June 24, 2007

Willie Harper's Double Debut

My recent post on Eldridge Holmes' work for Alon Records brought to mind another under-recognized New Orleans singer who recorded for the label, Willie Harper. So, before we get back to some funk (at last), I thought I'd feature one of his best 45s.

As I've written
elsewhere on HOTG, I first discovered Willie Harper and heard "New Kind Of Love" about 20 years ago on the Instant LP, Solid Gold. Later, I found the song and the B-side of this Alon single on a Northern Soul compilation from the UK and soon encountered a few more of Harper's recordings on a Japanese LP, Battle of Soul, that featured an assortment of released and unreleased tracks from several artists on the Sansu family of labels. Associated closely with Allen Toussaint productions throughout most of the 1960s, Harper never became a big name in New Orleans music, often working as a backing vocalist in the studio. But, obviously, Toussaint had faith in his talent, giving the singer numerous shots as a featured artist, too. But, out of more than a dozen singles* released with Harper as lead or co-vocalist over the decade, only a couple were even local hits. Despite his lack of substantial commercial success, his collaborations with Toussaint were often top quality work and always enjoyable, even on some of the less than stellar sides.

Alon 9000 is significant because it was both Harper's debut as a solo artist and the label's first release (for more background on Alon, see my recent post on Eldridge Holmes). Toussaint, who ran Alon for owner Joe Banashak, was in his pop mode of production and songwriting for this project and, to my ear, the results were good.

"New Kind Of Love" (S. Johnson)
Willie Harper, Alon 9000, 1961

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"New Kind Of Love", written by Earl King (under an alias, S[hirley] Johnson), is an infectious number that deserved to be even a bigger hit than it was. Though popular around the New Orleans area, it did not break out of the region for whatever reasons, perhaps due to having a rather old-fashioned style to it. At any rate, it definitely was not typical of the pop material coming out of the city at the time either. It's hard to believe the same guy who had just written and recorded the proto-funk of "Trick Bag" and "Come On" wrote this - just goes to show how truly versatile King was and why his tunes showed up on records by a variety of artists from the Dixie Cups to Jimi Hendrix over the years. Toussaint's lean, clean arrangement serves the song well, using just piano, drums, bass, and a few horns to get it across. To be honest, I have to subtract points for the background singers humming and oohing along almost to the point of distraction; but the song's still a minor gem, demanding repeat plays. Harper has that unpolished yet charming quality in his vocals, as did Lee Dorsey. who, of course, Toussaint would have much success with a few years on. So, you could even look at his recordings with Harper as a kind of unplanned preparation for that. Call it what you will, though, this one is some fine ear candy.

"But I Couldn't" (Naomi Neville)
Willie Harper, Alon 9000, 1961

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As much as I like "New Kind Of Love", I think I've come to prefer "But I Couldn't", penned by Toussaint as Naomi Neville. Rather than the light bounce of the A-side, the flip is rhythmically more interesting to me, the interplay of drums, keyboard and horns more complex. With the compelling kick (bass) drum driving the song, Toussaint does some change-ups on the piano, moving back and forth between a rolling Fats Domino feel and Bo Diddley style rock chording that he used on a number sides around this time, "Fortune Teller" by Benny Spellman being a prime example. The alternating styles and rhythms give "But I Couldn't" intensity during its brief run, making it seem to move faster and play harder than it actually does. Harper's vocal quality, which has a soulful blues vibe to it, seems a bit better fit here, too.

I'll try to get back back to Willie Harper at a later date; but I've got to tell you that I think this double debut record is still tops for pops. Also high on my list are his two known unreleased funk sides, which I have
previously posted.

* Willie Harper Discography (as a lead or co-lead vocalist)
- Commercial Releases -

Who Will Be The One/She's Gone - The Del Royals- Minit 610 - 1960
Close To You/Got You On My Mind - The Del Royals - Minit 620 - 1961
Always Naggin'/I Fell In Love With You - The Del Royals - Minit 637 - 1961
New Kind Of Love/But I Couldn't - Alon 9000 - 1961
Power Of Love/Cloudy Weather - Alon 9003 - 1962
I'll Never Leave You/Cloudy Weather - Alon 9006 - 1962
Makin' Me Cry/She's Far Away - Alon 9011 - 1963
Grumblin' Fussin' Nag Nag/Kolank Kolank - The Man & Willie Harper -

Alon 9016 - 1964
You, You/Soda Pop - Sansu 451 - 1966
Here Comes The Hurt/Brown Eyed Doll - Sansu 453 - 1966
Omar Khayyam - The Rubaiyats (Harper with Toussaint) - Sansu 456 - 1967
I Don't Need No One/Baby Do Little - Willie & Allen (Harper & Toussaint) -
Sansu 464 - 1967
I Don't Need You Anymore/A Certain Girl - Tou-Sea 133- 1968

You can find some of Harper's Sansu sides on the CD compilation
Get Low Down.

