February 24, 2013

TOUSSAINT 2.0: Footnotes & Follow-Ups

[Update: Audio links have been removed, You can hear these tracks and more in rotation at HOTG Radio streaming 24/7.]

Last month I started a series, Footnotes & Follow-ups, that I’ll be coming back to occasionally to feature tracks and information that update or relate to specific previous posts. When you think about it, everything around here relates to other posts somehow. That’s really the underlying HOTG concept. Like life in general, the whole New Orleans music scene was and is about interconnectedness. The groove nexus. But lest this become a metaphysics lecture, let’s get to the music and circumstances at hand.

As with the first entry, this one has to do with Allen Toussaint and the artists he worked with. The focus is on the period 1965-1966, a transitional time for him when, just back from several years of mandatory military service, he felt the need to seek new opportunities and reboot his career. As luck would have it, that's exactly what he did.

[The basic timeline for events has been pieced together from several of my usual sources, John Broven's great Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans, and Jeff Hannusch's two classics, I Hear You Knockin' and The Soul of New Orleans (if you don't have 'em get 'em), plus my own research.]

IN THE MOOD TO MOVE

Coming unexpectedly in 1963, Allen’s draft notice marked the end of a remarkable three year run of success, during which he wrote, arranged and produced numerous national hit records for Joe Banashak’s Minit and Instant labels with artists such as Jessie Hill, Chris Kenner, Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville and Benny Spellman. Even many of the records that didn’t do as well around the country were popular at home and are rightfully considered classics today, including those of Irma Thomas, which deserved better than they got.

Losing access to Toussaint’s talents was bad enough for Banashak’s business prospects, but also in 1963 other serious setbacks nearly sank his entire record-making enterprise. Los Angeles-based Imperial Records, which had an exclusive contract to distribute the Minit label nationally, was bought-out by another much larger L.A. company, Liberty Records. The change of ownership scuttled that agreement; and, without a distributor or his hit-making producer, Banashak cut his losses and “sold” the label to Liberty. It was a murky deal, at best. Liberty may have simply appropriated all of the Minit masters Imperial held and paid Banashak a pittance as compensation]. The new bosses dropped all of the Minit artists except Thomas, who they signed to Imperial and moved more toward the mainstream.

On the heels of that reversal, Banashak was soon forced into bankruptcy after the failure of another business he owned, A-1 Distributors, which sold independent records wholesale to retailers. Understandably discouraged and struggling, the cash-strapped entrepreneur was slow to regroup, barely keeping his recording operations afloat by releasing stored tracks by artists such as Eldridge Holmes and Willie Harper that Toussaint had cut prior to leaving town, and bringing in other producers for a few half-hearted projects. Without access to national distribution, he had to promote the records to local DJs on his own, probably without being able to provide the usual inducements for airplay. It was worst-case independent label limbo, leaving him hoping for a miraculous hit while waiting for Toussaint to come back and save the day.  

Meanwhile, Allen was experiencing his own money woes around the time of his induction, having trouble getting his substantial royalty payments from BMI for radio and jukebox play of the songs he had written. At least part of the problem was due to a mix-up about his using “Naomi Neville” (his mother’s maiden name) on songwriting credits. While he was gone, Banashak helped get the matter resolved, resulting in some large checks coming the writer’s way. Allen was appreciative; but the situation he would come back to after two years did not bode well for his career aspirations. Most of the great Minit artists he worked with had moved on; and Banashak’s remaining labels were stagnating, including Alon, which he had started in 1961 for Toussaint to run.  

Upon Allen’s return in 1965, Banashak began releasing material Toussaint had written while in the service and mainly cut in Houston with the Stokes, a band he had put together at his base. There were a total of 10 singles issued from the Stokes sessions, all on Alon with one exception, and under several names: the Stokes [5]; the band’s drummer, Al (a/k/a Billy) Fayard, [2], the Young Ones [1], plus one in his own name. The release not on Alon, “Younka Chunka”/”How Tired I Am”, which I featured in 2010 {see link below], was directly leased by the California-based Uptown label (#701), and, for unexplained reasons, showed the apocryphal “K. C. Russell” as artist, though Fayard was the lead vocalist. As for the single featuring Toussaint, it was definitely an anomaly at the time, his first solo release using his actual name [his earlier instrumentals for RCA and Seville used ‘Tousan’ and ‘Al Tousan’], and first upfront vocal on record.




“Poor Boy Got To Move“ (Naomi Neville)
Allen Toussaint, Alon 9021, 1965

Listening to the lyrics on both sides of this single knowing that Toussaint would quit his association with Banashak a few months after coming home, it’s apparent that the subject matter of the tunes, the sense of loss at the end of a relationship and the need to move on, mirrored what had been on his mind. I’m sure he had not discussed those feelings with his boss/partner at that point. Had Banashak paid attention to the song titles and gist of the lyrics, perhaps he would not have been so surprised when Allen jumped ship.

