December 31, 2010

2DAT - 2011

Somewhere deep in da Who Dat Nation


December 30, 2010

Three Bells

For this final post of 2010, I’ve got related sides from three singles by Aaron Neville, Lee Dorsey, and Allen Toussaint. All were written and arranged by Toussaint, co-produced with his business partner, Marshall Sehorn, and released on the New York-based Bell Records label at the end of the 1960s. What ties them together further is that they had backing by some or all of the Meters.

In January, I usually try to celebrate Toussaint’s birthday by featuring a few of the myriad cuts he was involved with as either a performer, writer, producer/arranger, or all of those. So these tunes work not only as a lead-in to that but also also refer back to the prior post which touched on some of Art Neville’s deep connections within the fabric of the New Orleans music scene. I don't think I’ve ever featured any of Toussaint’s productions that appeared on Bell and am glad to get to some of the best, along with more of the intertwined back-story of these artists. Hope it sets the stage for another groovy new year (#6) exploring mainly New Orleans records here at HOTG.

By the way, speaking of the Meters, last time I mentioned Art’s December birthday but left out that both George Porter, Jr, and Zig Modeliste also were born in this month - about ten years behind Art.

“You Can Give, But You Can’t Take” (Allen Toussaint)
Aaron Neville, Bell 746, 1968

When this single was released in 1968, Aaron Neville was at loose ends in his up and down solo career. He had started off in 1960 working with Allen Toussaint, who wrote, arranged and produced seven singles on him over three years for Joe Banashak’s Minit label, including his lead-off hit, “Over You”, which Allen Orange co-wrote. Although Aaron cut some excellent sides for Minit, none of the others got any more than local attention: and he told Jeff Hannusch that he never got royalties for anything he did on the label. 

In 1963, Toussaint went into the service and Minit was sold to Liberty Records, a large, national company which kept only one of Banashak’s artists, Irma Thomas, under contract on their Imperial subsidiary. Three years later, Aaron was still without a record deal and working on the New Orleans docks, when he got the opportunity to cut “Tell It Like It Is” for a new local label, Parlo. It became a huge hit for him, thrusting the uniquely gifted singer into the #1 single spotlight; but, again, he got virtually no payoff from the record sales. Neither Parlo nor the distributor, Dover Records, owned by Cosimo Matassa, was geared for the business demands of such a success and soon went bankrupt trying to keep up. Neville did get a year or more of good touring work out of the record and took his older brother, Art, out on the road with him as his bandleader.

When they returned home in 1967, Art focused on getting his own career back on track and formed a new band, the Neville Sounds, with a hot young, funky rhythm section, plus Gary Brown on sax, and Aaron and younger brother Cyril on vocals. Just as they started gaining an audience doing club work around town, Art downsized the group to a combo of organ, guitar (Leo Nocentelli), bass (Porter) and drums (Modeliste) to take a house band job at a small, popular French Quarter club. Suddenly cut loose, his brothers and Brown connected with keyboardist Sam Henry to start the Soul Machine, another popular unit around town into the early 1970s, though the heroin addictions of both Aaron and Cyril would make their appearances with the band irregular.

In 1968, Art’s popular four-piece was recruited away from their gig to become the in-house studio combo for Sansu Enterprises, the production company of Toussaint and Sehorn. Soon thereafter, the band’s name was changed to the Meters when they became featured recording artists themselves. Art had known Allen since grade school days in the 1940s and also recorded for him as a vocalist in the early 1960s on Instant, another of Joe Banashak’s labels.

Brother Aaron’s reunion with Toussaint and Art came when the Sansu partners tapped him to record a series of singles for Bell, trying to get him back into the charts. Ironically, that meant he was singing over tracks laid down by his former bandmates. More than likely, Sehorn, the real business end of the operation, easily got the project on Aaron placed with Bell due to the singer’s rep from “Tell It Like Is”, not to mention the success of Sansu’s bggest seller, Lee Dorsey, who recorded for Amy, a Bell subsidiary. 

Taken from Neville’s first Bell 45 in 1968, “You Can Give” is a well-crafted piece of mid-tempo soul-pop with a hooky chorus and plenty of potential. As on most, if not all, of their sessions as sidemen for Toussaint (who likely was on piano here), the Meters played the arrangement to his exact specifications, offering up well-rendered, tasteful musical support for Aaron’s trademark ethereal singing, which was flawless and hit-worthy, revealing nothing of the turmoil in his life at the time.

The flip, “Where Is My Baby”, a Toussaint ballad, was equally notable, obviously fashioned to be another “Tell It Like It Is”. Even when he was copping elements of a popular tune, Toussaint always did a very classy job of it. Still, despite the excellent efforts of all involved, neither this nor the other two 45s* Aaron made for Bell had any significant commercial impact. It would take over two more decades for his career as a solo artist to truly blossom; and he is now a national icon. In 1978, the formation and subsequent success of the dynamic Neville Brothers band certainly helped keep Aaron connected to fans at home and around the world.

