June 27, 2009

Shaking It Down For Michael


No matter how you felt about Michael Jackson's remarkable and frequently strange sojourn on Planet Showbiz, he undeniably had a huge impact one way or another on popular music, dance, and cosmetic surgery. As pictured above about age 20, around 1979 on the Off The Wall LP cover, this handsome kid had already been an entertainment powerhouse for at least a decade, and was just beginning a solo career after going about as far as he could with the family act, the Jackson 5 (a/k/a the Jacksons) , that he overwhelmingly dominated. He was writing his own material (some of which was really very good work) and would soon move units of product in unbelievably huge amounts through the music business pipeline, creating several of the largest selling albums in history, and becoming the King of Pop, a chimerical figure who over time conspired with compliant plastic surgeons to obsessively disfigure himself nearly beyond recognition (and Halloween), retreated to a ranch called Neverland, where he pretty much abandoned performing, hung out with children to the point of arrest and huge civil lawsuits, and, surrounded by various enablers paid never to say no to him, became a laughingstock and paparazzi wetdream, ever-promising the fabled comeback; and, it now seems, his longterm, hardcore drug abuse contributed to his ultimate downward spiral beyond the reach of anyone, ironically dying amid preparations for a dazzling multi-concert farewell to performing, which, as a result, has caused sales of his music to once again skyrocket. Death can be very good for your numbers. It is the peculiarly all too American success saga in all its tragic glory. I'm from Memphis. We had one one of those fame-outs about 30 years ago at a place called Graceland. . . .

What the hell does any of this have to do with New Orleans music? Blessedly, very little, really. The vast machinations of The Business have only peripherally touched New Orleans to such an extent; and, while we wish that all of the artists discussed at HOTG had attained at least some level of professional success and rewards, we really wouldn't wish Michael's trip on anybody. Give us Ernie K-Doe's charming, humorous, and (relatively) harmless megalomania, along with his late wife's community service, Fats Domino's downhome mega-sellers, Irma Thomas' bedrock genuine soulfulness, and Allen Toussaint's always classy career transformations - ANY DAY.

I'm not trying to demean Mr. Jackson here. He was talented in the extreme. But talent and fame can be a volatile mixture at best, a lethal one at the other end. It all just makes me appreciate the under-appreciated even more, as I crawl back under my rock to write about some of them. Talking with some people at work today about Michael Jackson's music, I got to thinking and realized I most dug Michael Jackson's work on
Off The Wall, though I admired some of his other later tunes too. Then I recalled that the Rebirth Brass Band had covered one of Jackson's tunes from that period - it was actually on the Jacksons' 1978 album, Destiny (thanks to Brett for the heads-up) - in their early days. . . .

photo by Rick Olivier

"Shake Your Body Down to the Ground" (Steven Jackson-Michael Jackson)
Rebirth Brass Band, from Feel Like Funkin' It Up, Rounder, 1989
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

When Rebirth Brass Band recorded this classic record for Rounder, they were all just into their 20s, I think, except for the diminutive trumpeter, Derrick Shezbie, who was much younger. Started in the Treme neighborhood around 1983 by brothers Philip (tuba) and Keith (bass drum) Frazier, and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins while they were in high school, Rebirth were really one of the first of the new wave of young brass bands to emerge in New Orleans, inspired by the success and innovations of the somewhat older Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who had revitalized the brass band sound starting in the late 1970s. In 1984, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records recorded RBB live at the Grease Lounge and released an LP/CD of those performances, Here to Stay. Birthed in 1989, Feel Like Funkin' It Up was the first of five fine albums the band did for Rounder Records.

This album's selections were a mix of some of RBB's hot, funky original tunes, a few brass band classics from the tradition, Fat Domino's "I'm Walkin'", and oddly this Michael Jackson radio hit from the 1970s, reconstituted in the Rebirth blender. That the Jacksons' hit song translated remarkably well into the struttin' Crescent City street idiom, speaks well of both it's musical quality and the young band's chops for arrangement and blowing. It ends all too soon.

Playing in the band on this record were the Frazier brothers, Ruffins, Shezbie, John Gilbert (tenor sax), Keith 'Wolf' Anderson (trombone), Derek Wiley (trumpet), and Kenneth Austin (snare drum). The Rebirth today remain one of the premier local brass bands (and there are many contenders who have arisen since they got their start) and tour extensively. The Fraziers and Shezbie remain the core of the group, while Kermit Ruffins has gone on to have a very successful solo career - thankfully, not in Michael Jackson terms, but in New Orleans terms.

So, let's shake it down and do some buck jumpin' for Michael, an amazing musician and entertainer who got lost in his own funhouse. It's all about the music. Whether you are making it or listening to it, you should never forget that.

