October 04, 2009

In Pursuit of Bo Consciousness - Part 5

***Updated 4/14/2016***


The independent record business in New Orleans was always volatile and precarious. Starting with the first wave in the mid-1950s, numerous local labels formed and folded, with most lasting just a few years, if that. The opportunity to score a big hit was always there to tempt entrepreneurs; but the odds against it were steep - like a shot at winning the lottery or picking a winning horse out at the Fairgrounds racetrack - unless, of course, Allen Toussaint was writing and producing the records; and even he struck-out often. Getting into the business didn't require a lot of money, at least at the outset; but, without decent sales, releasing more records to stay in the game upped the ante considerably. Even getting that big hit did not guarantee success or longevity, as the owners of A.F.O.Records or Parlo found out the hard way. Like many small businesses, most label start-ups were chronically under-funded, financed out of the hip pockets of owners, many of whom had little or no experience in the capricious, cutthroat world of the music business; and the costs of their on-the-job training sooner or later outstripped their optimism and bank accounts. The cycle of leaps of faith followed by severe reality checks kept thinning the herd. Just in the early to mid-1960s, labels such as Eight Ball, Etah, JC, Pitassy, Rex, Sabre, Spinnett, Tail-Gate, Warm, Watch, White Cliffs, Whurley Burley, Winner, and numerous others fell by the wayside, ultimately lacking the resources to compete, get noticed, and sell their products.

Despite evidence to the contrary all around him, Eddie Bo decided that he too had a shot as an independent record man. He had surely been frustrated working on records for various small labels run by others with not much more in compensation than promises, only to see his music and efforts go down the drain with the companies. Possessing multi-faceted talents - writing, arranging, producing and performing - Bo must have been confident that he could make records better and more successfully than the mere businessmen and schemers for whom he had worked up to that point in his career. He also wisely set up a music publishing company, Eboville, to administer his song catalog and keep more of the potential royalties for himself, and would use it for the rest of his life in conjunction with his own projects. So, with his cocky conviction and surely only a modest investment, Bo began releasing records on several micro-labels he set up, starting in 1964, while continuing to work on releases for other companies, too. By playing both angles he calculated his gamble, hoping to increase the chances that one of his songs would catch on and break out.

Bo's One Arrow

I am starting off with Eddie's release on Arrow Records in 1964, "Fare Thee Well" b/w" "Let's Let It Roll", because it could well have been his first roll of the dice as an all-around record man. The information shown on the label indicates that it was Bo's operation, since it displayed the 1821 Orleans Avenue address that would appear on many of his own labels. Note, though, that his music publishing credit reads "Ebo Music", rather than Eboville. Also, the label shows "A DOE Production", which is a mysterious moniker to me (Department of Eddie?). As we shall see, his next releases on other labels he set up had "Tru-Arts Production" on them. Since it seems that Eddie had not yet fully worked out all of the business details, I would venture that this record may have been his initial leap, more or less.

I say "more or less", because I did notice something else interesting when I looked at what was stamped in the "dead wax", the grooveless area of the record next to the label where the needle runs out after play. You usually always see a matrix number etched there, and sometimes a symbol for a pressing plant. On the DJ copy I have, after the matrix numbers (133-1064/1065), is the name "Cosimo". Of course, that would be Cosimo Matassa , who not only had the main recording studio in town at the time, but also was pressing and distributing records for many small labels through his Dover Records company. It is not surprising that Bo would be using Cosimo's services - but this is the first time I've seen Cosimo's name in the dead wax of a 45. Maybe it's because this was a limited run promo copy. I don't have a stock copy to compare it with. If you do, let me know. But, it suggests that Cosimo somehow might have assisted Eddie with this release.

At any rate, nothing much happened with what was to be the only known Arrow single, because the sides were soon picked up by Chess for national release. Eddie's connections with Paul Gayten, the local Chess representative and producer in New Orleans, had much to do with that, I'm sure. So, the Arrow label quickly sank into the undocumented murk. You can hear "Let's Let It Roll" on Red Kelly's The "B" Side. Therefore, I'm going with the other, far quirkier side, which is, if nothing else, a conversation piece.