* #781 “Speak To Me” / “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”, 1969
  #834 “All these Things” / “She’s On My Mind”, 1969

[“You Can Give” was re-issued on a Rounder compilation on Aaron back in 1990, My Greatest Gift, and has recently resurfaced on a modest, budget-priced collection of mostly late1960s Toussaint productions, Saint of New Orleans.]

“Hands Christianderson” (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, Bell 748, 1968

With a title as quirky as the composition itself, this unusual and complex production appeared on the second of three Toussaint singles released by Bell in 1968, featuring him on piano, and in a few cases, vocals. I wonder if he designed ”Hands” to play pop counterpoint to the lush but more straight ahead instrumental hit song of the same year, “Love Is Blue”, by Paul Mauriat. It has the same kind of over the top, multi-instrument arrangement, including strings, but with quite a rhythmic twist - kind of like “Hand Jive” meets Riverdance. If anyone ever asks you if a song can be poly-rhythmic and syncopated and NOT be funky, play this!

As far as I can tell, that would be Zig and George of the Meters pumping the kick drum pedal and plucking the bass strings respectively; and you can probably see why the temperamental and highly funkifried Mr. Modeliste chafed at being put to rather mechanical tasks such as this and eventually stopped playing on many of Toussaint’s productions.

Maybe Allen was hoping this might be picked up as another TV theme song (as had his earlier “Whipped Cream”, when covered by Herb Alpert), or for a movie soundtrack. I don’t know, but it seems he enjoyed and saw commercial potential in such pop instrumentals, as he had been doing them since the late 1950s, though not on this scale. “Hands” was cleverly done, maybe too much so, as it quickly patty-caked off into the sunset; taking with it the other side of the 45, “I’ve Got That Feelin Now”, which went in another musical direction entirely, call it soul easy-listening - more the latter than the former - with strings, a solo sax interwoven with the piano, and a female chorus singing the title. As big a fan of Mr. Toussaint as I am, the only feelin’ I got from that one was drowsiness, probably shared by both George and Zig, whose talents were under-used, to say the least.

Toussaint also played around with several cover tunes on this series. His first 45 for Bell (#732) had two, including a decent, mostly instrumental remake of the hit he wrote for Lee Dorsey, “Get Out My Life Woman”. On his own take, Toussaint sang just the the first lines of some of the verses and riffed on the piano, while Nocentelli contributed some acoustic guitar lines. The other side had the folk classic (!) “Gotta Travel On”, completely instrumental and played on top of the the signature beats and groove of “Working In The Coal Mine”. Beyond odd, at least it wasn't boring.

Again, on his final Bell 45 (#782), Toussaint got cover-happy and laid down a rousing, highly percussive rendition of the Champs’ oldie warhorse, “Tequila”, and gave himself plenty of room to improvise. Always fun to hear, it was probably something he had jammed on for years. The other side was an original in pop/rock territory with a full vocal, “We The People”, not one of his best, but an enjoyable performance by a still reluctant lead singer at that point.

Toussaint’s own work on Bell reveals that he was still finding his way as a solo artist, more willing to experiment with instrumental end-runs than take on the challenge of stepping up to deliver his own lyrics. To me, it’s very fortunate that none of these three singles became a hit, as Toussaint was forced to dig down for more substance and quality. When he got the opportunity to record his 1970 LP for Scepter, Toussaint, he had what he needed. Though he still put some instrumentals on it, the fine vocal material made that record the gateway to getting his songs placed with national acts and landing his own multi-album deal with Warner Brothers as an artist and producer. That’s where the next stage of his illustrious career began; and I’ll try to get to that LP again next month.

[You can hear all of Toussaint’s Bell single sides plus the Toussaint LP material on the essential Kent CD, What Is Success: The Scepter and Bell Recordings, and via various download options.]

What You Want (Is What You Get)” (Allen Toussant)
Lee Dorsey, Bell 908, 1970

This often overlooked 45 was the last production Toussaint and Sehorn placed with Bell. The company went through considerable changes around 1970, absorbing their other imprints, Mala and Amy, that had handled most of the company’s soul artists. Bell was then purchased by Columbia Pictures/Colgems, and would move even more heavily into pop. Having been on Amy since 1965, Lee Dorsey (also born in December) was moved to Bell for just this sole single before Sansu landed him a deal with Polydor that resulted in the classic Yes We Can album the same year.

