January 31, 2010

HOTG ventures to other internet venues

Well. pigs are flying over the glaciers of Hell with the Saints now set for the Superbowl and the Who Dat Nation gone international, at least according to one comment here of support from. . . France. So, I guess it should be no surprise that I have been doing some unexpected things in my "spare time" (what a joke that term is) that are turning up on other websites. It probably won't be a common occurrence - so check these out for some different slants on the HOTG mission.

My survey of
New Orleans Guitarists of note (not all of 'em, surely, but quite a few) is currently available for perusal at the Jemsite Blog. You might recall Ms Ava interviewed me there last month, and I thank her for asking me back.

If that were not enough (and some of you may think it is way more), I have actually been captured on video spouting off about old records and other HOTG lore. Last month, I met a production crew from the NPR radio show State of the Re:Union, who were planning to kick off their new podcast series, Sounds of the Re:Union, with a show on New Orleans music. To prep, they had been listening to the HOTG webcast and getting a few suggestions from me about where to go and who to see; and, for some reason, they wanted to see me, too. So, I suggested that we visit a true musical treasure house, Jim Russell's Rare Records, which has been open to the public since the late 1960s. It's a local institution. With the permission of the management, we did our talking standing amidst the shelves and tables piled with vinyl, record players, eight-tracks and CDs. Other segments of the show will include, I believe, their visits to the Tulane Jazz Archives, the Louisiana Music Factory, and the Hi-Ho Lounge, plus various additional interviews they got around town.

UPDATE [2/3/2010}: The podcast was supposed to be available yesterday; but the SOTRU folks contacted me to say that they will delay that a bit, as they have decided to expand it into a 30 minute special. When the entire show is ready, it will be available at their website and on YouTube; and I'll let you know when that happens.

In the meantime, they are giving y'all a sneak peek at my little segment of the show for a limited time via YouTube. This is a lot easier to access than the earlier link to a high resolution download. Through the miracle of creative editing, they have made me appear coherent as I utter actual journalistic sound bites about topics related to New Orleans music. Wonder if I can get 'em to help edit da blog. . . .

Thanks to Brenton and the crew for the opportunity to help out (hope they considered it help, anyway) and for their enthusiasm for featuring New Orleans music on their first show. I look forward to seeing the whole thing when they get it updated. Future shows will focus on music from other areas of the country (write them at their website and give 'em some ideas on that); but, I hope they'll come back down at some point, as they now know that there is so much more to see and hear.

January 26, 2010

Two More From Toussaint

Oh well, another month is about shot; and my reach once again has exceeded my grasp. So much to post, and very little time to do it. And, of course, who can do anything when the Saints are playing, except gnaw our nails up to our elbows. WHO DAT? They pulled it out last night.

As promised, I've got a couple of more tunes written and arranged by
Allen Toussaint to toss in here. Not exceptionally rare, but not often heard, either. Maybe after Mardi Gras rolls I can get to some of the more obscure items. But the backlog is fierce.

Lee Dorsey's Unemployment Report

"Gotta Find A Job" (Allen Toussaint)
Lee Dorsey, Amy 974, 1967
tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

Found on the flip side of "Rain Rain Go Away" (which can still be heard at The Singing Bones), from Lee Dorsey's seventh single for Amy, "Gotta Find A Job" still has valid socio-economic implications that we all can relate to; plus, it's full of memorable hooks crafted by Toussaint to keep the tune circling back on itself like some hip music box mechanism. The elementary, catchy melody, delivered with Dorsey's usual charm, the locked-in groove, and repeating instrumental patterns foster an illusion of perpetual motion that encourages you to hit "play" again at the fade. While the exact line-up of players is unknown, the irresistible backbeat drum pocket was probably provided by June Gardner, with Walter Peyton on bass, Deacon John Moore on one of the two guitars (unless he overdubbed the other part), plus Nat Perilliat and Carl Blouin on saxes, and Clyde Kerr on trumpet. At least, they were among the regulars at Toussaint sessions of the era, as this one pre-dated the hiring of the Meters as his studio band by about a year.

