March 21, 2007

The Lingering Mystery Of Shoo-Rah

Somebody mentioned wanting to hear some more Shoorah tracks back when I had all the Toussaint covers going in January, which made me go into the archives (actually I live IN the archives, for the most part!) and see how many I have now that refer to the mysterious name - or word. Having rounded up eight tracks, I decided to feature the four I hadn't run before and re-activate the audio on the four I orginally posted two years ago. You can follow the links below back to those posts, hear the songs, and, I hope, get more background. While you're there, be sure to read the long comment to the Tamiya Lynn post by Anonymous, giving his rather invloved, speculative history of Shoo Rah that goes back to the Middle East and the Middle Ages! His explanation ends up having more to do with the music that came to the New World via African slaves than it really does with Shoo-ra. I admit that I am still at a loss to explain what or who Shoo-rah is, if it indeed is anything other than a nonsense lyric, which Anon also suggests. Generally speaking, as you can tell when you hear these songs, all have a repetitive simplicity (more or less) that recalls children's play songs.

Before proceeding, then, I recommend that you go back, listen, and read or re-read these posts:

In Search of Shoo Rah - March 15, 2005
Toussaint's Shoo-Rah - March 16, 2005
On the Ship Of Love (Shoo Rah) - March 18, 2005

OK, now that you're caught back up, here are three covers of Toussaint's tune plus Mac Rebennack's laid back take on the Shoo-Rah theme. Anyone having knowledge or another educated guess about the origins on Shoo-Rah, please let me know.

"Shoo-Ra" (Hill - Rebennack)
Mac Rebennack, from One Night Late, Karate 1977

Probably recorded a year or so before the sessions for his first major label debut as Dr. John on the 1967 ATCO LP, Gris Gris, "Shoo-Ra" is from sessions Mac Rebennack cut in Los Angeles, where he had gone to seek work as a musican, songwriter, and producer and to escape lingering legal problems back in New Orleans. As he relates in his autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon, a number of his sessions from that era, many of which where simple songwriting demos not intended for release, were later appropriated and sold to cash in on the success he had as Dr. John. An aggregation of hustling shysters, including Mac's former manager in the 1960s, Charile Green, Charlies Underwood (engineer on some of the sessions), and Huey Meaux of (aptly named) Crazy Cajun Records, who Mac worked for off and on, were the perpetrators. Many of the tunes that just had Mac playing paino and singing were even overdubbed to add other musicians; and, in a few cases, instrumental tracks had a "sound-alike" singer added. P-i-t-i-f-u-l. The cobbled together, random results were released on various low-rent LPs over the years and are still coming out in CD versions. The unauthorized LP I picked up long ago, One Night Late, is just one example (I have several more - one of which strangely has some uncredited Ronnie Barron tracks on it, too). Green and Underwood share "producer" credit here; and most of the songs on the record are Rebennack/Jessie Hill collablorations, as the two friends were writing/publishing partners out in LA, CA in the pre-Dr. John days.

On "Shoo-Ra" (mispelled "Shoo-Ria" on the LP cover), which very well may be one of the demos that had the band added much later, the lyrics suggest, as did Fats Domino's version, that Shoo-Ra is a dance, though the pace of the piece doesn't back that up; and, while some of the words echo the earlier Fats and Kenner versions, Rebennack and Hill's creation is distinct. In my opinion, it puts us no closer to any Shoo-Rah revelations. But it's well worth hearing for purposes of edumacation, as Mac might say.

"Shoorah, Shoorah" (Allen Toussaint)
Frankie Miller, from High Life, Chrysalis, 1974

Here is likely the first commercially recorded version of Toussaint's "Shoo-rah, Shoo-rah" (as his 1973 copyright title reads), without hyphens and sung by Scottish rocker Franke Miller. His 1974 album, High Life, was produced and arranged by the songwriter himself at the WEB IV studio in Atlanta. As you may recall, Toussaint and his partner, Marshall Sehorn, were having to record outside of New Orleans after the demise (due to tax probelms) of Cosimo Matassa's studio around 1970 and before they could complete their own Sea-Saint Studio in 1973. Playing on this track and the album are many of the same musicians who played on the Mylon Fevre and Browning Bryant projects Toussaint also worked on in Atlanta. As usual, though, he used his own worthy stable of New Orleans horn men, including Gary Brown on tenor sax, featured on this cut. Toussaint also made something all his own out of "Shoo-rah, Shoo-rah", while keeping it playfully mysterious. I mean, read the lyrics and try to decode what's going on.

The digital transfer here is from my fairly clean DJ copy of the LP. The photo is from my wife's well-worn regular album (the promo just had generic artwork), which she bought and listened to a lot when it first came out. Having discovered the record 20 years later, I've never really thought it much to shout about, actually. Sure, Miller covers five Toussaint numbers; but, to me, he never lifts any of the performances out of the ordinary. Toussaint mainly keeps the production very simple and straightforward - the same approach he took with Lefevre, King Busicuit Boy and Bryant; and no outright funk emerges. As if in reaction, soon thereafter, he would conspiculously go in the opposite direction with the wonderfully over-the-top, funkified arranging and production work on Labelle's albums, Nightbrids and Phoenix. I read where Miller's album work had been re-issued on CD; so, you may be able to find this one in the digital domain.