As he has acknowledged, Toussaint was not interested in being a featured artist in those days, feeling most comfortable composing and taking care of the details of the recording process for others. Singing backup on certain tracks had been the extent of his voice being heard on any record up until this point. So, I’m not sure he intended his lead vocal takes on these songs to be released. He sang them likely because his preferred vocalists were all back in New Orleans; but just the fact that he committed the performances to tape indicates he was serious about the material. I get the sense that Banashak was just putting out all of the Stokes sessions that were finished, hoping that, with Allen’s involvement, at least a few would generate some sales. Yet, even if Toussaint had not expected the appearance of this single, it undeniably provided, in his own voice, a fitting coda to his time with Banashak’s enterprise.

Also apparent in the material on both sides is that Allen was directing his songwriting and production goals beyond the confines of the local market. In “Poor Boy Got To Move”, I hear the obvious influence of Curtis Mayfield’s work with the Impressions from several years prior. The song structure, melody line, harmony vocals and Toussaint’s singing that slipped here and there into falsetto, all go to show how well he could assimilate and get to the essence of another’s sound. I see it as an experimental exercise to get his creative juices flowing while away from home, and evidence that his inspiration was drawn from many sources.



“Go Back Home” (Naomi Neville)

Speaking of experimenting, there is something almost classical about the construction of this next beautifully executed tune, taking it a step beyond everyday mainstream pop fare. The stately, meditative feel and satisfyingly simple melody are set off by elements of complex instrumental harmony, as where the mainly minor key passages resolve to a major. To listen deep into it is to catch a glimpse of Toussaint’s innate, intense musical sophistication that would become increasingly evident as he matured. As a writer and arranger, he never could be confined to any particular genre, working comfortably in and among many styles, and often incorporating multiple musical elements into a single piece, as here when he ends each chorus with a bluesy, Ray Charles-like piano run - a perfect release from the restraint of the more formal sections. In time, experts far beyond my meager abilities will affirm Toussaint to be simply one of the great American composers.

None of the Alon tracks, which Banashak continued to issue well after Allen had left the fold, got much public attention on their own; but, as I have noted before, one of the sides, “Whipped Cream”, from the first Stokes 45 (#9019) was heard and quickly covered by a popular California trumpeter named Herb Alpert and his studio band, the Tijuana Brass, on a 45 for his own A&M label. It became a fairly substantial hit and was later used regularly on the TV show, The Dating Game, providing more happy returns for Toussaint’s reopened royalty stream.

 
Prior posts on Toussaint's work with the Stokes, and others on Alon:

Stoked For Solid Gold
Some Greasy Holiday Sides and a Desert Topping
Younka Chunka Returns....
Good Stuff Beyond the Fluff
Tracing Benny Spellman's Fortunes, Pt 2

A FRESH START IN THE CHARTS WITH LEE DORSEY

Soon after getting back to the Big Easy, Allen was approached by Marshall Sehorn for assistance on a project that did not involve Banashak. A colorful record promoter, producer and wheeler-dealer originally from North Carolina, whose exploits over the years became increasingly outrageous, Sehorn had previously worked for Bobby Robinson’s Fire & Fury labels out of New York and come to New Orleans several times to oversee sessions for the label’s local artists, Bobby Marchan and Lee Dorsey. After Robinson’s labels closed shop in 1963, Sehorn continued on his own to try to make something happen with Dorsey, recording two singles on Lee that he placed with the new Constellation label out of Chicago. When they failed to get much notice, Sehorn asked Toussaint to help record a four song package in hopes of getting the singer a deal with a national label.

Allen had first worked with Dorsey on “Lottie Mo”/”Lover of Love”, two classics from a one-off 45 he produced for Banashak’s Valiant label [soon renamed Instant] in 1958; and he had crossed paths with Sehorn before in New Orleans. They met at a Marchan session Sehorn ran for Fury in 1960; and the next year Sehorn hired Toussaint to arrange Dorsey’s first Fury single, “Ya Ya”/”Give Me You”, with the top side becoming a #1 hit.

Although Allen was still working for Banashak, he agreed to do the Dorsey project on the side.The old ties were starting to unravel. Once they were tracked, Sehorn shopped the songs to Bell Records in New York, who agreed to release them, assigning Dorsey to their Amy subsidiary. The first single featured Toussaint’s energetic dancer, “Ride Your Pony”, which quickly moved up the national charts and into the top ten by the summer, confirming that the writer/arranger’s mojo was officially back - and Lee’s, too.



