April 24, 2012

A LITTLE OF WHAT LEVON LEFT BEHIND

[Note: song titles without links can now be heard streaming on the HOTG webcast.]


Sadly, I note the passing of Levon Helm, Arkansas-born drummer and singer, who was the lone US citizen in a group of expatriate Canadians.known as the Band, whose first two albums, recorded and released in this country in the late 1960s, established them as the definitive American roots rock band, before the term actually existed. In my low-rent opinion, if you know anything at all about New Orleans music, you can’t help but hear the city’s fundamental early rock ‘n’ roll and R&B influences in their playing. Both Levon and his partners have acknowledged as much in various ways, including doing covers of Fats Domino, Frogman Henry, and Lee Dorsey hits on their Moondog Matinee LP, as well as working with Allen Toussaint and Dr John over the years.

Levon gave more direct props in a 2008 Modern Drummer interview with fellow drummer Steve Jordan, making clear he knew who was responsible for the game-changing mixed beats on the seminal hits of early rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what Earl [Palmer] taught us. He would do it in the same song. . . .play the shuffle [against] the straight 8th. I kind of copied from Earl, I’m sure.

Early in 1966, when I was in high school, I saw Bob Dylan play a concert in Memphis, right before his Blonde On Blonde LP was released. After doing a long solo acoustic set, he brought out his band, who he introduced as the Hawks, to join him for a mind-blowing, rocking electric set, which was still considered a controversial, almost sacrilegious, act to folk music purists of the day; but I didn't have a problem with it, nor did most of the rest of the crowd that night. As I would later learn, a few years prior to their association with Dylan, the Hawks - Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm - had been seasoned on the road, backing gonzo rock ‘n’ roller Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas native who relocated to Canada in the late 1950s. Levon had met Hawkins down home and started drumming for him in 1957,  three or four years before the other four became Hawks in the early 60s.

As Rob Bowman recounted in his 1991 feature on the Band for Goldmine, after Hawkins took on Robertson et al in Canada one by one during 1960-1961 as replacements for departing members, they did some recording with him and stayed on the road above and below the US border for several years playing bars, clubs, and roadhouses, and becoming a tight, killer rock 'n' roll unit. Underpaid and micromanaged by their boss, they parted ways with Hawkins and continued successfully playing circuits in Canada and the South as Levon and the Hawks, even recording a couple of singles. No longer confined by Hawkins' repertoire, they began incorporating much more R&B into their sets.

An associate recommended the Hawks to Dylan, who took them out on a long tour in 1966, with dates in the US, Europe and Australia . When I saw the Memphis show, the Hawks still had short, slicked back hair and were wearing matching suits; but what I did not realize until just recently was that Levon might not have been playing with them then, having dropped out of the band, tired of getting booed almost nightly by those who didn’t want Dylan to actually change with the times.

During his hiatus from the road, Levon wound up working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.  Meanwhile the rest of the group followed Dylan to Woodstock , New York, settled in there, and did a lot of informal home recording with him for a couple of years, the results of which were frequently bootlegged until The Basement Tapes were released in 1975. The band, soon to capitalize their "B", summoned Levon back  in 1968, when they got a recording contract with Capitol and a large advance, and prepared to make their first album together. I doubt it would have been the same without him.

Somewhere, I read that a number of the colorful stories Levon would tell about his life inspired images, places, and characters that chief writer and guitarist Robertson incorporated into his impressive, timeless songs for the group. On their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, where the bulk of their best work is concentrated, and over the course of the next decade, they channeled all of their collectively absorbed musical influences into a synthesis of rootsy styles firmly planted in the cultural soil of the US South. As great as the other members were, Levon helped to authenticate and ground the group with his primal, funky, in the pocket grooves and earthy vocals.

After fighting throat cancer (damn cigarettes) for over a decade, Levon left this world this past Thursday, the 19th. He was 71. For more detail on his remarkable life and career, start with the obituary by Jon Pareles’ in the New York Times, linked above, and proceed to the link to the Levon's website; and don't miss the Band's very well done site, also linked nearby. He also penned an autobiography in 1993, This Wheel’s On Fire; and, then, of course, there’s the music.....

I’ve got just a few of examples of his playing and singing out of so many; and the first two point more or less directly to New Orleans influences. Fans should be well aware of them already; but, if you’re not all that familiar, dig in and then do yourself a favor, seek out more. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Levon was the real deal, as were The Band.


“Rag Mama Rag” (J. R. Robertson)
The Band, Capitol 3433, 1972

Both sides of this single were spun off of the Band’s live LP, Rock Of Ages, taken from a series of concerts they did at the Academy of Music in New York City at the end of 1971. For the shows, they brought in a horn section and called on Allen Toussaint to write the arrangements, since he had done so well with the horn charts for their song “Life Is A Carnival”, released on the Cahoots LP and as a single earlier that year. Combined with the group’s organically funky feel, Toussaint’s musical sensibilities brought a celebratory synergy to the performances.

