August 29, 2007

Struggles and Bucket Checks: Two Years On

Well, here we are at the second anniversary of Katrina's Gulf Coast landfall; and the aftermath for New Orleans continues. Reading the news, there's plenty to damn and some things praise about the slow motion recovery, which should have been, and still maybe can be, a renewal and renaissance for the city and region. But, I'm not here to editorialize - just do what I do and play a couple of songs that struck me as somehow fitting for the day. I don't want to read too much into them and try to make them mean more than they do. But, as I've said before here, when the stylus hits the groove, a song you've heard a hundred times can take on new meaning, based on changed circumstances. Both of these have some resonance for me that way today.

"Life Is Just A Struggle" (Kenner-Douglas)
Johnny Adams, Ric 983, 1961

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When I thought about what to play today, this subtly subversive song immediately came to mind. Written by Chris Kenner, who took the music and feel for it straight out of church, "Life Is Just A Struggle" gave 19 year old singer Johnny Adams a chance to show off his impressive gospel music foundation. Kenner had previously cut the song for Ron Records, which like Ric was owned by Joe Ruffino in New Orleans; but, obviously, Adams had the voice (mature beyond his years) to truly do it justice. It's one of my favorite sides of his. Although it has all the trappings of a song of faith, if you pay attention to the lyrics, you hear the writer expressing doubts about righteous religious platitudes and pointing out life's inequities, for example: "After we've suffered all of our lives, then we got to die and suffer twice." About as close as he gets to church is asking someone to pray for him so he doesn't have to suffer through eternity, too. And yet, Adams' vocal firepower sanctifies the song, infusing it with a spirit that rises above the woes of a set-upon sinner. I enjoy that seemingly contradictory duality and think it gives the song an added dimension.

Since long before the Flood, New Orleans has been no stranger to both hard times and rolling good ones, and continues to exhibit the yin/yang of abundant misery co-existing with the wellspring of celebratory energy in its music and cultural richness. Somebody pray that soon the latter can once and for all overcome the former.

"Check Your Bucket - Part 1" (Edwin J. Bocage)
Eddie Bo, Bo-Sound 5551, 1970
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On a lighter note, we have this sermonizing hymn from Eddie Bo's Church Of Holey Bucket Checking. Again, this song sort of picked itself the other day; and I can't hear it now and and not think about leaky levees in a city set in a bowl, virtually surrounded by water, and, on a good day, slowly sinking into the sandy muck it was built on. But, that's really not what the song's about. Eddie's point is that you can lose what you've got if you're not paying attention to what's important, in this case, a relationship that may be going down the drain and needs checking. Still, loss through neglect certainly rings a bell when it comes to life in the Crescent City. By the way, singing about holey buckets didn't start with Mr. Bocage, either. In the early 20th Century, songwriter Clarence Williams penned "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It", back when beer was bought and carried home in a bucket; and springing a leak was definitely cause for concern. One needs a seaworthy bucket for all sorts of things.

You'll note that Bo's not in his funk mode here. The material reminds me more of what he was doing for Seven-B a few years before. Still, it's a hooky, effective little R&B dancer with a strong vocal. The guitars are a little approximate at times and the arrangement is loose, but still feels good. Wonder, though, why he didn't play a keyboard on this.

You know, Eddie's been singing this song since the early 70s, so you'd think there'd have been more bucket inspection going on as a result. To paraphrase an old saying, nobody pays props to a prophet in his own hometown. Anyway, after what happened down this way, that double heap 'o hurricanes and all, and with the rest of life's struggles and troubles, I'd advise anybody and everybody to take this man's advice and check yours - frequently.

August 23, 2007

Diggin' Two On The Scoobydoo

You know you're getting waaaay behind on your blogging when your wife starts telling you to get another post up. Let's just say some of my many projects are starting to sprout projects! It's getting harder to keep up. Somehow I manage to hold down a day job amidst it all. The Ms wanted me to put up something funky (that's my girl!); and, looking over my running list of prime candidates, I noticed two sides with nothing in common really other than they give good groove and sport some strange lyrics. Since I loves me some novelty tunes, I thought I'd give 'em a go.