Not a big seller for Dorsey, "Rain Rain Go Away" was similar in its arrangement and feel to Dorsey's earlier hit, "Get Out My Life Woman", an often used ploy to get repeat customers for a popular artist. But, I prefer sides such as "Gotta Find A Job" that stand out because they don't sound quite like anything else the artist and/or writer has done, and have something freshly unique about them. To my admittedly warped mind, Toussaint was at his best on his job(s) when he was playfully creative and not calculating. That's the kind of material on which he and Lee did their best work together - and, lucky for us, they did a lot of it.

Other HOTG posts on Lee Dorsey:
When Lee Met Allen
Ya Ya's In La La Land
Lee Gives As Good As He Gets
I Sure 'Nuff Like It
One Another. . .
Hangin' with Night People

Betty Rides With The Meters

"Ride Your Pony" (Naomi Neville)
Betty Harris, 1968
tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

Originally released on Sansu 480, here's an example of Toussaint's recycling of a song done by one of his artists for the use of another - a tactic he employed numerous times over his career, without much commercial success, as far as I can tell. In this case, the revised version is in some ways superior to the original.

Of course, you fans of New Orleans music know that Lee Dorsey originally recorded "Ride Your Pony" for Amy in 1965, his first of 17 singles for the label underToussaint's supervision; and it was a big, top-ten hit for him. That success cemented a new partnership between Toussaint and record hustler Marshall Shehorn, who had gotten Dorsey his Amy deal, which was the start of their production company, Tou-Sea, which eventually transformed into Sansu Enterprises.

As much as I've always dug Dorsey's version, it sounds kind of tame and stripped down when compared with Betty Harris' harder hitting, more fleshed-out track, which I've grown to favor. The basic structure of the song and arrangement stayed the same on hers, with a few improvements: a change of chord progression in the second half of the chorus, some aggressive but sparingly used horns, and a different ride-out with female backup singers. Of course, by 1968, the Meters were Toussaint's regular session band; and all seem to be on this track except Art Neville. The keyboard work is definitely Toussaint's ; and his great Professor Longhair-style figures running through the song (another improvement) really help move it beyond Dorsey's version, which didn't even have a keyboard on it. Assuming that Zig Modeliste was on drums here, he played a pretty straight (for him) rock backbeat , but had his snare pops on the two and four hanging back just enough to give the groove a perfect pocket and a bit of syncopated push. George Porter, Jr.'s bass pumped steadily underneath, playing essentially the same basic ostinato riff as Leo Nocentelli's picked guitar, which mirrored Tossaint's original arrangement. And, finally, let's not overlook Betty Harris herself, whose vocal smoked and lent just the right gritty flavor to a song ostensibly about a dance, but really about another kind of pony riding altogether.

The audio featured here is taken from the Charly LP, In the Saddle, a 1980 compilation of her work with Toussaint on Sansu. The single is a killer combo and hard to find (in decent shape), having the exceptionally soulful and funky "Trouble With My Lover" as the top side, which I featured in the early days of HOTG. Harris recorded a lot of awesome Toussaint material* for Sansu during her too brief ride; and it has always seemed unfair for both of them that nothing really ignited commercially for all the intense heat produced. Would that Betty could have stayed in the saddle longer.

*If you can find it, the West Side CD, Soul Perfection Plus, now out of print, compiled all of Harris' Sansu and earlier Jubille material. And the Aim CD, Betty Harris The Lost Soul Queen, is essentially the same package.

January 17, 2010

Bobby Charles Must Be In A Good Place Now. . . .

I was saddened to learn Thursday of the passing of Robert Charles Guidry, a/k/a Bobby Charles, without a doubt one of the great songwriters of American popular music. With no musical training, and unable, or unwilling, to play an instrument, he managed to write countless songs, lyrics and melodies that will endure. Some he sang and recorded himself, but many were done by others, including big name performers who knew a good tune when they heard one and had success with Bobby's. He started out with the rockin' "See You Later, Alligator", that he recorded in New Orleans in 1955, and got a short-lived contract with Chess Records out of it - they at first thought he was black! The song was covered by and hit big for Bill Haley and the Comets, eclipsing Bobby's , but giving him his first substantial royalty checks.version. Then the million-selling Fats Domino began recording his material, including classics like "Walking To New Orleans" and "Before I Grow Too Old"; and Bobby's career path was set. Fats' delivery and piano playing combined with Guidry's simple, effective songcraft were the inspiration for the perennially popular Swamp Pop style of music (though it wasn't called that at the time) in South Louisiana. for over 50 years now, blues, R&B and rock acts have recorded his music, while Bobby did his best to keep a very low profile most of the time; but he would sporadically make some very good records himself, far from the music business mainstream, when the spirit moved him.