The original version of “Rag Mama Rag” appeared on their eponymous second album and had the same rambunctious feel, but a more stripped down presentation. In the context of the concert setting, that spirit was intensified when the non-New Orleans horn players responded to Toussaint’s challenge to bring a buck jumping brass band feel to the party, Howard Johnson’s syncopated tuba pumping being particularly effective. What made the Band great was that they never got slick or allowed studio work and playing big venues to refine away their loose, vital, down home, bar band sound (just listen to the barely controlled chaos of Garth Hudson’s piano solo that ends the song) or smooth out the unaffected character in their voices.

According to Bill from Pittsburgh in the comments to this post, the Band's instrumentation on this track showed their flexibility, with Hudson, as noted, on piano, since Richard Manuel played drums, and Levon was on mandolin. Rick Danko played fiddle, and Robbie Robertson remained on guitar. Toussaint, by the way, also directed the horn section on the shows.

After the group broke up in drug and alcohol-fueled acrimony over money and other issues in 1976, Levon went on to have a distinguished solo career as a performer, recording artist, and actor. His first solo release, Levon Helm and the RCO Allstars, came together in 1977, an aptly named aggregation of outstanding players recorded at his own RCO Studios in Woodstock and Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, California. Joining Levon as the rhythm section were Booker T. & the MGs’ Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Booker T. Jones. Other players included blues harmonica giant Paul Butterfield, guitarist Fred Carter, Jr, and, for the New Orleans flavor, Mac Rebennack on keyboards and guitar, who also contributed several songs.


“Sing, Sing, Sing” (Earl King)
from Levon Helm & the RCO Allstars, 1977, ABC

I’m sure Mac was responsible for Levon doing this fine cover of Earl King’s classic ode to making the world a better place, and it fit the signer’s genuine spirit perfectly. Howard Johnson once again took to the tuba for this number; and two of Levon’s former bandmates sat in, Robertson on guitar, and Hudson on accordion.

A bluesy, soulful, but somewhat laid-back record, it never found its audience, stalling-out well below the Hot 100 in the charts, and remains under-appreciated to this day.

His second LP fared even worse, as it was less well-focused in the choice of material.

from Levon Helm, 1978, ABC

Indulge me on this one, as it really has nothing to do with New Orleans (definitely no mountains around). It’s a bit of reggae-fied Ozark soul-funk written by Earl and Ernie Cate (that’s them singing back-up), twin leaders of one of the South’s great blue-eyed R&B outfits, the Cate Brothers Band, who I got to see play many times over the years in Memphis. From the Fayetteville, Arkansas area in the western part of the state, the Cates were heavily influenced by Ronnie Hawkins in their youth and knew Levon and the rest of the Hawks, who were around their age, as their respective bands played the same Arkansas area club circuit. When Levon left the Dylan tour, he even picked up a few gigs drumming for the Cates before going offshore to work.

This song appeared on the brothers’ self-titled first LP from 1975, and Levon played drums on that track. Besides covering it later on his album, Levon also toured with the Cate Brothers Band backing him in the early 1980s; and, when he reformed the Band in 1983, the core of the Cates’ group briefly served as a kind of second rhythm section for them.

Duck Dunn produced the Levon Helm album, which was recorded in LA and Muscle Shoals; and it had a host of fine players. Other tracks of note include a good-feeling cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” and a decent but rather undynamic take on Toussaint’s “Play Something Sweet”. By the way, the photo is of my picture-disc promo copy of the LP, which I picked up used many years back. Don't see 'em much.

I was fortunate enough to get to see these guys again as the Band play live in Memphis early in the 1970s. Robbie Robertson was so ill (the flu, as I recall) that he just stood in one spot and played guitar staring straight ahead. They still cooked, but it was a short set with no encores, as I recall. That’s showbiz. Around the turn of the century, Levon opened a club that bore his name on Decatur Street in the French Quarter; and I got to see a great Irma Thomas show there one night; but never Levon on his own. Due to his illness, he was unable to sing at the time; and his financial backer pulled out after a just a few months, shutting the place down. Way too bad. Levon and New Orleans would have worked well together. . .You can just hear it.

April 12, 2012

ERNIE K-DOE: THE BOOK




Ben Sandmel's new biography of the legendary New Orleans entertainer extraordinaire, Ernie K-Doe, is now available and should be considered essential reading for all fans of and obessives about the city's music scene and the exploits of its many colorful participants. Of those, K-Doe emanated a distinctively Day-Glo aura in the course of his planetary pursuits.

The official title of the book, published by the Historic New Orleans Collection, and associated website is Ernie K-Doe The R&B Emperor of New Orleans; and you can learn more about it by hitting that link. Also, the current editon of
OffBeat has an nice excerpt.

As a disclaimer, let me say that I am a friend of Ben's and contributed just a smidgen to the massive amount of research he did for this book, which includes a thorough discography and extensive notes. Having gotten numerous reports on his progress over the past few years, I can attest that Ben has dug deep and labored long to do justice to all that was and is great about Emperor K-Doe's mythic life and mind.

