January 30, 2006

Irma and Eddie Get It Right

Queen Irma

As you may have noticed, I don’t post many ballads here. Not my speed, most of the time. I made an exception with Irma Thomas’ “Wish Someone Would Care” right after New Orleans went under; and I’m making another. Since February is her birth month, and she just received a lifetime achievement award from OffBeat, I’ll be putting up several seldom heard recordings of her in weeks to come, starting with

"I May Be Wrong" (Allen - Johnson)
Irma Thomas, Ron 330, 1960

Then again. . .

By now, I hope most of you HOTG regulars know of Irma’s early 1960’s Minit recordings with Allen Toussaint in charge. In just a couple of years, she made classic, as yet untouched versions of some of his songs. But what many people don’t know is that prior to signing with Minit, Irma made two singles for Ron Records in New Orleans with the arranging, production, and, in this case, writing handled by Eddie Bo, who was making his own records on the Ric subsidiary at the time.

Thomas had auditioned for Minit’s owners at the start of 1960; and, though interested, they did not sign her. So, Tommy Ridgley, who had given Irma her first break by hiring her to sing with his band, introduced her to Joe Ruffino, owner of the Ric and Ron labels. As luck would have it, he was looking for a good female lead to do a new song by local writer Dorothy Labostrie, “Don’t Mess With My Man”, and quickly signed the 19 year old Thomas to the Ron label and had her record the tune. First a local hit, the song on that first single made national noise, and almost broke into the top twenty on the R&B chart. It’s success allowed Thomas to do some touring. In the summer of 1960, she recorded “A Good Man”, which she co-wrote with Bo in an attempt to recreate the feel of the previous hit, and another Bo composition, “I May Be Wrong”. Those sides became her final Ron single. When it did not get any traction, Minit’s Joe Banashak managed to get her to sign with him and start working with his talented young A&R dynamo by the name of Toussaint.

“I May Be Wrong” is a nicely written and arranged effort by Bo that Irma takes on with a confidence and strength that belie her young age. Her voice doesn’t yet have the deep resonance it has steadily gained as she has matured; but it reveals to the listener that this is a singer to be reckoned with. She fulfilled that early promise in spades on subsequent recordings for Minit, Imperial, Chess, Fungus, Canyon, and Rounder, among others. If you haven’t yet fully explored
her available catalog, I encourage you to grab what you can and see for yourself why they call her The Soul Queen Of New Orleans.

Note: The more attentive might question why I attribute the songwriting here to Bo, when the record label says “Allen-Johnson”. Well, the Johnson is Delores Johnson, Eddie’s wife at the time, whose name he used on quite a few of his compositions over the years, either to please her, evade the IRS, or both. The Allen is Bill “Hoss” Allen, popular and influential R&B DJ in those days at the powerful clear-channel radio station in Nashville,
WLAC. Many label owners and/or writers tried to curry favor for their records by giving Allen part of the publishing or songwriting credit (thus, royalties, if any). That’s one way the music bidniz worked its magic back then. Today it’s offering trips, laptops and lap dances. . . .

January 29, 2006

Holy Moly! More Lagniappe

photo by Herb Greene

If you read the comments in the “Blinded By Love” post, you’ll recall that DJ Lou Kash offered up another version of that song by Sam & Dave for us to hear. As the thread went on, he mentioned another favorite Toussaint-penned track, the Pointer Sisters’ workout on the nearly eight minute album cut, “Going Down Slowly”. When I said I’d likely never post it due to the bandwidth involved, DJ Lou up and offered to host it himself, if I’d do a piece on it. So, with gratitude and props to the Czech from Switzerland for the link, session info, and enthusiasm, here ‘tis.

"Going Down Slowly" (Allen Toussaint)
The Pointer Sisters, from Steppin', Blue Thumb, 1975

Totally down. Again, thanks to Lou Kash for carrying the audio load on this one. . .

The Pointer Sisters (Anita, Bonnie, Jean and Ruth) got on the charts with Allen Toussaint songs at three different points in their career. But the first time generated the biggest hit, when “Yes We Can Can” (originally done by Lee Dorsey as “Yes We Can” in 1970) rose to #1 on the pop chart in 1973 and helped make their eponymous debut album go gold. Our feature today, “Going Down Slowly” (originally recorded by Toussaint himself on Life, Love and Faith as “Goin’ Down” in 1972), comes from Steppin', their fourth album. The song (substantially edited for the single) made a respectable showing on the R&B chart in 1975. In 1978, Toussaint’s “Happiness”, which he had released on his own Motion LP that year, was another chart success for the group, who were by then a trio.