"Oogsey Moo" (J. Hill - R. Byrd)
Jessie Hill, Minit 628, 1961

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As I've noted before around here, there's a deep vein of oddball lyrics and novelties to be mined in New Orleans music, with Huey Smith, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Jessie Hill and Dr. John being being some of the more well-known sources. For example, the ever-quirky Hill and his band rode his song, "Ooh Poo Pah Do", to unlikely hitdom in 1960 for Minit Records with the help of Allen Toussaint's production work. Supposedly, Jessie "borrowed" at least some of the lyrics from a barrelhouse blues piano player he heard named Big Four, who extemporized the words as he played. Anyway, after it went into the Top Ten, becoming the first big record for the producer and label, and the only one for the singer, Jessie and Toussaint tried in vain for a follow-up hit during the next two years; but a lot of listeners never acquired a taste for Hill's raw, idiosyncratic vocals. Among his other Minit releases were two more novelty/nonsense catch-phrase sides, "Scoop Scoobie Doobie" from later that year, and "Oogsey Moo" in 1961.

For New Orleans music students and collectors, the fairly obscure "Oogsey Moo" has a lot going for it. The music resonates with Professor Longhair's songwriting and playing style, as rendered convincingly on piano by Toussaint; and Fess (R. Byrd) shares co-writer credit with Hill on the tune. In the 1950s Jessie had gigged with Longhair for several years, and it is possible that the two developed the song back then. Befitting the Professor's funked up rhythmic feels, the drums on this tune laid down an insouciant second line strut that should be noted by all looking for early examples of that type of playing in New Orleans R&B. On this cut and most of Hill's other Minit sessions, the backing band probably came from his gigging crew, the House Rockers, who had become regular sessions players for Toussaint and AFO Records, as well: drummer John Boudreaux, bassist Richard Payne, David and Melvin Lastie on sax and trumpet, and maybe Alvin Robinson on guitar, although Papoose Nelson is a strong possibility, too. Oogsey Moo never caught on as a term of endearment or a pop record, but it makes for a memorable hook on a track that exudes the fun loving, feel good essence of its city of origin.

"Niki Hoeky" (J. Ford - L. Vegas - P. Vegas)
Bobby Rush, Jewel 840, 1973/Ronn 125, 1995

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In Part 2 of our excursion into funky nonsense, we encounter Bobby Rush's take on "Niki Hoeky", with its undulating, swampy groove, surely inspired by the weird, glossolalia of the lyrics, which seemingly attempted to capture the bizarro-world patois of some South Louisiana alternate universe where everybody talks like Pootie Tang (when, of course, people down here all talk like Poo Poo Broussard). Even stranger, I first heard this song done in 1967 by a flamboyantly hokey, puffy-shirted show-biz singer named P. J. Proby, who had the original hit with it - though it didn't sound quite like this. In fact, the song was written by Pat and Lolly Vegas, two American Indian brothers who went on to front the rock band, Redbone. I didn't own Proby's record, just heard it on the radio - and, like I say, I've always had a thing for odd novelty songs and never quite forgot this one. As hilarious as the hokum is, Bobby greases it up and and sells it like snake oil atop the get down groove. His gritty, insinuating vocal lets you know what the song's about, regardless of what the words are. Lest that slip by us, though, right before the fade he adds, "I, I like to do strange things to you" - ah, those freaky deaky Seventies.

So, while the Louisiana born and bred Rush wasn't exactly breaking new ground recording "Niki Hoeky" - Aretha Franklin did a fairly straight cover of it on Lady Soul in 1968 - he put da serious fonk to it. This side originally came out in 1973 on Jewel backed with "I Don't Know", and was his second release for the Shreveport-based label. Although great records were being made there at Sound City Studio, it seems Rush was still doing sessions in Chicago, which was his base of operations at the time. My Ronn single is a digital re-master of the earlier recording, with one of his un-released Jewel tracks, "Get Out Of Here With you Boom Boom", on the flip. It came out around 1995 on colored vinyl to coincide with the Ronn CD compilation of his Jewel sides, It's Alright, which I don't think is in print anymore. But the tracks can also be found on the Fuel 2000 CD, Bobby Rush, Absolutely The Best, which I think has also been cut out.

