December 28, 2006

Goodbye, Mr. Good Foot

Look. I think you can gather my bias pretty quickly: New Orleans funk grooves in all their permutations and combinations. But there is no way anyone can deny that James Brown, who turned it loose for good on Christmas Day, changed this country’s musical landscape. See Larry Grogan's excellent appreciation of the man at Funky 16 Corners. One of the best shows I ever saw was the James Brown Revue at the MidSouth Coliseum in Memphis around 1966, when I was still in high school. It ranks right up there with other mindblowers of the period I was fortunate to experience: the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan backed by the Hawks, Howlin’ Wolf, Hendrix. I was one of the few white faces in the packed house that night; but we were all united in our fixed attention to and wild appreciation of JB’s showmanship, unflagging emotive energy, and deadly tight band. It made me a confirmed soul fan forever and helped me begin to understand what the groove was all about. When he made the transition into funk in the mid-1960s, Brown did so as an innovator who truly brought the genre into being. To honor him, here’s a cut that features the amazing (and young) Clyde Stubblefield on drums in 1968. It’s a fine snapshot of the Godfather’s funkification in progress. . . .

"Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose" (C. Bobbitt)
James Brown, King 6213, 1968

JB’s autobiography strangely does not go into how his pronounced and radical funk style developed; but, his being a drummer himself surely had much to do with the process, as did what the other drummers he used brought with them. Several have credited New Orleans counterparts with influencing the way they play. Clayton Fillyau, who drummed in Brown’s band during the early to mid 1960s and can be heard on Live At the Apollo 1962, learned the New Orleans two-beat or double downbeat style of playing from none other than Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams around 1960.* Also, another later (1970 – 1975) JB drummer, the incredible John ‘Jabo’ Starks, gives props to Cornelius ‘Tenoo’ Coleman, Fats Domino’s longtime drummer, saying: Tenoo was as funky as any of them. He would improvise so much. I knew him, and if we were in the same town as Fats, I’d go look for him or he’d come looking for me. I learned some of that funk listening to Tenoo.*

Another New Orleans drummer who influenced virtually everyone was Earl Palmer, whose studio work in New Orleans and Los Angeles on countless hits in the 1950s and 1960s was heard worldwide. Certainly other recording and touring funky HOTG skinmen such as Smokey Johnson and John Boudreaux have sown some seeds themselves. Brown played New Orleans dates frequently, often on bills with local bands; so he and his players had ample opportunity to hear what the city’s groove merchants had to offer over the years. So, I think the Crescent City had at least something to do with it.

Yet, it’s what Brown did with the raw materials of funk running through the music of the era that re-programmed all groove musicians, including, of course, those in New Orleans. His linear sense of laying a song out along a wickedly syncopated drum line without the usual fills and turnarounds, with every instrument in his band and his own vocal functioning as distinct polyrhythmic elements, made his funk very much about the beats in a multi-level, interplay of small parts. Brown was able to strip down or strip away melody, harmony, and the structure of popular music in his funk to focus intensely on just the dominant groove, the highly danceable good foot, and bring more of Africa (the ultimate funk wellspring) to the party. Not only did it work, it simply changed everything.

To come back to the Big Easy, what James Brown was doing in the later 1960s, I think, freed New Orleans musicians, who were his contemporaries and came after him, to explore their own deep rhythmic roots feel and bring it more to the surface, allowing the city’s unique blend of cultural influences to bear fresh musical fruit. So, let’s celebrate the man and all he did for the music of the world (a feedback loop that also includes, among others, Afro-pop and hip-hop). Sure, he had his faults, being human; but he made this planet a far better place by giving his all, breaking new ground, bringing people together, and letting them dance. You just can’t ask for more than that of a life. Bless your funky bones, JB.

