Hard to believe it’s been over a year since I last posted an installment in this series on the studio work of producer and arranger Wardell ‘Big Q’ Quezergue. It’s time to get back to it. For anybody still reading these meandering digressions, in the next few posts I’ll be focusing on the phase of his career which started soon after he parted ways with Malaco Studio in Jackson, MS.
Part 4a: More Multi-Label Malaco Sessions
Part 4b: Mainly Malaco's In-House Labels
While coming up in the volatile independent record business of New Orleans, Wardell was continually subject to the vagaries of the chronically underfunded small labels he was associated with. They had big aspirations without the cash necessary to fulfill them, which meant a chronic inability to adequately distribute and promote their products. Lacking ready access to the radio airwaves where pay-to-play was the dominant business model and competition from companies with deeper pockets was cutthroat, getting exposure for new records was haphazard at best. The only other ways to generate a buzz for an song and artist that might lead to sales was through jukebox play and live performance, both of which had far more limited impact than having them in heavy rotation on local and, hopefully, national stations.
Even if a small outfit lucked into a huge hit, it could quickly go through the looking glass into disaster mode when the ability to supply the needed quantity of records simply could not meet the demand. This is why so many independents sought out larger companies with better resources and clout to lease tracks to or re-release a record under a better-known imprint that might penetrate the national market.
Having started in the 1950s as a gifted musician, arranger and bandleader, Wardell broke into the recording side of the business working with producers Dave Bartholomew and Joe Jones. By the mid-1960s, he had become chief producer/A&R man for a number of up and coming local labels, including Nola, Watch and Mode, bringing forth a large number of records that mainly had some impact, if any, in and around New Orleans. But there were several notable exceptions that had significant chart success nationwide, including Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’” for Nola, Willie Tee’s “Teasin’ You”, also for Nola but leased to Atlantic, and Johnny Adams’ cover of “Release Me” that came out on Watch and was picked up by SSS International.
By the end of the decade, the independents Big Q produced for were gone. Dover Records, which had been designed by Cosimo Matassa and a local DJ, Bob Robin to manufacture and distribute 45s for most of the area’s small labels, crashed in a financial heap, forcing Matassa into bankruptcy and out of business in 1968, taking his legendary studio operation and most of the local record business down with it. Amid the ruins, Wardell formed a new venture, Pelican Productions, to develop artists and material to record in partnership with Elijah Walker, who managed a number of area singers. The pair had to seek a recording venue outside the city to do their sessions, which is how they came to merge their production company with Malaco’s operation in 1970.
Despite producing legendary big hits by King Floyd (“Groove Me”) and Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”) that came out early on in Jackson; none of the follow-ups had the same success. By 1973, Wardell stopped working with the increasingly hostile Floyd, and Knight was dropped by Stax, causing her to part ways with the producer, as well. Even though many other good to excellent quality singles were generated by the Big Q and Malaco teams featuring a bevy of fine singers mainly recruited by Pelican, they could not get a break commercially. Malaco suffered the same perpetual problems as all the other small fish in the record business shark tank.
Coming Aboard At Sea-Saint
The event that put the stamp of finality on Big Q’s Malaco years was the death of Elijah Walker around 1973. With no more hit records forthcoming and losing his partner who handled business matters, Wardell wound down his operations up north. Fortunately, his transition back to working on the home front occurred just as the city’s lagging recording scene was on the verge of revitalization. Sansu Enterprises, the resurgent production company owned by Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint, had not only survived the Dover disaster but was prospering; and the partners’ new, industry-standard Sea-Saint Studio had just opened.
Reverting to his role as an arranger, Wardell found steady work at the Sea-Saint facilities on various projects for both Sansu and a group of labels run by another music business survivor, Senator Jones. At times, due to Big Q’s level of experience and expertise, he was asked to assume the duties of a producer on certain sessions, though he did not get credit nor likely adequate compensation for doing so. During the remainder of the decade he only occsionally had a chance to work for himself and get records made for artists he was associated with, such as Chuck Simmons [covered in depth here a few years back] and the Barons, releasing them on various short-lived micro-labels; but none caught a break.