And now that you're hip to the consultation, enjoy.

August 14, 2007

Earl Turbinton Remembered

As promised, I've got a couple of examples of the late Earl Turbinton's alto and soprano saxophone work to offer in honor of his recent passing. For general details on his life, read the Times-Picayune obituary by Keth Spera. I'll just add a few more specifics as we go along.

I am fortunate to have see Earl perform at JazzFest several times, including, I believe, his 2002 appearance shortly before his stroke. Onstage, he was an amazing presence in colorful African attire whose musical statements were profound and spellbinding. A jazz master, he could take an audience along on his musical journey, altering our consciousness at will with playing that was both spiritual and passionate. Coltrane's influence on him was obvious; and it's interesting to note that around age 20 Earl got to play with the jazz-guru when he came to New Orleans. In his younger years, before studying with the great reedman Alvin Batiste, Turbinton's musical training was with bandleader and educator, Clyde Kerr, Sr., who had an enormous influence on the local music scene.

As with many New Orleans musicians who were jazz players at heart, Turbinton often made his living playing R&B, blues, and funk gigs. In the early 1960s, he was a sideman on the road backing Bill Doggett and Jerry Butler. But he kept coming back to jazz, developing into a world-class player. Evidence of that was his appearance on Joe Zawinul's 1970 solo album,
Zawinul. As a result of those sessions, Earl was asked to join Weather Report, but decided against it. Wonder if he ever regretted that? Instead, he went back out on the road for several years, this time with B B. King's band. During much of the 1970s in New Orleans, Earl held down a teaching position while also gigging regularly around town playing jazz or backing up local favorites such as Professor Longhair and L'il Queenie and the Percolators. He also recorded with his brother, Willie Tee (Wilson Turbinton), on several notable projects. Tee, an impressive jazz pianist and composer in his own right who had made a name for himself in the 1960s singing soul ("Teasin' You"), started a funk outfit called the Gaturs around 1970, releasing several singles; but they never managed to get any national exposure. After playing on some of the Gatur sessions, Earl joined Willie for his groundbreaking collaboration with the Wild Magnolias, uniting funk grooves and instrumentation with the Mardi Gras Indians' unique music. The result was several local 45s and two historic albums for the French Barclay label. Then, in 1976, Tee released his own impressive solo album, Anticipation, which included backing by the Gaturs with Earl soloing prominently on several numbers.

Photo by Michael Smith

"I'd Give It To You" (W. Turbinton)
Willie Tee, from Anticipation, United Artists, 1976
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Earl and his brother's history of playing together goes back to the Seminoles, a band formed during their high school days in the 1950s. Enveloped in the deep cultural wellspring of their hometown, their musical expression took many forms over the years; and they both explored various paths. Yet, I think there was a special synergy when they worked together. So, I've chosen "I'd Give It To You", from Anticipation, featuring Earl's edgy, soulful soprano sax sound which had previously graced records by the Gaturs and the Wild Magnolias. It meshes nicely with Tee's ambitious soul/funk writing style. Tasteful and never over-the-top, Earl's signature riffing on his brother's material was free of cliches and always brought something original to the party. It is still surprising to me that Anticipation did not get more attention at the time of its release, and is still not well-known to this day. As far as I can tell, not a single track has appeared on a CD compilation. There has been talk about the entire album being re-issued; and I sincerely hope it comes to pass one of these days. An up-to-date remastering job could reveal what a well-made and played work this really was.

"Kingston Town" (Traditional)
Earl Turbinton, Brothers For Life, Rounder, 1988
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A dozen years farther on, the siblings collaborated again on a fine, fairly straight ahead Rounder jazz album for Earl, Brothers For Life, with Willie in a featured role as songwriter, arranger and keyboardist. It has numerous hip, well-structured originals and covers; but "Kingston Town", which I've chosen, has a different approach than the others. Earl's take on the traditional calypso tune re-casts it as a dance-demanding, drum-dominant three piece romp that celebrates the Afro-Caribbean roots of New Orleans second line funk. His alto sax joyously solos, riding the big beat waves throughout, as he, bassist James Singleton, and stickman David Lee, Jr. move the feel of the islands into the Crescent City streets. I love the carnival spirit of this piece. It's in sync with the musical pursuits here at HOTG, and certainly showcases Turbinton's playfully creative side.