I consider this biography to be a vital addition to the small but important body of work about specific New Orleans R&B musicians and performers, including Rick Coleman's impressive tome on the life and career of Fats Domino and New Orleans' place at the inception of rock 'n' roll, Blue Monday; Earl Palmer's slim but insightful reflections on his role as a rhythmic inventor, Backbeat; Harold Battiste, Jr.'s telling memoir, Unfinished Blues (also published by the HNOC); Dr. John's autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon; as well as the revealing story of The Brothers Neville.

Read all about it.

April 01, 2012

TRACKING THE BIG Q FACTOR, PT 4a: More Multi-Label Malaco Sessions

[Note:  Audio files for this post have been removed, as is standard procedure here after a certain amount of time. Most of the tracks have been or will be added to the playlist of the HOTG webcast, streaming 24/7, where you can hear many of the songs that have been posted here over the years, plus more recent New Orleans-related funk 'n' groove releases, too. Feel free to listen in.]


I’m not sure how significant it is that I’m posting this on April Fool’s Day. Guess you can be the judge o’ dat!


My ongoing, but increasingly irregular, retrospective on the career of the late maestro, Wardell Quezergue, is on again, having been delayed several times in the last few months for various mainly mundane reasons, but most recently due to my dad’s unexpected health issues. He had a hospitalization that necessitated me going to Memphis for nearly a week. Fortunately, he came through that well is now on the mend; and I’m trying to crank back into gear so we can once again track Big Q in the great indoor wilds of a 1970s mid-Mississippi recording studio.

For Part 4, I’ll be featuring two more batches of singles recorded at Malaco Records’ Jackson, MS. studio during his tenure as an in-house producer and arranger from 1970 to 1973. The artists involved were among the second wave that Big Q and his business partner, Elijah Walker brought in after the initial test-run by the Unemployed and the so-called school bus sessions that quickly followed in the Spring of 1970.

I will be posting these in two segments over the next month or so, starting with releases that appeared on Quezergue and Walker’s short-lived Pelican label, plus several related one-offs. Next time, I’ll get into singles mainly on Malaco’s own labels, plus a few more that came out on Atlantic or Cotillion.

Though I’ve featured quite a few of these 45s on HOTG at various times before; it’s been a few years; and I thought grouping them together might offer more context and a direct feel for the range of Big Q’s productions at Malaco. Songs previously posted will have brief (for me) commentary with links back to the older posts for newly updated background details. Also, please see below* for direct links to the prior parts of this series, if you’ve missed any or all of them. and want to catch-up (minus the audio, sorry to say)..

Take your time absorbing the music and information, there’s no rush and you won’t be quizzed (though you may be quizzical), but, however you do it, for sure, “don’t be no square, get hip to Quezergue!”

*
Tracking the Big Q Factor:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
 

OF PELICANS AND OTHER RARE BIRDS

The Pelican label’s name came from Big Q and Elijah Walker’s company, Pelican Productions, Inc., as it was called when they began their working relationship with Malaco. While I have no specific documentation, I am assuming from the facts discussed previously that most all the Pelican tracks were cut in 1970, not long after King Floyd, Jean Knight, et al had recorded their first sessions at the studio, as discussed in Part 3. It was a highly active period packed with potential, with Big Q rolling session after session down the line, especially once Floyd’s “Groove Me” hit paydirt. Quite likely, the sheer volume of material being committed to tape overwhelmed Tommy Couch, Malaco’s co-owner and man in charge of placing the recordings with companies for release. There were only so many he could work at one time; and the inability to find takers for all the tracks probably led to Pelican and several of the other boutique labels getting off the ground to take on some of the load. This allowed Quezergue and Walker to press up a limited run of records and get them into the hands of DJs around home in hope of something catching on locally and attracting release by a national company. That was the intention, at least.

*Since I first began doing research on Big Q, I had only been aware of four singles on Pelican, and managed to acquire them over the past five years. But I suspected there might be one or two more in the run. For one thing, the record numbering certainly leaves some room for doubt. The first three issues appear to have been 1230, 1231, and 1233, with the other being way out of that sequence at 1920, probably due to its being distrubuted by Atlantic (as we shall see). The R&B Indies discography lists those four with a blank space beside number 1232, which could mean that it simply was not used, or the record with that number was withdrawn or went unissued for some reason, or even that it was released, but in such a small quantity (as a promo only) that a copy has yet to turn up. With no evdence of that 45 existing, I put up a plea on the earlier version of this post for anybody's assistance in tracking down other possible Pelicans.



