March 22, 2008

You Know You Want It

Dunno. Just in the mood for some more Chocolate Milk here on Chocolate Bunny Eve. I’m heading out for a few days and wanted to leave you with a groove that I find as addictive as high concentrations of cacao.

I’ve featured Chocolate Milk cuts here several times; and I’ve got links to those posts below
*. They’re good to read again, not for what I’ve said, but for the comments of the band’s drummer, Dwight Richards, who has been writing in here from time to time since the first few months of HOTG. Maybe we can summon him up again to shed more light on this number. Hope so.

I’ve previously admitted that I was a late arrival to the CM party; and once in, I was slow to engage. At first, I was looking for something “New Orleans” about their music, some of that truly ratty funk that the steamy city can exude, some eccentric expression that could have arisen nowhere else, instead of paying attention to what they were actually doing. A band of high quality musicianship, material, and frequently great grooves, Chocolate Milk made a conscious decision to attune their sound and vibe to appeal to listeners not only in, but far beyond, the confines of the Crescent City. Call it a more “commercial” sound, if you will; but, if you heard this group without knowing anything about them, you likely would not immediately suspect that Professor Longhair, Smokey Johnson, or Allen Toussaint, to shorten severely a long list of local influencers, were lurking in their collective woodshed, and, in the latter’s case, in the control room. Once I figured that one out, I started to dig them for what they had to offer rather than what my expectations were.

Still, I am definitely more of a fan of Chocolate Milk’s output with Toussaint producing - their first four albums – than I am of their subsequent work with George Tobin and, even later, Allen Jones of the Bar-Kays. There’s still some essence of Chocolate City funk below the surface. Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn of Sansu Enterprises in New Orleans took the band on around 1975 and secured their deal with RCA, while released their impressive first LP,
Action Speaks Louder than Words **
. The producer wrote some of their material over the next few years; but the band could do just fine for themselves in that department, working with Toussaint on the arrangements. Unfortunately (there’s that downbeat qualifier again), while their songs occasionally got into the upper reaches of the R&B charts, CM never could get enough traction to completely break out nationwide, no matter who was calling the shots and how good those shots were.

Since I pick the tunes here, mainly going for what moves me, my biases are fairly evident. All I can offer are a few points of departure and a bit of background. Then, it’s up to you to apply the salt grains as needed and, if you’re interested, explore this band in more detail for yourself. Hope you’ll continue to do that.

"Say Won'tcha"
Chocolate Milk, from Milky Way, RCA, 1979

I have long relished the groove of “Say Won’tcha”, a creation of the band as a whole that appeared on their final LP under Toussaint’s direction, Milky Way, recorded wholly in Los Angeles and released in 1979. What the song, which charted as high as #39, lacks in lyrical heft, it more than makes up for with its deft, intricate, polyrhythmic arrangement of simple parts, something Toussaint could bring out so well in a willing and able aggregation. The continual swirl of the bubbly ingredients spins this confection into a dancing froth of funk – a Chocolate Milk Shake – so tasty, it’s hard not to overindulge. Sweet.

Couldn’t think of a better way to start celebrating the rites of Spring

March 16, 2008

The Sister Steps Out At Last

NOTE: Those of you who have been along for the ride for the past few years may recall that I featured an amazing funk tune from The Sister And Brothers, "Yeah, You Right" back in 2005, just about a week before Katrina blew in. I have recently updated that post with new details on the sessions and those involved and re-activated the audio while we also take a look at the third and seemingly final single from that aggregation. I encourage you long-timers and new readers alike to check out the song and revised background there before, during, or after you take in the current post, because I am writing it assuming that you have. That's what links are for.

"Ack-A-Fool" (R. Shaab)
The Sister & Brothers, Calla 175, 1970

(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

After The Sister And Brothers only two Uni singles tanked, the label obviously dropped them. I wasn't even aware that they had another release until I quite by accident ran across this on the Calla label, dating from 1970, a lucky break to be sure. Before even listening to the songs, the label provided me with the previously unknown identity of the lead singer, Sister Geri, a/k/a Geraldine Richard, who also arranged both sides with producer Ron Shaab. I still haven't come up with any further information about her, but it's a start. As previously posted, Cold Grits played on the Uni sessions; but it is still unclear whether all, some, or none of them appeared on the Calla tracks, although the b-side makes me think that’s possible. At any rate, the third time was not the commercial charm for Sister Geri, Shaab, and the Brothers.

