December 19, 2008

Round John Virgin

Faubourg Marigny, New Orleans, 2008

Well, the holidays are upon us. Lots going on, of course. But, thought I'd feature this Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) track from a 1989 LP called Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, an obscure various artists project with the Roches, the late Nicolette Larson, the good Doc and others, recorded in Manaroneck, NY. I don't even recall where I picked this up, but fairly soon after it came out - it was already a cut-out.

"Silent Night" (Joseph Mohr - Franz Gruber)
Dr. John, from Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Real Live/Rhino, 1989

Although outside of Mac there seem to be no New Orleans players on the track, he manages to get a decent groove out of the assembled session cats, as he proceeds to funk up the traditionally solemn, serene "Silent Night" and infuse his arrangement with a righteous gospel feel. I think I recall him doing a version of this on the David Letterman show back around this time, maybe with Darlene Love singing backup. Perhaps I am mis-remembering some or all of that. No matter.

Players include Mac on piano and organ; Will Lee on bass and percussion (another Letterman connection, as he still plays in the show's band), Andy Bloch, guitar; Joe Bonadio, drums and percussion; Joe Ferry, percussion (also the producer); and choir, Terre Roche, Amy Fraden, Leslie Ritter, and Tommy McDonnell, all singin' real pretty.

Fans of Dr. Johm will recall that he did anoter version of this song solo that was recorded originally in 1981 for his Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack LP sessions; but it was not released until the later CD version, and had a simpler New Orleans barrelhouse piano approach. He certainly upped the ante on this latter take; and just listen to him radiate those 88s in true New Orleans piano professor style on his solo. After I heard this, I never wanted the song done any other way.

Wishing y'all the best this holiday season. I'll be back after Xmas with my year end short reviews of some Crescent City related CDs I dug this year, then back to music soon thereafter.

December 10, 2008

Keeping An Eye On Merry Clayton

Before the end of the year is upon us, there's time for one more installment on a New Orleans female R&B artist. One of my favorite New Orleans vocalists, Merry Clayton (whose birthday will be here soon), is a special case for several reasons. While she has roots in the city, she has remained an outsider during the course of her career, never recording there. The only work she has done with a New Orleans producer that I know of was when she sang back-up on Allen Toussaint's first solo album, which was cut in LA. Having an accomplished career spanning over four decades, Clayton has worked with some of the biggest names in the music business and earned their respect, but has never realized the kind of success that would make her name instantly recognizable to the general public. Of course, had that been the case, you wouldn't be reading about her here. . . .

After coming up in the Gert Town neighborhood, adjacent to Mid-City, Merry Clayton relocated to Los Angeles with her family. Her father was a Baptist preacher; so she had a strong gospel music background, but also became involved in the commercial music scene while still young. Her first single was released on the small Teldisc label when she was just 14 or 15. Several more singles for Capitol followed. In 1966, while still a teenager, Merry got the chance to join Ray Charles' back-up group, the Raelettes, through the recommendation of her friend and labelmate, Billy Preston; and she soon was singing lead with the group. As the 1960s progressed, she became an in-demand LA session support vocalist, probably best known for her work on the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed album in 1969. Her searing performance with Mick Jagger on "Gimme Shelter" gave her a place in rock 'n' roll history. She also worked closely with Joe Cocker and his band, singing on many of his early hits, and later backed Carole King on her big albums of the era. Also in 1969, she signed on with Ode Records, a division of A&M, as a solo artist. Previously, I've featured cuts from her first two LPs, Gimme Shelter and Merry Clayton, both of which were impressive*; and, today, I've got two songs up for consideration that appeared on her third Ode album, Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow, which would be her swan song for the label. As is usually the case, I have chosen cuts with the highest funk quotient.