Produced by David Rubinson, who gave the sisters their first break in the business and oversaw all of their Blue Thumb albums, “Going Down Slowly” takes its time building, but becomes a powerhouse of pre-disco dance-funk energy in its final half. As DJ Lou Kash comments on the arrangement by keyboardist Tom Salisbury, “There's the contrast of the words 'going down slowly' while the band actually keeps on getting faster and LOUDER. And when they sort of realize that they can't get any "higher" and faster, then they FINALLY slow down and bring the song to an end. That's a pure genius!” The dynamics of the song and its variety of instrumental riffs and rhythms certainly make for a memorable production worthy of Toussaint. Particularly notable in the fist half are Eugene Santini’s hip bass lines and Wah Wah Watson’s wahka-wahka guitar. After the song modulates to a higher key about mid-song, the intensity starts kicking in, with Gaylord Birch’s drums becoming more driven and complex, compelling all involved to dig in and burn. Ruth’s lead vocal with her sisters’ back-up rises to meet the challenge, starting strong and soulful, then ramping it to a full tilt rave-up by the climax.

As I’ve said before, I've collected many cover versions of Toussaint tunes; and there are many good ones and some great ones out there. I could almost do a blog based on those. Certainly, the Pointer Sisters’ hit rendition here is monumental in more than just length (I’m sure it seems shorter on the dance floor!).
Last June, I also featured Claudia Lennear’s fine version of “Goin’ Down”. Still, I find the writer’s own recording on that first album for Warner Brothers to be the funkiest, most understated take I know; and that makes it, to these old ears, at least, the most effective. I'll have to pull that out one of these days. . . .

January 26, 2006

No Mean Feat

"Mean Mistreater" (Huey P. Smith)
Lee Bates, Instant 3313, 1972

I mean it

I found this single along with another by Lee Bates (Obie Leroy Bates) within the past month in some bins at a reasonable price and grabbed ‘em, as I had nothing by him on vinyl, just a few sides on CD comps. Bates, Mississippi-born and New Orleans-raised, is a rather minor figure in the annals of New Orleans soul whose unschooled vocal style owes much to the great Otis Redding; but you can also occasionally hear the influence of his former boss, Chris Kenner, too.

In the early 1960's, Bates, a fomer dockworker, was Kenner's valet, driver and general caretaker, as the successful singer/songwriter was a profligate drunk. While on the road with Kenner, Bates got a chance to start singing and was soon regularly opening the shows. In 1964, Bates recorded a demo to present to studio and label owner,
Cosimo Matassa, who liked what he heard and did a session with Bates. The resuling single, “Bad, Bad Understanding” b/w “I’m Forever Crying” was released on White Cliffs, but was not successful, although it did help Bates to start getting gigs of his own. He doesn’t seem to have recorded again until the early 1970’s, when Kenner recommended him to Instant. Over the course of the next five years or so, Bates had at least eight singles released on the label, until it finally went under in 1977. Subsequently, he led a band that regularly worked on Bourbon Street during the 1980’s, and released a solo CD about eight years ago.

“Mean Mistreater” b/w “I Do Things Come Naturally” was Lee Bates’ fourth Instant single. His Otis Redding affinity is evident here in his very strong, soulful vocal. Written and produced by
Huey Smith, the simple, fairly straight-ahead arrangement has a groove more reminiscent of Stax than New Orleans; but, still, it's got great in-the-pocket drumming with brief hi-hat syncopations at the start of every bar (is there a name for that, drummers?), an effective bass line, tasty guitar chops, and understated horns.

The other Bates single I bought, his first on Instant, is a much funkier outing with a reworking of “Bad, Bad Understanding” and a novelty dance tune, “Simon Says”. I’ll try to lay one of those on you later. But, for now, I think today’s feature is a fine introduction to what Lee Bates could do.

January 23, 2006

Hey La Hey

"Fire Water" (The Wild Magnolias/Wilson Turbinton)
Wild Magnolias, Treehouse 801, 1975
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

As my wife reminded me earlier today, it’s time for another Mardi Gras post. Of course, I already had this cut picked out; but she didn’t know that. She just felt it. It’s a Louisiana thang.