June 17, 2007

RIP Nellie Lutcher

Another one-of-a-kind Louisiana-born musician has passed on. Read about her here. Thanks to my wife (and Nancy with KPFT Houston) for supplying the link.

[6/17/2007] I've expanded my original blurb to include a couple of tunes from Ms Lutcher's prime recording time for Capitol:

"Lake Charles Boogie" (Nellie Lutcher)
Nellie Lutcher, Capitol 10110, 1947

(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Nellie really radiates the 88's on this self-composed boogie-woogie about her hometown. The session backing band here was Irving Ashby, guitar; Willaim K. 'Billy' Hadnott, bass; and Sidney 'Big Sid' Catlett, drums. Recorded in Los Angeles, CA.

"Princess Poo-Poo-Ly Has Plenty Papaya" (Harry Owens)
Nellie Lutcher, Capitol 57-70026, 1950

(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

I'm always a sucker for a good novelty tune, especially when some harmless innuendo and/or double entendre is involved; and Nellie's take on this one is charmingly salacious, especially that line about holding the root. Anyway, she gives good 'n plenty papaya here. This was also cut in LA, CA as far as I remember (nearly back to breakfast) and had Hurley Ramey on guitar, Charles 'Truck' Parham, bass, and Alvin Burroughs drumming.

For a decent introduction to her recordings, try
this. Or, for the the well-funded completists among you, there is the Bear Family box set. These ought to help you find out what made Nellie so hip.

June 10, 2007

Three Sides Of Eldridge Holmes

Here's how the planning process, or lack thereof, works around HOTG. My wife and I made a quick round trip drive to Memphis last weekend; and, listening to CDs on the way, "Pop, Popcorn Children" popped up on one of my comps. Though I'd heard it countless times, I was immediately juiced to do a feature on that great, supremely quirky track by Eldridge Homes (backed by none other than the Meters). This New Orleans vocalist is under-recognized, if not flat out overlooked, and, except for one record, worked exclusively with Allen Toussaint during his decade-long recording career. Since I haven't done a post on him for far too long, I decided to include a couple of his earlier sides as well.

"Begging For Your Love" (E. Holmes)
Eldridge Holmes, Alon 9010, 1963

First up we have, "Begging for Your Love", which appeared on Eldridge Holmes' second of five Toussaint-produced singles for the Alon label. It does not appear that the singer had done any recording prior to signing with Alon; and I don't know how he initially came to Toussaint's attention. Also a talented songwriter who penned many of his own sides, Holmes wrote this catchy, distinctive little number which he and Toussaint steered well into pop waters, reflecting the British sound taking radio by storm back then. The harmonica as lead instrument certainly set the song apart from most of the New Orleans records of the day; but you can hear a bit of syncopated interaction in the kick drum and snare on the tune, too. On the flip side, "The Sooner Your Realize", written by the producer under his nome de plume, Naomi Neville, displayed a fine, if typical, mid-tempo Crescent City groove that really better showcased Holmes' vocal chops; but I chose his own composition for its unique flavor. If you want to hear why Holmes should be ranked among New Orleans top vocalists, approaching Johnny Adams territory, seek out his deep soul numbers.

Joe Banashak had started the Alon imprint around 1961 specifically for Allen Toussaint and his projects, following Toussaint's hit-making success working with the likes of Chris Kenner, Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill and Irma Thomas for Minit and Instant, also owned by Banashak. Other than Benny Spellman, none of the Alon artists were well known; but, I am sure it was hoped that the youthful Toussaint's touch would change that. Fate, of course, intervened, as Toussaint, who was in his early 20s, soon got a draft notice and was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas, curtailing his studio work for several years. The bulk of the Alon sessions for Eldridge Holmes and label-mates Spellman, Willie Harper, Skip Easterling, and others were probably recorded between 1961 and 1962, prior to Toussaint's January, 1963 induction, with a number of the sides being issued on singles while the producer/songwriter was away. Unfortunately, none generated any more than local interest at best. It was getting harder to compete with the onslaught of the British Invasion.

