SUMMERTIME SYNCOPATIONS, Part 1
No big theme this time. School’s out. Summer’s in. So, whether ensconced in air-conditioned confines escaping the steamy, tropical heat, or out late at night seeking a cool breeze off the bayou that might sneak through the foliage, ‘tis yet another season to get loose and groove.
For the next month or so, I’ll be featuring some random. mostly instrumental tracks. Nearly all have some creative syncopation working and are fairly rare, or at least rarely heard. As usual, I’ve got commentary on each, but nothing too deep or heavy; and, of course, you have the option to blissfully ignore all that and just move to the grooves. No final exams or even pop quizzes ever, here at the HOTG Conservatory of Funk.
Let’s kick it with the track that inspired this whole little series.
Gatemouth’s Funky Before Its Time "Summertime"
Gatemouth Brown, Cue 1050, 1964
I first heard this stunner by Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown about a year ago and had to have a copy of my own, which took a while to track down. It’s not really a certifiable New Orleans record; but seems to be Gulf Coast material from the next major seaport West. Still, the horn-heavy instrumentation and intense poly-rhythms sure make me think that, if it wasn’t recorded in the Home of the Groove, it was certainly influenced by it.
In particular, the incredible broken-beat drumming reminds me of the proto-funk Smokey Johnson was putting down in sessions at Cosimo’s back then. As a matter of fact, he just happened to record his classic percussive instrumental, “It Ain’t My Fault”, with Wardell Quezergue for Nola Record that same year.
A multi-instrumentalist, Gate started his professional music career on the drums in the late 1940s, before switching to guitar one fateful night in 1947 when he took over for the ailing T-Bone Walker at a Houston club. His high-octane playing brought the house down; and, as a result, he soon became the first artist signed to Don Robey’s Peacock label. He may not have been the most precise picker working the fretboard; but his playing and arranging were strongly rhythmic, with a drummer's sense of beat manipulation.
In this case, the liberties Gate took with the standard, “Summertime”, made the tune almost all about the groove, an approach that presaged the funk movement to come a few years farther on. But there was even more innovation going on. Listen to the breakdown after the sax solo, where, to augment the Smokey-esque, heavily syncopated drum patterns, he turned his guitar into both a percussive instrument and sound-effects generator, as his reverb-drenched slurs and slides up and down the muted strings induced some freaky, Hendrix-like atmospherics that would have been tagged as psychedelic had they come later in the decade. It’s hard to believe this track is from 1964.
Not a lot of people could have heard this low-profile record. The small Cue label, based in Houston, operated for a few years in the late 1950s, releasing probably less than a dozen singles, before it dropped out of sight, and then briefly resumed operation around 1963-64 and issued a few more, including Gate’s lone contribution. Most likely, his Cue tracks were cut at a Houston studio.
At the time, Gate had been disengaged from Peacock since 1960 and wasn’t doing much recording, as far a I can tell. One wonders what he and Cue’s A&R man, Jimmy Duncan, thought would happen commercially with such a way out of left field take on a Gershwin tune. The odds were long for any kind of pay-off. But, no matter. Whatever the mysterious motivation might have been, instant obscurity was the destiny of this outre novelty cover-tune; but I’m certainly glad they put it out and pressed up enough copies that a few made it through 50 years of neglect into the next century where an aging groover, a relic of the 60s himself, could find one and offer it and the gonzo guitarist some props.
I had the pleasure of seeing Gate play live several times in the 1990s, and interviewed him twice on my old WEVL radio show. He was a great talker with a quick wit and wealth of wisdom. Wish I would have known about this record then and asked about it. I’m sure he would have had a good story to tell.