“What You Want” can certainly be seen as a continuation of what Toussaint had been writing and producing for Lee's Amy 45s of 1969, with the Meters, of course, accompanying him. Nocentelli’s fretboard work on the the electric sitar is there, the nicely articulated horns, along with Toussaint's back-up singing and attention-grabbing arrangement. The only difference is that the beat, while somewhat syncopated, stepped away from the funk of his final three Amy A-sides into more of an aggressive rock feel, augmented by the bass attack, both of which seem almost too heavy for Dorsey’s naturally light-hearted vocal style. Still, this is another outstanding Toussaint/Dorsey/Meters collaboration and deserves more attention**. I can't say the same for the country-flavored flip side, "I Can Hear You Callin'", though.

All of the Bell singles Toussaint produced hit a commercial brick wall. Some deserved it - but more did not. Probably much of the problem was the lack of any significant push by the label. The artists were obviously not a high priority for Bell, for whatever business model or lack thereof, as the extent of promotion on the records seems to have been minimal at best.

**“What You Want” appeared on the now out of print Sundazed CD compilation, The New Lee Dorsey.  

December 24, 2010

Cool Yule Stocking Stuffers

For the very early grades. . .my classmates included Allen Toussaint and James Booker, guys who would influence my life in ways I couldn't begin to imagine. They would both grow up to be two of the baddest piano playing dudes. . . James was a genius. We're both Saggitarians, and we were both altar boys. . . .Booker taught me so much stuff. Anything he heard, he could duplicate, from Frederick Chopin to Tuts Washington, with all stops in between. - Art Neville in The Brothers Neville

A couple of holiday treats for you, featuring two players whose connections go way back.

"Big Nick" (J. Booker)
James Booker, Peacock 1923, 1962
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

In the alternate universe that is HOTG, this James Booker B-side is most definitely a Christmas tune. First there's the title; then the way chilly tone he generated on the Hammond organ. As I am fairly non-traditional about the seasonal music, that's plenty good enough for me.

This cut and "Cross My Heart", a take on the Johnny Ace ballad, were on Booker's final of four instrumental organ singles under his own name for Don Robey's Peacock label. While the record faded away as quickly as its two predecessors, the keyboardist's first of the series contained "Gonzo", which was was a substantial national hit, the only one he ever had.

The instruments used on "Big Nick" pretty much mirrored "Gonzo", including the flute - an unusual R&B instrument in those days. I’ve never run across any documentation on who the other players were on any of Booker’s Peacock sessions, which were done in Houston, although I’ve read that a fellow New Orleans pianist, Ed Frank, produced and arranged them. Since the first time I heard it, the hip, lightly syncopated bossa nova beat and jazzy feel on this tune never fail to lock me in.

Booker was overflowing with influences. As Art Neville noted, from an early age, pretty much everything the prodigy ever heard could come out of his fingers at any given moment. Of course, his main mode of expression was the piano; and his overwhelming, florid virtuosity on it certainly eclipsed his far more tame organ technique. Still, he had an expressive, playful touch on the electronic keyboard and influenced other local players, including his old school buddy, Art.

Both Neville and Booker were born on December 17 - Art in 1937 and James in 1939. Although James did not record very much on the organ under his own name - the Peacocks and one earlier B-side for Ace as Little Booker - his playing was featured on several singles that drummer Earl Forest recorded for Duke around the same period, and on a later LP by the Lloyd Price band. He also played the instrument a lot over the years as a side man. Of course, Art became THE organist in New Orleans popular music as a part of the distinctive, groundbreaking funk sound of the Meters.

“Lonesome and Unwanted People” (Leo Nocentelli)
The Meters, from Cabbage Alley, Reprise, 1972
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Another song from the HOTG holiday songbook. It even mentions Santa Claus. What more do ya want?

The Meters first album for Warner Brothers’ Reprise label, Cabbage Alley, produced by Toussaint and his Sansu Enterprises partner, Marshall Sehorn (he made the deal), marked their move into material with substantial lyrics, stepping up their game from the minimalist, mainly instrumental funk they recorded for Josie the prior three years. This not often heard message song by guitarist Leo Nocentelli also features Art on lead vocal, piano, and, of course, Hammond organ, George Porter, Jr, on bass, and Zig Modeliste on drums. Although the album cover and later (28 years!) CD re-issue on Sundazed don’t mention the recording venue, I believe the sessions were done at Jazz City Studio in New Orleans, which engineer Skip Godwin took over for a time after Cosimo Matassa got shut out by the IRS and bankruptcy. That’s where Toussaint’s first LP for Warner Bros, Life, Love and Faith, was done with the Meters backing him up. Both albums came out in 1972.

Warner Brothers was a pop label at the time and years away from becoming a corporate giant. Back in those days, they were willing and able to take a chance on some fairly exotic musicians from New Orleans and had wisely signed Toussaint to a songwriting and record-making deal; and the Meters were packaged in with that. As Leo recalled, the Meters and Tower of Power were the first funky R&B bands the label had. Quite frankly, I don’t think the company ever figured out how to effectively market the Meters, although they hung in for four albums over six years. The commercial rewards were slim; but just having the band on the roster increased the label's hip cred - back when that meant something. Not that it did the band much of any good financially.