Written by Ron Shaab, "Ack-A-Fool" is a much less intensely rhythmic outing than either "The Jed Clampett" or "Yeah, You Right". I find it light, casual and ultimately inconsequential funk - one of those tunes that talks more about being funky than it delivers. It's not an a-side that would have made people line up at the local record hut with a couple of hot dollars in hand. There's just not much going on. Sister Geri and her backing sister singers amusingly keep asking if the music and musicians are "black enough for ya", either an ironic comment, if Cold Grits were involved, or an indication that the Brothers were now bruthas - not that it made the track any better. Anyway, the women made some soulful noise; but their talents were pretty much wasted on this trifle. Fortunately, flipping the record turns out to be a redemption and revelation

"Chained" (F. Wilson)
The Sister & Brothers, Calla 175, 1970

(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Finally! On the final side of the final single, Sister Geri got a chance to let it rip, covering a great tune from Motown songsmith Frank Wilson that Marvin Gaye took to funkville in 1968 on his great original version. Her arrangement with Shaab borrowed the guitar (electric sitar?) riff from Gaye's single, but smoothed out the dynamics and push-pull that made his take hard to top. Still, it's a great groove and song choice that allows Ms Richard to shine on something vocally and musically substantial. Why oh why was this not the a-side? She sings the thing as if she knows it's her last shot at the spotlight, and holds nothing back. Maybe she doesn't have one of the absolutely classic soul voices; but this is a damn fine record. I definitely wish I could have gotten to hear more from Sister Geri.

[Sister Geri also sang backup on Willie Tee's 1976 LP classic, Anticipation, and recorded at least one solo single as Jerri Richard, "Goin' Away" b/w "Do You Wanna Dance", which came out on Royal Shield 102 in 1979. I got that single a while back and will try to get to another post on Baton Rogue artists one of these days....]

March 05, 2008

Denise Keeble: Giving It Up In More Ways than One

[UPDATED 3/15/2012]

This is a follow-up to a post I did last October on Denise Keeble's Pelican single "Chain On My Thing" b/w "Before It Falls Apart". Right around the time I featured those sides, I found a nice copy of her only other known single and am finally getting around to featuring it. Please refer to that earlier post for what little background I have on Ms Keeble and those songs.

"Love School" (E. Small -M. Cottrell)
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

If you thought Wardell Quezergue's Pelican label was obscure, B.F.W. had it beat, with apparently only this one release to its credit. Probably the only reason the 45 came out on a newly minted imprint was the hope that it would get some airplay and attract the interest of a larger label that could give it a push into national markets. A hope that was unrealized.

As he did on her other record, Big Q produced and arranged these sides at Malaco in Jackson, MS in 1970/1971, during the very productive days when he was almost constantly using the studio and it's fine young studio band, having created big hits right off the bat for King Floyd and Jean Knight. Though Knight recorded the massive "Mr. Big Stuff" early in 1970, it was not picked up for release by Stax until the next year. I don't know exactly where "Love School" fits into that timeline, but it has obvious similarities to the style and flavor of Knight's hit, which was composed by members of the producer's songwriting team, Joe Broussard, Carol Washington, and Ralph Williams.

Another member of the team,
Elliott Small, co-wrote "Love School" with Milton Cottrell; and, while the tune has a pretty funny concept and some of the funky bounce of "Mr. Big Stuff", it pales in comparison. Part of the problem was that Keeble just didn't have the same sassy, stand-out vocal chops to deliver the goods like Ms Knight. But, even if Knight had done it, "Love School" would have been at best a B-side or album cut. Still, Quezergue's signature tight arrangement of interlicking, syncopated parts offered good enough grooving to make the track worth some spins. The predominant, percolating bass line rendered by Vernie Robbins put the emphasis on booty action and keeps me coming back for more education.

As with Keeble's other single, I find the B-side more interesting - impressive even, which is why I am including it, too.

"Giving Up" (V. McCoy)
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

The great songwriter and producer of soul/pop hits, Van McCoy, wrote "Giving Up" for Gladys Knight in 1964. In Quezergue's deft hands, this version outshines McCoy's own production on Knight's original Maxx single. Dramatic and musically sophisticated, the song is just the kind of thing an expansive talent like the Big Q could run with. He issued forth a flowing, lush, well-paced, and rhythmically gripping arrangement that uplifted Denise Keeble's vocals and allowed her to finally show her strengths. Although she held her own on the song, she was nowhere near the league of Gladys Knight. Just imagine what Knight could have done with this version. To listen deeply into this song is to behold and relish Quezergue's gifts in all their glory. So why, why, why was it the B-side?

I also have all four songs from Keeble's 45s on the Funky Delicacies CD, Wardell Quezergue's Funky Funky New Orleans, [now out of print, it seems] but totally forgot about this one until I got the single. That's a true record collecting pay-off right there.

Interestingly, around the same time that Keeble did her version, Donny Hathaway also recorded an interpretation of "Giving Up" that took the song somewhere else; but, neither his take nor Keeble's caught a commercial break. Subsequently, she either gave up on the business, or it gave up on her, because, as far as I can tell, she did not record again.