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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post Dan I will listen and read later on but one sentence strikes me ! Do you have trouble with the HOTG radio ? Is it legal stuff or money problem ? If we can help let us know !

2:16 AM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thank you, jipes. The immediate probelm for the HOTG webcast is that SoundExchange, the organization set up by the American music industry to collect royalties on internet music broadcasts, has increased the rates so extremely that small webcasters like us could not realistically afford to pay them or keep up with all the reporting requirements they are imposing. Unless they back off, or the US Congress passes a law to protect us, there will be far fewer webcasts coming from the USA soon. It's more complicated than that - but, hey, that the basic story. We hope to know more soon. We may have to let someone outside the US take over for us. If anyone is interested, let me know.

8:13 AM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Dan -

Like I said, buddy, you are the only one who could really give Willie's music the attention it deserves. The scope of your knowledge about all things New Orleans never ceases to amaze me...

Thank God we saw him when we did! I will miss him, man.

6:25 PM, September 13, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a real shame in France they also start to reduce all licensing for Web radio blogs they succeed to close down several websites which were promoting music by streaming artists. They don't even realize that they are killing their own future profit :o(

Well let me know if I can be of any help, I really love the efforts you do to promote Louisiana music and be ready to help !

1:53 AM, September 14, 2007  

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