October 25, 2008

Percy Mayfield Declines Presidency

"I Don't Want To Be The President" (P. Mayfield)
Percy Mayfield, Atlantic 3207, 1974
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Tongue firmly in cheek, Percy Mayfield teamed up with producer Johnny "Guitar' Watson back in 1974 for this musical declaration of non-service to his country as Commander-In-Chief - something about it limiting his ability to "frolic". The record was made some 20 years before Bill Clinton's unfortunate dalliance with an intern. So, besides being a great songwriter, Mayfield was a quite the political prognosticator. More likely, he just understood human nature. And, were Percy still with us, I am sure he would add a few more good reasons to the list about now. Anyway, I've always enjoyed this song, since hearing it years ago on the compilation LP, Atlantic Blues: Vocalists; and I chanced upon the 45 not too long ago, just in time for the run-up to Election Day.

Originally from Minden, Louisiana, in the north-western part of the state, Mayfield cut this tune when his recording career was well into decline. In fact, this may be his final 45. As a young man, he made his way to Southern California via Texas in the late 1940s and started an illustrious songwriting and recording career, being one the the premiere artists on the Specialty Records roster, starting in 1950, with hits and/or classics like "Please Send Me Someone to Love", "Strange Things Happening", "River's Invitation", and "Lost Mind", among many others. He sang with an evocative, smokey baritone of limited range; and his often dark, introspective lyrics earned him the title of "Poet of the Blues", although, he walked the fine line between blues and R&B. As this tune reveals, he also had a playful side. After an auto accident left him facially disfigured in 1952, Mayfield left Specialty within a few years and label hopped for the remainder of the decade, gradually turning from performing to writing for others. He penned many choice tunes for Ray Charles, including "Hit The Road Jack" and "Danger Zone". Hip vocalist/pianist Mose Allison also covered Mayfield tunes to good effect and kept him popular with the cognoscenti. In the 1960s, Charles set Mayfield up on the Tangerine label, often using his own band to back the singer on a series of first rate sessions that, unfortunately, did not have much commercial success. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mayfield recorded some fine albums that grew increasingly funky for Brunswick and RCA, always with top players backing him; but they too were lost on the public. Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, another bluesman who had started out in Los Angeles in the 1950s, was just commencing his own funky comeback when he produced "I Don't Want To Be The President" b/w "Nothing Stays the Same Forever" for Atlantic, gracing them with his own signature lead guitar work. But, Watson's touch did not re-ignite things for Mayfield, whose vocal style was perhaps too intimate and worldly-wise for a new generation of party-hardy funkateers. After this, he recorded only a few small label projects, one overseas, before his passing in 1984. Later in the 1970s, Watson covered this tune himself - but it remains relatively unknown.

While "I Don't Want to Be The President" doesn't have anything to do with New Orleans, Percy Mayfield, who I've featured once before, deserves a place of honor in the Home of the Groove (how about mayor?), both as a native son of Louisiana and due to the fact that one of his greatest latter-day interpreters was the city's own vocal treasure, Johnny Adams, as aptly demonstrated on several albums for Rounder Records, including Walking On A Tightrope, a top of the line, all-Mayfield cover project. Maybe Percy wasn't presidential material; but his music is an enduring legacy we can all be proud of, even as our so-called civilization crumbles around us.

If you live in the US, now that Percy Mayfield is definitely out of contention (for several reasons), I trust that you will do the right thing and vote for...the guy who had the funkiest convention music....and is, luckily, also the best man for the job. Not that you need political advice from a geezer-geek music blogger whose idea of domestic and foreign policy is FUNK EARLY. FUNK OFTEN. Maybe I could tell the new administration's transition team my ideas about basing the world economy solely on the value of rare vinyl records (which show no signs of a market downturn). I've also got a few suggestions for the 2012 convention mix....but, that can wait. I just hope President Obama, after four years in office, doesn't pick this one.