Last week, Peter Hoogers, who has provided valuable reseach assitance here several times before, sent me scans and audio of another Pelican, surprising in several respects. First off, it wasn't 1232, but an unanticipated 1234, coming right after Larry Hamilton's release discussed below. Secondly, it's surely the most unusual of Wardell's productions while at Malaco, being decidedly not a soul or funk record like all the others, but folk! The artist, shown on the label as "Leather", was a understated male singer finger-picking an acoustic guitar, and probably the guy who wrote both tunes, Robert Greene. The only overt producing/arranging Wardell did was on the strangely titled top side, "Won't Take You Bad", where he added strings behind the singer/guiarist. If I had to pin him down, I'd say "Leather" on that tune was going after the mid-1960s folkie style of Eric Anderson. On the flip side, he attempted to tackle Bob Dylan's talking blues humor of earlier in the 60s - but on neither did he measure up.

Don't ask where Pelican was going with that. Haven't a clue. I would guess that Greene was a walk-in to Malaco willing to pay to cut a record and was obliged, getting 50 or 100 copies as part of the deal - most of which are still in a box in a garage somewhere. So, while the fifth known Peilcan release wasn't, um, quite what we were hoping for, at least we know there was one, and just maybe something else will turn up. If you have an undiscovered Pelican single or run across one, please let us know.

Listening to all of these lesser-known records as a group reveals a diverse range in Big Q’s attempts to fashion songs that had mass appeal, from hybrid funk, to Southern soul, to highly crafted soul-pop. Let’s not forget that his goal was to sell records in the commercial moment, not create art for art’s sake or limited edition collector’s items. Unfortunately, it becomes clear that not all of the singers Wardell produced records on were capable of performing up to the level required; and even the truly gifted singers he got to work with didn’t crack the charts. Ultimately, it can be debated whether Malaco was the ideal vehicle for Wardell’s huge talent and mainstream ambitions; but the situation there offered the best opportunity he had at the time, and he made the most of it, even though sustained sales success beyond the hits of Floyd and Knight remained elusive.
 

DENISE KEEBLE

I don’t know any more about Ms Keeble than I did when I first featured her two known releases back in 2007 and 2008, and can still only assume she was a New Orleans area artist. In general, her recording career seems to have been brief and her vocal talent somewhat limited; but the reason we are still talking about her some 40 years on is that, during her fling in the business, she got to work with Wardell, whose studio expertise upped her game considerably.




“Chain On My Thing”
(Byran Babour) 
Denise Keeble, Pelican 130, 1970

Here’s what I wrote about the track itself back when I first posted this single:
 

As with many of Quezergue's Malaco-era arrangements, well-crafted, mutli-instumental rhythm patterns were assigned to each player on the track to bring the song's desired groove and feel to life. While not as idiosyncratic as King Floyd's "Groove Me", this upbeat mover was definitely on the funky side with Vernie Robbins locking in the thrusting, offbeat bass line that meshed perfectly with the tight, springy hits and hesitations James Stroud laid down perfectly in the pocket.

"Chain" has a somewhat varied instrumental impact, though, since it seems the only electric instruments on this track were the bass and subdued keyboard. In a nice touch, Quezergue used a prominent acoustic guitar and a string section to soften and texture the sound, in contrast with Stroud's aggressive beats and the punchy horn accents. Keeble, whose voice reminds me at times of Barbara George, obviously gave the performance her all, but ultimately wasn’t able to step out and own it, or convince anyone to play and push it - a deficit no Big Q arrangement could compensate for.


I still don’t know anything about songwriter Byran (or Bryan, maybe?) Babour, either. Might have been an alias....



“Before It Falls Apart” (J. Broussard, A. Savoy, W. Quezergue)

I still have a soft spot in my head for this catchy piece of over-the-top, cut-and-paste pop experimentation, and stand by this assessment from the earlier post:


 "Before It Falls Apart" is the side I prefer, even though I think the song's creative reach exceeded its grasp. Writers Joseph Broussard, Albert Savoy, and Quezergue, the core of the Pelican Productions team, mixed in way more hooky elements than a couple of minutes could effectively hold, resulting in a production curiosity, rather than the danceable, sing-along hit it could have been with some pruning. Listen closely, though, because the busy, intricate arrangement never falters, due to excellent execution by the players; and Keeble's voice sounds somewhat better to my ears, though she hardly had a chance to settle in anywhere.

* * * * *

Quezergue and Walker issued Keeble’s other single under the B.F.W. Records imprint, likely in 1970, also, perhaps so as not to flood the market with Pelican releases. You think? #1101 is the only one I know of.




“Love School” (E. Small - M. Cottrell) 
Denise Keeble , B.F,W. 1101, 1970

As I remarked in the earlier post, this song draws obvious comparisons to Jean Knight’s delayed smash, “Mr Big Stuff”. I’m sure all concerned were hoping for as good a track; but, though Wardell and band did their best silk purse stitching, Keeble’s performance again just didn’t measure up. Or, as I phrased it the last time:
 

Another member of the [Pelican Productions] team, Elliott Small, co-wrote "Love School" with Milton Cottrell; and, while the tune has a pretty funny concept and some of the funky bounce of "Mr. Big Stuff", it pales in comparison. Part of the problem was that Keeble just didn't have the same sassy, stand-out vocal chops to deliver the goods like Ms Knight. But, even if Knight had done it, "Love School" would have been at best a B-side or album cut. Still, Quezergue's signature tight arrangement of interlocking, syncopated parts offered good enough grooving to make the track worth some spins. The predominant, percolating bass line rendered by Vernie Robbins put the emphasis on booty action and still keeps me coming back for more education.

