September 28, 2007

Of Gaturs and Indians

After Atlantic's interest in Willie Tee faded with his record sales around 1965, he made a few more records for Nola and related labels* (Hot Line and Bonatemp) that achieved almost instantaneous obscurity. His inability conjure hits certainly wasn't due lack of talent, but I think had to do with his jazz influenced, more musically sophisticated style of soul that was somewhat ahead of its time. Added to that, the poor distribution of his releases and scant promotion did not help maintain his profile with record buyers and radio. The marketplace at the time was much more friendly to label-mate Robert Parker, whose 1966 novelty item, "Barefootin'", became Nola's biggest record. Around 1967, with bad business blood beginning to separate the label's owners, Tee and his cousin, Ulis Gaines, a co-founder of Nola, formed their own label, Gatur (GAines-TURbinton). But it was a bad time for a music business start in New Orleans, especially one linked to studio-owner Cosimo Matassa through his Dover distribution company. Cos' entire business assets were seized by the IRS, including master tapes for numerous independent record companies. With no material to release, nowhere in the city to record new tracks, and no distributor, locals labels such as Nola were effectively shut down. Tee's first single on Gatur, the odd "I Peeped Your Hole Card" b/w "She Really Did Surprise Me", was a casualty of that debacle, as well; and the new label was put on hold as soon as it had begun.

As the 1960s came to an end, Tee did songwriting and production work on a single for the promising, young New Orleans soul singer, Margie Joseph, newly signed to the Volt label out of Memphis; but that record was another bust. Then, in what seemed to be a reversal of his fortunes, Cannonball Adderley (see post below) helped get Tee an album deal with Capitol, which resulted in I'm Only A Man in 1970, an album I still do not own – though not for lack of trying. Capitol was where Adderley was signed; and he, along with his keyboardist, Joe Zawinul, had high regard for Tee's many talents. Zawinul even credited Tee as a big, early influence on his approach to funk. While Tee's first LP effort turned out to be another commercial non-starter, the 1970s would soon prove to be a very productive and influential, if not lucrative, period in his career.

Pretty much back at square one, Tee and Gaines reactivated Gatur Records; and Willie began developing and expressing his own take on the funk that was flowing freely on the local music scene. He called his studio band the Gaturs and, over the next few years, released nine singles on the label under his own name or that of the band. In 1971/1972, ATCO picked up the Gaturs’ first single, "Cold Bear" (featured here 7/4/2007) b/w "Booger Man"; but nothing much came of that, either. Still, Tee persevered, creating an atmospheric, funky soul/jazz sound that was distinctly his own thing. An excellent example of what he could do with just a simple arrangement is this Gaturs side:

"Gator Bait" (W. Turbinton)
The Gaturs, Gatur 510, ca 1972

(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

A compelling bass pattern and percussion with minimal drums kick it off, laying down a groove that immediately baits its hook. As soon as the chords of the central riff begin, there’s a surprise. Tee's playing a Wurlitzer electric piano, which immediately gives the track an intimate, impressionistic jazz-oid vibe. Steeped in reverb "wetness", the track imparts a sense of depth or distance that differs from the generally up-front, "drier" recorded sound of the Meters. All the elements of a strong funk tune are here: the layered percussion from drummer Larry Panna and likely Alfred 'Uganda' Roberts on congas, Erving Charles' bass line that won't quit, and an obligatory wah-wah guitar; but it's Tee's floating keyboard work that takes the track into some sort of dreamland dimension where we commune and dance with the spirits. Both he and Charles toss off short, hot solos to boot. No clichés played here, as Tee re-interprets the language of funk with his own finely tuned sensibilities, creating an intriguing and enjoyable musical hybrid within the confines of an under three minute single side. I also love that random street patter the players interject along the way.