“(Big Chief Like Plenty Of) Fire Water” was recorded at Studio In The Country in Bogalusa, LA in 1975 for the
Wild Magnolias’ second LP, They Call Us Wild. As the first LP, it was produced by Philippe Rault, and issued on the Barclay label in France. What? You expected something this hip to appear on a domestic label? Probably through the auspices of Quint (Cosmic Q) Davis, who had helped bring the Wild Mags and Willie Tee together in 1970, a single from these sessions was released locally on the one-off Treehouse label, with this track as the flip side of “New Suit”, which I featured a year back, on January 7, 2005. You can read more background on that post.

Taking a traditional Mardi Gras Indian song from the Wild Magnolias’ repertoire, arranger, keyboardist, and bandleader Willie Tee (Wilson Turbinton) created the groovin’, bottom-heavy funk bed for “Fire Water” with his fine band: Erving Charles on bass, Larry Pana on drums, Alfred ‘Uganda’ Roberts on congas, and Lewis Clark (a/k/a Guitar June?) on guitar. Singing lead is
Big Chief Theodore Emile ‘Bo’ Dollis, backed by Monk Boudreaux and other members of the WM. As noted, Turbinton had been collaborating with the group since sharing a bill with them at Tulane University five years earlier, arranging, writing and providing backing for them on their first single, “Handa Wanda”, in late 1970, and on the Wild Magnolias album in 1974.

This merging of the Indian maskers’ arts with the emergent funk music of the times created a compelling hybrid that gave Mardi Gras Indians international exposure and made the Wild Magnolias a cultural crossover phenomenon at home. With the popularity of the group, which continues to this day, and the subsequent 1976 recording of the Wild Tchoupitoulas with the Nevilles and Meters backing them up, the Indians, once secretive and virtually unknown outside their own neighborhoods, came to be acknowledged as a vital part of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

It remains to be seen if the Indian traditions and culture can survive with so many of the neighborhoods, from which they sprang and in which they endured, abandoned and in ruins. In Carnival season 2006, I, for one, hear this valuable, endangered music with new ears. It’s going to take a lot of fire water to forget all the lake water; but, over hundreds of years, New Orleans has somehow defiantly survived, and will again, its numerous natural and man-made disasters. The key lies in the will of its people to discover creative ways of celebrating the constant miracle of life on the brink, precariously situated, as usual, somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Big Chief Bo (left) in concert off-season

***NOTE: I neglected to mention an affordable CD compilation, Mardi Gras In New Orleans, that has "Fire Water", "New Suit", and both sides of the Wild Magnolias' first single, plus other cool Mardi Gras classics. Those out of print CD reissues of the WM albums from the 1970's are very high priced these days (see Comments), as are the LPs, of course.

Best of the Beat. . . and the streets

Toussaint raps

Having been to several of Offbeat’s Best of the Beat award shows pre-Katrina, I feel that this past Saturday's topped them in terms of the quality of the performances and presentation. Not able to gather, due to the evacuation, category votes for members of the music community deserving awards, the publishers and editors of the magazine decided to have their annual show/party anyway to celebrate the renewal-in-progress of New Orleans and honor a number of deserving people for their contributions to New Orleans music culture. As I have mentioned, Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas were included in that number, receiving lifetime achievement awards, along with singer, entertainer and educator, Wanda Rouzan, and business owners (GHB Records and Palm Court Jazz Café) George and Nina Buck. 'Uncle' Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band got the Hearbeat Awards for his talent, good-time spirit and elegant style.

The esteemed Mr. Toussaint got off the most memorable line, saying about his work ethic, “Some folks get up in the morning and build cabinets. I get up in the morning and write songs.” Simple and understated, as usual. Irma Thomas said she was glad to be receiving her award along with Toussaint with whom she recorded many of her classic songs, penned, of course, by him. She said, too, that she would be returning to New Orleans. Also presented was a tribute to Stevenson Palfi, who made many fine documentaries, including the classic Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, featuring Professor Longhair, ‘Tuts’ Washington, and Allen Toussaint. Palfi took his own life several months after the devastation of his home and city and is considered one of the many tragic storm casualties.