We’ll hear from Mr. Small himself in the second installment of this post, as he had two releases on the Malaco label that Big Q had a hand in.

As for Denise, just when you’re about to count her out, you turn the record over to find this....


“Giving Up” (V. McCoy)
The great songwriter and producer/arranger of soul-pop hits,Van McCoy, wrote "Giving Up" for Gladys Knight in 1964. In Quezergue's deft hands, this version outshines McCoy's own production on Knight's original Maxx single. Dramatic and musically sophisticated, the song is just the kind of thing an expansive talent like the Big Q could run with. He issued forth a flowing, lush, well-paced, and rhythmically gripping arrangement that uplifted Denise Keeble's vocals and allowed her to finally show her strengths. Although she held her own on the song, she was nowhere near the league of Gladys Knight. Just imagine what Knight could have done with this version. To listen deeply into this song is to behold and relish Quezergue's gifts in all their glory. So, why, why, why, was it the B-side?

As I also noted on that prior post, Donny Hathaway did an interesting cover of “Giving Up” around the same time as Keeble’s; and I also recommend a more current take on this compelling song by the outstanding Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

Not bad company, Denise.


C. L. BLAST


C. L. Blast’s lone single on Pelican took me the longest to acquire. Finally, last year I bumped into an affordable, if somewhat beat-up copy (as the audio confirms), long having had CD versions of both sides on the 2001 Funky Delicacies/Tuff City compilation
Wardell Quezergue’s Funky Funky New Orleans, a good but out of print overview of Big Q’s work during this era.

An outstanding, under-appreciated journeyman soul singer from Birmingham, Aalabama, Blast, whose actual name was Clarence Lewis, Jr., hooked up with Quezergue and Elijah Walker about mid-career, around 1970, after a brief stop at Stax. He recorded three promising singles at Malaco; but the inability of Tommy Couch to find a receptive label or labels to release two of the records nationally pretty much put a silencer on Blast’s impressive work at the studio. As I’ll discuss, his other 45, which came out on the United label, was also stopped short due to even more unfortunate circumstances.

Outside of Johnny Adams and Irma Thomas, who Wardell worked with only briefly during this period (more on their one-shot records next time), Blast was the best pure singer the producer had the opportunity to work with while at Malaco, and had the best potential to make a strong commercial showing. But that’s not the way things played out.

For more details on the artist, a personal favorite of mine, refer back to my prior post that first featured the Crestown single he made with Big Q, or see Sir Shambling’s profile on Blast, which includes a discography.




“Got To Find Someone” (R. Williams, J. Broussard, C. Washington) 
C. L. Blast, Pelican 1231, 1970

Unlike the other two singles Blast cut a Malaco, both of his Pelican sides featured songs from Wardell’s writing.team, particularly, Ralph Williams, Joe Broussard, and Carol Washington, who frequently collaborated.

Here on the A-side, we have a strong soul-pop production with a twist, in that Big Q gave “Got To Find Someone” a taste of what made King Floyd’s ”Groove Me” unique, assigning Vernie Robbins a bassline on the verses to reinforce the stylized syncopation of James Stroud’s drumwork, which Wardell designed to mesh with the other instrumental interplay and Blast’s vocal attack. When Floyd’s hesitating, bob-and-weave, hybrid funk song hit the charts and quickly climbed to the top, Wardell lost no time incorporating staggered, nearly mechanical sounding bass patterns into many subsequent tracks he cut on various artists, hoping for a hit by association; but the gimmick worked best on simple songs designed purely to groove, and, even then, the novelty quickly wore off.

In this case, that particular poly-rhythmic approach was applied to a more complex arrangement, where it abutted the driving, doubled-up beat of the chorus. Wardell made it all work surprisingly well together; but the herky-jerky feel of the groove likely scuttled the song’s mainstream aspirations, despite Blast singing the hell out of the lyrics. If the record got airplay anywhere, I suspect New Orleans was the spot; but, even there, demand was not forthcoming.

Once again, it seems to me that the flip side would have made a far stronger leader that might have brought the singer at least one of the hits he so richly deserved but never realized.



“Everybody Just Don’t Know What Love Is” (R. Williams, J. Broussard, C. Washington)

With all the essential elements of gritty, unassumingly funky Southern soul, including questionable grammar, this song set aside clever complexity altogether to simply give Blast the opportunity to get back to his gospel roots, dig down and do some joyous raving. After all, he had plenty to flaunt.

Wardell made the song’s standard issue R&B structure a head-sticker by playing up the spring-loaded ascending/descending riff on the verses and establishing the hooky drop-down pattern on the intro, chorus and bridge. His elemental organ work on the track is quite catchy in its own right. At once, the groove is more relaxed and straightforward than what the A-side has to offer, yet eminently more of a rhythmic body mover to boot.