It's not my intent to do a lengthy retrospective of the man. You can read more about him in Keith Spera's obituary and in his Allmusic biography. There is also a great fan site in Japan, that has close to a complete discography of his music. I just wanted to feature a few of his lesser known songs that I have on vinyl, done by himself and others, to give a taste of what he had going on, and as a remembrance.

If you already know about Bobby Charles, enough said. If you don't, you need to.

"Lost Without You" (R. Guidry)Clarence Henry, Argo 5414, 1962
tune in to HOTG Internet Radio

Though Bobby no was longer recording for Chess by the late 1950s, he was recruited as a songwriter by the company's A&R man and producer in New Orleans, Paul Gayten, to provide material for Clarence 'Frogman' Henry. The Frogman almost cut Bobby's "I Don't Know Why" (later renamed "But I Do"), early on, but instead went with his own song, "Ain't Got No Home", which was a huge hit in 1957. Henry's other original follow-ups didn't fare nearly as well; so Gayten came back to "But I Do" (see photo to right for label with its earlier title), which proved to be another high-charter and big seller for the singer in 1960. At the time, Gayten had Allen Toussaint doing the arrangements and piano duties on the sessions; and numerous other fine R. Guidry compositions were cut over the next few years, with only "Lonely Street" making the charts in 1961.

Released in 1962, "Lost Without You" is one of my favorites Frogman cuts, with a big horn arrangement and wonderful piano solo by Toussaint. Charles' song definitely lent itself to the bouncy New Orleans groove, courtesy of Smokey Johnson's syncopating drum work; and the result was infectious. But Henry's marketplace heat had cooled off by then, and would not return.

"I Must Be In A Good Place Now" (Bobby Charles)from Bobby Charles, Bearsville, 1972

As soon as we heard about Bobby being gone, my wife started singing this song, talking about how she had always loved it. So, I had to include it, being as she still has her well-worn LP (I only have it on an import CD from over a decade ago) , and it is such a beautiful melody and statement. For my money, this song alone is proof that Charles can be considered up there with top composers such as Hoagy Carmichael, Randy Newman, and Allen Toussaint.

The album was recorded in Woodstock, NY, where Bobby lived for a time, and had an impressive cast of players, including Mac Rebennack, Amos Garrett, Geoff Muldaur, and members of the Band, including Rick Danko, who co-produced it and co-wrote one of the cuts, "Small Town Talk". Both Garrett and Muldaur were in Paul Butterfield's Better Days around the time; and that band would record several of Bobby's songs over the course of two LPs. He joined in on both of those projects, too, and wrote the title track of
It All Comes Back, from 1973.
Bobby Charles was an utterly relaxed, impeccably played collaboration of friends and musical peers, featuring Bobby's originals probably as close as he ever got to how he heard them in his head when he created them. The LP doesn't show which players are on what songs; but I recognize Garrett's shimmering guitar here. And via the Band's website I've found session information for the track provided by bassist Jim Colegrove and Muldaur naming the pianist as John Simon, Rebennack as possibly playing the vibes, with Colegrove, and drummer N. D, Smart, II. The performance is simply perfect, and, now, so poignant.

I recommend this album as Bobby's best; and it has finally been re-issued on a US CD by Rhino, and surely is available for download as well. Seek it out.