While the House Of Blues venue has never been my favorite by any means, the show made good use of it, having acts on the downstairs main stage alternating with the upstairs Parish stage. Over fifteen acts performed short sets during the course of the night; and, though I did not catch them all, I’ll can attest that those I saw played like it meant something and had serious fun onstage, no phoned-in lollygagging that night. I’d say the best sets were Papa Grows Funk, who were joined in their rock and jazz tinged funk by notable guests: guitarist Renard Poche, saxman Tim Green, and singer/guitarist Anders Osborne. I also particularly liked the New Orleans Jazz Vipers set of hot club style jazz/swing. I even enjoyed a small dose of Mr. Quintron’s organ and diabolic beat machine making lounge music a go-go from some alternate universe; and my vote for funniest lyrics of the night (and humor is needed, people) goes to the ever-self-absorbed Davis Rogan.

Prior to the show, I saw Elliot Small performing on the street by Cafe Du Monde and got to see the subdudes do an in-store performance at the LouisianaMusic Factory, right across the street from the HOB. As, always, these guys give roots rock a great name and still have that Band-like down home, inspirational feel. They did mostly tunes from their new CD, Behind the Levee. After the Best of The Beat, I limped (5 hours on my feet at that point) across the Quarter to Frenchmen Street to catch part of a Bonerama set at d.b.a. before calling it a night. The attendance was very good everywhere I went or passed by. There may be a lot fewer places to live; but the places to party and hear some outstanding music are definitely filling up again in the Home of the Groove.

the 'dudes

I’ll have a music post up later. Stay tuned.

January 19, 2006

Far Enough. . .For Now

"Gone Too Far" (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, from Life, Love and Faith, Reprise, 1972

The line has been crossed

Just one more Toussaint cut, before we move on to other things. I mean, if I continued, HOTG could turn into Home of Toussaint Grooves. But, really, how many times does a New Orleans music legend lose his home, escape to New York, play gigs, get lionized by the media and rediscovered by music fans, turn 68, start making a record with Elvis Costello, and get a lifetime achievement award, all in five months? I’ve got plenty more evidence of the Toussaint touch socked away for other days, so, for now, this is a far as we go.

“Gone Too Far” is from the1972 Life, Love And Faith album on Reprise. Toussaint wrote, arranged, produced and sang every song, and played piano, acoustic guitar (that’s likely him on the slightly out of tune, but somehow charming, lead on this track) and harmonica. It was his solo debut for the Warner Brothers group; but he was already working for them, producing the newly signed Meters on their Cabbage Alley LP. As discussed earlier in our series, his 1970 Toussaint album suffered somewhat for not having the hometown vibe and his main session men on it; but three of the Meters are among the players* appearing on Life, Love And Faith, recorded at Jazz City Studio in New Orleans, giving it far more groove power than its predecessor.

I am sure Allen Toussaint would be the first to tell you that he is not a funk musician. For this arranger, composer, and performer, broken beats, hesitation and percussive counterpoints are simply some of his many expressive tools. He goes to them naturally and easily at times; but they don’t permeate all of his music. And often, the syncopation he comes up with is artfully, but oddly, constructed, rather than a spontaneous linear flow (“Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Working In the Coal Mine” come to mind). It’s as if he had a drum machine in his head (before they were in common use, boys and girls) on which he programmed the patterns for his studio drummers to play. As I have noted earlier, members of Meters, as well as other session players have attested to the lack of improvisation in Toussaint’s shop, at least on his own material; and several drummers weren’t entirely comfortable with it. I think that regimented playing may be why Zig Modeliste stopped doing his sessions – that and money issues. . .and paranoia. Anyway, you can hear that orchestrated concept at work, too, in “Gone To Far”. To produce great grooves with such tight artistic control is quite a feat; and more times than not, Toussaint and his fine assemblage do the trick.

In the 1990’s, I got a Japanese CD reissue of Life, Love and Faith to supplement my worn old LP. And it has sadly never had a domestic CD release on it’s own. But in 2003, Rhino’s Handmade division included it on their re-mastered, high class, limited edition (2,500), two CD set,
allen toussaint: the complete warner recordings, which also contained his other two WB albums, Southern Nights and Motion, plus a previously unissued 1975 concert recording. If you missed this, it is now out of print; so copies will be pricey. But take out a second mortgage, or send the kids to a public school next year, and buy one, it is simply an essential collection.