"Keep Your Eye On the Sparrow
" (Dave Grusin -Morgan Ames)
Merry Clayton, Ode 66110, 1975
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

I confess that I don't think I ever watched the TV detective series, Baretta, which began in 1975 and had "Keep Your Eye On the Sparrow" as its theme song. Surprisingly, Sammy Davis, Jr.** sang the TV version - and, for Sammy, it was a fairly funky affair arranged by Dave Grusin, who co-wrote the tune. That "official" version was released as a single the next year, but didn't do much. Then, also in 1976, Rhythm Heritage, comprised of a bunch of top LA studio musicians, covered it. Their version shot up to #20; and I recall hearing a version of the song on the radio back then that was likely theirs.

Merry Clayton, though, was the first to cover the song. Ode released this single and the album of the same name in 1975, produced by Eugene (Gene) McDaneils. He is probably best known for his hit record, "A Hundred Pounds of Clay", from the early 1960s and for writing the hip jazz/funk protest classic, "Compared To What", done so well by Les McCann with Eddie Harris around 1969. Roberta Flack later also covered "Compared To What" to good effect and had a mega-seller with another McDaniels song, "Feel Like Makin' Love" in 1974, which was long a staple of MOR radio and virtually all lounge acts. Anyway, McDaniels was hot (at least in record biz terms) when he hooked up with Clayton for this project. A few years earlier, Clayton's first two albums had not sold all that well; so, I'm sure the executives at Ode were aiming for the big ka-ching on this one. But, while "Keep Your Eye On the Sparrow" was moderately successful, getting up into the top 50 that year, neither the single nor the LP came anywhere close to a Flack-like smash.

Right off, Clayton's incendiary singing and the enticing, incredibly intense drumming are hard to deny. There's not much going on lyrically in the tune other than some rhyming crime cliches cobbled together with other randomness ("...when the going gets narrow." ?!?). But, it's the riveting soul and power the singer unleashes on those near meaningless words that wins the day. To my ear, McDaniels, arranger/bassist Gary King, and Clayton manage to sonically suggest that Baretta could have lived in the back streets of New Orleans instead of New Jersey - the vamps on the verses sound like they were inspired by the Meters' "Fire On the Bayou". Then, after an amazing multi-tom-tom turnaround, the song morphs into disco mode for the chorus. What holds this hybrid beast together throughout is the awesome percussion of Ralph McDonald and virtuoso drumming of jazz/funk giant Idris Muhammad (who started out in New Orleans as Leo Morris) and Steve Gadd, another session master. Both Muhammad and Gadd have drumming credits on the LP, with no individual tracks indicated. Due to the incredibly dense, complicated trap set work, I have to suspect that both drummers must have played on this. I know it's hard to make out on a crappy mp3. I have the advantage of the actual vinyl for reference; but I think you can still hear how amazingly tight and true the manifold poly-rhythmic beats are, no matter how many people are playing.

Whether or not you like the funk/disco combination (I usually run away when things get disco-fied), there is no denying that this track cooks, bottom to top. The horn work is by Joe Farrell on tenor sax and Lloyd Michaels on trumpet. Without a doubt, Clayton's tour de force vocal - rivaling, say, Patti LaBelle for control, intensity and sheer dynamics - takes the thing on up through the roof; and, it's a real mystery to me why this lady has never received the acclaim she so richly deserves. I mean, she does not even have her own section in the All Music Guide To Soul. What's up with that?

"Gets Hard Sometimes" (Eugene McDaniels)
from Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow, Ode, 1975
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

For a more pure funk angle, I'm also including an LP cut, "Gets Hard Some Times", written by McDaniels and also arranged by King. As with many such workouts, it's really not about a melody line or even coherent lyrics, but the overwhelming energy of the groove. While the band gets down to it, Clayton belts out with abandon the few notes available to work with. But this track is more a drummer's showcase; and I'm betting that it was Idris Muhammad who flawlessly executed the intricate, addictive trap-set patterns, with another able assist from percussionist extraordinaire McDonald. As for the rest of the album's backing band, Hugh McCracken and David Spinozza are on guitars, and Kenny Archer and Bob James, keyboards. The late-entry sax work on this tune was by Tom Scott - and, to my mind, the arrangement would have been much better if the horns could have riffed throughout and Scott had gotten a solo in earlier on - just sayin'. Despite the production flaws, the feel on this thing is an interesting fusion of Rufus/Chaka Kahn running upside more Meters-like riffing (the verse vamps remind me of a pumped up "People Say"); and the gleefully broken-up beats make for some indulgent merry.

