October 21, 2004

Toussaint Twofer

"Action Time" (Ellison-Batts-Hendrix)
from Phoenix, Labelle, Epic Records, 1975

Allen Toussaint's contributions to New Orleans music over his 40+ year career as a musician, songwriter, arranger, producer, performer, and studio-owner cannot be praised enough. By the early 1970's, he was signed as an artist to Warner Brothers/Reprise, producing the Meters (his studio band) for the label, having numerous hip artist of the day cover his material, and beginning a decade of well-respected work as a sought-after producer for rock, pop and soul artists, many of whom recorded at Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans, which was owned by Allen and his business partner, Marshall Sehorn. Learn more about this man and his work, if you are unfamiliar. Books could and should be written on his amazing career.

We start off today's offerings with Labelle's "Action Time" from their 1975 vintage album, Phoenix, which, surprisingly to me, has not been reissued on CD. The record was produced by Mr. Toussaint at Sea-Saint (which, by the way, he sold several years ago). The sessions are full of the city's finest musical notables: James Booker (organ), Herman Ernest, III (drums), George Porter, Jr (bass), Leo Nocentelli (guitar), Teddy Royal (guitar), Toussaint (keyboards), as well as a host of others. This was Toussaint's second production go-round for the group, having arranged and directed their fourth and most successful LP from 1974, Nightbirds, containing the #1 hit, "Lady Marmalade". While he didn't write the tune, his killer arrangement and use of the best and funkiest local musicians made it an indelible hallmark of the era and puts to shame the Moulin Rogue cover from a few years ago. That song pushed Labelle's popularity to the top.

Everything about Labelle (Patti Labelle, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendrix) by then was over the top, from their "aliens landed in our hair-do's and dressed us for Mardi Gras" appearance, leaving plenty of exposed skin, to their rhythmic, athletic stage shows and swooping, whooping, nearly supersonic vocal delivery. If I remember correctly, Patti Labelle implied in an interview back in the day that no performance was complete for them until they literally reached a climax. The way Patti and the girls could hit those highs while doing the syncopated wild thing dance, I doubt that they faked their orgasms. So, where else would a brash, soulful, funky vocal group want to try to capture some of that fire but in the Home of the Groove. "Lady Marmalade" put them on the big hit map; and they came back to Toussaint to see if they could do it again, which, sad to say, they could not. But they made a good record that got up to #10 on the R&B album charts.

"Action Time" was written by group member Nona Hendrix along with Edward Batts and James Ellison, who played guitar and keyboards respectively for Labelle. The arrangement is a great example of what Toussaint could do, making a song with rather inconsequential lyrics percolate and groove insistently. I'll hazard a guess that Booker is on organ here, Toussaint on piano, Nocentelli on wah-wah guitar; and probably Carmine Rojas is on bass (it just doesn't sound like GP, Jr.). It's no "Lady Marmalade", but it still grooves quite nicely, thank you.


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