I’ll devote a later post to some of Wardell’s own productions at Sea-Saint. But for the next few segments, I will be focusing on records he worked on for Sansu which involved both local and national artists and labels.
Chuck Cornish Does His Ali Thing
First up is a side by the rather mysterious New Orleans vocalist and songwriter, Chuck Cornish. Although Sansu itself is not shown on the label credits, the 1974 date makes the record a prime candidate for having been done during the early days at Sea-Saint; and there’s reason for considering it to be one of Wardell’s Sansu-related sessions.
I don’t know much more about the singer, writer, and producer of this song, Charles Herlin Cornish, Sr., than I did back in 2006 when I posted a piece about his previous record, “Blue Eye Brother And Soul Get Along”, which came out on the SSS International label (#793) in 1969. As noted there, Toussaint and/or Sehorn may have involved with that release, but the session details remain a mystery.
As for record at hand, a mono/stereo promo copy with just Part 1 on each side, the fact that it came out directly on the New York based Wand label would suggest that Sehorn had a hand in the transaction, as he had also leased singles by Warren Lee and Earl King to the company a few years earlier. Cornish’s production credit on it, instead of Sehorn/Toussaint or Sansu, probably means that he or a backer funded the session, buying studio time at Sea-Saint, obtaining Big Q’s services either by choice or default, and procuring the players, likely from the studio’s on-call pool of top-notch local talent.
Inspired by an upcoming event and a high profile public personage, the song takes its place in a long line of quirky novelty records that have come out of New Orleans.
Chuck Cornish, Wand 11272, 1974
Considering the subject matter, I think the release date would have had to be very early in the year, with the session itself maybe happening late in 1973, as the song seems to refer to legendary boxer Muhammad Ali’s highly touted comeback bout set to take place in New York City at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 1974. Cornish’s lyrics did not specify the event; and Ali’s opponent, Joe Frazier (“some funny jerk”?), who had famously defeated him three years earlier, was not named at all. Still, since the city is name-checked numerous times, I think the context would have been obvious to those anticipating the big fight.
Back in 1967, Cornish recorded his first single for Matassa’s White Cliffs label (#258) with “A Tribute To Mohammed [sic] Ali” as it’s top side. So, he was definitely a fan of the man formerly known as Cassius Clay. I doubt though that the blatant boosterism of “Ali Funky Thing” would have been enticing to Wand had not all involved in the project figured that the pre-fight media hype might help them sell a load of 45s. As a record business roll of the dice, it seemed like a decent bet, I’m sure. Tape has been magnetized and grooves stamped into plastic for far flimsier excuses.
Of course, Ali contributed much of his own hype to the media frenzy, being a larger than life athlete with an ego to match who engaged in extensive self-referential wordplay, a lot of it in rhyme [he would have made a great rapper]; but that points out a substantial weakness in “Ali Funky Thing”. It lacked the verbal cleverness and overall craft needed to represent its colorful subject. A further flaw is the disconnect between the lyrics about the fighter doing his unspecified “funky thing” in the ring and the supporting groove, which more or less just plodded along instead of nimbly bobbing and weaving with some slick broken beat drumming. With Big Q on the session, you’d expect some of his Malaco-style hybrid funk to show up at least, but it’s missing in action. Instead, it was left to his hooky horn charts and the hot lead guitar licks (Leo Nocentelli?) to punch up the proceedings.
Ultimately, I blame the weak framework of Cornish’s composition rather than the musical messengers for the song’s failure to get noticed. Working with a limited budget and time constraints would have left little room for improvements; and, in the end, the finished product just didn’t perform to expectations. Ali won the fight in a unanimous decision; but the tune singing his praises fell flat on the mat and slipped off into oblivion before the first bell. It would be the singer/writer’s last known studio round.
As for Wardell, well-aware of how long the odds were on having any record become a winner, I doublt he lost any sleep over it. He simply moved on to his next assignments, which involved working on a series of releases for an international label featuring an artist he had helped to popularize back in the mid-1960s.