A few weeks ago, George Porter, Jr. and his band, Runnin’ Pardners, played the Blue Moon Saloon here, as I mentioned in my sidebar mini-review. These days, on his own gigs, he’s doing lots of these songs from the Meters back catalog that the other members of that amazing band just flat won’t play at their few reunion gigs. As George rightly figures, there is some great material back up in there that rarely ever gets covered - and the songs need to be heard. So, he’s covering them himself! I’m sure there are plenty of album cuts and B-sides that the Meters never played after they were recorded. More’s the pity. Thank you George for breaking them back out and performing them live for new and old audiences alike.

As you groove to this one over the holidays, I hope you’ll take the suggestion to consider all the neglected, under-represented, forgotten people on this planet and be moved to find out about more about them and what they need to survive and thrive. We all can afford to break out of our own instant gratification routines sometime and do something good for somebody else.

Dig it. Right now. Right now.
Peace. Hope Big Nick is good to y'all.

December 18, 2010

The Soulful Tenacity of Chuck Simmons

As a recording artist on various small local labels, New Orleans native Charles ‘Chuck’ Simmons worked closely with one of the city’s great record men, producer/arranger Wardell Quezergue, for over two decades. There were some jewels among his sporadic releases from the mid-1960s into the 1980s; but none took him very far in the business, which is why you are reading about him here, of course. In 2001, Simmons first appeared on my radar via one of the Tuff City/Funky Delicacies CD compilations of Big Q production projects, Wardell Quezergue’s Funky Funky New Orleans, which included three of his sides, the two-part “Lay It On Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody”.

That’s where my quest for his records and more about the man began. Then, in 2003, Funky Delicacies released a fairly comprehensive CD compilation of Simmons’s work
Hustler’s Strut: Rare & Unreleased Lower Ninth Ward New Orleans Funk 1965-1978, revealing how much more there was to find and containing Kevin Goins’ fairly detailed and helpful notes covering the singer’s life and career(s). This overview would not exist without that information, which I have distilled and supplemented with some of the records and additional factoids I’ve come up with over the past decade.

I’m starting more or less in the middle of Chuck Simmons’ recording career, before I backtrack to discuss his earlier work, because what I’ve collected on him so far is output from the 1970s. Those records are somewhat easier to find and not too expensive, though not always his best. His 1960s singles were fewer and, of course, now even more rare. None of his records ever had wide distribution. But let’s begin our listening session with a single containing a version of one of his funkiest tracks, paired with perhaps a career-best vocal performance.

“Lay It On Me” (W. Quezergue - C. Simmons - E. Small)
Chuck Simmons, F.C.W. 1001, ca 1976

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

“Everybody Needs Somebody”
(Frederick Knight)

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

You know one thing. I can’t dance one lick; but, when I hear a groove like this, I got to move sumpin’.
- Chuck Simmons, “Hustler’s Strut, Part 2”

This release of “Lay It On Me” is a spin-off of a spin-off. Its highly funkified backing music originally appeared on an earlier Chuck Simmons two-part single, “Hustler’s Strut”, from 1973, recorded at Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s new Sea-Saint Studios. From what I’ve learned in the last few years, the session band probably included the dangerous Herman Ernest on drums, Ralph Richardson (?) on bass, guitarist Teddy Royal, and Sam Henry on keyboard, along with a horn section led by Quezergue, who produced, arranged and co-wrote the tune with Elliott Small and another collaborator. “Hustler’s Strut” was released by Simmons’ own extremely low-profile label, Broom Records, and pursued the old, unreliable formula of trying get a hit by inciting a new dance craze, but it didn’t click. As Simmons’ told Goines, he always thought the fairly consistent lack of radio play his records got was due to his inability to participate in pay to play with the DJs.

Rightly thinking that the music track was not the problem, Simmons and Quezergue later decided to re-cycle the tune. They recorded new lyrics for it that were even more generic than before. doing away with the dance angle and substituting simple pleas to get some action. The result, “Lay It On Me”, still in two-sided format [hear Part 1 on Youtube], was released on the Move label (#107). which I think Simmons also owned, and met with a better reception, at least partially disproving his theory about the DJs. Even with scant promotion, “Lay It On Me” got spins on several New Orleans stations, showed up on local jukeboxes, and was popular for a while in clubs around down, but did not progress beyond that initial buzz.

Over the next decade or so, Simmons and Quezergue would resurrected the song, at least Part 2 of it, several more times. Our featured single on the one-off F.C.W. label contained that part of “Lay It On Me” together with “Everybody Needs Somebody”, a rousing soul groover written by someone from outside the New Orleans sphere, R&B muti-tasker Frederick Knight. Goines indicates that “Everybody” was cut in Baton Rouge in 1976; and I’ve since learned that it was probably done at Royal Shield Studio, owned by the father of singer Cynthia Sheeler. While Simmons pretty much rapped the basic verses and did some shouting on “Lay It On Me”, lowering and roughing up his voice, his singing on “Everybody Needs Somebody” was outstanding, his tenor strong, pure, and expressive, making it definitely one of his best recorded efforts.

