April 09, 2010

Dancing With Irma and Aaron. . .(For Dee)

Man, it's been a tough couple of months, what with my mom still in the hospital in Memphis, and then, on Easter Sunday, the sudden, unexpected passing of my wife's mother, "Dee". An endearing, funny, vivacious free spirit, Dee managed to enjoy life as fully as possible, despite ongoing health problems in her later years, remaining positive and quite active right on up to the end. She was a wonderful and generous mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and mother-in-law, and will be missed by her extended family and many friends.

Always quite a dancer, she loved many kinds of music and was a fan of Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas. So, I thought I'd post a mover from each of them, with a big dedication to Dee, who is surely second-lining through the hereafter even as we speak!

"What Are You Trying To Do" (Allen Toussaint)
Irma Thomas, Imperial 66137, 1965
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

By the time Irma Thomas recorded the songs on this single in 1965 (the sultry "Take A Look" was the A-side}, her association with Imperial Records was already drawing to a close. As I have related in previous posts, she started her recording career with Ron records in 1960, making two classic 45s under the direction of Eddie Bo, then moved on to Joe Banashak's Minit label the next year. There she had five fine releases, produced and mainly written by Allen Toussaint. Several were strong local and regional sellers but failed to go farther. When Minit's national distributor, Imperial Records, was bought out by the much larger Liberty Records in 1964, they acquired Irma's contract and made her an Imperial artist, moving her recording sessions to Los Angeles and then New York. New producers such as Eddie Ray, Jerry Ragavoy, and Van McCoy were brought in, taking the sound of her records in a fashionable, uptown pop direction with frequently expansive arrangements, as opposed to the no-frills approach of her early releases.

Singing material by many fine songwriters, including some of her Imperial producers, Irma turned in numerous impressive performances during her run on the label. She led off with her own composition. "Wish Someone Would Care"; and her first few singles sold fairly well and rivaled in quality much bigger hits of the era by Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and the like. But, though she deserved to, Irma did not ascend to their level of popularity.

After showing that initial promise, her prospects diminished when her next five releases failed to connect with the public. So, Imperial sent Irma back to work with Toussaint in New Orleans, hoping that he could tailor the next hit for her. He did well, writing and producing the two outstanding tracks on this single, plus "Wait, Wait, Wait" and possibly one more track which appeared on her 1966 Take A Look LP (which I can't locate around here at the moment). But, as good as both sides were, the record did not break into the Hot 100, and Imperial cut Irma loose after one more try with James Brown producing that did no better.

"Take A Look"/"What Are You Trying To Do" has become a fairly expensive 45 to find in decent shape, due its popularity in the Northern Soul collectors' circles. This side is especially prized, as it is a great dancer with an outstanding arrangement, showing what Toussaint could do with a bigger budget than he was accustomed to. The pumping baritone sax and bass are exceptional, giving the groove both heft and syncopation below the in-the-pocket backbeat drumming and counterpoints of the other horns, string section, and backing vocals. Toussaint's mastery of cooking, complexly interlocking productions was obviously already well-developed. Irma too was on top of her game on both songs; and her performances easily equaled those of her other Imperial recordings.

Unfortunately, the mix of pop, rock and R&B acts on Imperial's roster became more and more weighted towards the pop as the decade progressed; and their promotion budget likely followed suit. That made competing with the British Invasion records filling the airwaves, store shelves and charts an ultimately impossible feat, even for a singer of Irma's talent. It must have been a stinging irony for her that she was remembered for many years only for the Rolling Stones having had a hit covering one of her impeccable Imperial B-sides, "Time Is On My Side"; and, truth be told, that in fact was how I first came to know of her back when I was a teenager in Memphis. It would be a number of years before I backtracked to the original and began my long-term, always rewarding fandom of the real deal, Irma Thomas.

"Mojo Hannah"
Aaron Neville, Mercury 73310, 1972
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

Here's another one Dee could have moved and grooved to, had it been more widely known. As has been often pointed out around here, B-sides can sometimes be more significant and/or entertaining than the songs intended to get the attention. There's no better example of that than Aaron Neville's rendering of "Mojo Hannah". The tune later became a part of the Neville Brothers' repertoire when the group got its start; and I'm pretty sure that the reason was that Aaron had recorded this great version for Allen Toussaint in 1972, backed up by his brother Art's funky little combo, the Meters.