Robert Parker’s Island Sessions
As I have mentioned before in these pages, by the time Sea-Saint opened, Toussaint was no longer engaged in producing singles, concentrating instead on the more lucrative recording of LPs, mostly for outside artists already signed to major labels that allocated decent budgets for the sessisons. As album making became the name of the game for the industry; Allen was increasingly in demand, especially once Sehorn got him signed to Warner Bros in 1972 as an artist, writer, and producer in a deal that also included a multi-album commitment for the Meters. Much of the front money Sansu reaped from that helped fund their new studio facility.
Singles were still played on the radio, but most contained tracks taken from the artists’ albums and were meant to help promote the long players. While there was less room for independent labels releasing 45s only, they remained in the mix, especially in cities and regional markets where local artists had or could build a following. To maintain this segment of the business for Sansu, Sehorn hired Isaac Bolden to oversee singles A&R. A local musician and owner the Soulin’ label, whose most successful act was Tony Owens, Bolden worked mainly behind the scenes, rarely being credited on records, and may well have delegated some of his responsibilities once Wardell arrived.
In 1974, Sansu brought Robert Parker in to cut several songs he had written. He may have been recruited specifically because his former producer at Nola had come on board, but, in any case, Wardell arranged and likely ran the sessions for the singer’s single “Get Ta Steppin’” / "Get Right On Down”, which Sehorn placed with the large UK/US independent label, Island Records. The version released in England accurately credited Wardell as producer, but not so the US 45.
At that point, Parker’s career-defining big hit was almost a decade behind him; and he had not had a record out for several years. In 1969, he cut material for two singles in Muscle Shoals and Baton Rouge with local producer and label owner Bob Robin (International City and River City Records). The tracks were leased directly by Shelby Singleton for his Silver Fox and SSS International imprints [read more on those in my prior post on Parker]; but the records got no response. For his Island debut, Parker stuck with the tried and true dance record format, but this time the sides were infused with funk.
The basic rhythm tracks on both sides were no doubt inspired by the work of Sansu’s world class funk band the Meters. At least two members of the group, bassist George Porter, Jr. and guitarist Leo Nocentelli, likely played on the date, as they were doing a lot of session side work at Sea-Saint; but their drummer, Zig Modeliste, was no longer participating on backing tracks due to bad blood with the ownership. Instead, the versatile and more than capable Herman Ernest would have been a prime candidate for bringing the choice beats, as he was working regularly at the studio then. The simplicity of the electric piano parts leads me to suspect that Big Q himself did them, playing just the rhythmic essentials; and his tasteful horn charts reinforced and enhanced both grooves.
With their high funk quotient, It’s hard to pick a favorite between the stripped down and primal “Get Ta Steppin’” with a lot of space between the instruments, and the denser arrangement of “Get Right On Down” displaying a higher rhythmic complexity, driven by some extremely motivating broken-up drumming.
Like Lee Dorsey, Parker didn't have much of a range to his singing, yet his relaxed, pleasingly good-natured voice and solid rhythmic sense proved perfect for songs such as these where the lyrics and melody line were simple and the groove ruled.
In what became a pattern, Island couldn’t seem to break Parker’s record nationally, though it seems to have done well enough around home to merit a follow-up the next year.
Oddly, at least to me, this tune did the best of Parker’s 45s on Island, despite its basic, highly repetitive, linear construction with nary a chord change. Big Q's concept seems to have been to outfit a country rock type of tune with the trappings of funk for some possbile crossover appeal. He gave it a nice enough energy and arrangement, offering some good call and response interplay between Parker and the female backing singers, plus the usual highly effective horn section; but, fun as it is to listen to, the song lacks both a compelling groove and the hook of a strong central riff to make it truly memorable.
The flip side, “It’s Hard But It’s Fair”, had even more of the same hybrid slant, but was nowhere near as tolerable.