This, I believe, was the only album released on the self-proclaimed "African Cowboy". Too bad for all of us that Earl Turbinton did not get more opportunity to show his stuff to the world. Another uniquely creative, deeply expressive, priceless contributor to the city's musical legacy has gone on to that eternal Jazzfest of the spirit. May we all some day, but not too soon, be in that number.

August 08, 2007

From Nookie Boy to The La La Man

While the recently departed Oliver Morgan was certainly a respected and, well-loved entertainer in his hometown, in terms of a recording career, there wasn't much of one. He made just a handful of singles, plus a couple of albums later in life, and was definitely a one-hit wonder - pretty much just a local one, at that. The song he is best remembered for is, of course, Who Shot The LaLa, which I featured almost exactly two years ago, just a few weeks prior to Hurricane Katrina's landfall. In honor of his passing, I've reactivated the audio for that linked post. You can hear it and read more about the the track there.

Morgan was a product of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, the stomping grounds of legendary performers such as Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Eddie Bo, Jessie Hill and Professor Longhair. He seems to have gotten his early musical education singing in church and jamming with neighborhood musicians. In 1961, he had the opportunity to record two of his own compositions, "I Got A Feelin'" and "I'll Make A Bet" for the newly founded AFO (All For One) label, headed by producer, arranger, and jazz saxophonist Harold Battiste. AFO was owned and operated by a small group of African-American musicians, all veteran session players, who wanted more control of and financial rewards for their work. While it only lasted a few years, and only had one substantial hit with Barbara George's "I Know", AFO was responsible for making some excellent early recordings on other artists such as Willie Tee, Prince La La, Wallace Johnson, Mac Rebennack, Ellis Marsalis and Tami Lynn. Unfortunately for Morgan, his single was released in 1962 after AFO had lost it's national distribution deal though Sue Records; and the label had little exposure and mounting debts. If the noble AFO experiment had been able to build on its first success, perhaps Oliver Morgan might have gotten more attention for the two fine sides of his only single for the label.

"I Got A Feelin" (Oliver Morgan)
Nookie Boy, AFO 306, 1962

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"I'll Make A Bet" (Olvier Morgan)
Nookie Boy, AFO 306, 1962

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"I Got A Feelin'" is my favorite Morgan song. Not a simple party record like "Who Shot The LaLa", it is darker, more serious, and artfully arranged with an expressive vocal, haunting melody, and a great exotic groove. Listen to the broken drumming throughout, mostly played on the tom-toms it seems - the drums are not that well-recorded - probably by main session drummer and label executive John Boudreaux, although the great James Black did some sessions for the label, too (mostly the jazz sides). Not funk, the beats instead lend a North African feel to "Feelin'". It's a song that labelmate Prince La La (Lawerence Nelson) easily could have done; and Morgan's screams at the end remind me of La La. Of course, not too much later, Morgan would be singing about La La's demise on his next release.

While entertaining and well-done, the single's other side, "I'll Make A Bet", is more standard fare, one of myriad mid-tempo, syncopated shuffle songs associated with the Popeye dance style that came out of New Orleans in the early 1960s. It has nothing than makes it rise above what passed for ordinary at the time. But, all in all, his AFO single was an impressive, if largely unheard, recording debut. Both sides can be found on the Ace (UK) CD series
Gumbo Stew.

When "Who Shot The LaLa" became popular locally and got some national response up North in 1964, Morgan did some touring behind the record. But the buzz soon faded; and it was several years before he cut any more sides. When he did, he worked with his old friend, Eddie Bo, again, who had started to produce and record for Joe Banashak's
Seven B label. Of the three singles issued, "The La La Man", which utilized the name recognition of his prior hit, is probably best remembered, although none of his Seven B releases really caught fire or got much airplay outside the Gulf Coast region. Of course, those records are now sought after by collectors for their high quality as much as their rarity.