And speaking of hybrids. . . . During this same period, Tee began his collaboration with Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, uniting the primal Mardi Gras Indian music Tee often heard as a youth with his own unique blend of musical styles. The Indians were long a sub-sub-culture in New Orleans, even though they had an over 100 year tradition of masking on Carnival Day with elaborate hand-sewn costumes of feathers and beads, roaming their neighborhoods displaying their handiwork, performing ritualized (and, early on, actual) battles with other tribes, and singing their mysterious, rhythmic songs. In February of last year, I told the tale of how Tee and the Indians got together. What resulted from the initial, historic, but rather crude recording session bringing the Indians and funk grooves together, was that French label owner, Philippe Rault of Barclay Records, was inspired to record an entire LP on the Wild Magnolias in 1973, followed by a second in 1975. On both projects, Willie Tee ran the sessions (though got no production credit), composed and arranged the instrumental backing, contributed some compelling new material to supplement the traditional Indian songs, played keyboards, and lead the musicians, many of whom were from his own band. His brother Earl, played soprano sax throughout, providing a sometimes eerie, sometimes vaguely Middle Eastern feel to the tracks that heightened their exoticism.

"New Kinda Groove" (Wilson Turbinton)
The Wild Magnolias, Barclay, 1975
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

"A New Kinda Groove", from 1975's They Call Us Wild, is certainly a fitting example of what Tee brought to the party. As the song title implies, he did impart an influential, new kinda thang not only to the Indian tradition, but to the diverse musical culture of his hometown. This tune is a classic of the "funk-sway" genre found in Tee's work on Gatur and with the Wild Magnolias. He puts a patented swing to the syncopation, producing a proud strut that honors the Indians’ significance while embedding their vibe in a contemporary musical setting. While the Barclay LPs were not released in the States until Polydor brought out CD versions about 30 years later (which went out of print by the end of the century), they were still incredibly influential on the local scene, and provided national and international recognition for the Indian phenomenon.

I'll be featuring more from the Willie Tee catalogue down the road. I hope that what I've laid out in the past few weeks on the main page and in links to past posts with re-activated audio suggests to you how great a contribution he made to the music of his hometown and the planet – pretty remarkable for a man who never hand all that many commercial releases and was only known to the general public for a lone, fairly lightweight hit that really didn’t scratch the surface of what he was about.

As driving a creative force as he was, Tee humbly saw himself as a conduit for the expressions of higher powers. Bill Roberts, a gifted, golden-eared audio engineer and producer, worked with Tee from the mid-1990s to just recently, recording countless hours of Tee’s spontaneous composing. He shared with me this description of the artist at work in the studio; and I think it is a fitting way to close and a great way to remember what Mr. Turbinton was about:

When I worked with Tee, we would build a track simply with him performing all of the instruments on the Kurzweil K2000 V3 (keyboard/digital workstation). He typically started with drums and percussion, then added the bass (he would hear a bass line in his head and write around that), and then built the entire track working from there. This would not take long at all, 30, 45 minutes. I might suggest a cello or a flute or something here and there. He would try it and usually say, "Yea!". I feel confident that I was just expressing verbally what Tee was going to do anyway - he was in charge.

After he got the track built up, he would get another idea and work on that, starting a new set of channels to lay another new song. One thing that really sticks in my mind is what he would say after we'd have the tracks built. It would go something like this:

"Do you hear how they have those horns coming in and out of the melody? I like how they used the tambourine in those spots." He was referring to music he just created as though "They" had done it, that it came from somewhere else. He was like that. He considered himself a vehicle for the music to be performed "through", rather than giving himself the credit alone for its creation.

Bill Roberts - Balanced Mastering

God rest and bless your soul, Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton.

*These can be found on the Tuff City/Night Train CD, Teasin' You, if you don't mind that the tracks were transferred from vinyl, some of which was obviously in bad shape. Suggestion to the compiler(s): next time, spring for digital audio restoration software or (harder to find) for near mint copies of the records, if you can't get the master tapes. [Note: According to Aaron Fuchs, owner of Tuff City, Tee was paid substantial royalties generated from sales of his material and sampling by other artists.]

September 18, 2007

Did Saying Yes Lead to Mercy?