October 18, 2008


Today, I won't be recapitulating the life and times of Earl Palmer, who passed away on September 19th, just over a month shy of his 84th birthday. If you want to find out more about the man, there are some good to great internet resources that will at least get you started. His Wiki bio, a nice feature on the Dummerworld site (including some audio and video), and a memorial site are out there. Then, there is the incredible Dave the Spazz’s WFMU tribute show (3 hours of music!) from last month that should be required listening – planet-wide. Also, almost 10 years back, Earl's story, Backbeat, written by Tony Scherman, was issued. I highly recommend it for insight into this consummate professional musician, with plenty of direct commentary from Earl, plus an overview of his truly amazing career. For more links, see the end of this post.

What I want to do here is focus on a just a few examples of his playing that demonstrate the more poly-rhythmic aspects of his style and express the uniquely New Orleans side of this incredible groove-maker. A deeply funky feel seems to be an innate characteristic of the city's best drummers, so ingrained in the local culture that to second line is second nature. With antecedents going back several hundred years through the Caribbean (Cuba and Haiti) to Africa via the tragic diaspora of slavery, that rhythmic heritage was perpetuated in the weekly dance and drum circles allowed in Congo Square and the secretive societies of the Mardi Gras Indian gangs in city. They arose in jazz, New Orleans' great improvisatory well-spring, through street parade musicians, moving on to shape the distinct local R&B flavor from the 1950s to the present day, as funk in the city’s music has become increasingly overt. Excuse me for trying to cram several centuries of musical ferment and evolution into a few sentences. Anyway, I don't think it's an overstatement or simplistic to say that Earl Palmer is a vital part of that musical continuum and the first drummer to inject both second line syncopations and the turbo-charged, driving pulse of rock 'n' roll into the mass appeal popular music that quickly overtook much of the world, influencing myriad musicians and forever changing listeners' attitudes and expectations, getting backfields in motion across racial and cultural divides, and uniting us in universal worship of the beat.

He played on an enormous wealth of well-known music - R&B, rock 'n' roll, and pop – both in New Orleans and after he moved out to Los Angeles in 1957 into the big time session scene. There's no way to capture all that Palmer accomplished (although Dave’s WFMU show comes close!). So, I've picked these three songs from the mid-1950s, when he was still active in New Orleans, that never cease to amaze me. I hope they’ll at least give a glimpse of Palmer playing complex, yet highly danceable grooves that have origins deep in the culture of his hometown.

"When I was with Dave Bartholomew's band, the guys used to come down to New Orleans to record because I had that mixture of something I was never allowed to do as a kid in a parade band. . . It was a mixture of the bass drum beat that one guy was playing and the snare drum beat that another guy was playing. And not just the basic beat on the bass drum. They were playing syncopated things that were meshing with the snare drum. I tried to do that on a set of drums. . . with a little more up-to-date funky thing. - Earl Palmer, interviewed by Jim Payne in The Great Drummers of R&B, Funk & Soul.

"Who's Been Fooling You" (Roy Byrd)
Professor Longhair, 1953 unissued, from New Orleans Piano, Atlantic
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Mr. Palmer was far too modest in describing what he was up to as a session player in the early days of New Orleans R&B, the late 1940s to mid-1950s. If it had been that easy and obvious, everybody would have been doing it. Take, for example, his backing of Professor Longhair on his handful of 1953 sessions for Atlantic Records. Fess was notoriously hard on drummers, having a strong, idiosyncratic, percussive piano style that pushed a Latin feel into his left hand bass notes which intermingled with his knuckle-busting right hand syncopation of rolling and tumbling lines. It was a hard hitting, complex and highly rhythmic attack that included kicking holes in pianos. Keeping up with him made Smokey Johnson's fingers bleed during the "Big Chief" session in the 1960s! When Fess let that stuff loose, a straight beat or a standard shuffle on the drums would not work. Palmer had a keen rhythmic sense coupled with spontaneous creativity that allowed him to intuitively support and compliment Longhair's piano eccentricities. A perfect fit. No sweat.

