September 25, 2008


[UPDATED 3/17/2012]

Having last focused on some Wardell Quezergue productions that were more toward the mainstream, I thought I'd feature two examples of his unique brand of funk, most evident in the early 1970s, when he was recording virtually all of his projects in Jackson, MS, at
Malaco Studios. I've visited this period before on various cuts with the Big Q touch by such artists as King Floyd, the Barons Ltd, Elliott Small, Denise Keeble, and Larry Hamilton; but there are more worth exploring. So, let's try a side by one of Quezergue's more obscure vocalists; and then we'll turn to one of his most successful.

As you regulars may have noticed, I've been collecting records on Quezergue's Pelican label for a while now - there weren't that many. Of the four artists featured on the label’s short run, only C. L. Blast ever established any career name recognition. My latest Pelican find is this rare white label promo I scooped up last year that seems to have been the last release. It came out at a time when Pelican was briefly distributed by Atlantic Records, due to the success of Quezergue's work with King Floyd. When Floyd's first single for Malaco's Chimneyville label, "Groove Me", was taking off in 1970, Atlantic jumped in to distribute it nationally and push it to the chart-tops, agreeing to take on Pelican as part of the short-lived deal. When Floyd's follow-ups didn't do as well, and most of Quezergue's other productions failed to interst them, Atlantic opted not to renew their agreement with Malaco, a major set-back for the entire operation..

"Sho-Nuff The Real Thing" (W. Quezergue - A. Savoy)
Curtis Johnson, Pelican 1920, 1971
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Certainly not well-known today, Curtis Johnson recorded just a handful of singles in his time, a few of which found at least limited acceptance in the prior decade. I first heard of him on two Tuff City CD compilations* of Quezergue productions; and what I know of the singer’s background comes mostly from Michael Hurtt’s notes to one of those, Sixty Smonkin' Soul Senders.

Johnson came to New Orleans from Wichita Falls, Texas in the early 1960s; and, by 1963, had started a vocal group, the Sonics, who became popular around town fairly quickly, soon recording two singles for Cosimo Matassa's White Cliffs label: #208, "Just Like Delilah" b/w "So Tired"; and #230, "Come Home Baby" b/w "Crescent Walk". Of those, "Come Home Baby", modeled after the Impressions, had some limited success locally.

Acquainted with Wardell Quezergue already, Johnson approached him in the mid-1960s about recording solo; and the producer, who had a stake in the Nola and Hotline labels, was agreeable, arranging material by several songwriters for a session. The resulting single, "If You Need Love" b/w "I've Got To Get Away From You", was released on Hot Line (#911), just prior to Guitar Ray's "Patty Cake Shake" in 1967 [note: Sir Shambling points out that these sides also appeared on Whurley Burley 201]. The A-side was a fairly standard mid-tempo soul dancer; but what stirred interest was “I’ve Got To Get Away From You”, a slower number that Quezergue gave the Stax/Volt treatment. Johnson got down and gritty on it; and the song received considerable airplay in the area – yet, still not enough to break out of the region into markets around the country. Quezergue moved on to other interests, leaving Johnson without a follow-up single, and forcing him to start working for a living. After a few years, Big Q gave him one more chance to score, bringing him to Malaco to record "Trying to Win You Over" b/w "Sho-Nuff the Real Thing" in 1971.

"Trying To Win You Over", was the straight-forward, moderately paced, and fairly generic soul top side; but the flip was another matter. I've chosen it as an example of Big Q's penchant for quirky rhythmic experimentation; but "Sho-Nuff The Real Thing" was really not Johnson's best vocal showcase, as he seemed overwhelmed, or maybe unnerved by having to deliver something equivalent to what King Floyd was having success with at the time. Maybe funk really wasn't his thing.

As I've noted previously, Quezergue’s standard operating procedure at Malaco was to pre-record the backing instrumental tracks with the in-house studio band, creating a distinct part for each player. He did this pretty much in his head just prior to the sessions; and it's interesting to hear the results of his obviously mathematical mind at work in these fine-tuned, precisely interacting instrumental and vocal rhythms bouncing back and forth off each other like some little perpetual motion engine. The resulting poly-rhythms may be too calculated to be pure funk – but what else do you call this music?

Unfortunately, instead of being uplifted and supported by the arrangement, Curtis Johnson’s singing gets kind of run over and chewed up by those unrelenting cams and pistons. While that surely was a production faux pas, it’s still a fun B-side to groove to.

"Carry On" (Maria Tynes, Wardell Quezergue)
Jean Knight, Stax 0116, 1972
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

By contrast to Curtis Johnson’s funky dilemma, Jean Knight’s take on “Carry On” is a perfect example of how well-arranged funk is supposed to work. The highly rhythmic, interlocking parts are there, but in a more complex interplay of textures and dynamics that Knight’s voice is at one with, creating a living, breathing, dancing organic whole. This was producer/arranger Quezergue at the top of his game; and it is hard to understand why “Carry On” did not keep Knight on a winning streak, after her leadoff Stax smash of “Mr. Big Stuff” in 1971 (which had be recorded at the same 1970 session with King Floyd’s “Groove Me”), and the sound-alike follow-up, “You Think You’re Hot Stuff”.

This third single of Knight’s five for Stax is certainly one of their strongest team efforts, a fine party record that is admittedly light in the lyric department, but a guaranteed booty loosener. Strangely for Knight, after her first rocket-propelled hit, her Stax ride was all downhill. The story goes that Stax found Big Q and his team simply too quirky, and wanted Knight to record material from some of the label’s impressive stable of writers – but Quezergue refused to work those songs up, in effect killing the deal and Knight’s chance at continued success on a big time soul label. I’m all for funk and New Orleans flavor – but it seems a shame that she missed out on such an opportunity, whether it would have come to anything or not, seeing as Stax soon would go under. Still, Jean Knight’s work with Quezergue was one of the big success stories for a New Orleans artist, even if recorded in Jackson for a Memphis label. And the charming diva did carry on and is still performing, working her stuff to this day.

Jean and Wardell at the Best of the Beat, 2008
Photo by Dan Phillips

*Wardell Quezergue's Funky Funky New Orleans and Wardell Quzergue: Sxity Smokin' Soul Senders.

Note: I've just this past weekend learned of the passing of the great New Orleans groovemaster, Earl Palmer. I'll be working up a feature on him him soon. Also, I'd like to dedicate this post to my friend, Charles Dangeau, a fellow radio host on WEVL for many years, who passed away last week. Charles had just an amazing musical knowledge and a deep, deep collection, which he shared with listeners weekly on his program, the Night Train, for over two decades. I learned a lot and heard so much great music listening to Charles, and always enjoyed our conversational excursions, too. When his health got worse and he could no longer get to the station, he sold his records to another volunteer at the station, who took over his show and keeps playing cuts from Charles' legacy. You can hear Steffen do the Night Train Thursdays from 9:00 PM to midnight, US Central Time, on the WEVL Memphis broadcast stream. Boogie on, Charles. This funk's for you


Blogger allen vella said...

i love your site. great stuff, i get lost on it. that's a good thang. thanks for the work. allen

1:43 AM, September 27, 2008  
Blogger Chef JP said...

I just started reading your blog recently & wanted to thank you for all of the work you've done here. I've always been a big fan of New Orleans R & B and am gratified that there's a site online such as yours. Best of luck with this!

1:36 PM, October 01, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this lovely track. Can't get enough of this Stax stuff, great blog!!!


3:25 PM, October 15, 2008  

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