For his part, Blast assumed confident control as soon as he sang the first note, and over the course of the song progressed to full-tilt testifying. Why this guy remained under almost everybody’s radar through the course of a long career is one of the enduring mysteries of the universe.

* * * * *

I have no idea what the sequence was for releasing Blast’s three 45s worth of work at Malaco, so my line-up is arbitrary. But, next, let’s marvel at an even better effort by all concerned that came out only on a very limited edition single that at the time probably got even fewer spins than the Pelican, sad to say.




“Two Time One Is Two” (Frederick Knight, Aaron Varnell) 
C. L. Blast, Crestown 1000, ca 1970

I first featured these tracks back in 2007; and, actually, I didn’t really write much about them then, choosing to concentrate on the background of this woefully under-appreciated singer. On the other hand, it also could have been that the tracks are so well-rendered, nearly flawless, that I just let them do the talking. What a concept.

This well-chosen top side was written by Blast’s fellow Birmingham soul man, Frederick Knight, with Aaron Varnell. Knight was still a couple of years away from his first national hit, “I”ve Been Lonely For So Long”, which would be released on Stax; but he already had his songwriting chops down stone cold and gave Blast what should have been a winner without question.

For his production, Big Q had the wisdom to use his arranging expertise to bring out the inherent strengths of the song. His secret here was the pacing, choosing a deliberate mid-tempo strut with Stroud creating a deep backbeat pocket (reinforced by claps) to which was added Robbins’ supple, syncopating bass, generating a light, propulsive bounce on the verses and percolating counterpoints on the bridge and chorus. In fact, the bass carries most of the rhythmic complexity of the groove, allowing enough space for Blast to work his emotive vocal magic without having to oversing. That’s tasteful, effective soul-pop of the highest order.



“Love Is Good” (Albert Savoy, Wardell Quezergue)

Equally compelling in its own way, this joint venture by Wardell and staff writer Albert Savoy, is a hard-hitting, rhythmic ride with enough ups, downs, twists and turns to induce whiplash before the fade. Credit the session musicians, whose extremely tight, high caliber ensemble unison playing allowed them to execute the wicked demands of the arrangement without seeming to break a sweat. I said “seeming to”. Believe me, there must have been plenty of dehydration going on in the rehearsals and attempts to achieve this master take.

Blast delivered an utterly killer performance, unfazed by the power of the band, and easily matching the energy decibel for decibel with no indication that he was anywhere near tapped out. This single reveals a master at work, nuanced and emotive as called for on the A-side, and a pure soul powerhouse on the flip, who more than lived up to his explosive stage name.

Either of these tracks were highly qualified to be hits and the fact that no one seemed able to get the man some radio exposure did the greatest of disservice to him and the listening public who certainly could have reveled in this amazing music and talent had it been available.

* * * * *

Blast’s third project with Wardell was also impressive, if more overtly pop-oriented, but never had a chance for a different reason, as it turned out.


The single, “What Can I Do (When My Thrill Is Gone?)” / “I’m In A Daze”, was issued in 1970 on the tiny United label (not to be confused with the big 1950s era Chicago label of the same name, a 1960s one-off label also from Chicago, or the small mid-1970s imprint out of South Carolina). Hal Atkins, a DJ (“on-air personality”) for the New York City area soul station, WWRL AM, set up United through his own Atkins Enterprises, Inc.

Though I can’t find any definite back-up, I am pretty sure he was the same Hal Atkins who spun records at WYLD In New Orleans during the early to mid 1960s and helped Connie LaRocca start and run the local Frisco label there in 1962, even appearing on the first two releases as Al Adams. Their best selling act was Danny White; but
Willie West, Porgy Jones, Al Reed, and the Rouzan Sisters also recorded for the label; and Big Q did some producing and arranging for them, as well. So, he and Atkins would have known each other prior to this record.

As Frisco was winding down around 1965, it appears that Atkins briefly moved on to Memphis, working at WLOK, before landing an afternoon slot in the next year or so at WWRL, in a much bigger radio market. He was still on the air there when Blast’s United single came out. I don’t know the particulars of how he came to take on the project, and am not sure anybody does anymore; but the scraps of facts I’ve picked up around the web, mostly from old Billboard articles, indicate that Atkins was also involved with scouting talent and assisting artists in getting signed to labels. For example, he and an associate lobbied to get Kool and the Gang their deal with DeLite Records in 1969. It would appear that he cooked up and funded the United single, the label’s only known release, as a platform to get Blast recognized by bigger fish in the business. In all probability, he did so because Wardell and/or Elijah Walker had contacted him outside of Malaco for help with boosting the singer’s exposure.

With his connections, Atkins’ participation in the production surely seemed a path to the big break Blast needed. So I suspect nobody minded much that Atkins used songs he wrote, or at least credited to him. As the labels indicate, Wardell arranged both sides; but it is very possible that Atkins came down to Jackson when the tracks were cut for some oversight.