"The La La Man" (E. Bocage)
Oliver Morgan, Seven B 7007, 1967

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Despite its passing references to his prior hit, which had a distinct New Orleans sound, "The La La Man" really has nothing else in common with the GNP side, neither in subject matter nor groove. In fact, it owes more to national soul hits of the day such as "Midnight Hour" and "Knock On Wood" in its structure, as Bo and Morgan obviously wanted to bat for the popularity bleachers. The singer, who acknowledged being strongly influenced by Otis Redding, turns out a strong and spirited performance with plenty of emphatic soul grunts. His hometown accent, at least, is still evident. Nothing much is known about the session players on this one, although I detect George Davis' style on guitar. A good movin' record and fun to listen to, "The La La Man" just didn't possess a distinctive enough sound to take it to the next level.

After one more unsuccessful try with Bo, Morgan, as far as I can tell, was inactive on the recording scene until he another two-part single at some point in the 1970s for the RAP (Recording Artists Productions) label. Over the years, while holding down a regular day job, he remained fairly active as a performer in clubs, and appearing at Jazzfest and, later, the Ponderosa Stomp, always quick to come off-stage holding his trademark umbrella and lead a joyous second line. Around 1995 he released his first album,
Do The Nitty Gritty, which contained covers of some classic soul tunes and a few of his own songs. Then in 1997, Allen Toussaint produced a true comeback record for Morgan, I'm Home, on the NYNO label, which provided him with the backing of some great New Orleans players, including Toussaint himself, and captured his fun-loving spirit. It's worth picking up as a memorial to a man who made worthy contributtions to the musical and cultural legacy of his city.

Oliver Morgan suffered a stroke shortly after the recording sessions for I'm Home. Then, in 2005, his home was destroyed in the post-Katrina flooding, forcing him to relocate to Atlanta with his wife. Although the last years of his life were tough ones, I'll close with this glimpse into what Oliver gave to his fans, which was left in the HOTG comments the other day by someone named Toots, who said,

Oliver Morgan was an old friend of mine. I danced with him so many times. His umbrella was always passed to me from the stage or I'd help him lead everyone out of the club into the street dancing. We would clown so much and pass a great time. He lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. My friend and I passed through the nint' ward and saw his home was washed away. I cried and prayed for him and his wife. Oliver is a New Orleans legend. He knew how to start a Second Line party! I WANNA KNOW! NOW TELL ME! You will be missed by so many, LaLa. May you rest in peace. Your friend of 32 years.

'nuff said, people.

Oliver Morgan - Singles Discography
(Additions and/or corrections are welcome)

I Got A Feelin'/I'll Make A Bet, as Nookie Boy, AFO 306, 1962
Who Shot The LaLa/Hold Your Dog, GNP Crescendo 318, 1964
Roll Call/Sure Is Nice, Seven B 7003, 1966
The La La Man Pt 1 & Pt 2, Seven B 7007, 1967
What's Good To You Pt 1 & Pt 2, Seven B 7012, 1967
Once Upon A Time Pt I & Pt II, Recording Artists Productions 501, 1970s

August 07, 2007

HOTG Internet Radio - Streams Up

You read it right. We've got a big new webcast going on until further notice at our new HOTG station.

Some months back, a good friend of mine, who is a fan of the blog, of his own accord set up a streaming internet test site featuring the some of the songs that had appeared on HOTG in the past few years and displaying my associated posts from the archives. He performed this amazing (at least to me) feat to encourage me to make the songs I've covered here that are no longer accessible available for listening again, and to give the archived posts more exposure. And, I've got to admit, hearing the songs streamed really has much more resonance and impact than just accessing a few of them at a time and/or simply reading about them. So, I was impressed and intrigued by the idea; and we continued to work on it at time permitted - an often glacial pace for me these days. Then, the fate of the entire internet radio concept was
thrown into question due to the efforts of the powers that be in the Entertainment Industry to impose huge new royalty rates and rules for internet dissemination of music. Congress got involved, at least held hearings; and the deadline for the imposition of the changes has now been pushed back to September of this year for a "compromise" of some sort to be reached. For a good general explanation of how complicated webcasting has become, feel free to read this related link, and then wonder why the hell anybody would still want to do it!