Ultimately, though the performances on these songs and the LP in general are first rate, I find the quality of the material itself unexceptional. Had there been stronger, more resonant songs, maybe Merry Clayton could have finally stepped out on this one and been recognized as truly one of the outstanding R&B vocalists of her generation, something her peers and hardcore fans have known for years. Having been typecast as a rock/pop background singer way too long, she's followed her heart back into gospel music in recent years. A word to the wise: she's still worth keeping your eye on.

* Merry's version of "Gimme Shelter" on Youtube.
** Hear and see Sammy do a live take (that sounds more like "Shaft") on YouTube.

December 01, 2008

Mary Jane By Any Other Name. . . .

Once again, it's been too long since I've put up anything from the distaff side of New Orleans soul and funk. To remedy that, I'll kick off another round-up of female vocalists with three tunes from my archives by one who , at a young age, had a very brief fling with the local music business and just maybe missed a shot at bigger things.

Mary Jane Hooper's recordings as a solo artist were all done with the supervision and collaboration of Eddie Bo. As has often been the case with Bo's projects of the era, for years there were elements of mystery and myth surrounding the nearly forgotten singer and her sessions. Fortunately, much of that was dispelled with the release of theTuff City/Funky Delicacies 1997 CD compilation of Hooper's recordings, Teach Me, the first edition of which had problems (my copy had only 9 of the 13 listed tracks!) and was later re-issued as Psychedelphia with all of Hooper's known sessions, both issued and unissued. The CD initially came out under the singer's actual name, Sena Fletcher, which was a revelation in itself; and Scott Jordan's brief but well-done notes provided more valuable background about the singer.

According Jordan's research, Fletcher, who had already been singing for years in the Baptist church, first approached Allen Toussaint about getting into the music business when she was just a teenager in the mid-1960s. Toussaint auditioned her and, quickly recognizing her vocal ability, hired her to be part of a vocal trio, dubbed the Triple Souls, who would sing back-up on sessions for various artists, including the hit-making Lee Dorsey, who they also accompanied on tour. After getting some studio experience, Fletcher began asking Toussaint if she could make her own record; but he would always tell her that she wasn't quite ready.

Further light on Mary Jane Hooper's career and recordings has been shed by Martin Lawrie on his amazing discography and tribute to Eddie Bo at soulgeneration. According to Martin, who has interviewed Bo numerous times, Fletcher and the Triple Souls, which included Inez Cheatham* (who also recorded a fine duo record with Bo) and Mercedes Morris, were also working on sessions Bo was producing during the period; and, it seems he was much more open to developing Fletcher as a solo artist. At the time, Eddie was doing A&R work for Scram Records, owned by Al Scramuzzza , a New Orleans seafood merchant. As he had done previously at Joe Banashak's Seven B label, Bo wore many hats at Scram, doing talent scouting, artist development, production, songwriting, arranging, and keyboard playing, plus recording as an artist himself (at least once, using an alias). You can read more about the incredible ins and outs of Bo's recording career in Martin's commentary to his discography - fascinating stuff. One thing thing Martin has wondered about and that Jordan did not clear up is why Bo and/or Scramuzza, changed Sena Fletcher's perfectly good name when they signed her. Be that as it may, the young Ms Fletcher/Hooper soon became one of Eddie's artists in development for Scram and its related labels; and he worked closely with her getting some tracks together, probably in 1967.

