September 12, 2010

Further Reflections On Shine, Part 2

He could take it a la Ray Charles or a la Big Maybelle, but no matter how he took it he liked it ratty. - Mac Rebennack/Dr. John on Alvin 'Shine' Robinson in Under A Hoodoo Moon

“Ratty”, by the way, was a New Orleans equivalent of the term “funky” back in the day. And I never thought of Shine having a Big Maybelle influence - but it does make some sense.

Mac knew Shine a long time. Both were young guitarists in New Orleans in the late 1950s. Mac led his own bands, hung out around Cosimo's studio, played on sessions when he could, and was soon writing, arranging and producing for Ace and Ric/Ron. Shine played in the House Rockers, led by the colorful Jessie Hill, from 1958 until he joined Joe Jones' band and started recording for Imperial (see Part 1). As a matter of fact, he may have still been with the House Rockers, when they cut Jessie's one big hit, "Ooh Poo Pah Doo", for Minit in 1960. Rebennack knew Hill back then, too (Jessie always claimed to have taught Mac how to sing!). So, the connections ran deep and continued when Mac came to Los Angeles in the mid- 1960s and hooked up again with Jessie, who had been out there for a while working as a songwriter. As Mac relates in his book, he and Hill were soon regularly writing together and started their own publishing company.

Shine came back into the picture later in California, around the making of Mac’s first Dr. John LP, Gris Gris, in 1967. He joined the ragtag group of New Orleans expatriate musicians Mac and Jessie were hanging with, who were working more or less at the fringes of the music industry. Most if not all of them were substance abusers (they were not alone by any means!), junkies and/or hustlers of one stripe or another, living on the edge Hollywood-style. Besides Mac, Jessie, and Shine, the circle included Dave Dixon, Richard 'Didimus' Washington, and Ronnie Barron. Let’s just say they were a talented bunch, but not operating anywhere near the same level as some of the bigger names from New Orleans who had become major players on the scene out West, such as drummer Earl Palmer, sax great Plas Johnson, guitarist Rene Hall, or even a newer-comer, producer/arranger Harold Battiste.

In New Orleans, Battiste had produced sessions for the Specialty label, then started A.F.O. Records with some other like-minded African-American musicians, and had utilized Mac’s talents as a songwriter and musician. When A.F.O. failed financially, Battiste and several of the the owners went West in 1963. He had briefly worked out there before with Sam Cooke for Specialty, and used his connections to get established on the scene. A few years later, when the younger Rebennack showed up at his former boss’ door, a few steps ahead of the law, Battiste helped him get some work to get started.

By 1967, Battiste had become the musical director, arranger and producer (in all but name) for the popular pop show-biz act, Sonny & Cher. In his own fascinating new memoir, Unfinished Blues (highly recommended), he relates that, with Sonny Bono’s backing, he was also attempting to start a new production company; and, as his first project, he wanted to work with Mac, who had an intriguing idea for an experimental concept album. With Battiste’s assistance and encouragement, Mac developed the atmospheric concoction of deep New Orleans cultural roots, wild Mardi Gras abandon, and freaky hoodoo vibes that evolved into
Gris Gris. He decided to adopt the mysterioso Dr. John front man persona himself, after Ronnie Barron’s agent passed on letting Ronnie do it. So, with Rebennack as the main creative force for the sessions, Harold arranged the tunes Mac wrote, co-writing a few of them, and orchestrated the large ensemble they gathered to perform the material. The LP was cut between August and September of 1967, and presented to an unsuspecting and mystified Atlantic Records (Sonny & Cher recorded for their Atco subsidiary) by Battiste, who soon was called in by Ahmet Ertegun to explain what the hell they were supposed to do with it. Rather miraculously, he convinced the big boss to unleash the record on the world unaltered. The late Sixties were definitely a unique time in the music business.

Shine was around for the festivities, having come out from New York at some point prior to the making of
Gris Gris. Battiste confirms in his book that Shine was one of the session participants, though he is not listed in the LP sleeve's cryptic credits. Then, maybe just a few months thereafter, the singer had a studio date himself, cutting his only major label single - for none other than Atco.

I’ve been wondering about how this all went down, as I am pretty certain that Shine’s Atco session took place back in New York, Atlantic Records’ home base. A direct connection between his working on Harold and Mac’s Atlantic project and his own is unclear, since neither of them mention anything about it in their books; but it seems to be more than coincidental. Despite the fact that nothing beyond the basic details about this record are evident, let’s plunge onward through the fog with the few clues I’ve got and get into this really quite impressive single.

