March 11, 2010

Smokey Johnson: Under The Funkie Moon

I've spent the last three weeks shuttling back and forth between Lafayette and Memphis, because my mom is in the hospital up there recovering from a nearly fatal heart attack. It has been touch and go at several points; but thankfully she keeps slowly improving, though she remains in minimal intensive care at this point. My dad is hanging in there, too, through all the stress of waiting and wondering. It's been an emotional and medical roller-coaster ride for all concerned and isn't over yet; but we've had some great support from the hospital staff and our friends and family. We appreciate all they've done and look forward to having my mom with us for a long time to come.

Flying back into Lafayette one night last week, I was looking out of the window prior to landing and saw what at first appeared to be a strange, bright light below, keeping pace with the plane. It took me a few seconds to realize that it wasn't a UFO but the nearly full moon's shimmering reflection breaking up and coming back together on the swamps and wetlands we were passing over on our approach. It was a trippy, welcome-back-to Louisiana experience; and, after getting messed with by that moon, I thought I'd dig out a rare Smokey Johnson 45 I'd been meaning to post for over a year now. Working this up has helped me think about something other than medical issues . . . for a few spare minutes here and there, at least. The time is right for some funky moon music. Enjoy.

"The Funkie Moon" (Jones-Davis-Johnson-Berfect-Rivers-French)
Smokey Johnson & Company, Intrepid 75006, 1969-70
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According to the R&B Indies, the short-lived Intrepid label, based in Chicago and distributed by Mercury, was only in operation between 1969 and 1970; and, going by the sound of this track, that seems about right. Cut in New Orleans, "The Funkie Moon" has the feel of a calculated stylistic cross between the Josie-era Meters and Sam & the Soul Machine, two impressive, popular, inter-related groups on the club scene who helped bring funk to the forefront in the city. Recently hired as the studio band for Allen Toussaint and Mashall Sehorn's Sansu Productions, the Meters at this point were just beginning to enjoy some national exposure of their own with a string of instrumental hit singles, while the Soul Machine's recording career held great promise, but never got cranked up.

A key figure in the emergence of the city's particular variety of funk, drummer Smokey Johnson had been laying down his uniquely poly-rhythmic grooves on countless local recording sessions throughout the 1960s. His beat expertise made him a favorite of producers Dave Bartholomew and Wardell Quezergue; and it was for the latter that he cut his own important, groundbreaking proto-funk instrumental in 1965 on Nola, "It Ain't My Fault", which I featured here back in 2007. You can read more about it and Johnson via that link; but, suffice it to say, his approach influenced many other outstanding New Orleans drummers coming up in that decade, including 'Zigaboo' Modeliste (Meters), Dwight Richards (Chocolate Milk), Herlin Riley, and Johnny Vidacovich.

In a glaring example of music business irony, this uniquely gifted innovator wound up lending his talents to a side obviously designed to resemble a Meters' record (though with the addition of some hot sax soloing). You can chalk that twisted strategy up to hustler/producer Joe Jones, who surely was seeking to cash in on the cachet of Toussaint's attention-getting house band; but, though blatantly derivative, "The Funkie Moon" was still a well-executed, cookin' track, with Johnson attacking the drums convincingly in the break-em-up style of his young protege, Zig Modeliste. It deserved better than the instant oblivion it got with Intrepid. I don't know how or why Joe Jones placed this single with the company, which in its short run seemed to have released mainly pop and/or rock records that had little or no impact; but it certainly wasn't the right place for "The Funkie Moon" to shine.

As pointed out in my previous piece on Smokey, Jones and Johnson had some history prior to this. In 1963, the producer/promoter took a number of local vocalists to Detroit to audition for Berry Gordy at Motown, bringing Smokey and other musicians along to accompany them. His abilities so impressed Gordy and company that they asked Johnson to stay on after the others (unsigned save for Earl King) had gone; and so he did for a while before returning home, showing the session drummers up North some of the techniques needed to become funk brothers.