“Ride Your Pony” (Naomi Neville}
Lee Dorsey, Amy 926, 1965

Just as Allen’s own Alon single closed a chapter in his career, this song opened the next one with a bang, several of them in fact! You can tell by the poppin’ energy of this track that he was inspired by the opportunity to write for Lee again. In terms of lyrics and concept it was one of hundreds of songs based around a dance, the Pony in this case, with the standard name-checking of various spots around the country; but several things set it apart. Of course the pistol shots were definitely an attention-grabbing, novelty gimmick that worked as intended. But the propulsive groove of this tune is what really locks the listener in from the first note with its fresh, hip, tightly-wound funk. Toussaint constructed the infectiously syncopated arrangement from a very spare instrumental backing of drums, bass, two guitars and a baritone sax. Though you don’t really notice, the song has only two chord changes, which obviously are just enough. Topping it off, the rudimentary melody line proved a perfect fit for Dorsey’s engaging, rhythmic, conversational vocal style.

The record easily held its own against the many high-quality tunes on the radio that year, and clearly got Dorsey noticed again. On the strength of it, he was invited to perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem that year; and, for this important gig, Sehorn had Toussaint come along to direct the band. While there, the two discussed partnering a start-up production company to develop, record, and market talent. As Sehorn recalled in his own down-home way to Jeff Hannusch,

Allen and I went to dinner and talked about starting some kind of deal. Allen had some offers from Motown and the West Coast, but he told me his convictions were in New Orleans, and that’s where he wanted to stay.

The success of “Ride Your Pony” was the turning point. Allen soon gave Banashak his notice, and joined Sehorn in forming Tou-Sea Productions. With Dorsey as their first client, Sehorn negotiated a deal giving Amy exclusive rights to the singer’s releases; and more hits followed. In short order, Tou-Sea began recruiting a bevy of other artists Toussaint was interested in working with, including Eldridge Holmes, Betty Harris, Willie Harper, Willie West, Diamond Joe, and Benny Spellman. It also did not take the partners long to start their own labels: Tou-Sea and Sansu, which would be distributed by Bell, and Deesu, which Sehorn kept close to home by signing a distribution deal with Cosimo Matassa’s Dover Records. A music business Odd Couple, the new partners would work together well over two decades using a simple division of labor: Sehorn handled the business and Toussaint the music.
Re: Allen & Lee:
When Lee Met Allen
Ya Ya's In La La Land
Two More From Toussaint

JET-SETTING WITH ELDRIDGE HOLMES

One of the first vocalists Allen worked with in the new production company was the exceptional Eldridge Holmes, who he had recorded previously for Alon in 1962-1963, resulting in five singles. Most had been released while Allen was in the service, but languished, because, as discussed, Banashak was not able to properly promote them.

Before Tou-Sea had even set up their new labels, Allen cut a number of new tunes with Holmes that Sehorn then leased to Jet Set, a small, obscure soul label out of Washington, DC. Two singles by the singer appeared under the Jet Set imprint, “Humpback”/”I Like What You Do” (#1006) which probably came out late in 1965, followed by “Gone, Gone, Gone”/”Worried Over You”. Unlike most of the artists Allen worked with back then, Holmes wrote a lot of his own material. Three of the Jet Set sides were collaborations by the two, with “I Like What You Do” written by Toussaint alone. I featured the hard-driving dancer, “Humpback”, here back in 2007; and this is the perfect opportunity to get around to the second Jet Set 45.



“Gone, Gone, Gone” (E. Holmes - A. Toussaint)
Eldrige [sic] Holmes, Jet Set 765, 1966

As my promo copy shows, this was the plug (A) side of the record; and they managed to misspell his first name on both sides. In terms of structure and melody alone, it’s a competent piece of middle of the road mainstream soul-pop that in lesser hands might not have been worth noting. But, the performance and packaging kicked it up enough in quality to put its hooks in when you hear it and make you want to stay to the end and play it again. Certainly one of the city’s best soul singers, who never got his due or the chance to perform up to his full potential on record, Holmes provided the emotional investment and technique necessary to make the rather cliched lyrics (probably his contribution) ring true. That impression is bolstered by Toussaint’s perfectly balanced, intricately arranged instrumental presentation. There is nothing at all average about the perfect rhythmic flow, fine musicianship, and flawless singing that allow this number to exceed its potential.

For my money, though, they should have been plugging the other side.

“Worried Over You” (E. Holmes - A. Toussaint)

This is soul-pop of a different order. Toussaint’s mix of off-beat stop-time and regularly paced sections provides riveting tension and release, making the mid-tempo song more substantial than its short running time, just a second shy of two minutes, might suggest. At points, the stop-time segments leave gaps where all we hear is the fading reverberations of Holmes voice, drawing us deeper into an encounter with the singer’s consummately soulful delivery. It’s a master class in the arts of composition, arrangement, and production working together to showcase a great vocal performance and help impart the emotion behind the lyrics.

Even though Bell Records bought out Jet Set just prior to this release, which seemingly should have given the record more of a chance to be heard, neither side got noticed. And Jet Set folded shortly thereafter.