*The other players on Life, Love and Faith were
Vincent Toussaint, Leo Nocentelli, George Plummer, guitar
George Porter, Walter Payton, bass
Joseph Modeliste, Joe Lambert, drums
Alfred Roberts, Squirrel (a/k/a Cyril Neville), conga
Clyde Kerr, Francis Rousselle, trumpet
Gary Brown, Alvin Thomas, tenor sax
Red Tyler, baritone sax

January 18, 2006

Toussaint In The News, On The Air

Mr. Toussaint continues to get good, well-deserved press and segments on NPR and American Routes. If you have not already seen it, the Times-Picayune has a great article on his collaboration on Elvis Costello's new album in progress, which will feature mostly Toussaint tunes hand-picked by Costello for quality and relative obscurity (to those who don't partake of HOTG, anyway). You can read about it here.

Even though the only New Orleans players on it will be Toussaint and a great horn line-up, I can't wait to hear that project, as Costello wants to keep the arrangements of the covers close to the originals.

January 17, 2006

Toussaint Gets Winterized

"Blinded By Love" (Allen Toussaint)
Johnny Winter, from Saints & Sinners, Columbia, 1974

The smurf has left the building

My wife and I were driving to New Orleans this past weekend in her car; and, when the radio got too bad to listen to – pretty quickly – she rummaged around and popped in a tape (still got a cassette player in that ride) that brought immediate bliss. There was Betty Harris singing “Ride Your Pony”, then Aaron Neville doing “Let’s Live” ("man, what a cool mix tape my girl made", I thought), and then there’s. . .me. . . back-announcing the tunes. I realized she had recorded one of my Allen Toussaint birthday radio specials on WEVL FM in Memphis, where I would annually feature only songs he had written. I didn't know she'd done it but am glad she did and played it, because hearing it reminded me of several cover versions of his songs I had forgotten about. “Blinded By Love” is one of ‘em.

One of my fellow dj’s at WEVL, Lonnie, gave me the heads up on this song several years back. I’ve never been that much of a
Johnny Winter fan; but he does have a place here at HOTG for being a Gulf Coast born and bred artist (along with his brother, Edgar, who plays keyboards on this track) from Beaumont, Texas, and for taking on this Toussaint tune, certainly the most adventurous selection on his 1974 Saints & Sinners album. Despite the schlock 1970’s over-processed production quality courtesy of Rick Derringer, (who also plays rhythm guitar here) there is a good performance of the song lurking behind several layers of sonic shellac. As with many of Toussaint’s compositions, “Blinded By Love” has plenty of intricate counterpoint and poly-rhythm going on among the instruments and the vocal. For a blues and R&B influenced rock act to carry this off so well is al tribute to all concerned.

As far as I know, this song has never been covered by another artist or been recorded by the writer himself. Please let me know if there is another version out there. Of all the live Toussaint performances I’ve seen, I don’t recall him doing this one either – and he often will play some of his various originals recorded by others. “Blinded By Love” certainly works in the soul/rock treatment dished up by Winter and Derringer; but I’ve got to wonder how Toussaint envisioned it and what it would sound like in his hands with hometown players. I think the reason he went so far as an in-demand songwriter and producer has to do with the quality of his compositions, using elements of his hometown roots uniquely mixed in with other diverse influences he picked up along the way to make music that adapted well to pop, soul, blues, rock, and even reggae performers. Allen Toussaint deserves that
Offbeat lifetime achievement award. As I have been doing from the start, I will feature more diverse covers of his tunes and his various production projects on down the line.

***Thanks to DJ Lou Kash for hipping me (us) in the comments to this post about Sam & Dave's cover of "Blinded By Love" that appeared on their Back At 'Cha LP in the mid-1970's (and on a single) with production by Steve Cropper. Kash even has a short-term link to the audio. That's what I'm talkin' about. Those who found the Winter version either too schlocky or rocky or just plain dismal should check the S&D out; although, to me, it still needs that Toussaint touch. As I note in the comments, a quick check for information on this record showed me that Toussaint's "Shoo Rah" (at least, I assume it's his) is also on it, as well as the song, "Give It What You Can", written by Cropper and several other Memphis musicians, which was later covered by the Meters on their swan song LP, New Directions. Thanks to all for the feedback.

January 13, 2006

Meditating On Two Birthdays

"Freedom For The Stallion" (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, live, 4/9/1976

Think about it

As I mentioned earlier, Allen Toussaint turns 68 this Saturday, the 14th; and I hope he has a great day and fine new year. After having lost his home when the levee broke, he needs them. I’ve picked this live performance of one of his songs for the weekend, since it ties in with the spirit of Martin Luther King Day, as well.