A Wa-Wa Guitar Man
“Wa-Wa Guitar Man, Part 1” (Senator Jones, Bobby Lacour, David Douglas)
David Douglas, “Hep’ Me” #1, 1970
David Douglas’ seldom seen or heard two-part “Wa-Wa Guitar Man” has at least two distinctions. It was his only known single, and the first release on Senator Jones’ “Hep’ Me” label (soon to lose the quotation marks, but not the apostrophe - or, as it is known in South Louisiana, the comma on top!). Though Jones had several micro-labels before this, and would have various other imprints off and on during the decade, Hep’ Me would become his mainstay.
The traceable part of Douglas’ career in New Orleans music as a guitarist or bass player seems to start with this record. He co-wrote and arranged the tune with another guitarist (and vocalist), Bobby Lacour, who would record some memorable deep soul on Hep’ Me and Great Southern soon thereafter. In her comment on this post, ana-b astutely suggests that Lacour likely sang what passes for lyrics, repeating the title over and over, on the track. Since Douglas was credited as the featured artist, I had just assumed he sang it, as well as playing said wa-wa guitar [Note: For the non-technical, the more commonly spelled “wah-wah” sound is an electronically generated effect applied to a guitar signal, rather than an actual type of guitar]. Listening to other recordings by Lacour from around this time, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt on that, especially since Lacour was also involved in the writing and arrangment.
The identity of the other players remains a mystery to me; but I’ll venture a guess that the session was recorded at Jazz City Studio on Camp Street, formerly operated by Cosimo Matassa, who by this time was bankrupt, having lost his equipment and master tapes to the IRS. The studio kept running somehow as a bare bones operation with Cosimo’s oversight, but his assistant engineer, Skip Godwin, was the nominal owner. The late John Berthelot, who was starting up the Great Southern label at the time and working out of an office at Jazz City, told me in an interview that Senator Jones also recorded there.
[Geek note: Another clue is the 133 prefix of the matrix number on this 45, which was Cosimo’s designation for numerous small client labels he had recorded for over the years (See The Cosimo Code for more details). Given the date, it is an indication that Jazz City was the recording site.]
Neither the song itself or the production quality of this single really provided a great showcase for Douglas. The melody was almost non-existent, and the central riff very rudimentary. The playing seems under-rehearsed, and the recording quality sounds much more like a demo than a finished, radio-ready product. Then again, Jones was never known for meticulous standards in the studio, often going for the quickest and cheapest way out. As a result, “Hep’ Me” #1, was no competition for the Meters, whose hip, funky hits at the time were surely the inspiration for this attempt. Consider it more of a conversation piece than some gem in the rough.
Beyond this obscure footnote in David Douglas’ career, his credits include serving as guitarist on a number of Senator Jones productions later in the 1970s, including sessions for Johnny Adams and Bobby Powell, which would have been done at Sea-Saint. Most notably, Douglas also played bass or guitar in Fats Domino’s road band from early in the decade on into the 1980s (as mentioned in Rick Coleman’s essential biography of Fats, Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘N’ Roll).
In the second part of my 2007 feature on guitarist Teddy Royal, Teddy related the story of how he joined Fats’ touring ensemble in 1979. Roy Montrell recruited him as the bassist (though Teddy didn’t play bass) for an upcoming European tour on which Douglas was to play guitar. During rehearsals, Douglas had trouble getting a guitar part, and Fats had Teddy try it. When he immediately nailed it, Fats summarily made Teddy the guitarist and put Douglas back on the bass.
The most recent credit I have found for Douglas listed him as guitarist on Tommy Ridgley’s 1992 Modern Blues Recordings LP/CD, She Turns Me On.
Tropical Funk Via Shreveport
“Tropical” (Louis Villery)
African Music Machine, Soul Power 111, 1972
I featured this song almost 10 years back, but it was a cut from an LP that re-issued all eight sides of the four singles African Music Machine released on the Soul Power label between 1972 and 1974. I’ve since tracked down all of those 45s. My post at the time was light on information about the eight-member band, as I had only the LP track information and some brief notes from a 1973 piece on them by David Nathan included on the inside cover. But, fortunately two commenters and notes from a later CD compilation have since filled-in at least some of the gaps.