As time went by, it became apparent that very few of the Tou-Sea productions other than Dorsey’s got effective promotion under Bell’s distribution contract. Sehorn intimated as much to Hannusch, saying that Bell always held a grudge against him, because he would not give them exclusive rights to everything the partnership produced. Of course, doing so would have ceded the company almost total control of Tou-Sea’s destiny plus a larger cut of any profits. Since the entities were already closely tied through Dorsey’s Amy deal, you can’t blame Sehorn for wanting to leave some other options open for the partnership to generate a hit with other artists and make some money. The standoff goes a long way in explaining why Bell would have worked Dorsey’s records harder than any of the partnership’s other releases.

[Just a geek note on the numbering of this single and Jet Set in general. According to the R&B Indies, Jet Set issues ran from 1001 in 1965 to 1009 sometime in 1966, when Bell came into the picture. The label then had just four remaining issues, numbered 765 - 768. The rapid demise of Jet Set suggests that Bell’s business model included not just efforts to hamstring their competition, but eliminate it whenever possible.]

Sad to say, Holmes’ luck would not get much better. His next release, “Until the End”/Without A Word” came out on Sansu 469 in 1967, followed by “Beverly”/”Wait For Me Baby” (#477), but both received little play beyond New Orleans. He then had four releases on Deesu over the next few years, at least three of those backed by the Meters at unknown recording locations. Both sides of his first Deesu single, “Where Is Love”/”Now That I’ve Lost You” did well enough locally to attract Decca Records to reissue it (#32416) nationwide. Following up, Decca directly released a pair of Toussaint produced tunes as their second and last 45 (#32488) on the singer, a rehash of Dorsey's hit, “Working In The Coal Mine” along with the fine, self-penned, deep soul ”A Love Problem” (#32488), before losing interest due to slow sales.

When Dover records collapsed in financial ruin in 1968, Deesu went into hiatus, reappearing about a year later with a new label design/logo, but the releases fared no better than before in the marketplace. Probably Holmes’ best known 45 these days, “Pop Popcorn Children”/”Cheating Woman”, still with Toussaint in charge and the Meters on board, was released by Atco in 1969, but did not do well enough to merit a follow-up. Then came a Holmes single produced by Senator Jones with the involvement of Charles Brimmer around 1970 on the local micro-label, Kansu. But the singer was back working with Toussaint (at least according to the label credits) in 1972 for what would be the final record of his career, cut in Charlotte, NC, and issued there on the short-lived Brown Sugar label.

Wikipedia UK has what appears to be a complete [but perhaps not quite chronological] Eldridge Holmes discography; and there's a brief bio of him at Allmusic. Here are links to my prior posts on the singer:
Three Sides of Eldridge Holmes
Eldridge Holmes Sells "The Book"


BETTY HARRIS: SANSU’S SOLE WOMAN

If you look at the roster of artists attached to Tou-Sea Productions, the dearth of females is glaring. Other than a one-off 1968 single on the Tou-Sea label by a strong, if somewhat tonally challenged, vocalist from the Atlanta area, Zilla Mayes, Betty Harris was all by her lonesome on the distaff side of the list. Likewise, during Toussaint’s tenure at Banashak’s Minit, Instant, and Alon labels, Irma Thomas had been the only woman with up-front billing. As in the world at large, male dominance was routinely endemic in the New Orleans recording scene for decades; but that’s a sociology topic for another day.

To their credit, Toussaint and Sehorn did sign Harris early on, who proved to be one of their most talented and relatively successful artists; but they found her in New York City rather than on the local or regional scene. Getting her on board in 1965 was definitely a promising score for the production company; but during their four year association, she would only come into town periodically to overdub vocals on productions Toussaint pre-recorded for her; and, as good as it was, It was never more than a long distance relationship.

While Harris was a talent worthy of Toussaint’s attention, I’ve always wondered why the partners never brought Irma Thomas in to work with Allen again, since there was a window of time when she would have been available, between her contract ending with Imperial early in 1966 and her recordings for Chess in 1967. In fact, Imperial had hired Allen soon after he got out of the service in 1965 to produce (and write) several tunes for her, which appeared on her impressive 45, "Take A Look"/"What Are You Trying To Do" (#66137) and LP [Take a Look] for the label; but, the always promising combination did not jump-start her declining sales, nor did her final Imperial single produced by the very hot James Brown. Her lack of a hit certainly wasn’t a quality issue. It had more to do with the airwaves being crowded with amazing music in those days, plus the British Invasion in full force, making it hard to compete even for such outstanding talents.

So, why wouldn’t Irma have been a good match for Tou-Sea Productions right after that? Even fresh off a disappointing collaboration, it’s hard to fathom why they would not want Irma on their side. But maybe it was Irma who held back, deciding to put any further recording plans on hold for a time when she left Imperial. She needed to make money for her family and so began gigging regularly on the busy Southern college circuit, which kept her on the road. Also, as Willie West confirmed to me recently, Tou-Sea was not paying the artists any money up front to sign with them; and, while, they did pay them a set fee per song [possibly union scale] for the sessions they cut, only those who had hits might get compensated any further for their work, and I emphasize the “might”. Having been around the block several times with different companies by that point, Irma may not have been interested in such an equation.  In any event, she and Toussaint never connected to make a record again.