"Fare Thee Well" (D. Johnson - E. Bocage)Eddie Bo, Arrow 711, 1964

Bo's sense of humor crops up a lot on this record. Of course, there is the name he chose for label itself. And there's the number he assigned to this single, 711, obviously hoping for some dice-thrower's (or bow-puller's) luck! Then there is the song itself. This was supposed to be the A-side? It's hard to figure that it was really the song he wanted to launch the next phase of his career.
A little novelty blues goof, modeled after a Jimmy Reed tune and/or Tommy Tucker's Checker hit of that year, "Hi-Heel Sneakers", Bo's song was not only out of character for him [and he had a lot of character(s)], it seems meant to be no more than a throwaway B-side. Why else would the solo instrument of choice on it be a kazoo, for God's sake? Maybe a harmonica player didn't show up for the session. I've included "Fare thee Well" only to remark on how off-the-wall Eddie could be.

Now, to refresh your musical palate and re-assess this 45, go back and listen to "Let's Let It Roll". That's how I hear Eddie kicking things off. It was obviously also derivative, borrowing from the feel of songs Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions were doing up in Chicago at the time ("It's Alright"), but using a big Ray Charles type of arrangement and delivery that kicks some butt - an interesting, enjoyable mix - and without a single kazoo toot. Of course, Bo was trying to make records that would sell; and, still finding his own way, he was not averse to the long-used music business tactic of stealing the ideas of others to produce sound-alike tunes. It is still being done today. But, the record buying public didn't rise to the bait, if they even heard it. I doubt that Chess promoted the record too much or "encouraged" DJs to play it, since they were concentrating on their in-house artists getting hits, as Red rightly points out in his piece. I guess they released it just on the off-chance that it might be defy the long odds - another leap of faith that couldn't overcome gravity.
Short Term Fun

Obviously, Eddie must have enjoyed the record making process. Why else would he keep coming back for more, considering the rather dismal success rate, other than, maybe, a kind of gambling addiction? Perhaps revealingly, the next label Bo established was named Fun; and there was a clown figure behind the U on the logo, giving it the appearance of a children's record. I have long been aware of two known releases on the label, #303, "Cheetah" b/w "Sweetness", featuring 'Lil' Snook (a/k/a Fird 'Snooks' Eaglin), and #305, "Baby, Baby, Baby" b/w "How Long (Can I Hold Back My Tears)" by Joyce Harris. Martin at soulgeneration's Eddie Bo Discography discusses these, of course, but just has label shots of Harris' single. As far as I can tell, Jeff Hannusch has the only known shot of "Cheetah" in The Soul of New Orleans.

A while back I was told by a dealer/collector that he had seen a Fun single by the Queenetts up for auction on eBay. I wondered if it could be the mysterious #304, but could not find the archived listing and did not follow up - busy chasing some other untamed waterfowl of a record, I'm sure. Then, after I posted this installment yesterday, my friendly cohort, Peter, from across the great waters, told me he had also seen that auction and sent me scans of the one label shot that he had saved, as well as one of the flip side of the Snooks single, "Sweetness", from another auction. Sweet indeed. Thanks from one geek to another.

So, now I can confirm the existence of the second of three Fun issues, #304, "So Lucky In Love" b/w "How Long (Can I Hold My Tears)", which I'll discuss a bit more in a few minutes

Looking at those Fun labels, one sees Bo's publishing company designated as Eboville; and Tru-Arts Production Co. appears, as it would on most of his remaining in-house releases of the era. Also, 1821 Orleans Avenue again shows up, with the addition of Suite 207-10; but the rest of the address - city and state - is left off, as if Eddie were expecting no more than local action from these 45s.

The 'Lil' Snook single is about as rare as a rational Republican these days. It apparently had an even more limited run than #304. Martin, a deep collector, hasn't got it, either; nor has he, or anyone else I know, heard it. But, I do have a more recent version of one of the songs, done by Snooks himself, to give us a clue. It ought to be a fairly accurate rendition.

