [on the console channel controls]...a lot of changing going on. So, Skip came in; and the two of us nailed it. - Danny Jones
Definitely so; and a fine mix it is, no matter how many hands were involved. There was a lot happening instrumentally on this one - no doubt about it.
For Herman’s part, he played it straight on the bottom, going with the steady, metronomic, four to the bar disco kick beat, using the hi-hat for some simple, subtle push-pull, which gave the two percussionists on the track, ‘Afro’ Williams and Miguel Fuentes, room to run with their more complex, entwined poly-rhythms. David Barard’s bass athleticism is a highlight on the track, as well. His multi-note runs provided more engaging rhythmic counterpoint to Herman’s steady drive.
Without doubt, “Get Ready” is further evidence of Herman’s ability to consistently establish an engaging groove upon which Toussaint could build an arrangement worthy of the intensity that Patti LaBelle brought to bear; but, although he had repeatedly proven himself a valuable asset to any session, his days at Sea-Saint were numbered.
[Other players on Released were Toussaint, Ellison and Sam Henry, Jr. on keyboards, Batts and Ronald Smith on guitars, plus a 10 piece horn section. Backing vocalists were Joy Van Hall, Ed Batts, and Vernon (a/k/a Phillip) Manuel.]
ON THE OUTS WITH THE IN-CROWD
During 1980, Herman also played on tracks for two major label jazz albums recorded at Sea-Saint, which proved to be his last regular sessions there.
Ramsey Lewis’ Routes, done for CBS, was a split project. The keyboardist recorded all the songs on the first side plus one on the second in Los Angeles with a separate backing band and arranger/producer Larry Dunn of Earth, Wind & Fire (Maurice White had once been Lewis' drummer). The remainder of Side 2 consisted of four tracks penned, arranged and produced by Toussaint that Lewis cut in New Orleans with members of Sea-Saint’s house band, including Herman, bassist David Barard, and ‘Afro’ Williams on percussion, with Toussaint and Sam Henry, Jr. playing supporting roles. On these numbers, Herman was called upon to simplify down to the point that he became more or less a living beat-box, yet with a feel no machine could ever match.
In concept, the album was all about the smooth jazz/pop-R&B instrumental sound that has been Lewis’ bread and butter for decades, featuring him on both acoustic and electronic keys. But numerous cuts on both sides expressed elements of funk to varying degrees, including one of the most pronounced, “Come Back Jack”, by Leo Nocentelli, who also played guitar on the Sea-Saint segments. I featured it here some years back; and my not so great digital burn of the track back then led me to believe a drum machine was used - but Danny Jones wrote in to set me straight!
Then there was Touch Of Silk, another smooth jazz outing, from veteran R&B/jazz guitarist Eric Gale, which appeared on Columbia and featured Toussaint’s arrangements and compositions on all but one track. Sitting in with Gale at various points were some well-known guests such as saxmen Grover Washington, Jr. and Arthur Blythe, plus organist Charles Earland. Backing tracks again were by some of Sea-Saint’s finest, including Barard and Williams, with Toussaint and Robert Dabon on keys, plus Gary Brown doing additional sax work. Although hometown giants James Black and Idris Muhammad were the only drummers listed on the credits, Danny Jones verified that Herman participated, as well, and that, in a number of instances, there were two drummers playing on the songs.
The unfortunate omission of Herman’s name on the jacket of such a prestigious album (Quincy Jones wrote the brief notes) led to hard feelings on Herman’s part and created a rift between him and Sansu that resulted in the end of his tenure at the studio. In many ways, it was the end of an era.
The last time I saw him was in New Orleans probably in the 90's. I was touched by how excited we both were to see each other. We had both shared in what I feel was a very special time around Sea-Saint. There was a relatively small "family" that worked and hung out at the studio. I really do mean "family". Leo Nocentelli and I talked about that when the Meters were honored at the Premier Players Awards in Memphis years ago. I guess when you work that much together at something you love, you form a bond. Herman was involved in some of the best projects I worked on in N.O. with Allen.......... Patti LaBelle, Ramsey Lewis, Etta James, to name a few. - Danny Jones
Fortunately for Herman, there was certainly other good session work to be had locally, brought about by a resurgence of interest in and demand for New Orleans music. New studios were opening and beginning to cater to the growing local music scene, which ended Sea-Saint’s decade of dominance. Before too long, Herman was again working on tracking for an A&M Records album.
On March 6 of this year, the very day Herman passed away, although I did not know about it until the next, I posted the Neville Brothers’ powerhouse version “Hey Pocky Way”, from their 1981 album, Fiyo On The Bayou, as part of my Mardi Gras 2011 celebrations.
As I said on that post, the brothers Neville really made a name for themselves with this killer record, which never had a significant radio presence but got into a lot of people’s hands and heads via word of mouth and being heard at parties, gradually greatly expanding the cult of New Orleans music lovers and drawing unfamiliar listeners back to discover what the Meters, Wild Tchoupitoulas, and the individual brothers themselves were all about. Even though he never played in their live band, as far as I know, Herman Ernest was well-chosen as the drummer on their fist A&M LP, recorded primarily at Studio In The Country in Bogalusa, LA. As Dwight Richards pointed out last time, it’s not an exaggeration to say that his gift for creating addictive, accessible grooves was a serious part of what made Fiyo On The Bayou such a memorable underground success and helped move the Nevilles forward.