Yet, all that really didn’t matter in the grand design, because, later that year, not long after the record was pressed, Hal Atkins passed away, taking with him any hopes of it getting airplay or a national release.




“What Can I Do (When My Thrill Is Gone?)” [Hal Atkins, Jr] 
C. L Blast, United 224, 1970

Like I said, this mid-tempo mover has a decidedly pop music feel. For one thing, the drum beats were straighter, though Big Q still cranked up a lot of syncopated energy using the other instruments of this rather large production, and definitely pulled no punches. Bringing in the strongly fuzzed rhythm guitar crunch in the second half of the song and adding other electric guitar fills toward the end, gave a strong rock element to the feel that contrasted with the more uptown sound of the swirling strings; and, while the bass is not as up front in the mix as on the Pelican and Crestown singles, it still contributed much to the underlying power and rhythmic complexity of the track.

The doubled piano ostinato that begins the song and continues throughout as the central riff, picked up here and there by other instruments, has a subtle latin flavor to it that lends the arrangement even further resonance and rhythmic appeal. Overall, Wardell provided a fine ride for Blast’s awesome vocal performance.

Again totally in command, feeding off the internal combustion and building dynamism of the music, Blast strutted his stuff and took some inspirational chances, especially on the transitional section that divides the song’s two halves, where he improvised a swooping melismatic run on just one word, “alright”, and shot out staccato rhythmic variations on the other few available lyrics, then let loose again on the ride-out. Right on, right on, right on.

It took a producer of Big Q’s ability to create arrangements worthy of C. L. Blast and allow him to show what he was capable of. Not that it did him a lot of good at the time. Neither he nor Wardell ever had fortune fully smile on their gifts, pluck them from semi-obscurity, or adequately reward their efforts, for many complicated and ultimately lousy reasons.


“I’m In A Daze” (Hal Atkins, Jr)

In the spirit of completeness, I’m including this B-side ballad. With more of a 1960s pop-ish, off-Broadway musical kind of sound, it’s not in the same league as “What Can I Do”, and doesn’t have much going on structurally or lyrically. Yet it inexplicably goes on for over five minutes! Wardell did with it what he could, but there was obviously not much to latch onto.

If there is a saving grace to ”I’m In A Daze”, it’s that Blast sang the hell out of it, squeezing a commendable performance out of an otherwise aimless piece of music . It just goes to show what value a great vocalist can impart to most any run of the mill song, if he cares enough to try.

As much as I enjoy Wardell’s work with his hometown vocalists, I think he could have gone far in the big leagues of the music business producing/arranging for artists such as Blast, who could handle what Big Q wrought when at the top of his game, rather than be overwhelmed by it. But, by choice he stayed close to home and kept his bright light under the proverbial barrel much of the time. Even when he got the chance to shine, as on the Blast projects, his amazing efforts were done in by missed connections, lack of influential contacts, and other variations of bad luck. Such is the artistry and relative tragedy of his story.
 

LARRY HAMILTON

I first featured Larry Hamilton’s Pelican single exactly four years ago; and you’ll find some details of his inconsistent musical career on that post. As noted there, he recorded his two known 45s while also working with Wardell’s team as a writer. I don’t have the ultra-rare Ham 101 with his killer composition, “My Mind Keeps Playing Tricks On Me”, on the top side; but I suggest you seek it out on CD or at various spots in Cloud Download Land. It’s a churning, burning piece of upbeat funk and certainly one of Big Q’s strongest productions that, of course, never got the exposure it deserved.

Next time, I’ll get to a couple of the late Mr. Hamilton’s songs cut by others at Malaco. But, for now, consider his other worthy effort for Wardell as featured artist.




“Gossip” (Michael A. Adams, Albert Savoy, Larry Hamilton)
 Larry Hamilton, Pelican 1233, ca 1970

Here’s the gist of what I had to say about this track previously:
 

Though it starts with some gimmicky, chipmunkish chattering, "Gossip" is no trivial novelty number. It’s more of a minor-key mini-sermon on the evils of behind the back hearsay and rumor mongering, delivered with soulful sincerity by Brother Larry over a hypnotic, undulating groove, and offering yet another slant on Big Q’s production savvy. It’s got almost an understated Afro-beat feel to it, between the primal way it moves and how the horns are arranged. The only thing that briefly snaps us back to US soul territory is the instrumental break about two thirds through the song which shifts to a major key for a Stax-like guitar and horn-driven interlude before resolving back to the minor mode funk that dominates the tune. Out of left field, but somehow it works.

What impresses me about this side is that it really doesn’t sound quite like anything else that Big Q produced at Malaco. While using the same instrumentation, the arrangement’s feel and flavor set it apart .The elemental rhythm track may be key, as it was not overly complicated, and seems to have an organic pulse to it. Drums, guitar, and piano were playing fairly simply, with the bass again being the most involved. Yet it didn’t follow the mechanical “Groove Me” style patterns that Wardell exploited on many of his other experiments in funk. I also sense in the groove whiff of what Dr. John and Harold Battiste had cooked up on the “Gris Gris” album. You could say the team let their New Orleans roots show on this one.