"You Beter Say Yes" (Johnson)
Willie Tee, Atlantic 2302, 1965

(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

This is the B-side of Willie Tee's final Atlantic single in 1965. I posted the other side, "I Want Somebody (To Show Me The Way Back Home)" on May 16. 2005 and have the audio link back in action there for a while. While I prefer that side for its funkier leanings, probably courtesy of drummer Smokey Johnson, "You Better Say Yes" is no slouch of a tune. Another Earl King (Johnson) composition and Wardell Quezergue arrangement, it's got the hip, easy swing of many of Tee's other Nola/Atlantic sides coupled with his fine, falsetto-laced vocal.

When I first heard this song, maybe fifteen years ago, after finding the record in one dusty bin or another, my first thought was that King had "borrowed" the main repeating riff in the song, played on guitar by George Davis, from Cannonball Adderley's jazz hit,
"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy", written by Viennese keyboard virtuoso, Joe Zawinul. I just left it at that until recently, when doing research and speaking with a friend and associate of Tee's, I realized that Tee, Adderley, and Zawinul were long-time friends, probably going back to the days when these songs were recorded. It was Adderley who helped Tee get a deal for his soul/pop LP, I'm Only A Man, with Capitol in the late 1960s. Checking further, I found Zawinul's copyright on "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" was registered in 1966; and Adderley's release date on his live recording of the tune was the same year, indicating that King did not get his riff from that record. At that point, I had one of those "hmmmm" moments, speculating about Zawinul copping the riff from Tee's single, instead of vice versa. Wouldn't that be a trip. It could have gone either way.

In 1962, Cannonball Adderley, along with his cornetist brother, Nat, and bassist Sam Jones, came to New Orleans to record a jazz album, In the Bag, at Cosimo's studio, using three fine young local players in the sextet on the date: Ellis Marsalis on piano, Nat Perrilliat on tenor sax, and James Black on drums. Those three were at that time also recording jazz and R&B sessions with Harold Battiste for AFO, the musician-owned label he headed. And, of course, Willie Tee did his first soul/pop sides for the label that very year, as well. Being a budding jazz pianist, Tee could easily have found a way to be at those sessions to observe and listen, as Battiste and Marsalis were his mentors. Joe Zawinul was already a member of Adderley's band by this point, though he did not participate in those New Orleans sessions. But I am sure this is where Tee's connection to Adderley and, thus, Zawinul began. Did Tee, Davis, or King hear an early version of "Mercy" somewhere in those years, or did Zawinul develop the riff he heard on Tee's 1965 record into his own famous tune? We may never know; but this kind of musical cross-pollination is common. It makes for an intriguing sidebar to the tale of Willie Tee's career.

Update: For confirmation of Tee's friendship with Zawinul and a general remembrance of the artist, the following is from Bill Roberts, Tee's recording engineer going back over a decade, As Bill wrote to me:

I worked with Wilson Turbinton, Willie Tee, off and on for over 12 years in the studio as one of his recording engineers and am truly blessed to have known him.. “Tee,” as I called him, was much more than a musician to me. We had countless conversations covering all walks of life; and the true gentleman he was shined brightly at all times. Wilson always put family first, and his was a family of musicians. Just a month ago, he laid to rest his blood brother and musical partner. saxophonist Earl Turbinton with whom he made the Brothers For Life album. Wilson’s daughter, Raquel, has her own albums, produced by her father.

Tee spoke of Joe Zawinul [
both pictured above ca 1967 - thanks also to Bill for finding this photo on the net] almost every time we did production together. Both musicians were extraordinarily talented composers, arrangers, producers and…to top it off, friends and fellow collaborators. Just in the past few months, the pair had performed together at Joe’s “Birdland” in Vienna, Austria.

So, Tee did not leave this planet alone. It is not often that two musicians, 6000 miles apart, ones who worked together over the last 40 years, leave this place arm in arm. As someone who usually has a lot to say, I am speechless.