"Cheetah" (F. Eaglin)
Snooks Eaglin, from Out of Nowhere, Black Top, 1989

(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

In the first few years of the Sixties, Snooks recorded for Imperial Records with Dave Bartholomew producing, doing mainly cover tunes. It seems Bartholomew gave him a pretty short leash in the studio, because not much of his gonzo performance spirit came through on those recordings. Although I have never heard the original version of "Cheetah", I'd wager that, with Eddie Bo running the show, Snooks was given plenty of latitude to go for it. As you can hear in his rendition 25 years later, this funny little novelty song with just plain silly lyrics is nicely structured and incorporates Snooks' uniquely funky brand of rhythmic playing throughout. His Fun 45, which I hope to hear someday, apparently, was the last one Snooks ever recorded; and, sad to say, he never worked with Bo in the studio again, although they did perform together occasionally in later years*.

While I am pretty sure that Snooks wrote both "Cheetah" and "Sweetness", on the label of "Cheetah", just one name, "Gustave", appears under the title. I haven't a clue what that was about. Now having seen the "Sweetness" label shot, I can attest that it is credited to "Ferd Eaglin" (close enough). Referring to the BMI database, I cannot see that either Snooks or Bo claimed writing credit for these songs. Snooks re-did the latter tune as "Oh, Sweetness" on his Black Top debut, Baby You Can Get Your Gun. Far from a prolific songwriter, he was given credit for both songs on those albums.

Now, back to the Queenetts. A quick bit of surfing, and I easily found a cached page of the listing that still has audio for their Fun single. First off, this group of female vocalists (maybe just a duo), is likely the same one who recorded several sides as a in 1966 as the Queenettes, a quartet, for Folkways Records on a compilation LP called Roots: Rhythm and Blues, produced by Henry R. 'Reggie' Hines and Al White. Hines was a partner in a Mississippi-based entertainment company, Lynn's Productions, with Lynn Williams. They operated several small labels out of Greenville, and also had an artists management and booking operation going. Hines had come to New Orelans and opened a branch office with bandleader, White, signing several local groups, inlcuding the Queeenettes and the Barons, who had a number of tracks on that LP, which featured several other Lynn's artists.

More than that I do not know. Of the songs on #304 themselves, "So Lucky In Love", written by Bo, was a moderately paced dancer with a touch of Latin rhythm, pretty straightforward commercial fare, with nothing to even hint that it came out of either Bo or New Orleans. The vocal group doesn't sound full enough to be a quartet. Ditto the flip, "How Long", on the slower side of mid-tempo with even straighter music (to the point of ho-hum), with a solo female vocal and male backing vocals (?). Interesting. Certainly quite rare. But I wouldn't want to pay the $500.00 US that it went for to get those tunes.

A bit less rare, the Joyce Harris single on Fun, for which Bo wrote both sides, can be occasionally found for sale or at auction, as Martin points out; and it's less pricey. I knew of "Baby, Baby, Baby" from the Night Train/Tuff City compilation, New Orleans Soul A Go-Go, without even realizing Eddie had anything to do with it (no notes or credits on those gray-market CDs ). It was a well-sung, driving, soul-pop dancer with unexceptional lyrics - certainly not Eddie's best work, but not too shabby. Harris, a New Orleans blue-eyed soul/pop artist, also recorded singles for Infinity, Serock, Domino, and a few more back in that era, but none of those seem to have been tied to Bo.

Maybe because there were several other outside labels named Fun in the mid-1960s, Bo went no farther with his own and did not put out anything on it himself. So,when he turned his attention back to releasing some records as the featured artist, Eddie did it on yet another new imprint.

* Eddie and Snooks together on stage.

The Blue Jay Way

Bo deployed his Blue Jay label later in 1964; and, during it's brief existence, he did some of his best work of the decade, writing, performing and arranging several exceptional songs that were distinctive rather than derivative. Although the label was ultimately not a commercial success, his best Blue Jay sides displayed creativity and originality that would become the hallmarks of his highly personalized brand of funk and soul later in the decade.