In 1972, when Professor Longhair was being discovered by a new generation New Orleans music fans, Atlantic released the New Orleans Piano LP compiling their sessions on him form 1949 and 1953. It is an essential album and was re-issued on CD in 1989. You can hear Palmer's work with Fess there on the classics "In the Night" (in rotation at HOTG Radio) and "Tipitina", the two sides of his Atlantic single #1020 from 1954, plus "Ball the Wall" and "Who's Been Fooling You", which were not issued back then. I've chosen the latter tune, because it isn't heard much. "Who's Been Fooling You" was probably not picked for release because the mix was off, with Fess' voice too loud in spots and the instrumentation too far back. As great an engineer as Cosimo Matassa was, not every take was a winner. There were only about three microphones for the entire band; and I'm sure Fess was a technical challenge to record any day. Still, you can hear his synergy with Palmer, even though the kick drum isn't discernible. It's a shame they did not do more together, as Palmer was Fess' best percussive accompanist, with Johnson, Uganda Roberts and Johnny Vidacovich also doing fine work in later years.

"(Every Time I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone" (Montrell-Marascalco-Sandy)
Roy Montrell, Specialty 583, 1956
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Next up, from 1956, we have Palmer delivering a tour de force performance on the misleadingly titled "(Every Time I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone" by Roy Montrell, recorded in New Orleans for Specialty Records on August 18th. To put this session in perspective, remember that in February, May, July, September, and October of that year, Little Richard was cutting many of his seminal rock 'n' roll sides at Cosimo's tiny J&M Music Shop studio. Most of the musicians doing the killer grooving on this track played on Richard's sessions: Lee Allen, tenor sax, 'Red' Tyler, baritone sax, Montrell on guitar, and, of course, Palmer on drums. Joining them on this track were Clemont Tervalon on bass and Ed Frank on piano. Specialty's A & R man, Bumps Blackwell, oversaw this recording, too, as he did for Little Richard; but it is generally acknowledged that the musicians themselves worked up the head arrangements that brought the songs to life. As a mater of fact, Palmer was usually the leader on these sessions; and, on Little Richard's, he developed his innovative, stripped down backbeat drumming, trying to keep up with the singer’s furious straight eighth-note piano pounding. In Backbeat, he put it simply, “The only reason I started playing what they come to call a rock ‘n’ roll beat came from trying to match Richard’s right hand.”

But, the rock backbeat is not what Palmer was doing on “That Mellow Saxophone”. I did a previous post on this one in the early days of HOTG, and I stand by what I said. I'll just add that I don't think there is a better example of tight, incendiary ensemble playing in early rock 'n' roll. What is amazing about this tune is not only the flat-out energy generated by all involved, but the sheer difficulty of the intricate riffing and timing, which everybody just nails. The drum patterns? I don't know how to begin to describe what Palmer does here. It is higher order syncopation, off-kilter/inside-out, latino-swing-rock, and definitely off-the-hook. A lesser musician might have retired after that session, thinking it couldn't get better; but, for Earl Palmer, it was just another day at the office. We should not forget that the majority of top session players in New Orleans were accomplished jazzmen, including Palmer, who played R&B, rock, and pop because that's what paid the bills. While they certainly changed the game and raised the bar for playing popular music, that was not their conscious intent, but merely a byproduct of the chops they brought into the studio. When you think about these guys managing to condense an impressively arranged, big band type blowing session into an exuberant two and a half minute pop record, it's an amazing work of devious craftsmanship. I'm sure the fun they must have had making this one of a kind wonder was worth far more to them than the standard union scale they were paid for it.

"For You My Love" (Paul Gayten)
Paul Gayten, 1957 unissued, from Chess King Of New Orleans LP, MCA/Chess
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Finally, here's one more cut, also from a previous post, that is too good an example of Earl Palmer's talents to overlook. Paul Gayten recorded this radical re-working of his song, "For You My Love", in 1957, right around the time Earl Palmer left his hometown for good. This is one of my favorite Gayten tracks, because you hear Palmer mixing in some Afro-Cuban influence, which had been strong in the New York jazz and dance band scene for many years and also had antecedents in the musical development of the Crescent City, with those strong cultural connections to the Caribbean.