"The Tie That Binds" (Mac Rebennack - Bobby Charles Guidry)
Levon Helm and The RCO Allstars, ABC, 1977
tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

This album was another collaborative effort among some incredible players, but did not quite live up to its potential. The basic rhythm section was Helm on drums with Booker T. & the MGs, plus other impressive sidemen such as Mac Rebennack on piano and guitar, and blues harp master, Paul Butterfield. How promising is that? It should've killed from needle drop to run-out on both sides; but didn't quite get there, in my estimation. Still, it was a well-played, laudable project, with material that tended toward the bluesy side, and could have used more soul and funky R&B material.
I've included "The Tie That Binds" because it is a rarely heard songwriting venture from Bobby and his old friend Mac Rebennack, who he knew from the New Orleans music scene in the 1950s and early 1960s, before Mac's Dr. John career took off. A few years back, I featured what I consider their best joint writing effort, "Wild Honey" from Dr, John's City Lights LP. Bobby collaborated again with Dr. John on his pointed, acid-tongued, post-Katrina CD statement, City That Care Forgot, featuring numerous songs Charles wrote or co-wrote; and I've read that they had been working together on the album that Bobby finished just before he died. Proof that they had an unbroken tie up until the end.

"Party Town" (Bobby Charles)Bobby Charles, from Clean Water, Zensor, 1987
tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

Recorded in Nashville and released on a label out of Germany, this album didn't get much attention at the time, at least in the US. The tracks would not be released here until the 1998 CD, Secrets of the Heart, on Stony Plain (actually a Canadian label). On that, six cuts from the earlier LP were combined with another six from sessions Bobby did later, many of which had great local players like slide master Sonny Landreth and bassist David Hyde.
But back to the LP, I picked "Party Town", not because it's Bobby's best song, but in the spirit of the season(s), Mardi Gras and the Saints winning again. And if you really want to know what a party town can do, wait 'til the franchise gets to the Super Bowl! One of those songs that sounds custom made for the Louisiana Department of Tourism, Bobby's tribute to the city' propensity to party is fun to hear and gets a feel-good groove going, even though he cut it far from home with seemingly not a New Orleans player in the studio. Kudos to him for managing to add a tune to the Mardi Gras music catalog - another achievement in his lifetime of music making.
Bobby passed away in his hometown of Abbeville, LA, on January 14, 2010. As you may recall, around Mardi Gras last year, we lost Snooks Eaglin (who knew and played many songs by Bobby Charles, I am sure); and Eddie Bo died not long thereafter. Sad as it is to lose these irreplaceable contributors to our culture, we who are left behind must cast off our cares and celebrate the life that goes on; but, as we do, let's not forget to lift a glass to Mr. Bobby Charles Guidry, who left us with a lot of songs to enjoy, and to the other greats in the continuum of music who've all gone on to that good place he's in now.

January 15, 2010

Throw Me Some Second Line, Mister

As I mentioned last week, Carnival season 2010 has begun in New Orleans and elsewhere in South Louisiana; and what better way to get in the mood than to hear some brass band throwdown. First up is Dejan's Olympia Brass Band doing their take of Professor Longhair's Carnival classic "Mardi Gras In New Orleans" a/k/a "Go To The Mardi Gras", which he created in the late 1940s and first recorded in 1949 for the Star Talent label and for Atlantic a little later. Certainly the version most heard in New Orleans has been the one he cut for Ron Records back in the early 1960s, which I featured here several years ago and is still in rotation at the HOTG webcast).

In contrast, the second number features a high energy track recorded six years later by the forefront of the next generation of brass bands, the Dirty Dozen, destined to become the city's premier outfit for many years, The parties have already started, y'all. . . .we've got some catching up to do.

"Mardi Gras In New Orleans" (Roland Byrd)
Dejan's Olympia Brass Band of New Orleans, independently released, 1978
tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

Those of you hearing the Olympia for the first time may be a bit under-whelmed by this take, especially if you've listened to any of the newer New Orleans brass bands of the last few decades, who play things much more in-your-face (sometimes literally, if you are in a tight club) and way funky. By comparison, these guys were more rooted in the traditional sound, which goes back over 100 years and encompasses the early days of jazz. The Olympia still pushed that good second line groove; but played it down a few notches from full-tilt. Maybe part of that was being in the studio confines with the obvious limitations that entailed; but mostly, they just did not attack their material with the powerful thrust of the new bands who came after them.