*Second Line: 100 Years of New Orleans Drumming by Antton Aukes (highly recommended for serious beat hounds who want validation of New Orleans' place in percussive history)

Note: Charles Bobbitt, who was given writer's credit for this tune, was one of JB's managers at the time; and I am pretty sure he was just getting a financial reward here. Brown surely wrote this one. By the way, I read that Bobbitt was at Brown's bedside when he died.

December 22, 2006

Christmas Lagniappe Redux

Seasoned Greetin’s!
I’m sure many of the HOTG regulars and passers-by are otherwise occupied for the Christmas holidays; but for those of you who do stop by, I am re-visiting two music posts from the 2004 season, during the start-up period of the blog, when traffic was even lighter. Hope more of you enjoy ‘em this time. I’ll be back around New Year’s with some special offerings. Have a great week.

Our first stocking stuffer comes from a much loved New Orleans' group, Huey 'Piano' Smith and the Clowns, dispensers of year ‘round good cheer with their many great novelty tunes from the mid-1950’s to the early 1960’s. Originally recording for Johnny Vincent (Imbragulio)’s Ace Records starting in 1957, Smith and his revolving aggragation of singing and playing characters had signed on with Imperial Records to work with Dave Bartholomew in 1960. Lead singer Bobby Marchan left the group prior to the move; and their hit making had cooled.
For various reasons, their tenure at Imperial was short-lived, though they made some great tracks. The label cut them loose after releasing four non-productive singles. So, Smith went back to Ace where, in 1962, his group recorded the rather adventurous album, ‘twas the ight before Christmas, comprising R&B reworkings of seasonal standards along with some new Xmas-related novelty songs. At the time, Ace had a national distribution and promotion deal with VeeJay that the larger label was not living up to. As a result, the LP was issued, but never really got a chance to be heard. Despite (or due to) its short shelf-life, it became legendary to fans of the group and highly collectable.

"Rock & Roll Santa Claus (Johnson)
Huey 'Piano' Smith and the Clowns, from
'twas the night before Christmas, Ace, 1962

“Rock ‘N’ Roll Santa Claus” features Curley Moore on lead vocal and was written by one of the city’s greats, Earl King (Johnson). One of my favorite New Orleans Xmas songs, it’s one of a kind with an effective arrangement and an intense marching band snare approach by drummer Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams, who seems not to have hit a single cymbal on the take. I’ve read that Mac Rebennack was the the guitarist on this album; and, as he was involved with a lot of Ace productions as a young man, he likely arranged and ran the sessions, too. Mac has said that Curley Moore was one of his vocal influences; and I think you can hear that to some degree in Curley’s performance.

My LP is a 1980’s era Ace re-issue, when Vincent was still alive and somewhat in business in Jackson, MS. You can tell it’s not an original because the cover has “Dr. John Band” printed on it. Of course, Rebennack did not adopt the Dr. John name until the later 1960’s. In 1998, Westside released a CD version, when they gained the rights to the Ace masters; but that too is sadly out-of-print now and often WAY overpriced when you see it.

"Glad Tidings" (Van Morrison)
Merry Clayton, from Gimme Shelter, Ode 70, 1970

Definitely not sloppy seconds, Merry Clayton, born and raised in New Orleans, turns Van Morrison’s, “Glad Tidings”, into a soulful, personal Christmas wish. It’s another tune from her remarkable and never re-issued 1970 Gimme Shelter album, recorded in Los Angeles. Merry has been the subject of other posts here, as a matter of fact. She lets loose on this spirited album closer in fine style, and also aptly expresses my best to each an every one of you this holiday season. New Orleans is an even more special place at Christmas. The city has given us so much musically and culturally. Let's all try to give something back to it in the coming year and help re-build the legacy.

