November 16, 2008

Chuck Carbo: Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

New Orleans funk fans and collectors are probably most familiar with Chuck Carbo from the one-off 45 sides he made for and with Eddie Bo in 1969 that have appeared on several compilations; but, as seriously funky as it was, that record really didn't provide a great showcase for someone who is considered by many, including me, to be one of the city's best and most under-appreciated R&B vocalists. Although Carbo's career spanned over five decades, he put his talent on the side for many years to support his family with day jobs and did not have much of a solo singing career until late in his life. I have had this post simmering since Chuck's death at 82 this past July. My perpetual state of project overload often keeps me from getting to HOTG posting in a timely manner; but, things do eventually come around for those who wait. If you're still with me, let's take a listen to some Chuck Carbo cuts with good grooves as well as vocals, and give some props to another great one who's now gone.

Born in Houma, Louisiana, Hayward 'Chuck' Carbo, moved to New Orleans with his family when he was barely school-aged. He and and his younger brother, Leonard, or 'Chick', grew up singing in the church where their father was minister; and, after active duty in the Coast Guard during World War II, the brothers joined a gospel group, the Zion City Harmonizers, who became the DeltaSouthernaires a few years later. With the Chuck on lead vocals, plus Chick, Joe Maxon, Matthew West, and Oliver Howard, the group was popular in New Orleans. In 1953 they auditioned two gospel numbers at Cosimo Matassa's studio. Cos, who was looking for R&B acts, immediately heard their potential and said they could make a record, if they came up with some good secular material. The group soon brought him two promising songs written by their guitarist and friend, Adolph Smith. Cosimo, who would start co-managing the group, recommended them to Dave Bartholomew, local A&R man for Imperial Records as well as successful producer and writer for and/or with Fats Domino and others. Impressed, Bartholomew signed them to Imperial and produced their first single (5265), featuring the two Smith songs, "I Didn't Want To Do It" and "You're the One". Not wanting to use their gospel name for a secular record, which would cause them to lose church work, they called themselves the Spiders; but word soon got out, as the Spiders' debut became a two-sided national smash. As a result, they wouldn't (or couldn't) go back to singing gospel.

They toured extensively on the success of that first Imperial record, playing large venues like the Apollo; but early on, the seeds of their demise were sown when LewChudd , owner of their Los Angeles-based label, approached Chuck with an offer to record as a solo artist and leave the Spiders behind. Even though Chuck was the featured vocalist on most of the material, he at first refused to go against the group; but the offer caused understandable resentment and tensions among them. Meanwhile, Bartholomew wrote a tune that soon got the Spiders back into the national top ten in 1954, "I'm Slippin'In" (Imperial 5291). But a sudden serious illness kept Chuck off the road and out of the studio for months. Meanwhile, Bartholomew kept the remaining group recording with Chick singing lead; but none of the resulting releases did very well. Then, when Chuck was well-enough to rejoin the group, they informed him that he was not welcome. Faced with declining sales,Chudd asked Chuck to record a new song Barholomew had written, "Witchcraft", on his own. It was released in 1955 as a Spiders record only because the other members came in later to overdub their parts, and rose to #7 on the R&B charts; but the group was irrevocably broken by then, leaving the remaining Spiders to go on the road to support the single that was to be their final big record, minus the lead vocalist.

The Spiders. L-R: Chick Carbo, Joe Maxon,
Oliver Howard, Chuck Carbo, Matthew West

"Witchcraft" (Dave Bartholomew-Pearl King)
The Spiders, originally Imperial 5366, 1955
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Thankfully, you can't hear any of that internal turmoil or group flame-out in the grooves. "Witchcraft" is a crafty little mid-tempo rocker that sneaks up on you with the subtle syncopation of its Latin-tinged groove - reminiscent of the kind of rhythm Professor Longhair was pushing in the left hand bass notes of his songs back then. Players on this session were likely the same crew that worked regularly with Bartholomew and backed the Spiders on all their hits: Earl Palmer, drums; Frank Fields, bass; Ed Frank, piano; Herbert Hardesty, lead tenor sax, with Bartholomew on trumpet and/or Melvin Lastie, cornet. Lee Allen also played tenor sax on some of the sessions (though I don't think he's on this one), as did Red Tyler on baritone sax. Speaking of baritones, Carbo's rich, resonant vocal is almost too mellow for rock 'n' roll; and yet its casual authority and obvious high quality blends perfectly with the band and commands attention. My copy comes from a Japanese re-issue of a 1961-era Imperial LP retrospective on the Spiders. All in all, the track certainly casts a spell.