[Note: Actually, Irma did finally sign with Sansu briefly about a decade later; but Toussaint never developed any material for her or recorded her, other than singing back-up from time to time at Sea-Saint Studio. What a waste. She parted ways with them for good after Sehorn recorded her performance at the 1976 JazzFest without her knowledge and licensed some of the songs to Island Records for inclusion on a double LP compilation of performances related to the event. She wasn't compensated for that, nor later when he re-licensed her live set to Charly in the UK, who released an album under her name, Hip Shakin' Mama, in 1981. To this day, Irma considers those tracks to have been bootlegged. But it was pretty much standard procedure for Sehorn. Harris, too, received no royalties for her Sansu records at the time, but won ownership of the recordings after a protracted legal battle some 25 years later.]

In Betty Harris, Toussaint found another gifted, soulful female vocalist to work with and write for; and I’m sure Sehorn saw nationwide breakout potential in their collaborations. Pete Nickols’ definitive summary of Harris’ life and career at Sir Shambling’s Soul Heaven [see link below], relates that she was born in Florida and grew up in Alabama, left her strict, religious home as a teenager in the later 1950s and went to New York City to seek her fortunes as an R&B singer. She first met Allen there in 1965, having finished a stint recording for the Jubilee label under the guidance of the great producer and writer, Bert Berns, scoring a decent-sized hit with his song, “Cry To Me”.

It’s highly likely that the meeting occurred at the time of Lee Dorsey’s Apollo show. Sehorn may have known Betty already from his prior dealings in the NYC music business and introduced her to Allen; but, however they connected, Harris quickly signed with the partners and became the initial artist to record for their new Sansu imprint. Her first single (#450) paired two new Toussaint numbers, “I’m Evil Tonight” and “What A Sad Feeling”; and Betty would record eight more for the label, plus a duet outing with Lee Dorsey. The only significant national response came from her amazing, deep take on Toussaint’s “Nearer” in 1967, which charted and became a modest hit.  After Sansu shut down in 1969, Sehorn placed one more 45 on Betty with SSS International, featuring Toussaint’s trippy funk classic, “There’s A Break In The Road”; but it failed to actually deliver any breaks other than James Black's incredible beats, and was her last release for decades.

I wish I had time to delve into more of Harris’ Sansu material [soon come, mon]; but, fortunately, Nickols has done a great job with the topic in his lengthy piece, which includes selected audio. So, I encourage you to listen and read up there - become a Betty Harris fan, if you’re not one already! Here's that link, plus my paltry prior posts on Betty:

Betty Harris: Sir Shambling's Deep Soul Heaven
Two More From Toussaint
Who You Gonna Call?

 I’m just concentrating on one of her Sansu records this time, which by coincidence happens to tie together her early and later recordings with Toussaint.



“Mean Man” (Allen Toussaint)
Betty Harris, Sansu 478, 1968

This was Betty’s seventh Sansu solo single and came after her 1967 double-sided duo project (#474) with Lee Dorsey, which did not get the notice it deserved. From both the sound of this track and the date, I am pretty sure that the newly-hired Meters were the operative rhythm section on this track. There is definitely a step up in the energy of the playing and the funk.

As with most all of his work with Harris, Toussaint was at the top of his game in all departments on “Mean Man”, and having the Meters on board just added emphasis to the fact. The track displays his complex, trademark amalgam of interdependent parts that worked together flawlessly. The arrangement, playing, and singing are so precisely on target that they automatically induce our surrender to the polyrhythmic movements of the eminently danceable groove, and lock us into the easily accessible melody line and lyrics.  

It’s such a cool song in all regards that the only explanation I can come up with for why it didn’t make the charts goes back to the alleged Bell grudge against independent releases from Tou-Sea Productions. They had to be giving promotion of those records short shrift; and it was definitely starting to take its toll.  

Evidence of the growing strain can be seen in the decision not to produce a new track for the singles’s B-side and, instead, recycle one from her third single. In fact, they had also reused “I’m Evil Tonight” as the flip for “Nearer” the previous year. More than likely both were money-saving moves rather than a lack of fresh material being available. I'm sure they had o pay Harris' expenses to come down and record. Even if second-hand, though, their choice for the back of “Mean Man” definitely was worth hearing again.

“What Did I Do Wrong” (Allen Toussaint)

Originally on the flip side of another sadly underappreciated single (#455) from 1966 that featured the driving dancer, “Twelve Red Roses”, this tune is a fine example of what Betty has always considered to be her strongest suit, emotive, deep soul balladry. Taken at a moderate mid-tempo that Toussaint subtly tricked-out here and there with rhythmic change-ups, the song’s bluesy simplicity allowed her to dig in and render a gritty, richly dynamic performance that reveals her true gift for spellbinding phrasing, alternately on the beat, pushing against it, or hesitating, to keep the listener hanging on every meaningful word. Sublime.