“Let Me Down Easy” (Curtis Ousley)
Alvin Robinson, Atco 6581, 1968
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

“Baby Don’t You Do It” (Holland Dozier Holland)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

[Warning - this paragraph is even geekier than usual!] Using the sequential matrix numbers assigned to the sides (13625/13626) and referring to the online Atlantic Records Discography Project and The R&B Indies, I’ve extrapolated a probable recording date for this project of November or early December, 1967. The single was likely released early the next year. The Atlantic discography at has details on many of the company’s sessions, but not all of them; and, of course, Shine’s brief interlude is not included. I’m hoping the new Soul Discography from Eyeball Productions (who brought us The R&B Indies) will have something, if I can ever afford to buy it.

The names on the 45 label get us a bit farther. You’ll note that the arranger of record was Arif Mardin, and the esteemed Tom Dowd produced. That, my friends, was a soul music dream team. Both were working with, among others, Aretha Franklin in this period; and Dowd had been with Atlantic from the early days, recording Ray Charles and numerous R&B greats. The other significant name shown is that of the writer of the deeply soulful top side, “Let Me Down Easy”, Curtis Ousley, a/k/a King Curtis, in demand session saxman and leader of his own popular instrumental group, the Kingpins, who made a lot of records on Atco with Mardin producing, and often backed Aretha Franklin in the studio for Atlantic, as well.

I don’t know if Curtis’ song might have been written for Shine, or if it was something Curtis had done with Ray Charles in mind, but it was certainly right in the singer's wheelhouse - and, though he over-sang it a bit here an there, he belted it out of the park on pure feel alone. If you are going into Charles’ territory, you want the best ride possible; and Shine got it. That’s why am I featuring this down-tempo number for a change. It’s just that good to me.

On the other side, they took Shine into modified Motown mode, covering the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic, “Baby Don’t You Do It”, originally done by Marvin Gaye back in 1964. This upbeat mover has its share of funk in the drumkit pushing Mardin’s compelling, polyrhythmic arrangement. Shine’s energetic delivery punched through with complete authority and certainly more weight than Gaye’s version.

It is quite possible that these sides were recorded in conjunction with a King Curtis session, with Shine coming in to do his vocals backed by that band. Maybe Curtis was a fan of Shine and wanted to give him a shot. But there is another plausible possibility that involves New Orleans trumpeter, Mel Lastie, who played in the Kingpins at the time - maybe he lobbied for Shine.

In all likelihood, Lastie had known Shine since the House Rockers days. He and his brother, David Lastie, had played with Hill in an early version of the band; and David, a sax player, was also a member, as was Shine, when Hill re-grouped around 1958. One of the founders of A.F.O. Records in New Orleans with Battiste, Melvin Lastie re-located to Los Angeles with his partner when the company folded in 1963. Together, they worked on a number of projects out there, including some of the later Sam Cooke records. Then, Lastie left for New York when Joe Jones, who had just made his deal with Leiber & Stoller, hired him to assist with productions on the Dixie Cups and Shine (see Part 1). Lastie soon became well-known and respected around the city’s music scene, and did a lot of session work with Atlantic. So, his connections certainly suggest a conduit for Shine’s Atco hook-up.

However Shine got to make the record, he had an outstanding team backing him; but I doubt he was given any promotional push, not having a deal with the label. Just a one-shot in the dark, the 45 quickly fell through the cracks instead of getting him heard, and so, failed to move him up to the next rung on the tricky ladder of success.

* * * * *
With that bit of unrealized hope behind him, Shine seems to have gone right back out West where he had friends, and other possibilities beckoned. Atlantic had thrown caution to the wind and released
Gris Gris in February of 1968. To the surprise of everyone involved, it began to catch on, being passed hand to hand through the youth culture like a good run of acid. According to Dr. John's account, he suddenly realized that he was going to have to get a band together due to the record’s popularity; and, of course, he enlisted many of his running partners and several other New Orleans players, too.

On his return, Shine became a charter member of the Dr. John revue, formed with his co-conspirators to play the love-ins and happenings of tripped-out hippydom who first embraced the intoxicating, exotic album (and no doubt cleaned their weed on its cover). Besides starting to play live, the group would go back into the studio in 1968 and record the follow-up, Babylon, which was even more musically experimental (and just plain mental) and didn’t hold together nearly as well; but that just endeared them more to their legion of off-the wall fans. Even so, Atlantic held on for four more albums after that; and, over time, Dr. John would endure to become the iconic cultural character he is today, who kept Shine in his road band pretty much regularly until the guitarist and soulful singer passed in 1989.