December 18, 2006

Goin' To Night School

The recent passing of music mogul Ahmet Ertegun brought to mind some of his early forays into New Orleans that helped shape the rhythm and blues scene there and nationwide. In 1949, just a couple of years after he started Atlantic Records in New York City, Ertegun and his partner, Herb Abramson, came to the Deep South in search of talent to record for the growing R&B market. There they contacted one Roy Byrd, a/k/a Professor Longhair, an idiosyncratic pianist, vocalist and songwriter who gigged mainly at holes in the wall, but had recorded some sides for the Star Talent and Mercury labels. One of the Mercury sides, “Bald Head”, was even a brief national hit. Fess was acknowledged in his hometown as an eccentric innovator who had developed his own boisterous blues-rhumba style of playing. Ertegun did a session on the cheap with Longhair at Cosimo Matassa's first studio, J&M Recording Service, located in a back room of his record store, capturing just shy of a dozen original songs, from which two 78s were issued.

Although Longhair’s initial Atlantic material did not sell outside the region and he was reluctant to tour, the company gave him and the Crescent City another shot in 1953, when Ertegun returned with Jerry Wexler for another recording junket, doing sessions there on Fess, Tommy Ridgley, Joe Turner, and the young and soon to be gigantic Ray Charles, who had been working in and around New Orleans for some time. Without a doubt, Professor Longhair's second Atlantic sessions, consisting of four songs, the classic “Tipitina” and “In The Night” (the two sides of #1020), “Ball the Wall”, and Who’s Been Fooling You”, were far superior to the earlier work; but, his exemplary lone single, under the name of Professor Longhair & His Blues Scholars , sold well locally, and went no farther, ending his association with the label.

"In the Night" (R. Byrd)
Professor Longhair & His Blues Scholars, Atlantic 1020, 1953 (from New Orleans Piano, Atlantic, 1972)

I first heard Professor Longhair on the New Orleans Piano LP, which compiled the best of Longhair's 1949 and 1953 sessions (later issued on CD with all the out-takes); and, though I had heard much New Orleans music by then, plus all sorts of R&B and blues, it was a shocking revelation for me to finally listen to this man's music. Fess’ whole approach is so vital, raw, primal, and funky that it takes a while to assimilate it; but this track, among others, knocked me out from the first stylus drop.

Ertegun and Wexler wisely used most of the session players Dave Bartholomew regularly assembled for his hit making work with Fats and others at Cosimo's. So all the 1953 tracks had the mighty Earl Palmer on drums, Frank Field on bass, Edgar Blanchard on guitar, with Lee Allen and 'Red' Tyler on tenor and baritone saxes, respectively. As a result, "In The Night" flat cooks. I love the way the band plays with syncopations that follow Longhair's own quirky style of keyboard pounding. Palmer's unique patterns remarkably never sound cluttered or get in the way, and make perfect sense for the song. Brilliant accompaniment, no doubt, for that distinctive, gruff, yodeling vocal.

Though this song’s a mover, you can still feel Longhair’s flavorful mix of Caribbean and New Orleans second line that he brought forward to become an essential, signature element of much of the rhythm and blues and funk emanating from the city for the next half century. “In the Night” is a masters seminar by Ertegun and Byrd in the art of bringing high quality, low down, immortal music to the world. Study it well, scholars.

December 14, 2006


December being the birth month of three of the four original Meters (Zig, George, and Art), I thought I’d focus on a cut of theirs that never ceases to wrap me up in its entrancing groove. Since the day I first heard it, “Love Slip Up On Ya” has always been on my desert island short list.

"Love Ship Up On Ya" (The Meters)
The Meters, from Fire On the Bayou, WB/Reprise, 1975

From their legendary 1975 album, which has a diverse and ambitious mix of musical styles, the full-blown funk of this song hits square between the eyes and below the belt with a direct, hypnotic power that carries me off in the undulating flow until the fade. It’s amazing how locked in these guys are from the get-go, playing at their peak, functioning as an organic whole, not a seam showing.