Of course, this track was too early to have had the Meters on it, but is not diminished in any way for that. The musicianship is outstanding, and the feel of the track has a lot in common with a song from an outside project Toussaint produced that same year on another underappreciated soul singer.

BRIEFLY UNDER THE BIG TOP WITH LOU JOHNSON

MY 2011 post, Sansu 70s: Allen, Lee and Lou, featured a segment on material from Lou Johnson’s 1971 Volt LP,  With You In Mind, which had Toussaint’s manifold involvement. As I noted there in the background information on Johnson, he started recording in the early 1960s for New York City‘s Big Top Records and its Big Hill subsidiary, scoring several modest hits. Notably, up and coming songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David provided much of his material and produced some of those sessions. Three of their tunes that appeared on Lou’s singles, “Reach Out For Me”, “Always Something There To Remind Me”, and “Kentucky Bluebird” [a/k/a “Message To Michael (Martha)”], were covered and made much bigger hits by Dionne Warwick a few years later, again under the guidance of that production and writing team.

Big Top and the smaller Big Hill and Hill Top labels were owned by the hugely successful Hill  & Range music publishing company. By 1964, the principals found running record companies too distracting and let them go.  But, in 1965, Big Top was briefly reactivated with Bell Records as its new distributor. Of the mere five listed releases from the company before it finally went away for good, Lou Johnson had three of them. And, for the final one, Toussaint and company got the call to produce.

Of course, Bell farmed this project out to the Tou-Sea team due to the continuing success of the Dorsey-Amy relationship; and I’m pretty sure the session took place in New Orleans with Cosimo Matassa engineering. While Allen also got one his songs placed on the B-side, what may have most intrigued him about the project was the chance to do his own arrangement of a Bacharach-David tune.



“Walk On By“ (Bacharach-David)
Lou Johnson, Big Top 104, 1966

I suspect the Big Top bigwigs picked this well-known feature track for Johnson, trying to get him back to his earlier successes (though limited) recording the songwriters’ material. Dionne Warwick’s original version, also produced by Bacharach and David, had gone to #6 on the pop charts and #1 R&B in 1964. As a successful writer/producer, Toussaint no doubt had great respect for the sophisticated musical sensibilities and hit-making skills of his peers and realized that he faced the tough task of doing justice to their great song while giving it a different enough spin to allow Johnson’s take to stand out. The bar for success was set quite high, and the deck was stacked against the single in several ways.

Without doubt, the delicate vocal  on Warwick’s version was a perfect fit for the tasteful, spare instrumentation and bossa nova influenced feel of its groove. The overall arrangement was nothing less than masterful, state-of-the-art pop production, making it an instant classic. So, I can’t help admiring the fearless assurance of Toussaint’s approach, allowing Johnson to come at the song from his comfort zone and display his trademark gospel-influenced vocal fervor.

For the most part, the song wasn’t altered much structurally or melodically; but Toussaint cast it in the warm trappings of a Southern soul feel, embellished by his sanctified piano fills and the subtly syncopated horns, making it at once totally recognizable yet miles away from the original. As brilliant an accomplishment as it was, the record went exactly nowhere. Big Top’s impending dissolution was likely the major factor, offering little incentive for Bell to promote it more than sending out DJ copies. At best, it was a paying project for Tous-Sea Productions, a challenging exercise for Toussaint, and created the opening to work with Johnson again a few years later.

Although the B-side of the single is not prime Toussaint material, I’m including it because I’m guessing that not many of even the most serious of his fans have heard it.

“Little Girl” (Allen Toussaint)


Allen’s contribution turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to design a song for Johnson in the Barcharach-David style. He set it up around some of the changes in “Kentucky Bluebird”; but it was too labored an effort, and definitely lacked his usual rhythmic flow and ease with a melody. Even with Johnson’s well-sung, professional presentation, the song’s place on the back side of a poorly distributed single was fitting.

Toussaint has had his share of creative missteps over a long career - it’s only natural; and I usually don’t dwell on them; but the context of this one is interesting and helps to explain what he was up to, at least. If you just heard the song on its own without knowing anything about it, you might have a WTF moment.

Down the line I hope to explore other aspects of Toussaint’s creative journey. There’s much more from even this brief window of time, but it’s a wrap for now. Other topics crowd my desk, floor, shelves and boxes. Long dormant grooves beg to be heard again. So, I’ll be back with more. . . .

February 12, 2013

. . . .AT DAT KREWE DU VIEUX PARADE. . . .