Gris Gris was beginning to take off, Mac was also involved in a production deal he had fallen into with a new label, Pulsar, which was owned by Mercury. Lacking organizational skills and often strung out, he asked Battiste for assistance. They formed a partnership, HalMac, and began developing artists, material and recording projects for Pulsar. Mac was doing a lot of songwriting for the sessions with Jessie Hill, Shine, and King Floyd. Their secret agenda was to infiltrate the label and turn it into a music operation similar to what the scene in New Orleans had once been; but the trick would soon turn the other way.

While they worked with a lot of what Mac called “lame” pop-rock acts of the era; HalMac also set out to cut records on Floyd, Hill, and Shine. Pulsar’s bosses surprisingly began green-lighting album projects on the artists right away, instead of releasing a few singles first to test the waters. So, Harold and Mac cut an entire LP on King Floyd, A Man In Love, early on, one single with Hill, and also did an album’s worth of material with Shine, most of which was not released at the time. Only two singles on him saw the brief light of day.

The first was “Empty Talk”/“Sho ‘Bout To Drive Me Wild” (#2408). Although the stock copy of the single was credited to Al Robinson, my promo copy (pictured) simply says “Shine”. Red Kelly has featured the latter song, a driving rock groover written by Robinson, Rebennack, Hill, and Floyd, on his B-Side blog, and the audio is still hot on his post. Incidentally, this tune would be covered on the album, Triumvirate, that Dr. John made with John Hammond and Michael Bloomfield in 1973. Hammond sang it; and Dr. John, who did the arrangements on the LP, tricked the tune out to the funky side.

The top side of 3408 was a mid-tempo, bluesy outing with horns, more or less a la Ray Charles, sung well, as usual, by Shine; but, as a tune, it was quite not up to the standards of some of his earlier material. Still, there were a lot of great players involved in the project, as found in the notes to Ace’s Harold Battiste/A.F.O.- related Gumbo Stew CD series, which includes Shine’s released and several unreleased Pulsar sides (I featured one of those in 2007).

Here’s the session list: Mac Rebennack, guitar and piano; Mike Longo, piano, Bob West, bass; Paul Humphries, drums; Jessie Hill, tambourine; Plas Johnson, tenor sax; Herman Riley, baritone sax; Melvin Lastie, trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn; Ike Williams, trumpet; Tami Lynn, vocals.

The one other single that made it out was “Soulful Woman”/“Give Her Up”

“Soulful Woman” (J. Hill-M. Rebennack-A. Robinson)
Al Robinson, Pulsar 2417, 1969
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Shine’s performance, the in-the-pocket playing by pretty much the same cast, and a rollicking arrangement made this unassuming little tune happen. Since Mac is the only guitar player listed in the session credits (though surely Shine played some, too) we’ll give him props for the nice riff running through the song, skipping and doing flips atop Humphries’ funked up drums. Kudos also to Bob West’s pumping and percolatin’ bass, the right, tight horn charts a la Battiste, and, of course, the great Plas Johnson’s soloing - so little doing so much. On top of that, Shine’s vocal just kills. He was all over it from jump and back for sloppy seconds at the end when he let it all hang out. Maybe his loosest, most get-down performance on record.

“Give Her Up”, written by Charlie Julien (a/k/a Jimmy Jules) - more on him coming soon - who also hailed from the Crescent City, continued the pattern of having Shine do a slower side of Charlesian emoting. Nice, but no biggie.

Maybe you noted that Melvin Lastie made these sessions, which further cements my notion that he was an important link to Shine’s earlier Atco release, probably working in conjunction with Battiste. Harold had asked Mel to come out to LA in 1969 and assume some of the workload for the Pulsar projects, since Mac was going out on the road and just becoming increasingly unreliable. According to both the Battiste and Dr. John books, Mac subsequently got busted while out on tour, then mysteriously didn’t check back in with Harold for several months. Turns out he had turned to Sonny & Cher’s shyster managers to bail him out, and they made the desperate new rock star give them a piece of his action in return. One of the first things they did was to void his HalMac partnership with Battiste. So, Harold and Mel went into business together as HalMel; but their big plans for Pulsar soon came crashing down when, out of the blue, the label was summarily dispatched by Mercury. It seems the company had been only running it as a tax write-off and never intended to promote the existing releases or issue what was left in the can. Battiste and Lastie were able to purchase the masters from the company for a mere $5,000, and said good riddance. That is how Shine’s material got onto the
Gumbo Stew compilation - the wise Harold Battiste still has the tapes!