- Bill Roberts
Balanced Mastering

September 11, 2007

A Series of Firsts For Willie Tee

As Red Kelly mentions in his new post at the 'A' Side on one of Willie Tee's collaborations with the Wild Magnolias, he and I stood in Lafayette Square in downtown New Orleans this past May during Jazzfest week and heard Willie Tee do a hip, relaxed set with members of Galactic backing him. Big Chief Bo Dollis, apparently not in good health at the time, joined him for some numbers, too. Although there were some technical difficulties with the keyboards and mics, Tee was in great form; and it was a pleasure to see and hear him live again. Little did Red or I know it would be our last chance for that.

To provide some glimpses of his music over the years, I plan to set the audio back up on several of my Willie Tee posts in the archives. You'll find the links to those listed at the end of this post, when I have them ready. Of course, HOTG Internet Radio (its ability to continue long-term still in question - listen while you can!) has numerous of those Tee tunes in the stream, too. And, I'll be posting some other material from my archives, starting with this post.

Tee got an early start with music, taking up the piano as a precocious pre-kindergartner. By the mid-1950s, as he was approaching his teen years, he and his older brother, Earl, who already played saxophone and flute, formed the Seminoles, a band that performed mainly at local talent shows. When Tee entered junior high school (that's middle school, kids), Harold Battiste, his music teacher and an accomplished jazz musician, arranger and R&B talent scout/producer for Specialty Records, recognized and encouraged his vocal and instrumental abilities, giving Tee the chance to sit in on gigs with his teacher's band. When Battiste and those band members later established their own record label, AFO (All For One), in the early 1960s, Tee began to record as a featured vocalist. His very first single was the self-composed "Always Accused" b/w "All For One" in 1962.

"Always Accused" (Turbinton)
Willie Tee, AFO 307, 1962
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Just 18 years old at the time, Tee sounds extremely fresh and confident on his debut. His smooth, sonorous voice would serve him well over the years. Based on the prevalent popeye medium tempo groove of the period, Tee's song still has its own unique sound and styling with a touch of sophistication to it that sets the record apart. But he didn't get a chance to see the single or its one follow-up, "I Found Out (You Are My Cousin)" b/w "Why Lie", get much airplay or generate sales, because of the rapid demise of AFO, which lost its national distribution deal with Sue Records around this time.

Although Harold Battiste was "in love with Willie Tee's voice", as he put it. He didn't' think the young man was ready to play piano on the session. So, that fell to an unnamed member of AFO's capable session crew, which probably had as its core John Boudreaux on drums, Chuck Badie on bass, and Roy Montrell on guitar. Battiste's horn arrangement here is particularly well done. All in all (and all for one), I don't think Willie Tee could have asked for a better sounding record to kick off his career.

A couple of years farther on, Tee got the opportunity to record again, this time for the Nola label, which was co-owned by his cousin, Ulis Gaines, arranger/producer extraordinaire Wardell Quezergue, and Clint Scott. The partners had started Nola in 1964 and had some limited success with Smokey Johnson's proto-funk classic, "It Ain't My Fault". They also secured an agreement with Altlantic Records that gave the national label first option to release anything that had potential. Impressed by their new singer's prospects, the Nola team had ace tunesmith Earl King write some tunes specifically for Tee's style; and he came up with two brilliant winners that became Tee's first Nola single, "Teasin' You" b/w "Walking Up A One Way Street", in 1965, both superbly produced and arranged by Quezergue. When "Teasin' You" starting getting strong attention on local stations and in various parts of the country, Atlantic exercised its option and issued the record under its imprint. As a result of Atlantic's clout, "Teasin' You" became the first nationally charting hit (#12 R&B) for a Nola artist, as well as Tee's sole major seller. It is still played often on oldies radio and is on the all-time favorites list of East Coast beach music fans (here's a video of him performing at the Beach Music Awards - thanks to Red for the link).