                        H  A  P  P  Y
M A R D I   G R A S  2013

                 

                                                                        photos by Dan Phillips







February 11, 2013

MO' MARDI GRAS MUSIC.......

[Update: Audio links have been removed. You can hear these tracks in rotation at HOTG Radio streaming 24/7.] 

Yea verily, the Mardi Gras spirit is upon us. My wife has King Cake Baby's picture up on her Facebook page [she showed it to me, since I am angling to be the last person on Earth not on FB ]. The big fat day is nearly here.



“Handa Wanda”, Pts. 1 & II (B. Dollis)
Bo Dollis  & The Wild Magnolia Mardi Gras Indian Band, Cresent [sic] City, 1970

I featured the top side of this historic single back in 2006. After seven years, it’s high time for the entire outrageous studio performance. I usually don’t combine the sides of two-parter into one track; but I’m taking the liberty here to provide something closer to the way it went down without the interruption of virtually flipping the record over, though the fades out and in on the record itself still break it up a bit.

Quint ‘Cosmic Q’ Davis, a Tulane University student who was a budding musicologist and impresario, sought out the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians and put them onstage at his campus jazz festival in 1970 where they jammed with pianist Willie Tee, who was performing with his new funk band, the Gaturs. At that point, the Indians usually only wore their elaborate costumes and did their music on the streets of the city’s black neighborhoods on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day and were nearly invisible to the outside world. The combination of their ritual singing and percussion with Tee’s funky touch was such a revelation that Davis arranged to make a record of their collaboration that was cut in Baton Rouge later that year. The rhythm section for the session included Tee without his regular band, instead joined by Zigaboo Modeliste of the Meters on drums, and bassist George French, who had played many prime R&B sessions in New Orleans during the 1960s. Dollis sang lead, with other members of the Wild Magnolias providing the chorus and playing percussion. Amazingly, the ensuing magic was captured in only one take.

Here’s what I said about the results in that earlier post:
There’s just no denying the elemental energy and unvarnished funk of this track, maybe one of the most unrecognized masterpieces of in-studio wildness ever magnetized on tape and pressed into grooved vinyl. No, it’s not recorded all that well; and Tee and French are pretty much just vamping around. But Zig, Bo and the Indian brotherhood - on drums, congas, tambourines, bottles, whatever - issue forth an undulating percussive flood that sweeps away all obstacles and resistance to rhythmic body movement. Above the churning sonic waves, Dollis’s raw scream of a vocal, surely born of gargling razor blades, tears through the roar and sears itself into your brain.

Issued on Davis’ one-off Crescent City imprint [misspelled on the label itself], the record helped to make the influential Mardi Gras Indian sound accessible. A subsequent 45 and two groundbreaking LPs, The Wild Magnolias (1974) and They Call Us Wild (1975), continued to mix their music and rhythms with hometown funk, opening more doors worldwide for all the Indian street tribes, and bringing their beautiful costume craft and performance art to decades of shows, concerts and festivals. Still, the deep traditional culture of the Indians is not fully understood or appreciated by outsiders.

The year this record came out, Quint Davis was also involved in organizing the first New Orleans Jazz Festival and Louisiana Heritage Fair, working for master festival organizer, George Wein, and later becoming the ongoing director of JazzFest, as it has come to be known, now rolling into its 44th year. Thanks to Quint, there has always been room for the Indians to show-out at the fairgrounds, too.
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“Streets/My Darlin’ New Orleans” (Ron Cuccia, Ramsey McLean, Charles Neville)
Ron Cuccia & the Jazz Poetry Group, from the eponymous Takoma LP, 1979


The live set that this album documents was recorded by Cosimo Matassa at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans on July 13 and 14, 1979. At the time, the Jazz Poetry Group was at its height and fairly active around town, a fact that goes to show the open-minded musical tastes of club-goers, since, at its core, the group consisted of poet Cuccia rapping his verse over the grooves and riffs of a jazz-funk outfit, alternating with the riveting vocals of a diminutive diva. The band consisted of Cuccia on lead vocal, Leigh Harris also on vocals, Charles Neville on saxophone and vocals, bassist Ramsey McLean, drummer/percussionist Ricky Sebastian, and Johnny Magnie on piano and vocals.

As Cuccia related in the notes to the LP, Charles Neville (who had not quite yet joined up with his brothers to form their legendary band) had been gigging around town in a jazz duo with McLean. He caught Cuccia at a poetry reading one night, early in 1978 and invited him to hear the duo play, because they had been “looking for a poet”! Either intrigued or just mystified, Cuccia came to one of their gigs, sat at the bar and composed a poem, which they proceeded to jam on later. A club show together soon followed and went so well that they arranged another later that year, adding Sebastian’s serious chops and Harris’ belting vocals to the mix. As gigs increased, John Magnie soon was invited aboard, as he regularly played with Harris in their own band, L’il Queenie and the Percolators.  