“Freedom For The Stallion”, was first recorded by Lee Dorsey on a Polydor single Toussaint produced around 1970. In 1972, Three Dog Night covered it on one of their albums (and the B-side of a single), as did the Hues Corporation in 1973; and Gladys Knight included it in a medley with Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” (nice choice) on a 1978 Buddah single. But I have gone to the man himself for our feature: Toussaint backed by Chocolate Milk on the riverboat President in New Orleans, April 9, 1976. Five songs from this concert appeared on the Island LP New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 1976 (later re-issued on CD by Rhino), as the show was part of Jazzfest.

Although Toussaint during his career has had to overcome, if not actual stage fright, reluctance and uncertainty about being in the spotlight, his performance of this well-wrought, meaningful song aptly demonstrates how superbly he can exceed his own expectations. In fact, in all the times I’ve seen him perform live, he has never turned in less than a charming and engaging performance. No, his voice is not quite top of the line; but it gets the job done. And on this particular number, it is full of sanctified soul and power. Plus, for me, there’s always a kick hearing a song performed by it’s writer; and this is especially true when it’s Toussaint.

There would be no way to pick one song to represent this versatile, prolific composer’s entire body of work. So, I just went with this profound musical meditation, because I think it reveals something about the man. It’s a hymn, really; and the way he talks to God, you’ve got to think that Rev. King would have found it worthy, had he heard it. Anyway, it speaks to me, and I hope to you, too. We're all still trying to find a way. Peace.

January 11, 2006

Every now and then I like to point you to other posts of New Olreans music I find. Hey, I can't post everything, as you may have noticed.

Our hard bloggin' friend, AK, over at Soul Shower has two nice posts up now with tracks by Huey Smith and the Clowns, featuring Gerri Hall, and and by the Barons, about as obscure a New Orleans vocal group as you could want. Check 'em while they're hot.

By the way, I enourage all mp3 bloggers to post more New Orleans music. The city needs the attention. The tunes need to be heard. And I need less pressure! Peace.

January 10, 2006

Toussaint and Labelle Take It Higher

"Don't Bring Me Down" (Allen Toussaint)
Labelle, from Nightbirds, Epic, 1974

Sorry to take it down. . .

By 1974, Allen Toussaint was in the early stages of producing outside acts - not from New Orleans and not tied to Sansu Productions that he ran with Marshall Sehorn – at the partners’ newly-built Sea-Saint Studios. Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash, whose vocal group was re-christened Labelle at the start of the 1970’s, came there to work with Toussaint on their Epic album, Nightbirds, their first for the label. Having had three good, but less than successful, prior LPs on other labels, attempting to blend soul and rock, Labelle found the right producer, the right place, and the right sound and material to give them a funked-up jump start to stardom. Commercial success is usually not the story this blog has to tell; but I thought I’d consider a cut from this album, since it put Toussaint over the top, too, marking him as a go-to producer for the remainder of the 1970’s.

Let me apologize for not having the liner notes for this LP, which is in boxed up in storage due to a shortage of space at my place. I don’t even remember how much information it contains; but, as I recall, most, if not all, of the Meters, others from Toussaint’s fine stable of sidemen, plus members of the Labelle band, too, played the sessions. “Don’t Bring Me Down” is one of only two Toussaint compositions on the record, and is certainly the most basic production, with a simple but quirky drum pattern and a primal, repetitive groove and melody for the girls to wail on. It’s hard to classify this as anything other than pure Toussaint pop/funk, recalling the kind of things he had done for Lee Dorsey. Though certainly not his best work, it’s an unusual little piece worth hearing. His other contribution, "All Girl Band", while well put together, just sounds generic and insipid to me, as if the composer were on auto-pilot.

Of course, the first class ticket to the big time for Labelle on this album, the most successful of all of their singles, was “Lady Marmalade”, which, as I am sure you know, Toussaint did not write. His classic arrangement and production of the Bob Crewe/Kenny Nolan song about New Orleans ladies of the night realized it’s full, funky, strutting potential; and Labelle totally vamped it up, threw it down, and brought it to climax. You can still hear this one on oldies radio; and I often have to stop what I am doing and crank it up when it comes on. It’s truly a masterpiece of pop/funk/soul fusion that, to my mind, remains untouched, making cover versions superfluous, even Irma Thomas’s live version. One of the other album highlights is the equally well-arranged, played and performed funky workout, “What Can I Do For You?”, written by James Ellison and Ed Batts from Labelle’s band.

