June 08, 2008

Eldridge Holmes Sells "The Book"

As I've said before, Eldridge Holmes was one of New Orleans' great soul/R&B vocalists. Period. Had he gotten the opportunity to record as much as the smoother, more formal Johnny Adams did over as many years, he would be at least as well-known and spoken of in the same reverential tones. As it is, though, no real breaks came his way; and he dropped off the radar of all but a few die-hard collectors and fans. Had Allen Toussaint not believed in Holmes and given him opportunities to record occasionally during a ten year span starting in the early 1960s, I doubt we would have been left even the small legacy of tracks we are blessed with. It still amazes me that his singing and songwriting talents have been generally overlooked for about four decades now. When many of his recordings were compiled by the AIM label in 2006 and released on the CD, Eldridge Holmes Deep Southern Soul, I thought the situation might finally change; but that release has mysteriously dropped out of their catalogue, due probably to inadequately secured rights to some of those songs. Talk about snake-bit. But, copies of the CD are still available around the internet - and are highly recommended.

For an outstanding appreciation and overview of the recording career of Eldridge Homes, Larry Grogan's still can't be beat; so, jump immediately over to
Funky 16 Corners for that essential background. I featured some of Holmes' work here just about a year ago; and my internal clock just buzzed to tell me it's again time to send more sincere props his way. . . and to get back to the HOTG funk focus. So, let's listen in on two of his sides that may well be his first backed by the Meters, who by 1969 were not only Toussaint's in-house production band but hot recording artists in their own right.

"The Book" (Leo Nocentelli)
Eldirdge Holmes, Deesu 300, 1969

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"No Substitute" (Eldridge Holmes)
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What first impressed me about this record is how outright funky both sides are, another example of Toussaint putting the Meters to good use, as he also did on Lee Dorsey and Betty Harris material of the period. Written by the band's guitarist, Leo Nocentelli, "The Book" is virtually a one chord exercise with just a few other quick passing changes. It's underlying energy and substance arise from the intricate, infectious rhythmic interplay of the instruments. Starting from its clever, ear-catching intro, this is pure state-of-the-art Toussaint production mastery: rich, interwoven horn charts, multiple keyboards (likely both Toussaint and Art Neville), Nocentelli's chord chops and repeating figures, George Porter, Jr.'s amazingly complex bass running, and Zig Modeliste's rather restrained beats on top with all the counter-action happening down below on his subversively busy, if not impatient, kick drum. Funk-sway at its finest. Holmes' vocal endows the song with more weight than it actually merits, singing the essentially silly lyrics with such grit, soul and sincerity that he totally sells them. To hear Holmes tell it, that funny book seems almost biblical.

On the flip side, Holmes' own composition, "No Substitute", there's less going on in the musical front. It's kind of like a chorus in search of a song, really: a slow, repeating hang-time vamp over which Holmes soulfully testifies to his utter need for his irreplaceable baby. Again, funk and Holmes' emotive voice save the day. Without them, this would be an totally inconsequential B-side. In terms of arrangement, it's almost the opposite of "The Book". The instrumentation is less complex; and it's the rhythmic hesitation of the vamp interacting with Zig's increasingly broken-field drumming that provide the booty-grabbing focus. The horns and a nice acoustic guitar offer some ornamental counterpoint as Holmes sings his pleading lyrics in a voice that commands attention, but, again, deserves more to work with. If only the song lived up to the goose-bump raising intro, where the singer comes in from out of nowhere hitting a high falsetto "ooooh" that is sublime.

Still, it's great to hear Eldridge Holmes working with the Meters, mixing a voice of pure soul with their unique rhythmic abilities. Their pairing here in late 1969 marked a revamp of the Deesu label for Toussaint and his business partner, Marshall Sehorn, visually displayed by the distinctive coin-face on the 45s. But even with a new look and groove, Holmes' single fared no better commercially than most of his earlier soul and pop work, only a few of which were even decent local sellers. His funkiest and most well-known workout with the Meters, though, was his highly coveted Atco single side, "Pop Popcorn Children", which I featured last year and may have been cut at the same sessions for "The Book", from the sound of it. That single also featured their intense, one-of-a-kind descent into the blues, "Cheatin' Woman", which was actually the first of Holmes' tracks to be re-issued. The Atlantic blues compilation LP it was on, which I bought years ago for its two Percy Mayfield cuts, provided my first exposure to Eldridge Holmes and was the start of my ongoing fascination with him.

Holmes had two more Deesu releases, probably with the Meters backing, that went for different sounds, but did no better in the marketplace. His enjoyable cover of Tim Hardin's "If I Were A Carpenter" (which Toussaint also tried with Lee Dorsey), was a smoother production, which strangely had "No Substitute" again as the B-side, either because Toussaint was strong on the song or short on material. On his final Deesu outing, "Lovely Woman", Holmes moved back toward the pop mainstream where Toussaint had aimed him earlier in his career. It's a breezy, addictively upbeat soul swinger that had hit written all over it, unfortunately they must have used invisible ink. The flip was a forgettable cover of "What's Your Name" that leads me to believe that Holmes by that point was not getting proper attention from Toussaint, who was having much more success with Dorsey and the Meters, working on his own album projects, and beginning to get work as a major label producer for outside artists. Though Toussaint always held Holmes in high regard, this great singing talent completely fell through the cracks in the early 1970s, and, after two more hopelessly obscure singles for other small labels, was sadly heard from no more.