Even though we have not totally gotten our site together in terms of some minor details, like how it looks, we do have a limited number of licensed working streams available for your listening pleasure with about 10 hours of New Orleans grooves currently in rotation, and more being added to the playlist as I get a chance. We thought we'd better get something up now, or maybe lose the chance forever. Most of the playlist content comes directly from HOTG posts from 2004 to the near-present. Music links on the blog should go into HOTG Radio rotation once the are deactivated here. Also, there is and will be more contemporary fare from the Crescent City available, too - that is, if webcasting is allowed to exist at an affordable level for small fry niche streamers like us. Write your Congress-persons, yell out of windows, whatever you feel is productive, if you want to help, protest, whatever.

Again, you can "tune in" at - this experiment may only last a month, or maybe go on for years. Hard to say right now. If it goes beyond September, we'll have to find some more funding besides our own pockets; but that will be addressed later in online brainstorming meetings with plenty of beer on hand. If anyone out there has any ideas about that, your input is welcome.

Now that I have you full confidence and trust, how about some disclaimers, etc:

As I said, there are a limited number of streams. If you can't get one right away, please try back later. There are several choices for listening, based on what type of media player or operating system you use, so please try the other listening links, if the main one doesn't seem to do the trick. There are the usual Frequently Asked Questions (that we've frequently been asking ourselves these past few months) to read at the Help link, too. Also, just so's ya know, do not expect the highest audio quality to come surging down the pipe. The streams sound much better than I thought they would with the bandwidth we can afford, which is why we're doing this at all. Oh yeah, and if you don't see the post text change with each song, you can hit "Refresh" to move along the page to match the song, if you want to keep up with it (not required - no homework - no tests). Your understanding, patience and a tropical, Third World expectation of efficiency will be appreciated. Requested additions to the playlist will be considered within the bounds of what HOTG is all about.

Anyway, hope it works for you. Enjoy the radio round-up. To ask questions, make requests or comments, etc, send emails concerning the webcast to radio at hotg dot org, using, of course the 'at' symbol and an actual dot. I or my tech savvy compadre, Jockomo, will see what can be done.

PS _ Thanks to Red, Jeanne, Alisa, Ed, Art and a few more folks I can't remember at the moment for helping with the initial testing phase.

August 04, 2007

More passings

Many of you may have heard already of the passing of Oliver Morgan, one of New Orleans's unique singers and entertainers. I'm off to New Orleans this weekend. You can read his obit here. I plan on doing another post on Oliver coming up. Feel free to search the archives for my previous one 'til then. Just put his name in the search blog box above.

Also, I just heard last night that master jazz saxophonist Earl Turbinton, brother of Willie Tee, passed away yesterday after a long illness. I plan on doing a post featuring Earl soon, also.

My respects and condolences go out the the friends and family of the departed. The were both class acts and contributed much to the musical fabric of their hometown. They will be missed.

August 01, 2007

The Fabulous Fantoms' Funksion

My introduction to the Fabulous Fantoms was hearing "Junk", an early instrumental track of theirs, on the 2002 Grapevine various artists compilation CD, Crescent City Funk (highly recommended, but now out of print???). From there I picked up the Tuff City/Funky Delicacies CD, Just Having A Party (2001), featuring almost everything the band released during the decade or so they were active (1968 - 1979), including an unreleased 1978 LP of the same name. Nearly all the details I have about this relatively unknown funk band come from David Goldfarb's notes for that CD; and hearing it was a revelation in several respects.

At the end of the 1960s, the newly emerging funk scene in New Orleans was spawning many hot new groups. Art Neville and the Neville Sounds quartet, playing regularly in the French Quarter, were hired as the new Sansu Productions studio band and became the Meters; and Sam & the Soul Machine, the Gaturs, and David Batiste and the Gladiators were also coming into their own. In that musically fertile era, the Fabulous Fantoms came together, as I understand it, in suburban New Orleans East, merging two separate young bands. 