I heard George Porter on
American Routes (check out the show’s archives) a while back talking about the Meters being a band that could more or less intuitively find the pocket of any song and keep it there. Back in the day, they didn’t call what they did funk. They just proceeded to put the grooves into their own uniquely rhythmic zone. Call it a zen-like, spiritual state, where space and time are elastic, and all the parts are in their most effective place, allowing positive energy to easily and naturally flow. I may not know much about the practice of Feng Shui, but the related, life-enhancing realm of funk-sway is definitely where this tune takes me. If you play it loud, it'll slip up and re-calibrate your molecular structure before you know it.

December 09, 2006

Ya Ya's In La La Land

I learned from my friend Red Kelly yesterday of the recent passing of Marshall Sehorn, a controversial figure involved in the dealings (and double dealings) of the New Orleans music business for over 40 years. I encourage you to read Red’s excellent synopsis of Sehorn’s legacy over at The B-side and hear the track he has up by Betty Harris, who recorded for Sehorn and Allen Toussaint’s Sansu label in the late 1960s. Also, be sure to read the comment to the post from Harris’ attorney (!) for a revealing look at some of Sehorn’s contractual shenanigans as related to the singer. It’s just the iceberg tip of an incredible back story.

It was sometime in late 1960, when I was in New Orleans, Louisiana for Fury Records that I heard a record on the radio called “Lottie Mo”. I thought it was one of the best records that I had heard in the market at that time, and in searching out more information on it, I found that the artist was Lee Dorsey. . . ”Ya Ya” and Do-Re-Me” [were] the first records I ever produced on him. Marshall E. Sehorn

"Ya Ya" (Dorsey-Robinson)
Lee Dorsey, Fury 1053, 1961

I thought I’d put up “Ya Ya”, since it was Sehorn’s first record deal in New Orleans. He was working as a promoter and scout for Bobby Robinson, who owned the Fire/Fury labels in New York at the time and had put Robinson on Dorsey’s trail after hearing Lee’s first minor hit, “Lottie Mo”. As the well-worn record label notes, “Ya Ya” was a Sehorn & Robinson Production. They wanted to have Toussaint on the session, as he had produced and arranged “Lottie Mo”, but he was under contract with Minit. So, they used him on the sly. Though he did not participate in the actual session, he pretty much arranged the song, including the piano part that Marcel Richardson played in Toussaint’s style. Recorded at Cosimo’s in New Orleans using the AFO session team (John Boudreaux, drums; Chuck Badie, bass; Roy Montrell, guitar; Melvin Lastie, trumpet; Harold Battiste, tenor sax; Red Tyler, baritone sax; and Richardson) the song’s simple, high quality groove was a done deal.

As with virtually all of his recordings, Lee Dorsey’s voice conveys a lightheartedness and charm that takes “Ya Ya” to the bank. He and Robinson allegedly adapted the playful lyrics and melody from children Dorsey had heard in his neighborhood singing a rhyme about sitting on the toilet! Whatever the origin, these la-la’s and ya-ya’s can pretty much mean anything you can imagine, making for one of the great nonsense lyric novelty songs to come out of a city that birthed a lot of ‘em. It became Dorsey’s first huge hit, going to #1 R&B and #7 Pop in 1961 and set the stage for more big records when he signed with Sansu Productions a few years later.

This is not the place to get into the complex life and business of Marshall Sehorn. I’ll just say that he had much behind-the-scenes influence and control over New Orleans popular music from the mid-1960s into at least the 1980s. If you read many of my posts, you’ll see that it’s hard to speak of that period and not mention Sehorn, his production company, or creative partner, Toussaint. So, he shares in the successes and failures of that scene. I know for a fact that there are singers, musicians and writers in the city who dealt with him who will not shed a tear at his passing. But we’ll leave the final judgment on him to other authorities for now and just acknowledge his part in bringing ya-ya’s, la-la’s, and other musical marvels to the world.