Still, as Jeff Hannusch noted in The Soul of New Orleans, “Country Side” managed to become a local hit. No doubt, the sing-song quality of the simple melody made it easily accessible, and the musical equivalent of platforn cowboy boots would not have deterred anybody either. But the appeal didn’t carry much beyond the city confines.
With no chart action after two tries, Island managed only a half-hearted release of Parker’s third and final single in 1976, ensuring that it became an overnight obscurity despite the high quality of both sides.
By far, these songs were the best that Parker and the Sansu production crew delivered to Island; but the label doesn’t seem to have done much with them at all. I have yet to lay my hands on a stock copy of the 45. Only a few the promo copies like mine with “A Little Bit Of Something” on both sides show up every so often, leading me to believe that not many were sent to radio stations. I recently learned (see below) that at least a limited run of stock copies with “Better Luck In the Summer” on the back was released before Island gave up on the single for lack of airplay. Too bad for Parker and Sansu. It was and is a great record worth hearing.
[Update 12/3/2013: Two discographies (Soulful Kinda Music and The R&B Indies) list the stock single. Having not encountered one in the wild, I asked in the original post for someone with a copy to contact me. Instead I heard from Jennings, an alert reader who had located another blog with a photo of the A-side and sent me the link. From there, I contacted Kevin, the blogger responsible for the impressive and aptly named So Many Records, So Little Time, who kindly acknowledged that the single does indeed have "Better Luck In The Summer" on the flip. Thanks to both for the help!]
Wardell’s arrangements on both songs highlight his ability to weave together tight, syncopated multi-instrumental interplay that creates the polyrhythmic synergy that defines great funk. On “A Little Bit Of Something” the bedrock of the movement-inducing groove combined the deft broken-beat drumming (surely Herman Ernest, again) with George Porter, Jr’s tricky, stripped-down offbeat bass pattern, probably concocted by Big Q. Everybody on the track had to be at the top of their game for such an intricate contrivance to succeed. At Sea-Saint, it was just a normal day on the job.
Of particular note is the ostensible B-side, “Better Luck In The Summer”, written by guitarist Leo Nocentelli, which has appeared on several compilations of ParKer’s recordings. It’s a loose, appealing amalgam of southern soul, rock and country that manages to sit just right in the loose pocket and lope along with a side-to-side sway - a genuine change of pace that remains funky. In its own way the song refers back to Parker’s hybrid, “Country Side Of Life”, but is a much better structured composition.
More kudos to Wardell for ensuring that these tracks served Parker’s vocal style so well. For his part, the singer handled the more melodic songs with ease, putting his distinctively enthusiastic, friendly stamp on each. Without a doubt, this 45 could have been his money shot, had anybody heard it.
Also in 1976, Marshall Sehorn worked a deal with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to record the sets of mainly Sansu artists, Toussaint, Irma Thomas (who was technically signed to the company at the time but had no releases of her own), Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, and Parker, along with Earl King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Professor Longhair, at JazzFest in April of that year. Due to an equipment failure, the performances of King, Dorsey, Parker failed to make it to tape at the festival. So, several songs by each were cut at Sea-Saint that September, all of which unfortunately attempted to fake a live sound with boomy vocals and canned crowd noise. Sea-Saint engineers mixed and mastered a number of the live and studio tracks; and Sehorn sold them to Island for release as the double LP package, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 1976, which first appeared in the UK.
According to Thomas, she was not even told that her set was being recorded and never received any sort of compensation for her work, which Sehorn also later re-packaged and sold to Charly Records for another LP, Hip Shakin’ Mama. I doubt that the other artists were treated any differently, except for Toussaint, of course
In any event, Parker’s two tracks on the album, remakes of “Barefootin’” and “Country Side of Life” were his last recordings for Sansu or anyone else, for that matter. He has been gigging sporadically ever since, and appeared regularly at JazzFest for many years. More recently, he played the Pondersa Stomp and Best of the Beat awards, but a stroke he suffered several years ago has limited his performing even further.
Next time, I’ll be featuring Big Q’s work with K-Doe for Sansu, plus several album projects for outside artists that benefitted from his talents. So check back.