"Walking Up A One Way Street" (King)
Willie Tee, Atlantic 2273, 1965
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

I've chosen to feature the less well-known B-side, "Walking Up A One Way Street", because it's probably my favorite of Tee's from the 1960s. While the A-side's feel is a hip mix of soul and jazz elements, the flip is pure hooky pop that flat out swings from start to finish. I love the ascending chord progressions coupled with the simple, effective horn lines. When Tee lays his soulful vocals on top, flowing easily into and out of his falsetto, the result is a truly unique, signature sound, not only unlike anything else coming out of New Orleans at the time (although some of Johnny Adams earlier records were equally impressive in their own way), but arguably like nothing else on the radio, period. Unfortunately for Tee, that's where his ticket to the big time stopped. His next two Atlantic releases,"Thank You John" b/w "Dedicated To You" and "I Want Somebody (To Show Me The Way Back Home), b/w "You Better Say Yes", though similar in approach and great, pretty much tanked. After that, Atlantic did not option any more from Tee, and he returned to Nola and its related labels, Hot Line and Bonatemp, releasing four more virtually unheard singles before Nola went under a few years later.

[Thanks to Red for sending me this nice article in which Quezergue confirms most of the players on this session: Smokey Johnson, drums; George French bass, George Davis, guitar; Willie Tee, piano; and Carl Blouin, baritone sax. I would bet that the line-up was about the same on all the Nola/Atlantic sides.]

"Please Don't Go" (W. Turbinton)
Willie Tee, Nola 737, 1967
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

"Please Don't Go" is from Tee's first record back on Nola after Atlantic was out of the picture. Like all of his sides for the Nola family of labels, the track was produced an arranged by Quezergue; and the original vinyl is hard to find these days. Written by Tee, who had his sights on the pop mainstream with this one, the song certainly has a more sophisticated structure than most of the hits of the day. As with the majority of his records in the 1960s, it shows no telltale signs of being a New Orleans product. As a matter of fact, Big Q's horn charts here and the repeating horn pattern on ""Walking", remind me of some of the recordings of Burt Bacharach songs that were popular in that era. But it's Tee's eminently listenable, easy-going vocal that keeps me coming back for more on this one. Although for the most part he was not showing any signs of the funk that was soon to come from him [an exception is "I Want Somebody" from his last Atlantic single - check out my post from 5/16/2005 linked below], the high quality of his songwriting and vocal efforts for AFO, Nola, and Atlantic show what a multi-faceted performer and artist he was.

RIP, Wilson 'Willie Tee' Turbinton

I learned today that Willie Tee passed away this morning, succumbing quickly to colon cancer that had spread to other organs. He was 63. People, please get a colon screening, if you are over 50. Here's a nice obit from the New York Times (thank you to Mr. Surch for this link!). If I come across any more, I'll put them up here, too.

From what I've experienced of his music over a long career, and learned of him from those who knew him, this man was a class act all the way. I am working up the first of a series of tribute posts on this truly under-rated New Orleans artist and will re-activate the audio on some earlier posts very soon.

For now I'll close with a strange, poignant convergence. Back in 1960s, Tee became freinds with Cannonball Adderly, also befriending Adderly's keyboard player at the time, Joe Zawinul; and the two keyboardist/composers remained close friends until the present day. Weather Report recorded one of Tee's tunes; and, as I mentioned before, Tee's brother, Earl, who left us just a month ago, played on Zawinul's 1970 solo LP. Well, today Joe Zawinul died, too. Guess they all were called out for that giant jam session up in Spiritland.

September 09, 2007

This is the only part about doing this blog I hate. . .

Having to convey sad, tragic news about a New Orleans artist. But I want you to know so that you can send your best good energy, thoughts, and prayers to Willie Tee, Wilson Turbinton, who is currently hospitalized in New Orleans diagnosed with a rapidly advancing terminal illness.