During her brief run, Mary Jane Hooper had a total of three releases on the Scram subsidiary labels, Power and Power-Pac, plus one single that came out on the World Pacific label, which we'll talk about in more detail later. Frankly, none of the material that made it to vinyl was top rate, probably due mainly to Scramuzza's limited resources. Her first record, "Harper Valley PTA" / "That's How Strong Love Is" appeared on Power 2051. Yes, that's a cover of Jeannie C. Reilly's "Harper Valley PTA", the country hit, written by Tom T. Hall, but with an uptempo, funky arrangement by Bo - a strange choice for a young soul singer, but one of Hooper's better sides. It's hard to come by these days. I've yet to score a copy. But I do have her second 45, which is detailed below. Her third is also extremely rare, the strong two-part funk mover "I've Got What You Need", which appeared on Power-Pac 2055 and had a very limited release. Scramuzza was putting out these 45s locally to some extent; but they were not getting much promotion, because his main intent was to wheel and deal Hooper onto a larger label. To that end, he was in negotiations with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records about licensing her material or buying her contract. The song that really had gotten Wexler's attention was "Teach Me", on the second single. However, he did not go for the low-rent production, and wanted to redo the song and some of the others in New York. But in the end, Atlantic could not come to terms with Scramuzza, who was asking too much for Hooper's contract; and Wexler withdrew, telling Mary Jane to contact him when she was free from Scram.

"I've Got Reasons" (Bocage & Scramuzza)
Mary Jane Hooper, Power AR-105-4051, 1968

For reasons unknown, "I've Got Reasons"/"Teach Me", Mary Jane Hooper's second single, was issued three times, appearing as Power 2053, Power-Pac 2053, and Power AR-105-4051/4052 around 1968. Despite the multiple attempts, it did not fare well commercially, probably due to the fact that Scramuzza was working the business angles on Hooper instead of aggressively seeking airplay and creating a popular demand for her records, which might have tempted Atlantic or some other label to invest in her. Contrary to what is printed on the label, Bo produced, arranged and wrote both sides. The only reason Scramuzza (whose photo graces the hole shot above) was listed as producer and co-writer was to give him a slice of any royalties generated.

An unambitious mid-tempo groover, "I've Got Reasons" was not one of Bo's best compositional efforts. It used the same changes for both the verses and chorus, with only a brief instrumental bridge to freshen things up a bit. The short ascending/descending intro is pretty much the best hook in the song. Like a good actress with a weak script, Hooper didn't get much to work with, making it hard to vocally overcome the song's repetitive monotony. Understandably, she just doesn't sound inspired. It wasn't a truly bad side, just not all that great. Fortunately, Bo redeemed himself on the flip side and gave her a better showcase.

"Teach Me" (Bocage & Scramuzza)
Mary Jane Hooper, Power AR-105-4052, 196

Listening to "Teach Me", it's not hard to see why Wexler thought Hooper had potential. As she navigated the rather complex structural changes of this substantial ballad, her voice still lacked maturity, as when she lost some control and oversang on the bridge; but the essence of a promising singer can be heard in her delivery. Hooper had dynamics, nice phrasing, and handled the jazzy soul of the arrangement with ease. Unfortunately, the backing band's performance was a bit hit and miss. It's as if they were unfamiliar with the tune, and reading charts on an early take. Probably working on a limited budget from Scramuzza, Bo was either not able to fully rehearse the band or do too many takes - or both. Thus, it's understandable that Wexler would have wanted to take the tune into the Atlantic studios and give Hooper a much more smooth and sophisticated track to work with, had he been able to sign her.

Not that the players Bo was using were slouches. Fletcher/Hooper recalled to Scott Jordan that some of the musicians who worked her sessions were greats like Smokey Johnson or James Black on drums, George Davis on bass, Walter 'Wolfman' Washington on guitar, Fred Kemp on sax, and, of course, Bo on keyboards. At least some of them were likely playing on these two sides, although I don't think George Davis is doing the rather plodding bass lines. He had much more finesse than that. Still, overall, no matter who was playing, the Mary Jane Hooper sessions often had the sound of demos, rather than finished products. As with many producers expected to run sessions with minimal expense, Bo simply took what he could get quickly and tried to make it work.