December 03, 2006

Gumbo Weather

When it finally turns what passes for cold down here, people start saying that it’s good gumbo weather. Of course, gumbo is cooked and eaten in these parts all year long, but, as my delicious dinner (Jeanne’s gumbo’s da best!) last night proved, it is especially welcome when there’s enough of a cutting north wind outside to make the mosquitoes lethargic, and us start to shiver a little as we try to see if our breath condenses in the night air. So, in the spirit of the seasonal cold fronts that briefly invade the Deep South, I’m serving up two good gumbo songs from the pen of Dave Bartholomew.

"Shrimp and Gumbo" (Dave Bartholomew)
Dave Batholomew, Imperial, 1955

We begin with a multi-gumbo mambo featuring Bartholomew himself* on lead vocal and trumpet with several members of his legendary studio band on percussion, including Earl Palmer on trap drums, and an uncredited sax doubling the trumpet’s lead line. Recorded in November of 1955 and issued as the flip side of “An Old Cowhand From A Blues Band” in 1956 on Imperial 5373, “Shrimp and Gumbo” has an infectious latino groove with a very basic structure. The lyrics are nothing more than the bandleader calling out a number of gumbo variations. It’s an unusual tune to spring up in the midst of all the rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll emanating from the Cosimo Matassa’s studio during that decade under Bartholomew’s production supervision; and I don’t recall ever hearing anything else quite like it from this period in New Orleans. So, exactly what audience was he going for here? Maybe “Shrimp And Gumbo” was just a hip, playful studio jam. Whatever the intension, the song’s a little offhand delight from Bartholomew, the dominant force in New Orleans popular music from the late 1940s into the early 1960s. It makes our mouths water and hips move, and gives us a quick reminder of the musical and culinary roots of the city’s Caribbean and, ultimately, African cultural connections.

"Gumbo Blues" (Dave Bartholomew)
Smiley Lewis, Imperial, 1952

Now, if you’re in New Orleans and it’s really cold,
if you’ve got no chick to warm you, put some gumbo in your soul.

Amen to dat. This second serving comes via a Smiley Lewis session produced by Bartholomew in 1952, released that year on Imperial 5208 as “Gumbo Blues” b/w
“It’s So Peaceful”. This relaxed blues shuffle is lent a little something extra by the always inspiring drumming of Earl Palmer, a nice walking bass line by Frank Fields, and the keyboard running of ‘Tuts’ Washington (Smiley’s bandmate). “Gumbo Blues” not only makes the case for using gumbo as a temporary substitute for female companionship but also reveals yet another nickname for the city, the Ol’ Gumbo.

The others playing on this session were also some of Bartholomew’s A-list studio regulars at the time: Ernest McLean, guitar; Lee Allen and/or Clarence Hall, tenor sax; and Joe Harris, alto sax.

Lewis (given name, Overton Lemons) grew up in the same New Orleans neighborhood as Bartholomew; so, Dave was familiar with his strong voice from an early age. When he began doing A&R and production for Imperial, starting with his discoveries of Tommy Ridgley and Antoine Domino in 1949, Bartholomew had in mind to record Smiley Lewis, too, bringing him into Cos’ studio for sessions starting early in 1950. At the time, Lewis was a blues shouter leading a trio in local clubs, singing in the manner of Roy Brown, whose powerful voice could be heard without amplification above a band.

Although his vocal style never caught on with record buyers in a big way when he moved into the rhythm and blues market, Lewis was successful enough to stay with Imperial though the 1950s, cutting many great sides**, most written by Bartholomew. Unfortunately, several of the classic tunes he first recorded are now linked to the artists who covered them, rather to Lewis. Such is the music business. As one of the greatest of the many forgotten, or nearly so, recording artists from the Ol’ Gumbo, Smiley deserves to be heard and appreciated.

*Hear Dave Bartholomew's solo outings for Imperial on this CD.

**You can find most of Smiley Lewis' best Imperial output on the Gumbo Blues and Down Yonder CDs; or, for you completists, there's a Bear Family box.