Bass player and bandleader Louis Villery was a session musician at Sound City, a recording studio in Shreveport, LA, where the African Music Machine material was cut. As I learned from Paul Mooney’s excellent notes to the 2007 Soulscape CD, Sound City Soul Brothers, which featured three artists associated with the successor to Soul Power, Alarm Records [subject of a future post], Sound City was started in 1969 by Jerry Strickland and two partners with the help of a group of investors. By 1971, Strickland was recording a number of regional soul singers and needed a viable outlet to release records by some of those artists. So, he set up the Soul Power label with Stan Lewis, who ran Jewel Records, a successful record distributorship in Shreveport that handled a number of independent labels, including three of its own, Jewel, Paula, and Ronn.
During its two years of existence, Soul Power’s main artists were George Perkins (from Baton Rouge), Ms Tommie Young (from Texas), and African Music Machine, who were Shreveport-based. There was also a lone funky soul single (#107) by Shay Holliday, a local female singer [hope to feature that record one of these days]. Villery likely played bass on all the Soul Power singles, which numbered around 14; but, contrary to what David Nathan wrote, none of the other members of African Music Machine were in the studio band, according to Da Clinic, a commenter on my earlier post, and backed-up by Mooney’s CD notes.
Instead, Villery put together AMM with other musicians from the area,, giving each member an African-Muslim type alias, as listed on the LP; but the true identity of about half of them remains unknown, at least to me, because their actual names weren’t included. My friend Art Edmaiston, a sax player who toured with Villery in Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s road band around 2000, said in his comment on my earlier post that the bassist was originally from Tunisia, which explains the African references. Art added that Villery had also been in Bland’s band during the late 1950s and early 1960s. How he came to be in Shreveport, I’m not sure.
Clearly, though, the man was a musical multi-tasker. Not only did he write the six instrumental tunes and collaborate with lyricists on the other two, he produced and arranged the AMM sessions, as well. His tunes, while well put together and played, were somewhat derivative, evoking other funk artists and bands of the day.
For example, “Tropical” sounds influenced by the JB’s (certainly not a bad thing), and positively cooks from the bottom up. Villery’s offbeat bass patterns are juxtaposed with the broken beat drumming of Louis Acorn (Abdul), Osman’s percolating congas, and Jumbo’s primo guitar scratching. Layered on top are some fine horn chart counterpoints, adding melodic lines with their own rhythmic flavor. Tyrone Dotson (Yuseef) and Ete-Ete were on tenor saxes, with Amal on trumpet.
Further credits I have seen indicate that Villery also played and recorded with B. B. King in the later 1970s. As also mentioned by Da Clinic, he released an African Music Machine digital album of new material in 2001 on eMusic, which I grabbed back when it was still available. It is a worthy collection of well-arranged and impressively played funk instrumentals with overtones of jazz, African, and Caribbean influences. We can only hope there will be more.
Eight Minutes In The Middle Of The Road
“Middle Of The Road” (The Meters)
The Meters, from Fire On the Bayou, Repirse, 1975
Of course we all know, or should know, the Meters as the definitive New Orleans funk outfit. After coming together as Art Neville and the Neville Sounds in the mid-1960s, they served as house band for Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s Tou-Sea Productions/Sansu Enterprises starting in 1968. Toussaint soon began recording their unique, funky instrumental jams, and Sehorn placed them with Josie Records in New York which released the tracks on singles and albums under the band’s newly chosen name, the Meters. They had a few well-deserved hits; but Josie went out of business within a few years. Sehorn then got them signed with Warner Brothers/Reprise which released five impressive, influential albums in as many years; but the corporate overlords gave them little promotional push, causing weak commercial results. The association came apart at the seams due to prolonged band in-fighting and lack of financial rewards; and, by 1978, founder Art Neville and his brother, Cyril, left the band, who regrouped, enlisting Willie West as lead singer, but did not last too much longer.