"That's How Strong Love Is" (Edwin J. Bocage - Benjamin Johnson)
Mary Jane Hooper, World Pacific 77904, 1968

As well as trying to get Atlantic Records to take on Hooper, Al Scramuzza was also shopping her sessions around to other labels. The only one that responded and released a single on her was World Pacific, based in Hollywood, CA, which had a strong jazz catalog through the 1960s and was getting more into pop music later in the decade. Singer/songwriter Bob Lind was probably their biggest non-jazz artist. In 1968, the label re-released Hooper's "That's How Strong Love Is" as the A-side, a catchy soul tune with a gospel feel written by Eddie Bo that had been on her first solo single for Power; but strangely, the stronger novelty side, "Harper Valley PTA", was left off in favor of "I Feel A Hurt", a rather run-of-the-mill soul ballad by Bo that Hooper and the band struggled to deliver convincingly. It might have been that the rights to the country song could not be secured for national release. In any event, the single did nothing, or might even have been purposely ditched by the label; and they declined to release anything else on her.

Although Hooper turned in a convincing reading of "That's How Strong Love Is", joined by Bo (see hole shot) on the choruses, it was simply not the kind of material World Pacific dealt with. In 1968 they were mainly releasing hippie pop acts and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi records. Not a match made in heaven, despite James Black writing the trippy showtune, "Psychedelphia" for her, which might at least have helped her fit in to the California vibe, had she gotten another shot with the label. It would seem Scramuzza was far better at selling fish than luring label deals. His only really big success was Bo's 1969 high funk smash, "Hook and Sling", which got into the Top Ten nationally on its own and was then picked up by Scepter Records, providing for at least one decent payday to cover some of his losses. When Bo couldn't conjure a follow-up hit, Scramuzza closed down his label operations around 1971 and went back to his seafood business.

Discouraged with her lack of progress in music, Sena Fletcher decided to bow out of the business due to impending motherhood and never worked again with Bo, who kept doggedly making records, mainly on his own small labels; and she never did call Jerry Wexler to see if he was still interested. Other than performing briefly with a local rock band a few years later and doing some recording with Willie Tee that wasn't issued, her music career was over. Many of her best studio performances from the sessions with Bo, including "Don't Change Nothin'", "Remember When", "I'm In A Loving Groove", and even "Psychedelphia", were never pressed and remained unheard until the CD release some 30 years later. They are well worth pursuing in the digital domain, if you want a fuller idea of what Hooper had to offer.

Despite her relative rediscovery, it doesn't appear that Sena Fletcher has gotten back into performing or recording. Unless she reconsiders, we'll never know what a grown-up Mary Jane Hooper sounds like or what she could have brought to the New Orleans or national music scene; and she will remain a footnote figure whose recorded output never matched her promise.

*A reader asked in the comments for a validation that Inez Cheatham, who sang "Lover And A Friend" with Eddie Bo, was not just another pseudonym for Sena Fletcher. I recalled being contacted by Mercedes Morris-Davis several years ago about some of her experiences with the Meters and Sam & the Soul Machine. She started off with the following statement, which certainly backs up Martin Lawrie's information from Bo himself:

Fortunately, I had the pleasure of being on the inside, so to speak. Of course, back in the day, my girls and I (The Triple Souls: Inez Cheatam, Sena Fletcher, and Mercedes Morris-Davis) were just a trio of nameless voices who were heard on many of the sessions being produced by Allen Toussaint/Marshall Sehorn, Wardell Quezerque, Eddie Bo and others. I had the pleasure of singing background on sessions with Betty Harris, Lee Dorsey, Johnny Adams, Curley Moore, Eldridge Holmes, Aaron Neville, and The Meters.

You can read Ms Morris-Davis' complete comments in my August 13, 2006 post.