“I’m Wondering About Your Love” (J. Broussard-R. Williams-C. Washington) Charles Simmons, Hep’ Me 165, ca 1978
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Somewhat later, Simmons, using his given name, cut this single at Sea-Saint for Senator Jones’ Hep’ Me label, which also used Part 2 of “Lay It On Me” for the flip side. “Wondering” was another nice slice of upbeat soul with a rewardingly dense, multi-rhythmic Quezergue arrangement that again put Simmons' voice right in his sweet spot, certainly his most effective range, making for another performance worthy of repeated plays. The song was co-written by his long-time music partner, Joe Broussard, along with Ralph Williams and Carol Washington, all of whom were part of Quezergue’s production team going back to the 1960s.

The soul singing Simmons did in the mid-1970 would prove to be his highest quality work, but he still had some good performances to commit to tape. Before moving on, though, it’s time to go back and get the story of how he got started on his musical path and first came to the attention of Mr. Quezergue.

* * * * * * *
Born in 1938, Chuck Simmons’ first nine years were spent with his family living near downtown New Orleans. They then moved East, out across the Industrial Canal into the lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s many musically fecund neighborhoods. Fats Domino, ten years older than Chuck and yet to be discovered, lived nearby. Simmons did the rest of his growing up there, becoming a boxer and auto mechanic, but not contemplating a performing career until the late 1950s, when he became friends with Joseph Broussard, who had just moved into the neighborhood. A budding songwriter, Joe encouraged Chuck to start singing; and they began working on music together over the next few years with the goal of making records someday.

Aiming high, in 1965 the pair auditioned for Allen Toussaint, the top producer, arranger and writer in the city. He didn’t think Chuck was quite ready to record as a featured vocalist and passed. Undeterred, they then approached Wardell Quezergue, co-owner of Nola Records and Toussaint’s main music business rival at the time. He too thought the pair were still green, but saw promise in their writing skills and determination, and so agreed to mentor them.

From there, Simmons formed his first band, the Royal Imperials (impressively redundant!), and got a small local label, PJ Records, interested in putting out a 45 on them. The result was
“Do The Sissy” b/w “Why Should They Pay” (#107), recorded at Cosimo’s studio and billing them as Charley Simmons & the Royal Imperials. Quezergue did the arrangements and helped out with the mixing of the record. Quite funky for the time, though a bit sloppy in execution, “Do The Sissy” was a dancer fashioned after James Brown’s kind of groove thang, on which Simmons didn’t actually sing but rather repeatedly said the song title or just “sissy” and issued some emphatic screams and grunts; but he settled down for some emotive balladry on the other side. Although local DJ Shelly Pope gave it some spins, no one else picked up on “Do The Sissy”; and it quickly fell by the wayside. Goines dates the single as 1965; but The Cosimo Code puts in squarely in 1968. I’m not sure when the Sissy dance started getting popular in New Orleans; but Simmons’ number is the only local song I know of that referenced it before or near to Curley Moore’s “Sophisticated Sissy”, which also came out in 1968. Up in Memphis, Rufus Thomas had a separate release on Stax with the same title as Moore’s in 1967. It is clear that Simmons and Quezergue were exploring funk early on; and they would continue to participate in the development of the genre.

The Royal Imperials disbanded soon after their record came out, due to the death of their drummer. So, under Quezegue’s guidance, Chuck took solo billing as Charley Simmons for his next studio venture, establishing his own label, Broom Records, to release “Do The Funky Broom” b/w “Make This A Better World” (#001), which Goines puts in 1967, but more than likely was done in the early 1970s. Living up to its title, the A-side sought to get yet another new dance started and had a mid-tempo, highly syncopated groove. The clockwork Quezergue arrangement had become his signature approach to multi-instrument, poly-rhythmic funk during his three year stint at Malaco in Jackson, MS. But, this track may even have been cut at Sea-Saint, after Wardell's return home.

The other side had a similar but less intense feel; and both may have featured Smokey Johnson on the drum kit, since Quezergue had used him on a lot of New Orleans sessions in the 1960s, and also had produced and arranged Smokey’s own funky Nola 45s. Interestingly, Goines also relates that Quezergue recruited Art Neville and Leo Nocentelli as organist and guitarist respectively on the “Funky Broom” session. Yet, once again, Simmons saw his promising single receive only brief, limited airplay before being put in the reject box.