The Jazz Poetry Group didn’t have a long life, probably because Neville was soon pulled away by the coming together and rising popularity of the Neville Brothers; and the Percolators also soon became one of the hottest local acts, frequently gigging around the Gulf Coast region, as well.  Notably, Harris and Magnie brought Cuccia’s mash note to the city, “My Darlin’ New Orleans” into the Percolators’ set list; and it became one of their most popular tunes. In 1981, they recorded it for their only release, a single with Magnie’s “Wild Natives” on the flip, which came out their own very short-lived Ignant label. It was later reissued by Great Southern; but the band broke up in 1982 due to outside forces. Harris has continued on as a solo artist up until this day. Magnie and Percolators’ guitarist/vocalist Tommy Malone, went on to found the original Continental Drifters, followed by their most well-known band, the subdudes.



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“Tuesday Mornin’” (Jon Foose)
Jon Foose with Oliver Morgan & the Royal Knights, Cypress Sounds 1000


I occasionally like to throw in something really off the wall from the annals of Mardi Gras records that went nowhere - some deservedly, some not so much. I’d put this one in the latter category. Despite the country twang to Jon Foose’s vocal that puts me in mind of Jody Levens’ original version of “Mardi Gras Mambo” back in 1954, the upbeat song itself is OK; and the playing and arrangement are exemplary.

Admittedly, I know nothing about the details of the recording, which has “Gator Get Down” on the back, starting with why Oliver Morgan gets credit along with the Royal Knights, since he is certainly not singing anywhere on either side.  Maybe the Royal Knights were his band. Neither do I know who Wil Morgan is, who arranged the tracks. Foose, who I believe resides in Austin, TX or thereabouts, has a BMI catalog of just over 20 songs he’s written or co-written, but neither side of this single is among them. Likewise, the US Copyright database does not list the songs among his compositions. Time to do the paperwork! Cypress Sounds seems to have been a one shot label invented for this release, which likely was Foose’s only record. Of course, it is undated; but I’d guess the 45 came out somewhere between the late 1970s and mid-1980s.

Foose is still singing, as evidenced by this YouTube video  
of him performing with a blues band in Austin; and he obviously also has plenty of Louisiana music expertise, as he co-authored Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II with Jason Berry and Tad Jones in 1992. If you’re out there Jon, get in touch and let me know how this record came about.
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“Do It Fluid/Do It Again” (DDBB)
Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from the Rounder LP, Live Mardi Gras In Montreux, 1986


Back in 2005, I featured the Dirty Dozen’s first recording of this tune from their debut album, My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now, released by Concord Jazz in 1984. It’s a monster, especially live, as evidenced by this take recorded at Montreux in 1985, six and a half minutes of intense ensemble playing that simply overtakes your nervous system where you sit or stand and plugs it into a Higher Power. Notice that there is little to no soloing going on, just a succession of intricately arranged, contrapuntal riffs by various groups of horns, all driven by a relentless groove established by the percussionists and Krk Joseph’s force o’ nature sousaphone bottom end action. I still remember the first time I heard this album, soon after it came out, and how it totally blew me away, leaving just a palpatating pile of protoplasm with one goal: hear it again.

While the writing credits on the track go to the Dirty Dozen, the majority of the tune is their inspired interpretation of the 1974 stone funk cut, “Do It, Fluid” by the Blackbyrds. Many of the riff lines of the brass version mirror the bass and vocal melody lines of the song, but the Dirty Dozen pump it up into hyperdrive and simply run away with it. As amazing as it is, I think some props to the original writer, the great Donald Byrd, are in order.

Besides Joseph, the other members of the Dirty Dozen on this record, several of whom played with Leroy Jones in the original Young Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band and Hurricane Marching Brass Band I featured in my January post, are listed at the Discogs page for this LP, which should be a well-played part of any New Orleans music collection.

I can’t think of a better song for energizing any Mardi Gras party. It should propel you on through Lent, as well. So, grab the album or at least buy a better quality copy of this track, add it to your playlist, and get down on it.


Have a ball this Mardi Gras, y’all.

February 08, 2013

Sittin' In Again......

Once again, I'm sittin' in with my friend, Roger Kash, on his fine Freetown Radio show, airing later today, Friday, February 8 from 3:00 - 4:00 PM US Central time on KRVS Lafayette, which broadcasts at 88.7 FM locally and streams its programming online worldwide. This time Roger has invited me in for a pre-Mardi Gras show featuring some rarely heard Carnival music treats from the HOTG archives. You can listen to the show online in real time or, after it airs, find the podcast at KRVS. Appreciate the invite, Roger!
[Update: KRVS will rebroadcast the show this coming Tuesday, dat's Mardi Gras Day, at 2:00 PM Central.]

I'll have some more Mardi Gras cuts up here this weekend, and, of course, HOTG Radio on da web will have Mardi Gras-related party music streaming 24/7 starting at some point this weekend and going until Ash Wednesday. Enjoy.