As noted in my earlier post on this tune, Gayten had written and produced this song for Larry Darnell in 1949; and it was an R&B hit in that more straight ahead version. But later, he re-imagined it as a rock 'n' roll hybrid, which he recorded himself while working as Chess Records' A&R man in New Orleans. For some strange reason, it was never released, depriving the world of its addictive groove until it appeared on the Chess King Of New Orleans LP and CD. On it, Palmer superimposes a Latin beat on the bell of his ride cymbal over a syncopated New Orleans rock 'n' roll shuffle on the snare, creating a natural expression of the city's influences that can't help but engender dancing, revelry, and general getting it on. Gifted local drummer Charles "Hungry' Williams would also adopt a similar poly-rhythmic combination at various sessions, as he began to replace Palmer in the premier drummer's seat in New Orleans; but I think Earl was there first.

Granted, this is a very personal and limited choice of evidence for Earl Palmer's Home of the Groove legacy. But that should be expected. There’s plenty more to discover about him for the musically adventurous; and I encourage you to go after it . In the middle of the last century, he came on the scene at the convergence of old and new approaches to rhythm, and created a synthesis of styles that is still reverberating in music. Now, it’s taken for granted, as if it has always been there. But Earl made it happen as it did, because the way he played was undeniable. He turned the world around and re-calibrated our molecular structure with a drum set and an irrepressible New Orleans spirit. After exposure to his up-to-date funky thing, we'll never be the same.

Further linkage:
Feature on Earl Palmer at Adios Lounge
Video: Earl plays "Tipitina" with Toussaint on YouTube
Video: Running "I'm Walkin'" on YouTube

October 03, 2008

Goodbye, George Davis

"Hold On, Help Is On the Way" (Davis/Tyler/Parker)
G. Davis & R. Tyler, Parlo 102, 1966

(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

"Hold On, Help Is On the Way" has long been on my short list of favorite instrumentals from New Orleans - not funk, just a classy, intensely hip mover and groover. I'd even venture to say it's one of the great R&B instrumentals, period. On it, George Davis gets a chance to let his guitar chops run free, at least for a little over two minutes of concentrated bliss. In the 1960s, his signature licks and solos graced a number of New Orleans records - the most well-known of which was Robert Parker's "Barefootin'". But, this virtuoso single is his only known solo outing from the old days. He shied away from being the front man, not even using his full name on the record, and giving his partner and friend, Red Tyler, co-billing on the A-side, though Red only had a supporting role on sax. Still, it was really George's show.

A month or so back, I found this 45 for sale while I was searching for something else online, and ordered it. Though I've had a CD version of the A-side for many years on a UK Northern Soul compilation, I had never run across the vinyl before, and considered it a very lucky find. The record arrived a few weeks ago; and, just after I made a digital transfer of each side for the archives, I got a call from my friend, Bill, who told me that his friend, George Davis, had died. Bill had been working with him over the past few years, preparing George's self-produced recordings for CD release (he had enough material for at least four CDs!). As we discussed the sad, surprising news and I heard more about Davis, I could still see the 45 sitting on top of my turntable cover. Synchronicity like that gets you thinking. I was further knocked back to find out that Davis passed on September 10th. That is virtually a year to the day after his longtime friends and musical collaborators, Wilson 'Willie Tee' Turbinton and jazzman Joe Zawinul, departed within a few hours of each other on different continents. While that record was in transit to me from England, Davis had slipped away to join them at the Jam Everlasting.