[Note: this cut will be only up here for a short time, before it is transferred to the HOTG Radio playlist.]

June 15, 2009

Catch Porgy Jones

** [Updated, April 5, 2011]

Trumpeter and bandleader Warren 'Porgy' Jones is another New Orleans musician who has had a long career in (and out of) the city, but made very few recordings as a featured artist, and has never been well known to the world at large. On several occasions, I have mentioned him here in passing in relation to other artists.

Eddie Bo heard Martha Carter singing with Jones' band around 1960, he got her signed to Ron Records. A few years later, Jones met the young singer, Willie West, became his manager for a time, and produced two singles on him for Frisco Records.
It was also for the local Frisco label that Jones recorded his own debut single, "Riding High" b/w "Say Yeah", two instrumental sides credited to Porgy & the Polka Dots.

I've had that and one of Porgy's singles from the 1970s in my collection for a while. After I recently acquired another of his 45s from the 1970s, the mighty, two-sided, "Dap", I checked my discographies; and, as far as I can tell, those three appear to comprise his entire catalog. So, I thought I would feature cuts from each and attempt to shed at least a little light on this player who has been a part of the local
music scene for at least 50 years.

"Say Yeah"
(Porgy Jones)

Porgy & the Polka Dots, Frisco 103, 1962

This single was the third issued by Frisco, which had just set up shop in 1962. Numbers 101 and 102 were by Al Adams, an alias for local DJ Harold Atkins, who also did promotion and A&R for the new label's owner, Connie LaRocca (originally from San Francisco), a restaurant cook with a passion for the music business. While Jones had been fronting a band under his own name for several years by that time, Porgy & the Polka Dots appear to have been invented just for this 45; and I am not sure if any of the players on it were actually his band members.

The notes by Tad Jones to the useful Ace (UK) CD compilation,
The Frisco Records Story, suggest that some of the musicians that Porgy used on his solo session were the same as used on his Willie West productions from around the same time: David Lee, Jr., drums; George French, bass; Alvin 'Shine' Robinson, guitar; Art Neville, piano; Clarence Ford, baritone saxophone; Eddie Williams, Jr., tenor saxophone; and, of course, Porgy on trumpet. So, any or all of them could have been on this session, too. The guitarist featured prominently on this cut sounds to me much like Earl King in his raw playing style and tone; but, after discussing it with Willie West, I think it is likely Shine.

To my ears, Porgy's debut 45 offered pleasant but rather generic R&B fare. I have chosen the rather bluesy B-side, "Say Yeah", as it is gritty and has a bit more going on rhythmically than "Riding High". Porgy managed to get off a few good runs; but this is mainly a guitar tune. Based on the common Popeye groove of the period, it had some syncopation going on in the kick drum, but was certainly no proto-funk masterpiece. Porgy's 45 obviously didn't particularly appeal to the public,as it failed to cause a stir, despite having a popular local DJ (Atkins) pushing it.

No more commercially successful were Porgy's productions of his own original compositions sung by West, despite being musically much superior to this solo outing and having outstanding vocals to boot. So, Atkins and LaRocca brought in Wardell Quezergue to arrange and oversee West's only other Frisco single (which still did not sell); and Jones seemingly did no more work for the label in the remaining three years of its existence.

One more thing. Willie West has verified to me that Lee Dorsey wailed, "Everybody say yeah", at the close of this side. Would that the whole tune had the soulful feel of those few seconds.

* * * * *
In 1972, John Berthelot, who had recently started Great Southern Records in New Orleans, issued a press release* announcing that 'Porgy' Jones had been signed to "an exclusive long-term contract" and had a forthcoming new record, "Catch Joe Potato" b/w "Catch Me If You Can". Berthelot added that Jones had formerly been in the bands of Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Jerry Butler, and Curtis Mayfield. When the record came out, Berthelot issued a second publicity notice in which he stated that Porgy had "lived in his native New Orleans for the past five years performing with his own group at clubs. . .appeared at concerts in Jackson Square, on local television and numerous jazz shows. . .", and had "been voted outstanding trumpeter in New Orleans for the past two years in the Data Magazine Reader's Poll."

Obviously then, Jones had been busy at home and on the road in the decade between his first and second releases. Now here he was again trying to break into what his boss at Great Southern termed the "R&B/Pop market".

"Catch Joe Potato"
(Warren B. Jones)

Porgy Jones, Great Southern 103, 1972

First off, I have no speculations about the title. Its inscrutability rivals anything Eddie Bo ever came up with to call a record, which doesn't exactly make it an effective mainstream marketing ploy. I first heard the song, its flip, "Catch Me If You Can" (again with the catch), and Porgy's only other two Great Southern sides on the Funky Delicacies compilation, Jazzy Funky New Orleans, back in 1999; and, frankly, it took a while for this one to grow on me; but the groove finally won me over.