After Cosimo’s recording operation was shut down by bankruptcy, Quezergue began seeking other venues for his projects. Probably late in 1969, he went to the relatively new and well-equipped
Malaco studio in Jackson, MS and worked out a deal with the owners to develop artists and material to be recorded there using mainly the house band and shopped to various labels for release. First up early in 1970 was a vocal group that Big Q and Joe Broussard assembled, the Unemployed, which included Broussard, Simmons, Ronald Walton, Michael Adams, and George Quezergue, the producer’s son. The first single they cut at Malaco was the two-sided “Funky Thing” which was picked up by Atlantic and released on their Cotillion imprint that spring. “Funky Rooster” b/w “They Won’t Let Me”, followed in 1971. The sides with “funky” in the titles were basically one trick riff tunes with unison singing that didn’t do much to advance the Unemployed or he cause of funk for that matter; but "They Won't Let Me" was funky without calling attention to it, a fine upbeat groover that could have been a Barons track. Sales were lackluster at best. Their failure to connect with the public and certain internal problems soon broke the group up; but, by that time, several of Quezergue’s other Malaco productions were reaping big dividends with hits for King Floyd (“Groove Me”) and a young female singer who Simmons had introduced to Quezergue, Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff” - written by Broussard, Williams and Washington).

Over the course of the next year or so, Big Q was busy with more production work on Floyd, Knight, and other New Orleans artists such as the Barons, Joe Wilson; and Elliott Small; but he also recorded an album’s worth of solo material on Simmons that Broussard contributed to, though the project would come to naught when Malaco balked at releasing it, claiming the prolific Quezergue was giving them more product than they could handle. Disappointingly, the project was shelved and remains unissued to this day. After Floyd’s “Groove Me” cooled off, Atlantic began using the studio to record their own artists but backed off from their agreement to distribute Malaco’s in-house productions, leaving the company with limited choices for getting music into the marketplace. They issued singles on Floyd and several other artists on their own Chimneyville imprint, but distribution was spotty at that point, as were sales. Querzergue continued to work with the temperamental Floyd for a while until the two had a serious falling out. He also did some arranging for other Malaco sessions; but by 1973 he had changed his recording base back to New Orleans, when the Sea-Saint complex came on-line and the city’s recording scene once again picked up. He assisted on various Sansu projects there, and also took on some production work for Senator Jones’ labels.

Meanwhile, Simmons had to wait several years to get a record released again. Fortunately, he had his mechanic business to fall back on to keep food on the table for his family, as he would never have any substantial paydays from his music ventures. His first project to see daylight at Sea-Saint was the unsuccessful Broom 45, “Hustler‘s Strut”, as discussed, which he followed with the somewhat better-accepted make-over, “Lay It On Me”, on the Move label. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Simmons, Broussard, and Quezergue continued to work on material together, which led to subsequent 45 releases by the singer, including F-W 10001 (with the impressively deep “Runaway”), plus F.C.W. 1001 and Hep’ Me 165 featured above. There were later more singles on Move, plus an LP and a few 45s for Ria.

After a brief descent into disco with the confusingly titled “We Always Doing The Rock”, a/k/a “Doing the Rock”, (Move 777) in the late 1970s, which came out as a two-part 45 and a 12” single and received only club play, Simmons and his team went back to soul and funk in the 1980s.

“Am I Grooving You” (J. Broussard-G. Williams-C. Washington)
Chuck Simmons, Move 2001, early 1980s

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Another track that Goines says was recorded in Baton Rouge (probably several years before its release), “Am I Grooving You” was a solid Quezergue production like “Everybody Needs Somebody” with a bright, engaging vocal by Simmons; but, although it does groove, the song doesn’t flow as well. The structure and melody line of the verses seem awkward and hard to sing, enough to distract from the addictive chorus. Still, I prefer the song to the flip side, “Something’s Going On In My Home”, an upbeat, funky, but cliched take on the oft-told “my woman’s got another man” story line that to me doesn’t rise above average in any department; and the cheesy synthesizer patches used on that track, though trendy at the time, have not aged well. As might be expected by now, this record, too, failed to get a hearing on the radio.

Simmons’ final Move single (#4077), “Don’t Create Complications” b/w “Kid Stuff”, came out in 1983 (my copy is date-stamped on side 2), and again had Quezergue in charge. Definitely uncomplicated, the top side was mid-tempo funk without much fire, or even smoke, that Simmons delivered an octave below his normal range, limiting what he could do with it. Meanwhile, “Kid Stuff”, a nice ballad originally recorded by the Barons on Shagg in the late 1960s and penned by the Broussard-Williams-Washington team, had potential, but Simmons’ vocal never locked in and sounds under-rehearsed. Leaving aside the fact that both tracks again had the soulless synths buzzing and tweeting around, the main problem with the single was in the singing; and I’d guess that Simmons may have simply not been able to afford to buy more studio time and get it right.