Aaron started out his recording career back in 1960 working with Toussaint for a three year run on the Minit label, an association that yielded some great sides but only one commercial success. "Over You", from his first single, charted respectably, just missing the top 20. As with many of the artists Toussaint worked with early on, their professional relationship was short-circuited when the producer/songwriter entered the service in 1963. In Aaron's case, it was revived in the late 1960s. By that point, his big 1966 hit, "Tell It Like It Is", was history; and he was at loose ends without a label deal.

When the Meters became Toussaint's session band in 1968 and stated having hits themselves, Sansu Productions, owned by Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, picked Aaron up and began recording him backed by the band, leasing three singles to Bell in 1969. They did not do much in sales, but several sides were outstanding. As you may recall, when Art Neville first formed the band that was to become the Meters, the Neville Sounds, his brothers Aaron and Cyril were members; but Art had to pare the group down to a combo to get a steady gig at a French Quarter club. So, Aaron, Cyril, and saxman Gary Brown were let go and joined up with keyboardist Sam Henry to form the core of a new, competing group, the Soul Machine, who became a popular local attraction, as well. Both Cyril and Aaron had serious heroin addictions; and Aaron's lifestyle at the time was erratic, at best. He sometimes engaged in criminal activity to support his habit and bounced from coast to coast to hang or hide out, maybe work a little, and then would head back home again to gig for a while. Because of that, Aaron never did record with the Soul Machine, though Henry and the band did lay down an album's worth of unreleased (at the time - since issued on CD), all instrumental sides. The band worked a lot in New Orleans, then relocated for a time to Nashville, where they had a steady club gig. Aaron would make an appearance with them there from time to time.

With all that energy spent getting nowhere, Aaron did not record anything for Toussaint again until he cut "Baby I'm A Want You", a cover of the David Gates and Bread lightweight pop hit, which Sansu got Mercury to release, but nobody much a-wanted to buy. That fact insured that the highly enjoyable flip side, "Mojo Hannah", certainly a more visceral, get-down affair, would go unnoticed. Hearing it on this single version (Rounder issued a different mix on their CD, The Classic Aaron Neville: My Greatest Gift) was a revelation, with the Meters and Aaron in a harder-edged, Southern rock mode. From the butt-kicking intro on, it was a shake and bake take, sliced, diced and deeply funky-fried by that incredible rhythm section. As the label attests, Toussaint enlisted Wardell Quezergue for the punchy horn arrangement; and you can hear brother Art on backing vocal along with, possibly, Willie West. As with many Sansu productions of this period, the track was probably recorded in either Atlanta or Macon, GA, as Cosimo's studio was no longer in operation; and Toussaint and Sehorn's own studio, Sea-Saint, had yet to open.

For more on the origins of this tune, written about a decade earlier by Andre Williams and Clarence and Barbara Paul (rather than the mystery folks named in the label credits) check my post on Tami Lynn's own hot version, which came out the previous year. Maybe Tami gave them an inspiration to cover it; or it could have come to them via family friend and otherwise bad-boy influence, Larry Williams, who had recorded it a few years earlier as "Louisiana Hannah".

The next year Toussaint produced another Meters-backed 45 on Aaron, the classic "Hercules" b/w "Going Home". The top side was an atmospheric, Curtis Mayfield-inspired groove with Aaron smoothly delivering a ghetto tale. Though it too failed to register, it has become over the decades an object of collector-cult devotion. He didn't record solo again until re-cutting "Tell It Like It Is" with the Chocolate Milk* rhythm section for Toussaint in 1976, which was released as an Island single, backed with "Been So Wrong". That was the year Aaron and his three brothers made their historic Antilles LP of Mardi Gras Indian songs,The Wild Tchoupitoulas, with their uncle, George 'Big Chief Jolly' Landry, and the Meters musical backing. The next year, Aaron recorded "The Greatest Love" b/w "Performance" for Polydor, again accompanied by Chocolate Milk, which did well in the New Orleans area. By then, or soon thereafter, Art and Cyril exited the Meters and joined up with Aaron and Charles to form the Neville Brothers band, and have kept the musical family together for three decades and counting.

^ Thanks to Dwight Richards for this information - see the comments section.


Blogger Jipes Blues said...

My sinceres condolence to you Dan, it's hard to see our relatives leaving us.

7:51 AM, April 15, 2010  
Anonymous Bill from Pittsburgh said...