Although the arrangement is uncredited on the record label, I have a hunch that it was by the producer, Berthelot, who was a jazz pianist and composer, as he arranged Porgy's later single for the label. Well-played, a simple accompaniment of percussion, bass and snarling wah-wah guitar supports Porgy's trumpet work. Berthelot has the congas dominant and the drum set secondary, mixed so that just the hi-hat is evident throughout, the snare only really heard at the turnarounds, with no discernible kick drum. Porgy's riffing over this funky, percussive business starts off slow and deliberate; but, by halfway in, he is improvising and meshed rhythmically with the other players. I'd give it a B, 'cause the kids could have danced to it, had they heard it.

"Catch Me If You Can" was probably really the more marketable of the two, with an easy, breezy mainstream jazz/pop vibe; but nobody picked up on either side. In all likelihood, Berthelot had limited promotion and distribution options for his small independent label product; and the record failed to get to the national level. I'm not even sure if either side got local airplay (anyone remember this from back in the day?). Probably not much, since it would be several more years until Porgy got another try with a much more impressive Great Southern production.

"Dap (Part l)"
(John Berthelot)

Porgy Jones, Great Southern, 1974
Dap (Part ll)

NOW we're talkin'! Porgy's second, and I believe last, Great Southern single took things to a whole other level of production quality: a powerful two-parter with an irresistibly uplifting groove, full horn section and instrumentation (guitar, bass, keyboard and percussion) and some great blowing by all concerned.

The arrangement by producer Berthelot of his own hiply titled tune just knocked me back the first time I heard it and never fails to get me moving. The only difference in the two sides is the soloing: trumpet and organ take turns on the front, guitar ('Wolfman' Washingon, maybe?) and sax (possibly Alvin Thomas) on the back, with Porgy joining in again and gettin' kind of out there in a rideout duel with the sax.

With its big band, Afro-pop meets Blood, Sweat and Tears kind of sound, this number is really unlike any other funk record out of New Orleans from the era that I can recall. No doubt, "Dap" should have made noise outside of the studio, too, but seems to have sunk without much of a trace; and I think Porgy's "long-term contract" with the label went with it, ending his career as a recording front man.

Besides the Funky Delicacies compilation, this tune can also be found on the Soul Jazz CD/LP,
New Orleans Funk, Volume 2, as well as for sale in the mp3 format. I highly recommend you go for the vinyl or CD and run "Dap" cranked through some decent full-range speakers to get the total impact of this impressive record - and clear the decks for some loose booty action.

Before I first acquired these tracks on CD, and then vinyl, I had known of composer/arranger/producer Berthelot mainly via his role as a label owner who sporadically released mostly LPs and CDs on Great Southern in the 1980s and early 1990s. I wasn't aware of his earlier funk productions or his compositional chops. I now have another instrumental single on Great Southern (#102) by flute and sax player Alvin Thomas, both sides written by Berthelot, that I'll try to get to in what passes for soon around here. And I'm wondering if there's anything else as yet undiscovered.
'Porgy' Jones has continued as a player and bandleader up to and beyond Katrina, which severely damaged his home.

Besides the national acts John Berthelot mentioned that Porgy performed with, I've read that he also put in time with Ray Charles, who accepted no slouches in his band. Over the years, he has also backed a host of local artists such as Eddie Bo, Ernie K-Do and Earl King, and continued playing jazz, regularly performing at Jazzfest. In 2008, Porgy and a number of other legendary veteran New Orleans musicians such as 'Smokey' Johnson and 'Chuck' Badie, were honored by the Preservation Resource Center's African American Heritage Progam (AAHP).

As Willie West told told me, assessing the talents of his longtime friend, who helped him get established on the local music scene over 40 years ago, "Porgy is. . .a great musician with still more to come from him, a soulful trumpet player and just as good or better than Wynton Marsallis or any other guy you could name playing today, certainly in the category of Miles Davis and Freddy Hubbard or any of the other jazz greats. Trust me. I consider him a brother. Great guy to work with."

Pretty impressive credentials, proving that Porgy has been a well-kept Crescent City secret for far too long.

* Berthelot's press releases are reproduced on the insert to the Funky Delicacies CD, Jazzy Funky New Orleans

**[ I am sorry to report that John Berthelot passed away in February, 2011. Not too long before that, he had contacted me to talk about this post; and we soon did a lengthy phone interview about Great Southern Records. Unfortunately, I have been so busy that I missed his initial obituary notice and have yet to get back to the interview and work up the valuable information he so generously shared with me. Once I have done that, I will update several of my posts and also do a new one about John, incorporating more of his music and the artists he recorded. A great person and important contributor to the New Orleans music scene, he needs to be remembered and acknowledged.]