"Humpback" (A. Toussaint - E. Holmes)
Eldridge Holmes, Jet Set 1006, ca 1966

Eldridge Holmes' first two post-Alon singles appeared on Jet Set, a short-lived Washington, DC label, during a transitional time for Toussaint, who had returned from the service in 1965 and quickly become dissatisfied with the status quo at Alon. Marshall Sehorn, who Toussaint had worked with briefly before on Lee Dorsey's Fury sides, approached him to produce another single for Dorsey, which resulted in "Ride Your Pony" b/w "The Kitty Cat Song", released nationally by Amy/Bell. "Pony" became a top ten r&b hit and did well on the pop charts, too. As a result, Toussaint withdrew from Alon and with Sehorn quickly forged a new business partnership for production and recording, Tou-Sea Productions, later renamed Sansu Enterprises. Dorsey would soon become their premier artist.

The duo decided to bring Holmes with them as an artist, too. I would guess that those sides he recorded in New Orleans came out on Jet Set because the new partners had yet to set up their own Tou-Sea, Deesu, and Sansu labels. "Humpback" b/w "I Like What You Do" was apparently Holmes second Jet Set release (their numbering was not consistent), probably in early 1966. The wet-dream of many a songwriter, producer and label-owner was to have a hot record based on a current popular dance or a new dance that might start a national craze and an instant demand for your product. Making singles was always a short-term proposition and financial gamble dependent on the fickle whims of the young record listening and buying public. So, it is perfectly understandable why making flash-in-the-pan dance records was seen to be a risk worth taking; and the airwaves were full of them in the 1950s and 1960s - most of which of course failed to become the next big thing. "Humpback", though one of the commercial failures, is an excellent example of the process and also a good record, with Toussaint and Holmes cooking up a high energy groove that should have had dance floors filling with teenagers and young adults madly gyrating in fine Humpback fashion: be that a camel, Quasimodo the Bell Ringer, or a baleen whale, maybe - who knows. A step diagram didn't come with my 45. Anyway, it's still a rave-up that quickly establishes itself for a two minute calorie-burning run. Holmes' vocal is strong and spirited; but the songs' limited melody line doesn't give him much of an opportunity to shine. Still, I dig the way he keeps pronouncing it "hompback" all the way through. So cool.

"Pop, Popcorn Children" (Eldridge Holmes)Eldridge Holmes, ATCO 6701, 1969

Between 1966 and 1969, Sansu Enterprises generated nine more releases on Holmes: two on Sansu, four on Deesu, one on Pama and two on Decca. The Pama was a re-issue of a Sanu single, and one of the Deccas duplicated a Deesu. As fine as many of those sides were, nothing was happening for Holmes. But obviously Toussaint and Sehorn had still had faith in him, because they brought the singer to Atlanta to record sides backed by the Meters, who were there cutting their Look-Ka-Py Py LP for Josie at Mylon Lefevre's studio. Toussaint and Sehorn had to move session operations to Atlanta (and later Macon, GA) due to the closing of Cosimo Matassa's studio, the main recording facility in the Crescent City. Around that time, Toussaint was also producing Lefevre's Mylon album for Atlantic/Cotillion. So, this is probably how Sansu got Holmes' resulting 45, "Pop, Popcorn Children" b/w "Cheatin' Woman" issued on ATCO, another Atlantic subsidiary. It's too great a single to have totally tanked; but even the hot hands of the Meters for some reason could not get this onto the radio.

"Pop, Popcorn Children", another Holmes-penned dance song, is pretty much a one chord vamp with funk busting out all over it, plus two strange, nearly atonal interludes where the rhythm section pretty much drops out and the horns play a series of off-key notes in an off-kilter rhythm, the first time for two measures about one minute in, and then four measures the next, just after the two minute mark (Leo Nocentelli also adds some electric sitar on this one). While seeming at first disoriented and random, it is so well integrated into the piece that one knows Toussaint perfectly planned this arrangement. I had heard it many time before, but last weekend in the car my wife said it sounded like they were trying to musically mimic popcorn popping. That made sense. Sure it's a gimmick, but a rather bold one that in lesser hands could have just been an amorphous mess. Of course, Zig Modeliste's brilliant drumming throughout makes its own kind of funky popcorn. But combined with Holmes energetic, p-popping vocal, this is one damn fine, effervescent track that demands reciprocal motion from all within earshot. Although, at the time, few got the chance.

While I have this unusual track on several different CD collections, including last year's big
What It Is box set, I didn't have it on 45 until I got that cool little offshoot, the What It Is singles limited edition vinyl set, which
came out shortly after the CDs. Rhino did these re-mastered reproductions up right down to the label details (although the numbering differs) and sleeves; and, while not quite as cool as owning original issues, the price is right, when you consider how much you could pay for 25 minty vintage funk 45s. Plus, you get all the B-sides, most of which are not on the CD box. In the case of the Holmes ATCO single, that means "Cheatin' Woman", a must have not only for his intense vocal but for the Meters' rare sojourn with him into the blues.