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

(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

"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

(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice post. Nicely done, Dan. I dig 'em both.

10:21 AM, June 27, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great choice Dan. One of my all-time fave New Orleans two-siders!

10:18 PM, July 04, 2007  
Blogger Canalh said...

I have a new kind of love...: your blog. It's great. Thank you for these discoveries from France.

9:46 AM, August 04, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the same WILLIE HARPER as the one refered to in the song Blind Willie Harper on Bobby Bare's album Down and Dirty?

9:55 PM, September 06, 2007  
Anonymous Dave McNally said...

Inspired as I often am by reading a post of yours I have recently been looking to fill the gaps in my Willie Harper collection - I already had the Get Low Down and Sehorn's Soul Farm (where I first heard Willie) comps. I discovered i-tunes has a number of comps with tracks not available elsewhere but (I think) without the kind of problems noted in a comment on the Willie West post. The same can't be said of E-music which has number of mis-titled Willie tracks. Keep up the good work Dan.

11:04 AM, March 10, 2011  

Post a Comment

<< Home