You may recall that Tee just laid his brother, Earl, to rest about a month ago; and I featured several songs in a tribute post about Earl that you can still access by scrolling down. So this is indeed a shock. A few days ago, I was contacted by a friend and collaborator of this amazing musician, composer and vocalist, who told me that Tee had gone into the hospital for what seemed like a routine operation. While in surgery, doctors discovered the much more serious condition, which had already gone beyond treatment. Last I heard, his family was with him at the hospital. Steve Masakowki of Astral Project announced this news on Pat Jolly's listserv in New Orleans Friday and was asking readers to take a moment for collective prayers for Tee that evening. As far as I know, the Turbinton family itself has not made any official statement about any of this. So, if I have any facts wrong, please forgive me.

I will set aside my upcoming post selections and prepare some new ones and link-backs to old ones related to Willie Tee's career. This news is certainly another blow to the music community of New Orleans, which is still struggling to regain its rhythm, hold the scattered and damaged cultural remants together, and heal. Willie Tee exemplifies the creative, complex and independent spirit of the city's music makers (although he was still displaced, living in Baton Rouge). He has much more to give to his city and the world. And it's simply too soon to lose him. So, expect a miracle.

September 07, 2007

The Pleasingly Humpin' Jean Knight

"Humpin To Please" (James Canes)
Jean Knight, Ola 1-102, ca 1977

For those of you who don't know or recall the reference in the title to this song, there was a large, national trucking company back in the 1960s and 1970s called Campbell 66 Express that had their slogan, "Humpin' To Please", along with a running cartoon camel, painted onto their trailers, as pictured below. You'd always see them out on the road. I'm pretty sure that's where the inspiration for this song title came from. But, as you can tell, its not a song about hauling freight or trucking - at least not literally. No, this song is pretty much, you know, humpin' to please. And New Orleans' own Jean Knight delivers the goods with her characteristic sass and soul.
Released on Traci Borges' Ola Records, "Humpin To Please" b/w "Love Me Slowly!" probably dates from around 1977 and is the second of two 45s she cut at Knight Recording Studio (also owned by Borges, and not named for Jean), in Metairie, LA. I featured one side off the earlier single, "What One Man Won't Do Another Man Will", back on July 22, 2005
, if you want to read more about it. That came out on the Open label in San Francisco in 1976. Both records were arranged by musician Eric Dunbar, about whose career I have found out very little; but, as with the previous cut, he displays a deft hand at creating a pulsating groove of interlocking instrumental parts that gives Knight's vocal a humpin' bumpin' ride. Also, this track and the Open side I featured were penned by another mystery man, James Canes. Any information about him would be appreciated. After long looking for it, I finally got this record a few months ago from a local collector/dealer down here. It's definitely a keeper, as I like Knight's funky sides the best.

Jeff Hannusch says in The Soul Of New Orleans that "Humpin To Please" was a local hit for Knight. That's good to know, since Knight had been wandering alone and hitless in the musical wilderness since she and Stax parted ways in the early 1970s. After she gave the label one if its biggest sellers with "Mr. Big Stuff", a classic Wardell Quezergue production that Knight helped tweak into a smash, the singer, producer, and Stax could not find common ground to move forward. Going it on her own, she recorded only a handful of singles in the remainder of the decade; and "Humpin" was the last of that period. She wouldn't record again until 1981, when she had success working with producer Isaac Bolden on his Soulin' label. Her second single for Bolden was picked up by Atlantic/Cotillion; and the A-side, "You've Got The Papers (But I Got the Man)", a duet with a male soulster named Premium, charted nationally and resulted in an album release for the pair. But Cotillion lost interest when nothing else from the LP sold. So, Knight and Bolden returned to releasing material on Soulin' until, in 1985, they got in on Rockin' Sydney's "My Toot Toot" craze, releasing a version that Atlantic again picked up and put out on its Mirage label. It did well enough on the pop charts for another album to be released on her, though the song craze soon had tooted its last. Since then, she has had, I think, one CD release, which I found lacking, and still performs at casinos and festivals, including, of course, Jazzfest, where I've had the pleasure to hear her again in the last several years. Jean Knight still has a great voice, plenty of attitude, and can strut her stuff most pleasingly.

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