For reference, look at the date of this record. 1978. The new wave of the contemporary brass band movement was just coming together, spearheaded by the Dirty Dozen which formed about 1977 and took a few years to move from the street parade tradition to playing more adventurous material, including many outstanding originals. The Olympia's single appeared at a transitional time just before their style was about to be supplanted, revitalized and transformed by exuberant new blood.

What caught my ear when I was listening to this side was the tuba (or sousaphone) lines running through it. I thought the patterns sounded familiar, especially on the opening; so, I pulled out my copy of the Dirty Dozen doing their own take of this song live in 1986, from their Rounder LP/CD
Live: Mardi Gras In Montreux . On it, Kirk Joseph's sousaphone patterns are very close to those on the Olympia single, where you can also hear some of the turnaround lines on the bass horn mimicking what Fess had played in his left hand on the piano. I'd wager that Joseph, who was in or just out of high school when this single was released, had picked up those runs from hearing the Olympia play, when they were still the most popular brass band around. [Note: In the comments to this post, Matt suggests that the tuba player on this track was likely Anthony 'Tuba Fats' Lacen, who played with the Olympia off and on during the 1970s. Also, Matt reminds me/us that 'Tuba Fats' was the Dirty Dozen's first bass horn player. He didn't stay with them long, but directly influenced his replacement, the young Kirk Joseph, whose big brother Charles had been in the Dozen from the start. That ties it up nicely, Matt. Thanks so much!]

Having started in the early 1960s, Dejan's Olympia Brass Band was headed by its founder, saxophonist Haold Dejan, and trumpeter Milton Batiste and had a revolving collection of fine players pass through over the years. I am not sure what the 1978 era lineup was. The closest list I have is on a their 1974 LP,
Here Come Da Great Olympia Band, which shows 11 members at that time. Batiste passed away in 2001, followed by Dejan a year or so later; and it is to their credit that they kept the Olympia and the brass band sound going for so many years, playing mostly the traditional repertoire. As this track reveals, they had adopted and adapted at least a few R&B tunes. Another one Milton Batiste arranged for the band was Smokey Johnson’s early funk classic, “It Ain’t My Fault”, which they were among the first, if not the earliest, to bring into the second line parade songbook.

Though the Olympia still ruled the groove when they made this record, the rambunctious, creative new generation was just around the musical corner, and would in the next few years propel the genre back to the forefront of the city's unique and vital musical lifeblood.

With that set-up, let’s hear one from the Dirty Dozen themselves for a taste of just what their approach was all about.

"Backbird Special" (Dirty Dozen Brass Band)
Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, Concord Jazz, 1984
tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

Not living in New Orleans, my introduction to the Dirty Dozen was picking up their previously mentioned Rounder live album when it came out back in the mid-1980s, while I was down for Jazzfest or some other music pilgrimage. The power, funk, and devilishly tight intricacy of their playing literally blew me away, restructured my DNA, and set me up to explore all the other up and coming brass bands of the era: the Rebirth, New Birth, Treme, and on down the line. I had some traditional brass band albums; but they did not prepare me for the explosive, killer grooves this aggregation could pump out. It was not until a few years later that I uncovered My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, their first LP from 1984, which was issued on the first class Concord Jazz label and impeccably recorded at Studio In the Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana. I had heard the title track playing on jukeboxes around New Orleans prior to that; but a vinyl copy proved elusive until I nailed that album in Memphis, of all places, at an audiophile equipment store that also stocked high-end records. [Note: as it turn out, I just remembered that the jukebox version I heard was a single the Dozen put out on their own Mad Musicians label around 1983, "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now" b/w "L'll Liza Jane". Pretty sure it was played on WWOZ, too. I originally got this information from John in Guam, who has the single and told me about it a couple of years back.]

The LP was a revelation about how well-developed their approach was early on and how smoothly they adapted to the recording process; and I first wrote about it in the early days of the blog. "Blackbird Special", one of their many intense originals, has been a signature tune of the band since before this record came out - and you may still hear them work out on it at a gig. As with all the great contemporary brass band music they created or inspired, the feel here is highly celebratory, ecstatic even, with an overwhelming groove guaranteed to make you move whatever which-way it comes out. The not-so-secret ingredient the Dirty Dozen brought (and still bring) to this and every party was their advanced musicianship, allowing them to take chances with demanding material and consistently smoke it.