It is a true travesty of talent that Alvin Robinson’s Pulsar sides were his last recordings as a featured artist; but that is how the chips fell. The annals of the music business are filled with tales of injustice, insult and injury. Shine’s setbacks were the collateral damage from a series of business dealings beyond his control, from the sell-off of Imperial, through Leiber & Stoller’s brief fling with running their own shop, to the Pulsar plot; and all served to do his career in bit by bit.

He still had his role as sideman in Dr. John’s band, and made appearances as guitarist on a few more of the LPs, Remedies, Gumbo, plus, later, Hollywood Be Thy Name, where he had this brief live vocal feature (Shine’s on rhythm guitar, with Steve Hunter on lead).

“It’s Alright with Me” (Cole Porter) / “Blue Skies” (I. Berlin)
from Hollywood Be thy Name, UA, 1975
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

In 1972, Shine was involved with Jessie Hill’s near trainwreck of an LP, Naturally, as a co-writer on two tunes, and probably one the many uncredited players. He even did a duet of sorts with Jessie on it, “I Studied Soul”; but the vocals are so covered up by the music that it’s hard to make out (...Duuude, we forgot to do the mix!). The next year, he was on the legendary James Booker sessions at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, which were not released until appearing on CD 30 years later. Shine played some guitar later in the 1970s on Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine album; and his final studio project was as part of the rhythm section on the sessions for Chuck Carbo’s 1989 single, “Second Line On Monday”/“Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On”, and subsequent LP, Life’s Ups And Downs.

Would that he could have shined even more brightly and longer in this life. We’re left to savor what little Shine got left behind. But it’s still plenty righteous enough to be alright with us.


Blogger Red Kelly said...

Dan -

You're doing the Lord's work here, my brother, and thanks for the links... as you know, I'm a huge Shine fan, and I still think he hasn't gotten the recognition he deserves.

Anyway, I've often wondered about the sessions that produced ATCO 6581 myself - allow me to muddy the waters even further. It appears possible - as Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and King Curtis practically lived at the studio at the time, cranking out great records like Memphis Soul Stew in the process - that it was cut at American Sound in Memphis. I have no proof and, as you said, the Atlantic Discography offers no help, but it seems plausible. As far as Melvin Lastie's involvement, both he and King Curtis were involved in another ATCO release, this time by Ben E. King, 6527, recorded earlier that year at another Southern studio, Quin Ivy's Norala in Muscle Shoals (although they might have just done overdubbed the horn parts in NY), so anything's possible, I guess.

Thanks for being you!

4:30 PM, September 15, 2010  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, Red. And thanks to ana, too, for her comments on the earlier post. Your kind words and interest are much appreciated.

Hey, don't apologize for muddy water! Sometimes you have to stir up some mud to get to the bottom of things. After reading over the Atlantic Discog and such, the thought crossed my mind that American in Memphis could have been the location for the session, as Curtis and the crew were cutting there around that time. Also, it appears that the Muscle Shoals rhythm section also did some sessions in NYC with Aretha, as I recall, and Curtis. So, you are right, as far as the players involved, the possibilities are rich, while the certainties ain't.
Again, though, wherever and backed by whomever, it's a great single and one that I think Mel Lastie had a good hand in getting booked.

Will I be seeing you at the Stomp, sir? Lemme know.

6:44 PM, September 15, 2010  
Blogger ana-b said...

This piece is so dense with info I had to read it four or five times.

The Atco single is one of my faves. As you say, it could well have been a side project made during a King Curtis session, but even if that's true, it's still no minor tossed off effort and deserved better. Robinson deserved better.

Battiste's hope of turning Pulsar into 'A.F.O. part 2' is news to me. And it blows me away. With all that talent available, one can only dream about what might have been.

Marvelous piece Dan. I can tell I'll be referring to it often.


10:28 AM, September 16, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good job with giving the bands recognition. I've never heard of any of these bands, but you've supplied enough information that I feel like I've listened to them for years. The lyrics to a lot of these songs are relaxing and easy to relate with. The songs are perfect for doing homework and cleaning around the house and even riding around in the car.

12:34 AM, September 20, 2010  

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