1983 was also the year of his final single (#182) for the Hep’ Me label, “”No One Can Love You Like Me” b/w “Love Motivation”, which both seem rather underwhelming to me; but, strangely, as Goines points out, it was one of the more successful records of Simmons’ career, with the bluesy top side getting enough airplay to qualify as a local hit, opening doors for him into some lucrative club work for a time. Since he had done better records that didn’t get recognized, I think it was just the luck of the draw this time.

A few years later, Simmons, Broussard, and Quezergue were involved in an album project put together by Maria Tynes for her own label, Ria Records. A singer and songwriter herself, Tynes had recorded briefly for the Uptown label in the late 1960s and wrote a song for Fats Domino that appeared around 1970 on the
Fats Is Back album. Her connection to Quezergue and Broussard came about when she joined Big Q’s songwriting team, headed by Boussard, in the early 1970s, co-authoring numerous tunes for Jean Knight’s Stax recordings and for at least one Malaco artist.

As Simmons related to Goines, the Ria LP was financed by certain outside “investors”; and, although the production phase seemingly went well-enough, stressful subterfuge behind the scenes caused Chuck to ultimately withdraw from the music business for good. After the tracks were finished, one of the so-called investors absconded with the master tapes along with the money to pay for record-pressing. For whatever reason, it fell to Simmons to hunt the person down and retrieve the tapes. By hook or crook, a single, “Good Lovin’ Woman” / “Play Mate” (Ria 597), in 45 and 12”formats came out in 1986. The A-side was a cut from the LP; which itself would be released the next year. Titled (no joke)
Slurpin’ after one of the songs, which was co-written by Tynes and extolled the joys of oral sex (fashioned after Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’”), the ill-fated, if not ill-advised, fiasco returned no dividends - you can’t make this stuff up. Had that title cut been done about 15 or 20 years later as a rap song, it might have made it. Meanwhile, that cover art is timeless...and priceless.

Though the album never made it to digital, vinyl copies can still be found online fairly cheaply. I think there are a few songs on it that make Slurpin’ worth the effort, other than just having one for the collector’s oddity it surely is.

“Send Me My Lil Woman” (J. Broussard)
Chuck Simmons, from Slurpin’, Ria, 1987

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Actually only three of the songs on the LP, including the title track, seem to have been produced specifically for the project. All the others, including “Send Me My Lil Woman”, were recycled masters of songs that Broussard had written and Simmons and Quezergue recorded years earlier. Most of those had been released on singles that we’ve discussed earlier, including “Lay It On Me” (Part 2, one more time), “Something’s Going On”, “Wondering”, and both sides of Hep’ Me 182. Quezergue and Tynes tinkered to some degree with all of them seeking a fresher sound. In a few cases that meant loading on extraneous, distracting electronic gimmicks that hurt more than helped. Fortunately, “Send Me My Lil Woman”, very likely cut in the late1970s and not previously issued, was not messed with too much other than the addition of a second vocal part.

A fine example of Southern soul written by Broussard (who had a hand in all of the LP material), the tune is a rarely heard example of Quezergue’s arranging expertise, matched by one of Chuck’s most expressive vocals. This lost gem is easily the highlight of Slurpin’, at least for me.

The Funky Delicacies CD on Chuck calls the song “Don’t Send Me No Doctor”, because that is what was written on a tape box (dated 1978 as shown in a photo on the insert) from Sea-Saint; but the track title shown on the Ria album is matched by the BMI database.

“You’re the Only One”
(W. Sanford - J.Broussard)

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

This minor-key winner seems to have been written for the album, too. Smooth and spare, “You’re The One” has a tastefully rendered light funk arrangement. Simmons sings the lightweight lyrics soulfully in a somewhat lower register than his 1970s material, and his simmering delivery makes them sound convincing.

The back cover of the LP lists the players on the mainly Sea-Saint sessions; but it doesn’t specify who played on what track over the more than a decade encompassed by the recordings. Still, it’s an impressive roster of mainly Quezergue regulars. With your indulgence, my guesses for the basic rhythm section on this track include Q’s right hand-man, Sam Henry, on keyboards, David Barard on bass, and Bunchy Johnson on drums. Amadee Castenell likely took the brief sax solo.
Surveying Chuck Simmons’ 20 plus years as a recording artist, it’s hard not to be impressed by the man’s sheer perseverance in the face of numerous obstacles, setbacks, and the often long odds of success. That drive and inspiration bordering on obsession seems endemic to Home of the Groove music and record makers; and those of us obsessively seeking to assimilate what they have wrought should be very thankful for it. Though not a top of the line singer, Chuck was a good one fortunate enough to be part of a multi-talented team who worked with him to make quite a few memorable records - even if relatively few people at the time got the opportunity to hear them. Learning of his many connections to the New Orleans music scene has helped me fill in more gaps in my limited knowledge of the city’s musical legacy; and I hope it’s done the same for you and maybe turned you on to more great tunes and grooves that have languished in obscurity far too long.