Somewhat prior to this album, The Dirty Dozen also released a self-produced two-part 45 version of "Blackbird Special" on their Mad Musicians label. It probably was put out for a Mardi Gras season in the early 1980s; and I have a feeling it pre-dates the "Feet" 45 mentioned above. But that take was much less effective than the Concord cut, as the band seemed to have been recorded too low, keeping them at a distance and diminishing their power and impact. Plus, they made it with a lot of verbal banter, which was too prominent in the mix. Simply letting the instruments do most of the talking, as they did on the LP, would have made that 45 much more memorable.

Consider the HOTG Carnival season kicked off. There'll be more seasonal party music to come and more Toussaint-related tracks, too; so check back. And, speaking of kick-off. . . . Who dat? Geaux Saints!

[For further insights, read my interview with Roger Lewis, one of the founders of the Dirty Dozen.]

January 08, 2010

Under The Toussaint Covers

January being the birth month of Allen Toussaint, I thought I'd come back from my year-end break and devote a few posts to some music associated with him, as I used to do on my old radio show, and here some years past. On another note, I'll also be putting up some Carnival-related tunes in the coming weeks, as the season is now rolling with Twelfth Night just past and Mardi Gras just a bit more than a month away. But, back to Toussaint for the time being, let's kick off HOTG 2010 with three cover versions of songs that he originally wrote, arranged and produced for Lee Dorsey and John Mayall.

 A Big Easy Resolution For Don Covay

"Everything I Do Goin' Be Funky" (Allen Toussaint)Don Covay, Atlantic 2725, 1970
tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

Don Covay has been funky from way earlier than the date of this release, with a career that started in the late 1950s. A long-time fan of the R&B pioneer, I was in high school in the 1960s when he was hitting his stride as a songwriter, performer and recording artist. "Mercy, Mercy",from 1965, did well for him and was soon covered by the Rolling Stones, which got it a lot more attention. I was hanging out daily after school back then at Pop Tunes, a record shop on Summer Avenue in Memphis where my friend, Linda (rest her soul), who worked there, would pull all the fresh soul 45s out of the recently delivered shipping boxes and slap them on the turntables one after another; and we'd listen for hours on end. That's where I first heard and got into Covay's other stuff, including "Sookie, Sookie" (later covered by Steppenwolf) and "See Saw" (also well-covered by Aretha Franklin), two stone groovers co-written with Steve Cropper and recorded by Covay just a few miles away, down in South Memphis at Stax studio. Aretha also had a huge hit with her cover of his song, "Chain Of Fools". Like I said, the cat was already way funkifried.

Lee Dorsey did the original "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)", which charted in the summer of 1969, under Toussaint's guidance and with the Meters as backing band. Covay's "Everything I Do Goin' Be Funky" was cut in September of that year at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, when he was there working on an album that would be titled The House of Blue Lights, a blues-based project which he produced and arranged. Many of the songs for the LP had already been laid down earlier that year in New York. This song wasn't part of the LP, but seems just to have been an attempt to cover Dorsey's recent hit and ride in the slipstream, though Atlantic didn't get it to market until 1970. One of the cuts pulled from the album sessions, the blues standard, "Key To The Highway", was on the B-side.

Covay called the band he assembled for the album sessions the Jefferson Lemon Blues Band; and they included John Hammond, Jr. and Joe Richardson on guitars, Jerry Jemmott and Butch Valentine on bass, drummers Daniel Jones and
Charles 'Honeyman' Otis, plus an unknown organist and a fine horn section. The crew did Toussaint's joint up right, while putting their own stamp on it; and, though I don't know for sure, I'd like to think the funked-up, down in the groove drumming was delivered by the legendary 'Honeyman', whose New Orleans roots helped deliver on the song's promise. Covay pretty much followed the spoken introduction from Dorsey's original (which was done by a Georgia-based studio engineer on that session), then took his own liberties with the tune. While Dorsey's rather spare, low-key take is still the winner for me, Covay's cookin' version was a rousing success, if only in terms of the arrangement and performance. It failed to cash in any substantial way commercially.