Call it psychic convergence or plain coincidence, but, obviously, Parlo 102 came my way at just the right moment. Though I have long been a fan of George Davis, I never met or spoke with him directly and didn't get a chance to tell him how much his music meant to me. I hope that enjoying this tasty top track is a fitting way to celebrate this multi-talented, humble gentleman, who stayed off the public radar as a name, but who made considerable contributions to music and influenced many other musicians, including Deacon John, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Jr. and George French, in and beyond his hometown. Read more about him in Jeff Hannusch's obituary at Offbeat and in Davis' Allmusic biography linked above.

As evidenced on this well-structured tune, Davis' guitar style displayed a combination of attacks, the most obvious being his breezy, Wes Montgomery-influenced, melodic octave playing on the main body of the song, plus intricate, stacatto soloing, and other embellishments such as his playful quoting of Steve Cropper's licks from Sam and Dave's hit of the same year, "Hold On I'm Comin'", which, I am sure, is where Davis derived the title for his tune. The other players did great work, as well. Tyler's tenor sax doubles the main melody lines; and one of New Orleans finest drummers, June Gardner is likely laying down the unrelenting, driving beat that takes no prisoners. Since Davis was also an accomplished bassist, he could very well have played on the basic rhythm track, later overdubbing his guitar. Probably the rest of the band was much the same as appeared on Parlo 101, Aaron Neville's massive hit, "Tell It Like It Is": Willie Tee on piano, Deacon John on second guitar, and Emory Thompson on trumpet. The B-side of "Hold On, Help Is On The Way" was another instrumental featuring Davis' extended riffing and sounding a lot like "Tell It Like It Is" in tempo and structure, but with a different melody line and a reconfigured bridge and ending. He called it, "Bet You're Surprised", and took the sole billing as G. Davis. But any commercial interest in this single was quickly overshadowed by the events surrounding Parlo's debut release.

"Tell It Like It Is", which Davis composed based on the title suggested by fellow tunesmith Lee Diamond, became an overwhelming hit for Neville, but ended up bankrupting Parlo Enterprises, the production company started by Davis, Alvin 'Red' Tyler, and Warren Parker, as well as their new label, and Cosimo Matassa , who owned Dover Records, which distributed the single, and the legendary studio operation where most New Orleans records were cut. With over two million copies sold on the hit, plus a quickly assembled album on Neville, and his less successful follow-up singles, the companies had shipped much of their product on credit and were not able to collect the money owned them in time to pay their mounting expenses and taxes. As told before here, the debacle changed the face of the record business in the Crescent City for years to come; and, of course, "Hold On, Help Is On the Way", became just part of the debris of that financial collapse, lending its title a sadly ironic twist.

Of course, you don't have to know any of that to enjoy this well-written and impeccably played tune. But I think it only enriches the music to know some of the back story of the people who made it. I'd like to think that Davis' compositional skills and playing technique on this rare gem speak volumes about his soaring spirit, positive energy, musical sophistication, and sense of humor. Considering how talented he was, it is shocking that he did not do more as solo artist until very late in life. But, it seems he was quite satisfied to contribute as a sideman and stay out of the spotlight. Sure, the music business taught some hard lessons; but he came out of it to create a good life for himself and his family and continued making music until his dying day, What more can you ask?

Here's what my friend, Bill Roberts, sent me about George for this piece:
I had the great fortune of working directly with George for the last several years, as we were working on a 60 song, 4 CD compilation. It will be finished in due time. George was one of those guys where, if you met him, you did not just get a glimpse into his life, you got the 'whole George'. All the man wanted to do in life was help others. He did not seek the front line stage. Always a sideman, he made a great fortune with this both spiritually and professionally. . . He meant a great deal to me and to many, many others. His music talent was just one aspect of the man. His generosity, caring nature, and wholesomeness were in my opinion, without equal.

You can hear two of the Willie Tee singles that George contributed to on YouTube.
They are also in rotation on HOTG Radio.

Goodbye, George. Wish I had known you better.

Photo by Bill Roberts

Life is too short to have sorrow.
You may be here today and gone tomorrow.
You might as well get what you want.
So go on and live, baby, go on and live.

- George Davis, "Tell It Like It Is"