Joining Herman in the rhythm section were his long-time recording partner, David Barard, Art Nevile on keyboards (Dr. John sat in on several songs, including the one below), and Art’s former running partner in the Meters, Leo Nocentelli. This next tune, on which Herman works off the funky side of a classic Caribbean groove, shows how these seasoned session men found the sound.
“Run Joe” (J. Willoughby - L. Jordan - W. Merrick)
The Neville Brothers, from Fiyo On The Bayou, A&M, 1981
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
A #1 R&B hit in 1948 for the great saxophonist/singer/composer Louis Jordan and his band, the Tympany Five, the original “Run Joe” took its musical inspiration from popular, cleverly worded Trinidadian calypso tunes.
Like New Orleans R&B, calypso music from the islands was a potent mixture of African and European influences, making “Run Joe” a brilliant cover choice for the Neville Brothers, who, as a group, have always expressed those Caribbean roots to some degree. Well executed and featuring brother Cyril on lead vocal, the tale of an entrepreneurial venture that runs afoul of the law updated the lyrics and modified the music, even dropping in some doowop on the ride-out, while retaining the spirit of Jordan’s intent.
Once again, Herman managed a seamless synthesis of styles, breaking up the kick, snare and tom beats as in funk while infusing his groove with a relaxed island lilt via swinging syncopation, reinforced by his steady patterns on the hi-hat, plus percussionist Ralph MacDonald’s agogo bells; making it all sound so easy and natural.
A RHYTHM MASTER UNTIL THE END
The mid-1980s brought in a true renaissance for New Orleans R&B, soul, blues, funk, and jazz. Scott Billington and Ron Levy, hip young producers from roots label Rounder Records descended on the city from Cambridge, Massachusetts hot to record one of the city’s hot new acts, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and languishing legends including Irma Thomas (a Rounder artist to this day), Johnny Adams, ‘Wolfman’’ Washington, James Booker, and various Mardi Gras Indians. Around the same time, brothers Hammond and Nauman Scott started the Black Top label in the city, distributed by Rounder, focusing primarily on the blues, and began making records with and reviving the careers of other nearly forgotten local luminaries like Snooks Eaglin and Earl King, as well as numerous other Gulf Coast and regional artists.
Other local labels sprang up as well, as all the interest reinvigorated the local scene and put the city’s recording business into high gear. Herman played on his share of those sessions, backing Snooks, Johnny Adams, Earl King, Grady Gaines, Carol Fran, and Irma Thomas, to name but a few.
So, let’s hear one example from that period, a cut taken from Irma’s second Rounder album, written by none other than Herman’s former employer.
“Old Records” (Allen Toussaint)
Irma Thomas, from The Way I Feel, Rounder, 1987
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
This is one of my favorite Toussaint songs - maybe it’s the subject matter. As far as I know, it has never been recorded by anyone else; so, he might have written it specifically for Irma to pay tribute to those memorable old records they made together in the early 1960s. There are not many artists who have been able to enjoy such long and productive careers in popular music; and these two deserve not only all the nostalgia this song summons up, but our sincere praise and appreciation for the music they continue to bless us with.
Playing on six of the album’s tracks, Herman was joined by bassist Harold Scott, the great Renard Poche on guitar (who played in Toussaint’s band at Jazzfest this year), keyboardist Craig Wroten, with Irma’s co-producer, Scott Billington, taking the harmonica solo. Once again, his importance is evident on “Old Records” in the deft handling of this laid back groove, solidly and authoritatively providing the perfect rhythmic foundation to keep the tune soulfully on track without drawing undue attention. The song's a fitting tribute to Herman, as well, for all the sweet musical memories he left us with.
Even after he began playing regularly on the road and in the studio with Dr.John, Herman continued doing session work for a variety of artists up until his death. One particularly funky recording date worth noting was his appearance in 1993 on Maceo Parker’s Southern Exposure album for RCA/Novus, recorded mainly in Metairie, LA. Joining him in the rhythm section on most of the cuts were George Porter, Jr., Leo Nocentelli, and Maceo’s B-3 man, Will Boulware. Choice stuff. I’ll have some cuts from that and several of his Rounder and Black Top sessions in play on the webcast soon.
From his early days backing King Floyd in a band called the Rhythm Masters, Herman lived up to that elite designation throughout his career. He may not have been the funkiest New Orleans drummer, but was consummately one of the all-around best.
I’ll let Danny Jones close this one out. Again, I thank him and Dwight Richards for their memories of Herman and those heady Sea-Saint days.
You know, I had traveled around the country for years playing drums before I started my engineering career. I got back into playing seriously in the 90's. Without a doubt I was influenced by the great New Orleans drummers that I had recorded: Zig Modeliste, Johnny Vidacovich, Bunchy Johnson, and, of course, Herman. He had "pocket and drive".... His musical priorities were in the right place.
What I remember the most, though, was the humor that he added to every session. I will miss his playing, but nothing compared to missing Herman, the person. He was a great guy!