"Shoorah! Shoorah!" (A. Toussaint)
Betty Wright, Alston 3711, 1974

First off, I wonder why Betty's vocal is so far back in the mix on this slick production. It would have increased the impact if she were more up front. Still, it charted (#28 R&B); so I guess nobody else much cared 'bout dat. Anyway, a good groove sells this one. And I definitely like the tune done by a strong female vocalist. It works for me that way. The more you hear this song, though, the more you realize that its rather unusual, bouncy rhythmic pattern and the hooky horn charts are musically it's strong suit - not much of a melody going on. And, having attempted this song in a band at one point, I can tell you that, as simple as it may sound, it's hard to nail (well, it was hard for US!) - it has to be played flawlessly or it just falls apart. Despite the technical problem, Ms Wright turns in a super fine performance on this tightly arranged cover version.

S&D earlier on

"Shoo Rah, Shoo Rah" (Allen Toussaint)
Sam & Dave, from Back At 'Cha, United Artists, 1975

Man, I said how much I liked Betty Wright's take; and Toussaint's performance of the riverboat with Chocolate Milk is spot on. But, damn, Sam & Dave tear this one up. It's an oustanding song choice for them; and the rhythm and horn sections are exceptional, turning Toussaint's quirky, syncopated composition into an in-the-pocket perpetual motion machine. It doesn't hurt to have Steve Cropper calling the shots and playing guitar on the session with his old MGs partners Duck Dunn on bass and Al Jackson on drums. And, yo, these are the cats who played on Sam & Dave's Stax hits, too. To complete the Memphis session, recorded mainly at Cropper's Trans Maximus Sound Studios on Poplar Avenue in 1975, he adds the full blown Memphis Horns, with Wayne Jackson on trumpet, Ed Logan and Andrew Love on tenor saxes, Jack Hale on trombone, and James Mitchell on baritone sax. I'm fairly sure that's Love doing the hot lead sax riffing throughout.

I featured the other Toussaint cover on this album, "Blinded By Love", in January, which was also quite well done. Kudos to Cropper for bringing these tunes to the party. Back to Shoo-rah, though. Sam & Dave play up the "you won't catch me" lyrics on the song's ride-out - recalling again childhood games. If you listen to all the different Shoo Rah songs, that element can't be denied, which is why I still have the strong sense that it somehow came up into popular music through kids at play in the streets and schoolyards of New Orleans. I hope somebody can remember that and reveal the missing link.

Some other covers of "Shoorah, Shoorah" I have not heard and/or do not have are by Phoebe Snow (on Rock Away, 1980), Teresa James (on The Whole Enchalada, 1998), Pauline Black and The Selecter (English ska! - thanks to Carl for letting me hear The Selecter), and The Bloody Tears (rock). Elvis Costello and Toussaint have been performing "Shoo-rah, Shoo-rah" live on their River In Reverse concer tour, as well. Feel free to alert me/us to any more covers of the tune you run across.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I look forward to checking these out. I just heard of Frankie Miller when checking into a great song he co-wrote, "This Love of Mine". I haven't heard his version, just the one by The Soul Band (great name, huh?) on their good CD "Certified" from last year. Sure sounds like a Redding-Cropper creation.

1:28 PM, March 22, 2007  
Blogger Carl said...

For whatever it's worth, I have a copy of The Selecter's "Shoorah Shoorah" which I don't think is related to the Shoo-rah songs you feature, but then again you never know.

3:19 PM, March 22, 2007  
Blogger Mail Clerk said...

Dan - Thanks so much for doing this! I just downloaded all of the songs from this post (including the older ones) and can't wait to listen! Can't help you out on the meaning, though I'm sure the 'ya-ya' route is a safe bet (schoolyard). Though of course the Arabic explanation is amazing.

Also, I just can't help but think someone somewhere has some Toussaint versions of his songs that he's never released (at least some songwriting session versions - a la Eddie Hinton). Wish someone would release 'em.

Anyway, thanks again!

7:51 PM, March 25, 2007  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Yes, MC, in the spirit of Occam's razor, the simplest explanation of Shoo-rah should be the best: that it's a nonsense word - probably derived from some playground song. Unless proven otherwise, that's what I'm running with.

I'd bet that Mr. Toussaint had saved demos of at least some of his songs, until Katrina laid waste to his home studio. They're probably gone forever, unless maybe the publishing company has some, or copies were sent to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes. Now, that would be a good research project.

Weren't you the one who asked about these back in January? If so, thanks for getting me thinking aobut them again....

10:13 PM, March 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

U.K. singer Bette Bright did Shoorah Shoorah on her 1981 LP "Rhythm Breaks The Ice". I have heard allof the versions listed and I favor the Sam & Dave version.