The House of Blue Lights
LP charted, but was to be the singer's last project for Atlantic, after a five year run. Moving to Mercury (Records) and a succession of other labels as his recording career tapered off over the decade, he kept it pretty funky on down the line and has remained active, at least up until the turn of the century. Obviously, for Don Covay, making this resolution was a piece of cake.

 A Hint of the New Orleans-Jamaica Connection That Could Have Been

"Get Out My Life Woman" (Allen Toussaint)
The Mighty Diamonds, from Ice On Fire, Virgin, 1977
tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

In the 1950s and 1960s, R&B from New Orleans and elsewhere in the US had a great effect on Jamaican musical styles, players and singers. It's certainly too big a topic to open up here; but, suffice it to say, the Crescent City has long been recognized as the Northernmost Caribbean cultural point (if not its own peculiar banana republic), with a continual cross-pollination of musical influences over and beyond the Gulf of Mexico. 

Back in the 1970s, I listened to many of the major and lesser known reggae bands out of Jamaica, but had just one LP by the Mighty Diamonds, Indestructible, from 1981. I didn't know about Ice On Fire until I started doing my radio show in Memphis and intensified my search for New Orleans musical connections. I bought it on the cheap in one of the local used vinyl stores, thinking it had promise, since it was produced by Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, partners in Sansu Enterprises, and recorded at their home base, Sea-Saint Studios, back in 1977 - plus the group was doing three of Toussaint's tunes ("Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley" and "You Are Just A Song" being the others). But the promise wasn't really kept.

The record had come out about a year or so after the Mighty Diamonds' scored a number of hit singles and a successful album in Jamaica and England; and, as they popular over there but not well-known in the US, it seems odd that they were sent stateside to record their follow-up, even if it was to New Orleans with its semi-tropical sensibilities. Of course, Toussaint was a hot producer back then; and reggae was coming into its own in the US thanks to Bob Marley, et al. So, such was record company short-term decision-making that maybe putting the two together would make crossover magic happen and help open up the US market.

The band's biography I've linked to calls Ice On Fire "an uneasy marriage of reggae and American R&B". That seems not quite right. More than a lack of ease, this record sounds too easy - reggae-lite, to be exact, an attempt to merge some soul and New Orleans feel with ersatz reggae rhythms. The people who felt uneasy about the quickie wedding of styles on the resulting LP were the fans of the Mighty Diamonds at home and abroad, who had misgivings about its lack of true reggae vibrations. 

That is understandable when one looks at the album credits and finds that the session players were all selected from the Sea-Saint/Sansu pool of talent. Toussaint and Sehorn also assigned the local legend, Wardell Quezergue, to arrange the music. The only Jamaicans on board were the Mighty Diamonds themselves, a tight singing trio of young reggae stars alone in a foreign land, giving it a good go. 

Despite the obvious abilities of the assembled musical staff, having some actual rasta-rooted players in on the action might have given more credibility and audible authenticity to the resulting tracks, in the eyes and ears of the group's fan-base and the reggae-conscious in general. As it was, Toussaint's team were left to come up with some kind of trans-Caribbean hybrid accompaniment; and I think they played it a little too safe. So did most record buyers; and the album was simply ignored to death on both fronts.

All that said, and with my bias well evident, I think the New Orleans-Jamaica concept worked fairly well in spots on the album, and particularly on Toussaint's "Get Out My Life Woman", originally recorded by Lee Dorsey in 1966 and a big hit at the time. The simple structure and syncopated, insouciant groove of the original lent itself to Quezergue's slight tweaking that nudged it into a reggae feel. From there, he and the band managed to effectively blend in the funkier hometown elements (the drums getting the groove just right), setting off the uncredited lead vocalist to good effect. The players were fairly typical for post-Meters Sea-Saint projects at the time, with the rhythm section manned mainly by members of Chocolate Milk: drummer Dwight Richards, Kenneth 'Afro' Williams on percussion, Steve Hughes on guitar, bassist David Barard, and Robert Dabon on piano (though Raymond Jones is credited on this track). Added to the mix throughout were Teddy Royal on guitar, Quezergue doing electric piano fills, and a fine house horn section of trumpeters Clyde Kerr, Jr. and John Longo, tenor sax men Alvin thomas and Michael Pierce, with Carl Blouin on baritone sax.