While “Lady Marmalade” and Nightbirds did very well, the follow-up album, Phoenix, which I think is pretty damn good, also produced by Toussaint in New Orleans, didn’t generate any significant hits and is almost forgotten today. After a few more years, Labelle broke up for solo careers, with Patti Labelle having the most success with her truly amazing vocal prowess. Toussaint worked with her again on Released in 1980. Nightbirds had a bare-bones CD re-issue (no notes) in the early 1990’s; but Phoenix has never been re-issued, as far as I can tell (
I wrote about that one on 10/21/2004). Both albums, while not perfect, are worth seeking out for the compelling conjunction of Toussaint, New Orleans, and Labelle captured in those grooves.

January 05, 2006

A Golden Crown For Twelfth Night

"Big Chief Got A Golden Crown" (George Landry)
Wild Tchoupitoulas, Island 054, 1976

Mardi Gras' comin' and it won't be long. . . .

January 6th, Twelfth Night, aka The Epiphany, is the traditional start to the festive Carnival season, which ends, of course, with the big celebration on Mardi Gras, after which Lent begins. So, I thought I'd do my part here to get in the spirit at HOTG by pulling out this well-played Wild Tchoupitoulas side, the flip of "Meet Me (The) Boys On The Battle Front", taken from the classic album, The Wild Tchoupitoulas. I've reworked this piece from my post on the album from last year.

Even though this 1976 collaboration between
the Meters, the Neville brothers (Art, Charles, Cyril and Aaron), and the Wild Tchoupitoulas came out after the Wild Magnolias' two earlier groundbreaking albums, which combined Mardi Gras Indian music with New Orleans funk, The Wild Tchoupitoulas became much more well-known, mainly because of the musicians playing on it. Allen Toussaint and his long-time business partner, Marshall Sehorn, are credited as producers, since they supplied Sea-Saint Studio for recording and made the deal with Island Records; but, Art Neville and his brother, Charles, put together the sessions and arranged the tunes. Of course, Art and other brother Cyril Neville were in the Meters at the time, as the Neville Brothers band had yet to form. In reality, this was the first time all the brothers had ever recorded together. Making this album together planted the seed that grew into their own band after the Meters fell apart.

“Big Chief Got A Golden Crown” features on lead vocal George Landry, aka Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas from Uptown New Orleans, who was the Neville brothers’ uncle and a big inspiration to them. Most of the tracks are his compositions, based on traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs and featuring their often cryptic chants combining words from various languages of their heritage. With a groove that’s guaranteed to make you move, our feature goes back to the days when African-American groups masking as Indians actually did injury-causing battle with each other as they’d meet on the streets Mardi Gras day. By the 1950’s, those conflicts had become ritualized competitions between “tribes” to see who could make and display the most elaborate, beautiful suits (costumes). But, in their songs you will still hear references to “gangs”, “the battleground”, “won't bow down”, “get the hell out the way”, and other confrontational subject matter. A culturally vital, but unofficial, part of Mardi Gras in the streets of their neighborhoods, the Mardi Gras Indians, once considered troublemakers by the police (and some frightened residents), continually encountered resistance from authorities to their parading and the large crowds that gathered to watch them work their magic. Now, in post-diluvian New Orlenas, this tradition may die out, as its neighborhoods have been destroyed.

Musical backing on the record is provided by the Meters along with the Nevilles, plus Teddy Royal doing some additional guitar. Big Chief Jolly does most of the singing, with Cyril taking his song, "Brother John"; and the ensemble vocals include the brothers, Willie Harper, plus the actual members of the chief's tribe. The arrangements and grooves are funky but lighter than what Willie Tee did for the Wild Magnolias, lending a unique character to the project, colored by Africa and the Caribbean, that resonates with New Orleans cultural history.
The Wild Tchoupitoulas on CD is fairly easy to find, and really should be in any self-respecting New Orleans funk collection.

Mardi Gras Indian Tradition (lots of typos, but still OK)
More on Indian culture

Wild Tchoupitoulas, Uptown Rulers, 13th Ward

January 03, 2006

A Toussaint Two-fer

Offbeat, which, despite the shaky state of things and the loss of most of their staff, continues to publish in New Orleans, will honor Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas for lifetime achievements in music at the annual Best of the Beat awards show on January 21st at the French Quarter House of Blues. These artists, who did important work together early in their careers, are certainly deserving of praise for all they have added to the musical legacy of their hometown, as well as for the important work they continue to do to keep hope alive for the return of the music community there. For the first few weeks, at least, of Toussaint’s birth month, I thought I would feature some more music he has been involved in over the years. He is often a HOTG subject of interest for good reason; so, feel free to go back into the archives or hit the links and find out more. A little farther down the road, I’ll gather up some additional Irma magic to spread, too. But, right now, we’ll start 2006 off with two from Toussaint, who turns 68 on the 14th.

