October 18, 2007

Denise Keeble Unchains Her Thing

[UPDATED 3/15/2012]

Not exactly a household name, Denise Keeble was one of a number of low profile artists who Wardell Quezergue and his Pelican Production(s) team tried to develop into hit-makers at the beginning of the 1970s. With recording opportunties limited in New Orleans, in 1970 Wardell and business partner Elijah Walker made arragnements to do virtually all of their production sessions at Malaco Studio in Jackson, MS, while the basic nuts and bolts of pre-production - songwriting, rehearsal, and the like - took place at the home of head writer Joe Broussard in the Crescent Ctiy.

Many of the resulting records, such as today's feature on Pelican, only got as far as limited release by small, independent labels such as Pelican, which had little ability to promote or disseminate their products far and wide. Buoyed by initial hits for several of his early King Floyd recordings on one of Malaco's in-house labels that Atlantic distributed, Big Q was shooting for similar results for his other projects at at the studio; but only Jean Knight struck further gold with "Mr. Big Stuff" after Stax agreed to release it, and just a few of her follow-ups got noticed at all. Despite his generally high quality efforts, Wardell's other productions had no significant commercial impact; and, after just a few years, the hard realites of the record business forced him to move his operations back to New Orleans.

The mere handful of releases on Quezergue and Walker's Pelican label are hard to come by, since, due the lack of demand, not many copies were pressed up. Limited resources left the partners unable to provide the right kind of encouragement to DJs for enough sustained radio airplay to even hope of geting listeners' attention. Unable to generate a buzz, Pelican couldn't attract the attention of any larger labels with a national reach. The result was virtually instant obscurity for their output. Of the four known Pelican singles, Ms Keeble seems to have had the first, followed by C. L. Blast (the best known artist of the bunch and the only non-local), Larry Hamilton, and Curtis Johnson, all of whom had just one apiece issued on the label before it folded.

Information on Keeeble is equally scarce. Afer much digging, all I have come up with so far is that she was
a decent but not particularly gifted vocalist who recorded just two singles, both, it seems, done at Malaco around 1970 with Quezergue producing and arranging. Besides her Pelican appearance, which we'll focus on this time, she also had a release, "Love School" b/w "Giving Up" on the one-off B.F.W. label (#1101).

Listening thhrough the surface noise accumulated on this record in the course of its long journey through the decades to my archives, there is enjoyment to be had in the grooves as well as revelations about Big Q's production process. So, let's listen to the results of what probably was a typical day at the office and studio for the Pelican and Malaco crews.

"Chain On My Thing" (Bryan Babour)
Denise Keeble, Pelican 1230, ca 1970
(tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

While the early 21st century reader might infer from the title that "Chain On My Thing" is about a provocative piercing, the song is really one of those 'don't want to be tied down by a wedding band' numbers from the free-lovin' days of about 40 years ago. Even though the song was written by a man, I guess you could call the lyrics as sung by Keeble a Women's Liberation declaration of sorts. But, that's as far as I'll diverge into socio-political commentary.

As with many of Quezergue's Malaco-era arrangements, well-crafted, mutli-instumental rhythm patterns were assigned to each player on the track to bring the song's desired groove and feel to life. While not as
idiosyncratic of groove as, say, King Floyd's "Groove Me", this upbeat mover was definitely on the funky side with Vernie Robbins' locking in on the thrusting, ofbeat bass line that meshed perfectly with the tight, springy hits and hesitations in the pocket James Stroud laid down.

Even the talented house band at Malaco found it challenging to assimilate the often demanding elements of the producer's exacting arrangements; but their ability to nail such songs is what makes the output of those years working with Big Q especially noteworthy.

As Stroud recalled to Rob Bowman in the notes for
The Last Soul Company, Malaco's CD box set label retrospective, "It was difficult, because Wardell had it in his head as to what he wanted. . . . So he had to keep us sort of lined up to a point and make sure we learned what we were doing and then he allowed us to stretch out from there. But the initial grooves and the initial ideas were in Wardell's head." Obviously, though, on a tight number like this, there was not a lot of room to stretch; and the job simply came down to groove fulfillment.

"Chain" has a somewhat varied instrumental impact, though, since it seems the only electric instruments on this track were the bass and subdued keyboard. In a nice touch, Quezergue used a prominent acoustic guitar and a string section to soften and texture the sound, in contrast with Stroud's aggressive beats and the punchy horn accents. Keeble, whose voice reminds me at times of Barbara George, obviously gave the performance her all, but ultimately wasn’t able to step out and own it, or convince anyone to play and push it - a deficit no Big Q arrangement could compensate for.

"Before It Falls Apart" (Broussard - Savoy - Quezergue)
Denise Keeble, Pelican 1230, ca 1970

(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

"Before It Falls Apart" is the side I prefer, even though I think the song's creative reach exceeded its grasp. Writers Joseph Broussard, Albert Savoy, and Quezergue, the core of the Pelican Productions team, mixed in way more hooky elements than a couple of minutes could effectively hold, resulting in a production curiosity, rather than the danceable, sing-along hit it could have been with some pruning. Listen closely, though, because the busy, intricate arrangement never falters, due to excellent execution by the players; and Keeble's voice sounds somewhat better to my ears, though she hardly had a chance to settle in anywhere.

All in all, the song was just too kitchen sink quirky to have mainstream appeal, not that a B-side on a boutique label had much of a shot anyway. It reminds me of another stylistic stretch Quezergue tried with the Barons, Ltd song,
"Gypsy Read Your Cards From Me", that worked out better, but sill didn't get far on the radio. Nonetheless, these tunes show that Wardell and company had no chain on their creative thing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm playing "Chain on my Thing" on my March 3rd show on www.cjsw.com called South Louisiana Gumbo [13th year]...I play Louisiana music and musicians from 1917 jazz to 2008 hip hop.

Chef Wayne
CJSW 90.9 FM 106.9 Cable
and on Streaming mp3 audio
Mondays at 7 PM Mountain Time

9:36 AM, February 28, 2008  

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