I can't remember if it was Dwight or Teddy - or both - who several years ago told me a little about these sessions, saying that the New Orleans cats had a hard time understanding the Jamaican patois of the Mighty Diamonds - and quite possibly there was a mutual language disconnect. Whatever the reasons, there was warmth but very little heat on Ice On Fire, which was certainly not a bad record, just not at all dynamic or memorable, with two sides worth of mid-tempo, reggae-leaning songs sounding way too much alike. A far higher octane mixture of reggae and American soul was Toots Hibbert's Toots In Memphis, recorded a decade later, with many great Memphis players on tracks built around the foundation of one of Jamaica's finest bass and drum teams, Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, who brought it home [They also had played on the earlier Mighty Diamonds hits!]. But that recording was intended to explore the essential roots and spirit of the two styles, and did so effectively. 

In contrast, what resulted at Sea-Saint with Ice On Fire was a very professionally done project that for the most part sounds like just another day at the office for the studio team, rather than the meaningful collaboration and exploration it could (and should) have been under better thought-out circumstances. An opportunity missed by those in charge and certainly not the fault of the singers or their accompanists.

Who's Next, Who's Now?

"Who's Next, Who's Now" (Allen Toussaint)
Jackie Moore, Kayvette 5140 , 1981
tune in to
HOTG Internet Radio

This is the only cover version I know of this way funky tune by Toussaint, who produced/arranged the original recording on John Mayall's 1976 album, Notice To Appear. Back in 2006, I posted the Mayall version; and you can read about the details of that session via the link, if you've a mind to.

Of the three tracks posted here, this one probably has the least to do with New Orleans, except for the material, of course. Jackie Moore, a Southern soul singer originally from Jacksonville, Florida, cut this for Kayvette around 1980 with Brad Shapiro, owner (at least in-part) of the label, producing and arranging. Based in Florida, Kayvette was distributed by and affiliated with a true music music mogul, Henry Stone, through his T.K. Productions in Hialeah, which operated numerous labels such as Alston, Cat, Dash, Glades, Sunnyview, and TK , issuing of a lot of substantial soul/R&B, funk and disco, not to mention the pop hits of KC and the Sunshine Band, from the later Sixties through Eighties.

Moore recorded some of her best sides at Criteria in Miami for Atlantic Records over the course of a few years, starting in 1969, getting signed through the intercession of her cousin, Dave Crawford, who worked for the label as a producer, arranger and writer. He wrote or co-wrote a number of her early tunes, including her first big hit, "Precious, Precious". After a number of lesser hits for the label, she signed with Kayvette in the mid-1970s. With Shapiro producing, Moore had a huge seller, "Make Me Feel Like A Woman" in 1975. She then signed with a "major", Columbia, a few years later, but was back at Kayvette by 1980 for two more singles, including the one with our feature, before moving on again.

Shaprio's approach to "Who's Next, Who's Now" didn't much mess with the groove or the basic arrangement of the original, but did add some rapped vocal parts in the intro and mid-song breakdown before the horn riff comes in again. It's a really linear composition, with only minimal chord changes, which focuses the energy on the rhythmic elements; but Shapiro didn't wind it as tightly as Toussaint's signature clockwork instrumental interplays. Still the song moves well and has a good, loose booty feel to it. Moore's rather limited vocal range should have worked better than it did here; but her voice kept bottoming out on some of the end lines. I wonder why he didn't' take the music it up a half or whole step to give her some clearance and more dynamics. After all, this was the A-side.

Neither of her Kayvette 45s from the second go-round went anywhere; and this tune doesn't seem to be on any CD comps. I picked up my copy and some of her other Kayvette and Atlantic singles as part of a big lot of 45s I bought several years back, and was surprised to see Toussaint's song on the label. While I dig the tune, neither Mayall or Moore are who I really want to hear doing it. So, I'm hoping there is maybe some better cover hiding out somewhere, or, maybe, yet to be made. Soulsters and funksters take note (Yo, Sharon Jones!). Ball's in your court. You're next. You're now!