3:34 PM, October 09, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am "Anonymous" who posted the long (winded) comment a few years ago on Shoo Ra and my theory about Moorish/Arabic/Spanish influences from the Middle Ages on New Orleans music. Well hear I go again. I recently saw a television program about the Arabic/Moorish influence on Spain and it reminded me of my post and the mystery of Shoo Ra. . .the show stated that many of the Moors, who came to Europe through North Africa, were Egyptians. That got me thinking of a new vein of research and, so, my latest theory on the origin of Shoo Ra goes back even further to. . . Ancient Egypt! Yeah that's right.

Check it out:

Now you might have heard of the ancient Egyptians' supreme sun god Ra, but have you ever heard of the ancient Egyptian god Shu? The Egyptians believed that Shu was the second divine pharaoh, ruling after Ra. Whoa. . .wait just a second- Shu and Ra?

Egypt's second divine ruler, Shu, was a god of the wind, the atmosphere, the space between the sky and the earth. He was the division between day and night, the underworld and the living world. He was a god related to living, allowing life to flourish in Egypt with his breath of life. To the Egyptians, if there was no Shu, there would be no life - Egypt existed thanks to Shu.

Shu was thought to bring Ra to life each morning, raising the sun into the sky.

"Hail, children of Shu! Hail, children of Shu, [children of] the place of the dawn, who as the children of light have gained possession of his crown. May I rise up and may I fare forth like Osiris." -- The Book of the Dead, Chap. XLVI.

Shu was also the husband of his twin, the goddess Tefnut, son of the sun god Atem-Ra and father to the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut (if Shu was the son of Atem-Ra, doesn't that make him Shu-Ra)

Here is a little bit from the "The Legend of the Destruction of Mankind", a cheerful little diddy the text of which is written in hieroglyphs on the walls in the tomb of Seti I., which is situated on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes, and which story explains how Shu replaced Ra. Ra apparently had become weakened and weary of us humans, and began to consider having us done away with. The god Nu, however, told Shu to help Ra, and he ordered Nut to take Ra on her back. Nut changed herself into a cow, and with the help of Shu, Ra got on her back. Then the goddess Nut trembled in all her body, and Ra, fearing that she might fall, caused to come into being the Four Pillars on which the heavens are supported. Turning to Shu, Ra entreated him to protect these supports, and to place himself under Nut, and to hold her up in position with his hands. Thus Shu became the new sun god in the place of Ra, and the heavens in which Ra lived were supported and placed beyond the risk of falling, and mankind would live and rejoice in the light of the new sun.

No I am not a follower of the goddess Nut, as crazy as this post might seem (now you know why I stay Anonymous).

In another ancient text, Tefnut (Shu's wife and twin) went off in anger to Nubia, and Ra sent Shu and Thoth to get her to return to Egypt. They were successful, and Tefnut (with Shu and Thoth leading her) made a triumphant entry back into Egypt, accompanied by a host of Nubian musicians, dancers and baboons.

Is it coincidence that the second and first Egyptian gods were Shu and Ra, respectively? I dunno. . .but I get the weird feeling that, although Shoo Ra may now be nothing more than a nonsense word regaled to schoolyard chanting, there is something more mysterious to its origin than that.

How many other nonsense words have been the title to so many songs?

12:02 AM, March 11, 2009  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

I love this stuff, Anon. You are on to something - and/or maybe "on something", too!!!! Seriously, for an even more detailed examination of the Arabic/Phoenician/Egyptian/African roots of Afro-Latin music in the Western Hemisphere, up to and including New Orleans, you've gotta read Ned Sublette's book, 'Cuba and Its Music'. Killer research. I thought about your post when I read it last year. Check it out. Appreciate your taking the time to write.

6:12 PM, March 11, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you the heads up on Ned Sublette. I just read an article ( about him, "Cuba and Its Music" and his new book "The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square"

I'm gonna pick up both books- these topics (history, music history, New Orleans history and music, and the New Orleans role in the foundation of what makes our country) fascinate me and it sounds like this guy knows his stuff- can't wait to read them!

I bet he would be best able to unravel the Shoo Ra mystery. . .

Thanks for the forum Dan and for getting me to think about things I really hadn't thought of- it's funny, i found your blog in my off the suff internet search on what Shoo Ra meant (which I coincidently did at the time of your Tamiya Lynn post)

I'm a big Dr. John fan and picked up his Zu Zu Man in the late 1980s and loved the album (it includes three great tracks with Sam Cooke on vocals and Mac as a session guitarist before his hand got shot). I especially loved the Shoo Ra track and always wondered what it meant

6:28 AM, March 12, 2009  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Sublette's New Orleans history is also great stuff, just more general - music is not the whole focus, but he has plenty of good insights. Both of his books are important reading for deep background. Hope you dig 'em as much as I did.

10:26 PM, March 12, 2009  

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