"Chico" (Allen Toussaint)
'Al Tousan', Seville 103, 1960

I think he left with Harpo

In early 1958, Allen Toussaint turned 20 and got the opportunity to record an album’s worth of original instrumentals (co-written with saxophonist Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler) that was released as The Wild Sounds of New Orleans by Tousan on RCA. While not commercially successful, that collection of songs has become legendary, showcasing the budding keyboard and compositional talents of the young man and containing the original version of “Java”, which Al Hirt had a hit with in 1962. Then, in late 1959, Danny Kessler, who produced Wild Sounds, asked Toussaint to record some more instrumental tracks to be shopped around. So, Toussaint hit the studio and, in just two days, recorded over a dozen songs on piano or organ, accompanied by Red Tyler on baritone sax, Nat Perilliat on tenor sax, Melvin Lastie on cornet, along with guitarist Justin Adams, bassist Frank Fields, and drummer Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams. Out of those takes, four singles were soon released by the Seville label in the name of Al Tousan, or as Al Tousan & His Piano. His first album plus all of the Seville session recordings are available on Bear Family’s The Complete ‘Tousan’ Sessions CD.

“Chico”, from the first Seville single (b/w “Sweetie Pie”), has a catchy, simple hook linked to some rhythmic, Professor Longhair-inspired piano runs over Hungry’s subtly funky second-line drum shuffle. Lastie and Tyler take solos on this one, which Toussaint has admitted was a trifle he wrote just for the project at hand. As with the other singles for the label, “Chico” was a sales dud; but, for a piece o’ fluff, it’s empty calories are pretty damn tasty. When the record was released in early 1960, Toussaint was already working for Joe Banashak’s Minit label, starting to write and/or produce/arrange a string of hits and New Orleans classics for Jessie Hill, Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville, and Irma Thomas, among others. His first solo recordings may have gone nowhere; but the man was beginning a serious roll behind the scenes.

And roll on through the 1960’s he did, continuing on the production and songwriting side to change the face of popular Crescenty City music, mainly with other artists, the most successful being Lee Dorsey. While in the service just after his stint with Minit,Toussaint formed the Stokes, and recorded a number of instrumental sides on Alon; but he released very few records in his own name until his second album, Toussaint, came out on Scepter in 1970. It was a mixed bag of a project, recorded in Los Angeles, featuring two outstanding new songs, “From A Whisper To A Scream” and “What Is Success” (to be covered by Robert Palmer and Bonnie Raitt, respectively), a decent take on ”Chokin’ Kind”, uninspired re-workings of two of his Lee Dorsey hits, and four instrumentals. While the LA session players (see below) on the LP were mainly fine New Orleans musicians working on the West Coast at the time, not having the Meters along for the ride (for reasons unknown) definitely makes this album less satisfying overall than the next two solo albums done with them.

"Number Nine" (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, c. 1970

Deep sixed

Although “Number Nine” was written and recorded around the same time as the songs selected for Toussaint, it did not make it onto the album and remained unknown until it showed up on the 1985 Kent (UK) reissue CD, re-titled From A Whisper To A Scream, probably discovered in with the masters. This song fits in well with the album’s other instrumentals and should have replaced the “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” cover that somehow made the cut (the peril of producing your own record). Toussaint’s dynamic, propulsive overdubbed dual pianos on “Number Nine” drive the song's masterful arrangement. I especially like his use of an acoustic guitar, which shows up on various of his productions during this period. Neither this number nor “Chico" have ever gotten much attention and deserve some props. You can see across the ten years between these tunes the increasing sophistication of Toussaint's talents, with even better things to come.

Toussaint session lineup:
Allen Toussaint - Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Mac Rebennack - Organ, Guitar
Terry Kellman - Guitar
Eddie Hohner - Bass
John Boudreaux – Drums
Fred Staehle – Drums
Ed Greene - Drums
Earl Turbinton - Sax (Alto)
Clyde Kerr - Trumpet
Fredric Kemp - Sax (Tenor)
Merry Clayton - Vocals (Background)
Venetta Fields - Vocals (Background)