After cutting a few more unsuccessful faux-Spiders singles and some under his own name, Chuck left Imperial around 1957. He didn't record again for several years, but could be heard performing locally at the Dew Drop Inn and other clubs. In 1961,Carbo made a record, "Lover Of Loves" b/w "I Wake Up Crying", for the Teem label, a new start-up owned by Johnny Vincent, who also ran Ace Records. The session was produced by Earl King and rushed out to catch some of the action off of Lee Dorsey's superior local hit version of "Lover Of Loves", written and produced by Allen Toussaint. Chuck's cover version didn't do much, but he soon signed on with Cosimo Matassa's Rex label, which Vincent distributed, and began cutting tracks under the direction of the young Mac Rebennack, who was doing a lot of solo recording, songwriting and A&R work the labels. Although both Rebennack and Carbo contributed some good material to the projects, only one of the Rex sides, "Promises" from the first single (1003), had any success, topping the carts in New Orleans in 1961 and selling well in several northeastern markets.

"Picture Of You" (Rebennack-Matassa)
Chuck Carbo, Rex 1011, 1962
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

From 1962, "Picture Of You", off of his second of three Rex releases, is one of Chuck's best sides for the label and is also a shining example of the hip, sophisticated arrangements thatRebennack could write and produce. On this uptown blues number, with fine horn charts and likely Mac's own tasty guitar work, Carbo's soulful vocal seems both effortlessly smooth and substantial. Had he not stayed close to home, and with better breaks, he could have run with the big names of the era. It's obvious why Rebennack has said that he was a big fan of the singer and always enjoyed working with him. After the Rex singles, Ace released a couple of more on Carbo in the early 1960s, before it went belly-up. Rebennack , who had a damaged finger from a gunshot wound and was in trouble with the law due to drugs, left New Orleans for Los Angeles. At loose ends, Chuck bowed out of the music business and took on a "real" job to feed his family, not recording again until late in the decade.

Carbo's return to recording was under unusual circumstances, since I think it's safe to say that any session with Eddie Bo was probably something out of the ordinary. This was the year that Bo got hot with his own ultra-funked out "Hook and Sling" on Scram; and heavily broken-up grooves were emerging all around New Orleans. I'm not sure exactly why Eddie recruited Chuck in 1969 to join him on the vocals of "Can I Be Your Squeeze" and take the lead on the somewhat more conventional flipside , "Take Care of Your Homework Friend", which came out originally on Bo's single-shot Fire Ball label. Maybe he just wanted to give a friend some exposure. But Bo's recording and release process during this period was unconventional, to say the least, and not geared toward the big time. He had more of a hit-and-run, guerrilla type of approach to record production and sales, issuing numerous quirky singles on scatter-shot labels, many of which were his own limited-run inventions or other small independents lacking clout, and having no marketing to back up any of it after release. Still, in this case, there was chance for national distribution when the Fire Ball single was picked up and re-released by a small California label, Canyon Records, in 1970. But, despite having some good acts on its roster, Canyon ditched with in a year or so; and Bo's Carbo project went down with it.

"Can I Be You Squeeze" (Edwin J. Bocage)
Chuck Carbo, Fire Ball 7005, 1969
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Larry Grogan at Funky 16 Corners featured this song from the Canyon version of the 45 shortly after Chuck's passing, calling it "one of the hottest funk sides to come out of ANY city, let alone the hotbed of New Orleans." His enthusiasm is well-deserved. The track has surfaced on several funk compilations, including Funky Delicacies, Eddie Bo's Funk Funky New Orleans (where it is mis-titled), Soul Jazz, New Orleans Funk, and Grapevine, Southern Fried Funk.

Kicked off by Eddie Bo's rousing "Oooooh-weee!" yelp, "Can I Be You Squeeze" offers two and half minutes of strong, linear funk by Bo's studio band, the Soul Finders. It's pretty much a purely poly-rhythmic excursion with no chord changes to bother with, suitable for maximum booty shaking, and featuring some fine drum breakdowns, in all likelihood by the great James Black. Just listen to the amazing, intense kick drum pedal work on this thing - can't be touched. Over all the broken beats and percolating riffs, Bo, ChuckCarbo, and some fine female singers, work out on a minimal set of lyrics and add a bit of melodicism to the proceedings. That's Eddie, too, shouting "git it" and "whip it" and other encouragement to the tough little sister the song addresses. Though he's not asked to do much here, Chuck's lowdown soul really enriches the track, and when he swoops in with his own "Ooooh, little sister...." on the breaks, he really stokes up the sexual heat. More's the pity that virtually nobody heard it at the time.

It was his old producer from the Spiders days, Dave Bartholomew, who called on Carbo for vocal duties next. In the early 1970s, they went into the studio to cut some songs Dave had cooked up that turned out of be another unusual experience, but of the less memorable kind, resulting in one of the more obscure (and deservedly so) New Orleans singles I've run across. This was, I think, the first release on Senator Jones' SuperDome label.

Other than a mention of this single by Jeff Hannusch in The Soul of New Orleans, I had never heard anything about it or seen a copy. Then, last year, I became intrigued when a a friend in New York told me he had found a copy of it on Ebay and that it had Chuck's name misspelled as Carobo. Some months later, I encountered this copy of the single online and was able to snag it and hear it for myself. After listening, it occurred to me that Chuck probably liked that his name was mangled on it, since he had told Hannusch, "That record just didn't sound right to me."