But, back to the record at hand. I am going out on a fairly sturdy limb when I assume that the company Smokey kept on this session, the so-called "Joe Jones Studio Band", were, excluding Jones, the names listed with Johnson on the writers' credits for the song: guitarist and co-producer George Davis, organist Sammy Berfect, saxophonist James Rivers, and bassist George French - an outstanding line-up who surely made the tune to Jones' order. Davis, Rivers, and French, along with Johnson, were all seasoned regulars on the local recording scene; and most of them very likely (Davis for certain) had played on some of Smokey's five earlier singles as a featured artist for Nola, and maybe, too, on another of his instrumental rarities, "Smokestack" b/w "Bullseye" on the one-off F.B.Q. label. Of course, to convincingly fake the Meters, you need the A-team.

"Tippin' Lightly" (S. Johnson - J. Jones)
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It may be just an uncomplicated, standard-issue soul/funk instrumental, but "Tippin' Lightly" at least doesn't summon any distracting comparison with Art, George, Leo, and Zig. Smokey's playing here was more naturally his own, I think, and shows how he worked in and around the pocket of a groove, breaking it up without losing the punches - never becoming rhythmically abstract. This is why he was so sought-after as a studio drummer, as he could seamlessly blend his funked-up accents into most any song format, so that they were not immediately obvious, but gave the tune more substance, more groove to move to. With such gifts, it's no wonder the cats up at Motown had coveted what he had going on and co-opted what they could of it.

Another reason to value this rarely heard B-side is George Davis letting loose with an off-the-cuff signature syncopated solo steeped in jazz, blues and soul. It wasn't long before Davis left town and began backing some big names in jazz.

Smokey had a second, even more obscure 45 for Intrepid, "Slippin' And Trippin'" b/w "The Funkie Moon, Pt. 2" (#77021 - anybody have a copy?), tracks which would seem to have come from the same sessions as the first release. As far as I can tell, it was the last single ever to bear his name.

Though he could have been a highly paid session man in any major recording hub, the unassuming Smokey Johnson worked in his hometown for much of his life. From his sessions backing Earl King on Imperial in the early 1960s through "It Ain't My Fault" and myriad session calls, he made profoundly significant contributions to the development of New Orleans funk, only to see the profiles of the younger proponents he had inspired eclipse his own.

Just a year or two after this single sank, he joined Fats Domino's touring band, quickly becoming their vital rhythmic engine. It was an association that lasted 20 years, until Smokey suffered a stroke in the early 1990s that disabled his right arm and effectively ended his career. Fortunately, admiration lives on for this often uncredited player, whose credentials might have been forgotten, were it not for the handful of records in his name that continue to amaze and delight intrepid funk investigators.


Anonymous small said...

Hope your mom get well soon! take care of her and take care of you. your blog is great so keep it doin. Greets

2:19 PM, March 12, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about your mother. Thanks again for all the work you do here keeping us informed about this great stuff. As a semi-pro, semi-competent drummer I found this post especially interesting.

2:45 PM, March 16, 2010  
Blogger New Orleans All the Way Live said...

Dan - I join everyone in wishing your mother well.

I'm two doors down from Smokey in the Musicians Village and will tell him about this posting when I get back from my mom's house in Virginia. It's her birthday!

Wishing you and yours the best in health and groove,

10:10 PM, March 18, 2010  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks to all for your good wishes for my mom, who continues to improve, but slowly.

George, appreciate your letting Smokey know he is still revered here. I went to the tribute to him at Preservation Hall last (?) year (thanks Paul!), but did not get a chance to speak to him. Best to you and your mom, as well.

5:01 PM, March 19, 2010  
Blogger Lost Reef Cottage said...

Hi, Dan:

Just had the good fortune to find your blog through "Learning to Share." I wanted to say that even before helping myself to the sweet sweet music, you touched me with your sharing about your Mom's health challenges and the way your whole family is standing as one to face them all together, and your child-like encounter with the celestial lamplight Moon.
I have prayed for your Mother's full healing and recovery, that her husband be given the strength to remember what he knows and thus endure, and that all of you be touched with Grace, in no uncertain terms,
Like music, or the warmth of a Louisiana summer,
and lifted.

Thank you Dan
Miami, FL

1:14 PM, March 21, 2010  
Blogger funkyfrogie said...

Found this site by way of Googling Prince LaLa.
Born in New Orleans and a life long junkie of New Orleans R&B. Many thanks for the high.

5:12 PM, July 03, 2010  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Glad to be of service!

10:15 AM, July 04, 2010  

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