Guitarist Leo Nocentelli was never content just to pursue funk and continually pushed the envelope with his rock/fusion proclivities as the decade progressed. But whether or not he longed to be a rock guitar god doesn’t concern me here, because, on this one lengthy track, Leo displayed a whole other side to his talent: a tasteful, masterful jazzman who led the band down a different musical path, at least for 7 minutes and 57 seconds.
They never cut anything like it before or after they dropped “Middle Of the Road” smack in the midst of their third LP, Fire On the Bayou, a collection of intensely funky songs and some good-natured New Orleans R&B. I love the atmospherics of this tune, the open-ended. languid feeling of a long, humid summer evening, interspersed with flurries of soloing.
Though everyone got the feel just right, the stage belonged to Leo on this one; and, while the writing credit was given to the group, I suspect this is essentially his composition. The tone of his guitar was less bright than usual, shifted down to the more sonorous midrange, which served to make his jazzy fretwork more expressive, as he alternated between sliding, melodic Wes Montgomery-like double-string octaves, and inventive, intricate runs.
They certainly held their own on this one-shot sojourn; but despite the song title, it was definitely not middle of the road music. Calling it that must have been an ironic in-joke. Had they played more of such stuff, it probably would not have taken them any closer to mainstream listeners than their usual brand of deep funk did. Anyway, they didn't try to find out.
The smoother part of the road has its charms; but the riskier route moves over the bumps and breaks closer to the edge, where frames shimmy and bottom-ends shake in surprising and exciting ways - and, being from the New Orleans streets, that’s how they chose to roll.
But this captivating side excursion is there to be taken and definitely worth the ride.
Sons Of Sam Punctuate The Funk
“S.A.M.” (Sam Bros.)
Sam Bros. 5, from self-titled Arhoolie LP 1081, 1979
In funk, sometimes a great groove is enough. You don’t even need a lead instrument or complicated vocals. You just jam on it, get down. . .and do a little spelling.
When this album came out, the five teenaged sons of Herbert “Good Rockin’” Sam, an old-school zydeco player, had already been performing as Sam Bros. 5 for about five years. Based in Scott, LA, right outside Lafayette, they played mainly uptempo zydeco in the tradition of the great Clifton Chenier, plus the occasional slammin’ funk groove, as heard here, while gigging around the Gulf Coast region and as far away as California, where Chris Strachwitz recorded them and released their first LP on his legendary Arhoolie label in 1979.
Since the high-powered “S.A.M.” was not a part of their regular zydeco repertoire, accordionist Leon Sam switched over to organ on the tune; and the cheesy sound of the keyboard contributed to the song’s garage-like, raw edge. But, to me, the standout player on the track was Carl Sam on guitar, whose relentlessly rhythmic chord comping (which probably owes something to Nile Rodgers) drove the groove, taking everyone else along for the joy ride, and making for a cowbell player’s paradise [look out, Will Ferrell]. It’s no wonder serious funk fans and collectors seek this tune out, which has made the LP harder to find and often expensive these days.
As the Sam Brothers, they recorded another album, Cruisin’, closer to home in 1981 for the Blues Unlimited label out of Crowley, LA. It had another funky, non-zydeco dance groove on it, “J.A.M.”, which also appeared on a 45 (#2026). Many groove-hounds obsess over that tune, too; but I don't think it measures up to “S.A.M.” Their next long player, Zydeco Brotherhood, on which they were Sam Bros. 5 again, did not appear until 1989, issued on the Maison de Soul label. The band broke up in the mid-1990s, probably due to increased competition from the many new zydeco bands on the scene
Leon Sam then moved to Houston and joined an existing zydeco group as front man, staying with them until early this century. Attempts to revive his family band were not successful; and it appears that none of the brothers are active on the music scene at this point. But their name lives on, spelled out with funky punctuation on this stand-out, anomalous track from their musical youth.