Thanks for the post.
Never heard this version of Mojo Hannah. I can see how the Neville Bros. arrangement evolved from this one. My band covers it during our annual Mardi Gras gigs: http://www.myspace.com/secondlinemardigrasallstars.
My condolences on your loss.

4:19 PM, April 17, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan, Dwight here from Chocolate milk. I just wanted to let you know that my band was the backing band on the re cut "Tell it like it is" as well as "The Greatest Love". I guess we were probably on the B sides also , but I am not really sure. that was quite a few years ago. I am telling you in the event that you see a reason to post those songs at some point. I am sure you know that we perform at Jazz Fest on Friday , the 23rd. My condolences to you on your mother in law's passing. I hope your mom gets better soon.

11:34 AM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks for the kind words, y'all.
And appreciate the notes on CM backing Aaron on those later sides, Dwight.

As I have told you, I plan on being at JazzFest Friday and am looking forward to seeing and hearing CM again. It has been awhile - pre-Katrina, I think.

I encourage anybody going to JF to get you some Chocolate Milk.

8:48 PM, April 21, 2010  
Blogger Isosceles Diego said...

Sorry to hear about your family - it's time like these that make us appreciate what we have, while we have it...

And thanks for the songs - I only knew "Mojo Hannah" from the Betty Harris version, one of my favorite recs of hers.

Take care!

3:15 PM, April 23, 2010  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, Travis. I highly recommend Tami Lynn's version of the tune, too.

9:38 AM, April 24, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dan, have you seen the new (May '14) Fuel 2000 compilation "The Allen Toussaint Sessions"? It includes all the Toussaint-produced Neville singles from 1968 to '77. "Mojo Hannah" not only sounds like your description, but it runs about 40 seconds longer. "Hercules" is also extended, with additional lyrics toward the end. I've just posted a review on Amazon. By the way, do you know if that Island single was ever released in the U.S.? --Mike L.

9:57 AM, July 13, 2014  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Hey Mike,
Thanks for the heads up. I had not seen the Fuel 2000 comp. You know, thanks to Marshall Sehorn, Charly in the UK initially comped most of the same material in various packages on LP and CD. If I am not mistaken, they had longer versions of "Mojo Hannah" and "Hercules". Rounder got into the act with their 1990 CD I mentioned, which had just 12 of the cuts, including a 4:10 "Hercules" and 4:30 "Mojo Hannah". As noted, the latter was not he same take as the Mercury version. If Fuel has a longer version of the released track, it's good to know.

So, Fuel 2000 is not breaking much, if any, new ground; and their packaging as you describe it in your Amazon review seems indeed messed up. I see on the Amazon shot of the cover that alleged Sansu copy of "Hercules". It's either a boot or photoshopped. The number 480 on it was actually assigned to a Betty Harris single, "Ride Your Pony"/"Trouble With My Lover".

I'm sure what Bill Dahl wrote in the notes is OK, even though he seems not to have had a final running order to write about. At least you say the CD sound is good, if that matters at all in a world that accepts mp3s as high quality!!!

Still, I can't complain about more Aaron Neville/Allen Toussaint music being made available once again. The CD is not aimed at geeks like me anyway. If it creates a few more fans of New Orleans music, the packaging aggravations can slide...for now.

7:53 PM, July 13, 2014  
Blogger Unknown said...

The timings indicate that "Hercules" and "Mojo Hannah" are probably the same ones as the Rounder disc. And the picture of Aaron on the front is clearly from the '60's--isn't that an old Minit publicity pic? There's a more contemporaneous picture inside. As you say, it's good to have this available again.

6:53 PM, July 14, 2014  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

I need to take some time a do a comparison of those tracks, Mike, or check with my friend, Jon, who used to have the Nevilletracks site, as I'm sure he has compared all of 'em. But these comps have a way of working with the same source material, right or wrong. Anyway, long or short, alternate or original takes, at least they are accessible.

By the way, you asked about that Island single with the remake of "Tell It Like It Is". I don't think it ever came out here, just the UK and Europe. Not sure why that was, either. A more receptive audience, I suppose.

8:52 PM, July 14, 2014  
Blogger Unknown said...

Returning to the theme of the post, I remember the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center once staged a show featuring both Irma and Aaron. Sometime late '70's, I believe. As far as I know, it's the only time they've ever performed together. Wish I had seen it.

9:50 AM, October 19, 2014  

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