“Keep the News To Yourself” (Larry Hamilton, Elijah Walker)

And speaking of “Groove Me” inspired bass patterns:
 

..."Keep The News To Yourself"....was a more conventionally structured R&B/soul outing, though it had a bass line inserted into it closely resembling that of King Floyd's "Groove Me", the first big success for Quezergue and the Malaco Groove Assembly Plant that same year. The producer used such offbeat patterns a lot after that, hoping to spark another break-out hit - but it simply didn't work as intended. The number, written by Hamilton, was well-played and performed, but really had nothing fresh to offer either lyrically or musically, and deserved its backing status on the record.

Fashioned as another angle on the gossip theme, the song benefitted both from Hamilton’s strong vocal and Big Q’s horn section arrangement which provided some needed rhythmic counterpoint to keep the mid-tempo pace from plodding. Elijah Walker was credited as co-writer, but, as discussed elsewhere in this series, his contributions to these projects were far more financial and managerial than creative; and his sharing in any royalties from these records was simply a way to insure he got his due. Hope he wasn’t planning to retire on ‘em.
 

CURTIS JOHNSON

I featured the B-side of Johnson’s Pelican 45 back in 2008; and, to go along with it, I have a summary on the post of his brief singing and recording career.

As I noted then, this single was the last of the Pelican line; and, while probably recorded in 1970, did not come out until the next year, as the label indicates. Also to be seen on the label are the non-sequential number assigned to the record and the fact that Atlantic distributed it directly. At the time, they were also distributing Malaco’s Chimneyville label through their Cotillion subsidiary, due to their desire to get in on King Floyd’s hit action. But, I have no idea how or why this Pelican single got picked up, nor the reason other of the Pelican offerings did not.

In hazy hindsight, which is where I operate, it is probably too generous to call what Atlantic did with this record distribution. More likely, they simply pressed up some promos, such as mine, and sent them around, and did a limited run of stock copies and called it a day when no DJs immediately began incessantly playing the plug side. In other words, a tax write-off would be the more appropriate term.




“Trying To Win You Over” (J. Broussard, R. Williams, C. Washington) 
Curtis Johnson, Pelican 1930, 1971

Garden variety Southern soul penned by the prolific writing trio of Broussard, Williams and Washington from the Pelican staff, this top side had a punchy arrangement by Wardell, but a rather clunky mid-tempo groove it was unable to rise above. As if to further dampen its impact, the recording of Johnson’s vocal sounds somewhat unfocused and insubstantial. Seems to me his voice was set a bit too low in the mix and in need of some tonal equalization to help it cut through. Even if that had been done though, I think we’d still find Johnson’s singing less than inspiring. Whether to chalk that up to performance anxiety, vocal problems, a poor fit for the song, or all of the above, I don’t know. But of all the Pelican singles to put out through Atlantic, this was certainly not the one.


“Sho-Nuff the Real Thing” (W. Quezergue, A Savoy)

As this side shows, Johnson just didn’t just have a one-time delivery problem on the sessions. He fared worse on the B-side:
 

....The flip was another matter. I've chosen it as an example of Big Q's penchant for quirky rhythmic experimentation; but "Sho-Nuff The Real Thing" was really not Johnson's best vocal showcase, as he seemed overwhelmed, or maybe unnerved by having to deliver something equivalent to what King Floyd was having success with at the time. Maybe funk really wasn't his thing.

As I've noted previously, Quezergue’s standard operating procedure at Malaco was to pre-record the backing instrumental tracks with the in-house studio band, creating a distinct part for each player. He did this pretty much in his head just prior to the sessions; and it's interesting to hear the results of his obviously mathematical mind at work in these fine-tuned, precisely interacting instrumental and vocal rhythms bouncing back and forth off each other like some little perpetual motion engine. The resulting poly-rhythms may be too calculated to be pure funk – but what else do you call this music?


To answer my own question, I’ve come to call it hybrid funk, a cop-out perhaps; but that’s all I’ve got. “Sho-Nuff” is definitely an energetic hunk of that stuff, requiring more from the vocalist than Johnson was capable of giving, at least that day. Larry Hamilton would have been a better fit. Blast would have killed on it. And, of course, King Floyd could have had his way with the track, too. But it looks like nobody else got a shot at it.

Johnson probably wanted and needed a ballad - something more melodic, perhaps; but that’s not what he got for his last shot at hit-dom. Sir Shambling notes that the singer had a bad taste for the music business and dropped out for good after appearing on Pelican’s swan song(s) - probably a decent gauge that his good judgement, at least, remained intact.

* * * * *

Stay tuned for Part 4b, which will probably be dropped on you after the upcoming month of festing.