"Black People Music" (Dave Bartholomew)
Dave Bartholomew and Chuck Carobo [sic], ca 1971

Chuck's comment is an understatement. I don't know what exactly Bartholomew was getting at in the lyrics, which seem to be about poor, black sharecroppers; but, although it comes from the days of continuing civil rights struggles and growing black power awareness, this vague, simplistic, meandering song certainly doesn't rouse sentiments similar to powerhouse soul anthems such as "A Change Is Gonna Come" or "What's Going On". Calling it "Black People Music" seems presumptuous (at best), stretching to lend it a weight it just doesn't merit.Carbo sang well enough on the tune, but there was not much to work with. As he recalled to Hannusch , Bartholomew and Leonard Lee were the other voices; and Ed Frank played piano. I would suspect Dave played one of the trumpets, too. The flip side, "You Gonna Marry My Daughter", another Bartholomew composition, is a novelty song gone wrong that I am not bothering to post. It presents the tale of a gun toting father (played by Chuck) catching a young man (played by Dave, with the annoying help of Leonard Lee) with his daughter and demanding that they get married. All (kind of) sung over a second line shuffle. The shotgun wedding was a social concept at least 20 years out of date when this record was made - and sadly further demonstrated how out of touch with the musical time the legendary Bartholomew was by this point.

I am including the track just to demonstrate that not all rare records are good records, though they might be interesting in a historical sense. If you are not purely an archivist, you can pass this one by.

Fortunately, Chuck was mature enough not to quit his day job with stars in his eyes after recording with Bo and Bartholomew. Through the 1970s, he again sat things out on the sidelines while the music business continued to go through many changes. In the 1980s, there was beginning to be a musical resurgence in his hometown. Early that decade he sang at a benefit concert for WWOZ , the city's cultural jewel of a community radio station, and got such positive feedback and enjoyed the experience so much that he was inspired to get back into performing. That led to occasional gigs a local clubs and appearances at JazzFest. In late 1988, he recorded an LP in New Orleans, Life's Ups and Downs, for 504 Records in the UK, with his old friend and collaborator, pianist Ed Frank, as producer, arranger and bandleader. They gathered some choice local players for the sessions, rounding out the rhythm section with Alvin 'Shine' Robinson on guitar (it would be his final session), Walter Payton, Jr., bass, and Shannon Powell, drums. After the recording was done, Chuck wanted a single to use for getting gigs (being old school), and they spun off "Second Line On Monday" and "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On" from the LP onto a 45 that came out for the 1989 Carnival season. Both sides became popular locally, played often on WWOZ and jukeboxes around town, resulting in modest, but encouraging, sales. 'OZ is where I first heard these tunes back then; and I bought the LP when I was down for Jazzfest that year.

"Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On" (Jeannie & Jimmy Cheatham)
Chuck Carbo, 504 Records, 1988
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

"Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On", swings with a relaxed, in-the-pocket New Orleans feel. Frank's superb arrangement is just timeless, and the playing perfection, making an ideal vehicle for Chuck's voice - a song he was meant to sing. The LP cut is longer; but you get the drift here. The material on the album is a mix of older tunes from the Spiders days, covers of Fats and Chris Kenner, with the newer material, including the title track, written by Earl King. You can hear the flip of this single at Red Kelley's The "A" Side; and I've had another album cut, the great "Bad Water", in rotation on HOTG Radio since day one, taken from my 2006 post.

The 504 album really kicked up Chuck's game and got the attention of Rounder Records during their hey-day of recording forgotten or nearly forgotten New Orleans artists. He did two fine CDs for the label. The first, Drawers Trouble, in 1993 featured most of the same 504 rhythm section with Ed Frank arranging and Dr. John sitting in and contributing some tunes. 1995's Barber's Blues, another Frank collaboration, pretty much stuck with the same formula, but had a different mix of players, all of whom were first rate. Those CDs provided a fitting coda to Chuck Carbo's career so long on hold, proving that he not only still had what it takes, but that he was definitely one of the most distinctive in a long line of great New Orleans singers.

[Background for this post came from Rick Coleman's notes to Bear Family's The Spiders: The Imperial Sessions, Jeff Hannusch's notes for WestSide's Soul Stirrings, and Hannusch's The Soul Of New Orleans.]

November 03, 2008

Off the subject...but a really worthy cause

My friend and multi-blogger, Red Kelly, who brings you Soul Detective, The "A" Side, The "B" Side, etc, has been working with a large group of soul fans on this tribute to a Memphis soul legend, O. V. Wright, which will take place on November 15 in my old hometown. To find out more about the event, the fund set up to honor the singer by placing a headstone on his unmarked grave, and the Soul Of Memphis Foundation, go to the O. V. Wright Memorial Fund website. Donations are being accepted for their continued work; and tickets may be purchased there.

Hope some of you can make the concert and related events. Props to Red and all the organizers for doing right by one of the greats of Southern soul. May they find the support to keep the tributes coming for many other worthy artists.