They started out large in 1968 with ten members, including a four piece horn section, covering tunes by both local and national funk and soul acts. Fresh out of the box, they secured a weekly gig at a club called the Devil's Den, which lasted until 1971, and continued to pull in more work. They regularly pleased late night crowds around town at three social aid and pleasure clubs: the Autocrat, the ILA, and the Label Union Hall. Even though their line-up was in flux for the first few years and they were learning the ropes of professional performance as they went along, the band cooked; and it wasn't unusual for them to have two gigs some nights.

The initial Fabulous Fantoms single, "The Mau Mau", a two-part, drum-heavy, original instrumental rave-up (which is not on the Funky Delicacies CD) came out locally around 1970 on Marty Lewis' Big Deal Records (#126), but didn't seem to impress much of anybody as a big deal, causing the group to not do a follow-up for the label. Instead, the next time they hit the studio in 1971, recording "Take Me There" and "Who Cares", they released the tunes on their own Power Funksion imprint, promoting and distributing the 45 themselves; but, with limited resources and options, there wasn't much they could do with it.

 So, in 1972, they approached Lewis for assistance with the next Power Funkson single, "Junk" b/w "Get A Little Bit", today's HOTG feature, which was distributed by Big Deal. This one had some traction locally, getting played on the radio and generating more sales action, but was not picked up nationally. At least one run of the record had their name misspelled as 'The Fanoms', which surely didn't help matters. Obviously, my copy* isn't from from that batch.

By the time they released this single, calling themselves simply The Fantoms, the band has been together over three years, and you can get a sense listening to it of what they had to offer, despite the less than optimal recording quality: serious funk grooves coupled with tight, effective arrangements and a sound that could be big, but wasn't overblown. Their vocalists weren't top rate, but were certainly acceptable by funk band standards, nor were their song lyrics anything to write home about - if indeed most funk fans even noticed in the midst of intense booty shaking. Hearing this band, it is not at all surprising that they were a popular live act. It's just a pity that they never had the opportunity to take things to the next level and make some well-produced hit records. They certainly had the potential.

The Fantoms, Power Funksion 1002, 1972

"Junk" is the only FF track I've heard that features a flute. It's a tricky lead instrument to lay over this low down funk groove, paired with a distorted, processed guitar, as it risks coming off as too lightweight to hold its own. Still, it works fairly well in this context and is roughed up somewhat by the unknown player's occasional gasps for air and his frenzied blowing near the fade, which remind me just a bit of the heavy-breathed style of Ian Anderson in Jethro Tull, who wrote the book on the flute in rock music. 

Embellishing the track are several nice elements: the layered opening organ notes; the drummer's stripped-down kick drum and hi-hat work for most of the piece, mixed with plenty of percolating percussion; and the massed horns which help build intensity when they introduce their big riff late in the song. These touches speak well of the band's instincts for arranging and help turn a simple basic rhythm track with some instrumental soloing into a work of varying dynamics, syncopated movement, and a uniquely funky hippie-jazz flavor. It may not be quite A-list stuff; but it's far from junk.

"Get A Little Bit" (M. Lewis)
The Fantoms, Power Funksion, 10002, 1972

This is a far more conventional sort of soul/funk outing for the band. Lewis has the writer's credit; but I doubt it is anymore than him wanting a cut of potential royalties on a group original. I've come to love what the drummer, Winston Shy (who would soon leave the band), and bassist, Robino Barnes, are doing on "Get A Little Bit". Both have a loose, relaxed feel, as they play around with the beat, and yet keep it in the pocket. They set up an eminently enjoyable groove that the rest of the band can ride. 

Besides these two, the guitar is also prominent, just playing chords and a repeating riff, with no soloing. During this period, the Fantoms did not have a regular guitarist, and used various pick-up players, including the great Walter 'Wolfman' Washington, who was also doing some recording for and with Eddie Bo. I don't have a clue if Wolfman is on this track; but it is possible. Other players who were for certain on the session would have been founding members William 'Will' Norflin on organ and saxophonist Milton Lewis (who would also soon leave the group to form another band, the Family Underground), plus vocalists Ronald Trudeau and Anthony Rainey. Somewhat after the release of this single, an unnamed New York label expressed interest in "Get A Little Bit" and approached Marty Lewis and about signing the band; but the Fantoms did not take the offer, because they heard unfavorable things about the label and had a shaky relationship with Lewis.