Bo released five known singles on Blue Jay - four of his own and one by Tommy Ridgley. Since the first of those is numbered 154, there has been speculation about possible earlier releases on the label; but I know of none that have surfaced to date. Mr. Bocage was always full of surprises - but as avidly as his singles have been searched for and collected over the past several decades or so, I doubt that anything remains undiscovered, though I long to be proven wrong.
But, back to what we know. Let's hear what was arguably Eddie's best Blue Jay release.

"Gotta Have More" (D. Johnson-E. Bocage-T. Terry)
Eddie Bo with the Barons, Blue jay 154, 1964

(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

I posted this tune previously in a 2007 feature on the Barons (a/k/a the Barons, Ltd, and the Barrons), an all male New Orleans vocal group who had a number of releases on small, mostly local labels from the mid-1960s on into the 1970s. You can read about them and my commentary on this song in the linked archives. No need to rehash it now. I'll stand by what I wrote, especially the part about "Gotta Have More" being among Eddie's best work. If you don't get juiced listening to this one - you dead.

On the next Blue Jay release (#155), Bo regressed somewhat and went more mainstream with "Fight It" b/w "River of Tears", two self-composed, moody, mid-tempo dance numbers that you could easily do the jerk to. I finally got to hear them the other day, when I ran across some archived Mr.Finewine shows (always revelatory) at WFMU . On both tunes, Bo pitched his voice down from his usual high tenor delivery. I've only heard him do that once before that I recall. These performances were pleasant enough, with very polished arrangements, but just don't sound much like Eddie vocally or musically. Ultimately, I feel that that he didn't quite have the right vocal chops to pull them off convincingly. Had the songs been covered by Ben E. King or Gene McDaniels, say, hits could have happened.

Eddie then followed with a real change-up, "Fee-Fie-Jum-Bo-Li" on Blue Jay 156. I don't currently have the audio of this Bo composition in my archives, either, [4/14/2016 - There is a clean audio file for this tune up on YouTube, thanks to Jonathan Toubin.] but have heard it enough to sum it up as a mid-tempo, novelty dance tune with that string of nursery rhyme nonsense syllables as the chorus. It's about Humpty Dumpty doing all the popular dances of the day, with Eddie occasionally interjecting, "work it out, Humpty ". Seeming to be an attempt to capture the pre-school demographic, this one should definitely have come out on Fun. In terms of pace and structure, its one-chord repetitive pattern reminds me in a way of home-boy Chris Kenner's "Land of A Thousand Dances" from a few years earlier. Musically, "Fee-Fie-Jum -Bo-Li" had an unusual, down and dirty grind to its groove, working off a bare-bones arrangement and instrumentation of just drums, bass, plus two guitars - rhythm and a sometimes frenetic, string-strangling lead. Having not heard the flip, I'll defer to Martin at the EBD, who says "Danger", also written by Bo, was a bluesy ballad.

Bookending Eddie's four releases on Blue Jay was another exceptional side.

"Our Love (Will Never Falter)" (D. Johnson - E. Bocage)
Eddie Bo, Blue Jay 157, 1965

(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

When bees won't give no honey, and countries may run out of money. You know, these things may come to pass; but I declare our love will never, never falter.

Timely lyrics to ponder here, over three decades later, as we enter the next century of tipping points and rapid depletion, when those things HAVE come to pass. I couldn't agree more with Martin that this is another one of the high points of Eddie's recorded output. Like "Gotta Have More", it was an outstanding New Orleans soul record that few people got to enjoy at the time. That it was also prophetic just makes it that much hipper. Too bad, it couldn't have been profitable, too.

Eddie again went with all his best instincts on this track, from the compelling songcraft to the effective pulse of the arrangement. While "Gotta Have More", in my opinion, edges it out as better written, "Our Love" is still strong: expressive, poetic, soulful, and grooving. Dig that rhythmic push-pull action and some definitely broken up kick drum beats, just barely discernible in the mix. The funk was definitely starting to percolate up to the surface in Eboville. Also, you might note that the opening guitar lick and six-string riffing (I'd guess it's 'Deacon John' Moore) throughout this track is very similar to the playing on Robert Parker's "Barefootin'" (featuring both George Davis and Moore), recorded for Nola in 1965, but not released until early 1966. Maybe Bo's arrangement on "Our Love" was a precursor to what Wardell Quezergue did with "Barefootin'", or it could have been the other way around. A lot of the same musicians were playing the sessions, cutting at the same studio - plus Bo even worked for Nola around this time, too (more on that to come). There was a lot of creative cross-pollination going on in those days; but any way you slice it, there's no denying that Bo was coming on strong and finding his groove.