After their next single, "Big Fine Woman" (supposedly released on Big Deal in 1972, although I can find no evidence of it), went absolutely nowhere, the Fabulous Fantoms did not make another record until 1975, when the three principals, Norflin, guitarist and singer Anthony Raines, and manager Robert Morgan, established MAN Records and put out another funky two-parter, "Rip Off", which had some good hooks and better recording quality. It was a non-starter all the same; but the next year they issued another single combining the A-side of "Rip Off" with a very funky rendition of "Love The One You're With", the Stephen Stills hit. That got them an offer from London Records, but the band did not have enough new original material for an entire LP at the time, causing the label to lose interest. Longtime fans of New Orleans music will find it significant that the band's re-working of the Stills song is supposed to have caught the ears of the Meters, who incorporated it into their live shows, as did the Neville Brothers after them.

Shifting ahead to 1978, again seeking the interest of a national label, the band self-produced a well-recorded and played album's worth of material at Ultrasonic Studio in Uptown New Orleans, with a pair of female vocalists and a percussionist added to the mix. Living up to its title, Just Having A Party was mostly get-down dance-funk music with a few slower soul songs created just to be shopped around for a record deal. And it almost paid off when TK Records contacted them about releasing the album. Unfortunately for the Fantoms, the timing was not right, as the label opted to go strictly for the disco market in 1979 and did not sign them after all. As a mater of fact, the rise of disco and the growing use of DJs in the clubs, ultimately led to the demise of the band as a live act, as well, that year.

Had the Fabulous Fantoms kicked their songwriting quality and output up a notch and gotten the opportunity to record more often earlier in their career, it seems very likely that their local and national impact would have been greater, like another fine young local band, Chocolate Milk, who signed with RCA in the mid-1970s. Of course, CM had Allen Toussaint in their corner, producing their early albums; but, still, the Fantoms were a good band from their inception and their sound, while somewhat generic, continued to improve. They should have had more of a shot; but, like too many other worthy New Orleans acts, they didn't get one, leaving their legacy in the hands of re-issue labels, rare record collectors, and fans of obscure grooves like us.

*Thanks to heap big record collector and dealer "Trent" for this 45!

[8/2/2007 - This update just in from our long lost commentator, Dwight Richards, a man outstanding in his field, that being the drummer of Chocolate Milk. He writes:
Dan, Dwight here from C.M. I know it's been a long time, but as you can guess, I have been busy in New Orleans with housing issues. But, man, you never cease to amaze me. When you find a piece of history like this I simply have to comment. The Fantoms were one of several popular groups in New Orleans. They actually recorded before CM became popular on the scene. I believe there is the possibility that CM's horn section may have been on that project. I can't remember because before we formed CM , all of us played in several different bands. I played in at least five bands myself. Rubino Barnes, the bass player you mentioned was and still is a good friend of mine. He went to the same high school as me. In fact he was still in high school when he recorded with the Fantoms. I was very envious!! Your analogy to CM is spot on! All of the bands played the same clubs, so we all knew each other and there was FRIENDLY competition. I can't remember all of the members of that band, but they were a funky bunch. Members of that band, like many bands from New Orleans, came from St. Aug. high school which populated many bands of that era. For your music detectives, NOTE: The forerunner of Chocolate Milk was called The Deacons. This band also recorded a couple of singles. one song may have been called "Sissy Walk" or something like that. (yeah yeah yeah I KNOW!) I wasn't playing the drums in that incarnation, but it would be a hoot to hear it. -Dwight (field reporter)

How absolutely fanfriggintastic to hear from you, Dwight! I should have known that this post might be the key to you checking in again. Hope your housing issues are getting squared away, as I know this is a major challenge for those who have returned home to the Crescent City. I've tried to contact you numerous times over the past year - so email me or call when you get a chance. Thanks so much for your comments and for that strong hint for a future HOTG posting topic (I'll get to work on it). Hey, I'd like to talk to your friend, Rubino/Robino, sometime, too, as there is so much I don't know about the Fantoms. As always, your contributions mean alot. Peace.