For what would be the final Blue Jay single, "Call On My Baby" b/w "Pretty Little Mama", Eddie gave the spotlight to Tommy Ridgley.

"Pretty Little Mama" (E. Bocage & D. Johnson)
Tommy Ridgely [sic], Blue Jay 158

Both Bo-penned sides of this 45 feature vocal duos with the uncredited Johnny Adams. Since Ridgley and Adams were two of the best vocalists in New Orleans, the pairing turned out well. "Call On My Baby" was a testifying soul ballad with influences somewhere between Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me" and Solomon Burke's "If You Need Me" - certainly Eddie in his derivative mode again - but he was at least inspired by some of the best. The song just didn't quite live up to those earlier hits, though, and was marred by another distracting, out-of-place female backing vocal.

On the flip, "Pretty Little Mama", the wailing woman was thankfully absent, likely called out for ambulance duty. Ridgley delivered the main vocal with casual ease, while Adams offered some playful echoing of Tommy's lines and a few soulful squeals in the background. For reasons I can't figure, Martin in the EBD calls this tune a "wild rocker" and a "ballsy rhythm 'n blues jumper"; but to my admittedly aged ears, it had a laid-back swing groove on the verses and bridge, though the horns really punched on the turnarounds. I also hear some references to James Brown's "Out Of Sight" in the horn arrangement and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" in the lyrics. Ending a line with "boomerang" is the giveaway. Remember, those Brown tunes were innovative and hot in 1964 and 1965; so Bo was not only aware of them, but surely looking for some subliminal sales by association action. Yet, this tune incorporates none of Brown's funk, nor would I characterize it as a rocker, wild or otherwise. I do agree with Martin that it is a throwback to the 1950s, or even before. It's definitely out of date when compared to James Brown's tight, polyrhythmic orchestration of his band into an irresistible groove machine. So, while it was nice work with some great horn charts, "Pretty Little Mama" to me showed Eddie looking back and sideways, but not forward.

Bo and Ridgley would team up later on another obscure single, "Spreading Love" b/w "Live", issued on the seemingly one-off label, Ridge-Way, which I featured back in 2005 (I've recently updated the post a bit). Although the record had a mid-1960s sound, its release date remains unclear; but I would guess it came out maybe sometime just after Bo separated from Joe Banashak's employ around 1967, though it could have been later. It was not a commercial winner, and, as far as I know, was the last record the two collaborated on.

By 1965, Bo had suspended operations on his own labels, no doubt due to the reality check portion of the small label business cycle - in essence, there were no checks coming in, with many of the reasons being beyond his control. Arrow, Fun and Blue Jay were seen no more, having barely been apparent when active; and Eddie went back to being a writer/producer/artist for labels owned by others, notably Joe Banashak's Alon, Instant, and Seven B, followed by Al Scramuzza's briefly re-constituted Scram and related labels. It would be Bo's last fling working for others, though, before going it alone with his own production company and labels again, starting in the late 1960s. But, as we have seen so far, some of his early independent releases were among the best of his career and deserved far better than the indifference they were greeted with at the time. Business as usual was fast fading for R&B/soul artists and labels in New Orleans, as radio play and record sales had become dominated by the British Invasion and Motown. Moreover, the entire mode of operation locally was about to implode with the bankruptcy of Cosimo's Dover operation, taking down his studio and many small local labels with it.

Life and business are all about timing - and Bo's initial start-ups really had nowhere to go but down, not that he could have foreseen it. But, importantly, his business failure didn't stop him - it just made him step back, regroup and wait for another opening. If there had been a persistence prize, Eddie would have been the perennial winner.

[Note: thanks again to Martin Lawrie at soulgeneration for use of the scan of "Our Love". I don't have the single. . . yet. The audio comes from the Charly LP, "Vippin' & Voppin'.]