: Tracks from the
Hustler’s Strut CD are also available for download from various purveyors and are worth checking out in any format.

Happy Holidays and stay tuned next week for some end of the year specials... ~

December 05, 2010

Gentleman June's Boom Boom, Part 2

According to Mac Rebennack in John Broven’s Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans, the main reason June Gardner didn’t get more session work in town prior to his joining Sam Cooke’s touring band was that he played “too straight”. That has to be taken in the context of New Orleans’ unique musical environment where messing with the beat (in a good, poly-rhythmic way, of course) was expected of any drummer. On the 1950s scene, you had the brilliant Earl Palmer, before he left to pursue demanding and lucrative West Coast session work, and the other creative drummers who took his place on the majority of local studio dates, such as Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams, John Boudreaux, and Smokey Johnson. By comparison, Gardner did seem straight; and, since he joined Cooke’s band in 1960, he would not get a chance to record in New Orleans and show any of his own hometown flavor for another four years or so.

After his return in 1964 or 1965, having upped his game backing an artist whose style merged R&B, gospel, soul and pop, new opportunities and circumstances quickly arose for this versatile drummer. Producer Wardell Quezergue, who had recently started Nola Records with two business partners, set him up to record instrumentals as a featured artist; and the resulting sessions were released on two singles for the Hot Line subsidiary and on an LP distributed nationally by Mercury. At the time, Quezergue was also developing instrumental tracks with funk drumming pioneer Smokey Johnson, but took a more straight-ahead approach on most of the material he produced and arranged for Gardner, aiming more for the mainstream rather than the hipper, more rhythmically discerning local market.

“99 Plus 1” (W. Quezergue)
June Gardner, Hot Line 118
*, 1965
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Gardner’s first single for Hot Line had as it’s top side this Quezergue composition, a bluesy saunter built around a simple central riff and featuring the distinctive George Davis on guitar. Though the drums are mixed up front a bit, there is nothing here that really stands out about June’s solid, swinging playing. Strangely, few of the tunes he cut in this period really seem designed to call attention to the drums in the way that Smokey Johnson’s Nola records did. Quezergue liked to have the entire arrangement worked out in advance of a session, down to individual instrumental parts. So, though Gardner’s name was on the records, by design he mostly remained an ensemble player on the productions, not stepping out or doing much improvising.

In terms of instrumentation and tempo, “99 Plus 1” is fairly typical of almost all the tracks they cut, whether originals or covers, though on some, a sax was prominent instead of guitar, and several featured a dash of James Booker’s uncharacteristically subdued organ or piano work. Walter Payton was the bassist of record; and Big Q used his own substantial horn section on the sessions to embellish and accent his arrangements.

That said, the flip side of this 45 proved to be the lone exception to the formula, and has become one of June’s most memorable cuts because of it.

“Mustard Greens”
(A. Gardner)

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Had there been more tunes like this, Gardner’s ranking in the annals of proto-funk would have been much higher. “Mustard Greens” was exceptional out of his recordings for Quezergue not just because it was June’s own composition, but due to his highly syncopated, broken-up drumming, which was the main attraction. Nothing subtle or uptown about it.

I originally featured this one back in 2005, and wanted to put it back up, as I think it is so significant in revealing June’s creative side and lending him credibility as a funk drummer, too - a style he did not get much of a chance to put onto tape. Obviously, he had it in him.

To me, the Tequila-esque structure of the changes is way beside the point of this poly-rhythmic spree. The song starts off with just the drums laying down the wicked, intentionally off-kilter beats that don’t really straighten out for the entire 2:25 run, though his ride cymbal is a steady guide through a lot of it. The rest of the band just jumps in and makes a tune out of it, atop the undulating, shifting percussive bottom end. Where exactly did this tricky stuff come from? Not quite Latin, not quite second line, Gardner hit on (for him) a quite unusual hybrid approach here that moved into Smokey’s territory, and even reminds me of some things James Black would do later for Eddie Bo and Toussaint (think “Riverboat”). Though fascinating, fun, and an incitement to buck dance, this groove proved to be a B-side flash in the pan, as it was nowhere close to repeated on the rest of the sessions, which went down another path altogether.

At some point in 1966, Nola secured a deal with Mercury for the release of an instrumental LP on Gentleman June to appear on the Emarcy imprint. The name of the label was the phonetic spelling of the company (Mercury Record Corp) initials; and their main musical focus was rather uptown jazz. So June’s inclusion was significant; but I have no idea what sold them on the project.

Although “99 Plus 1” and “Mustard Greens” were included on the album along with at least one side, “Hot Seat”, from Gardner’s other Hot Line single (#918), I think Quezergue purposely fashioned the rest of the tracks, a few more originals and six renditions of more or less
current pop songs, toward a middle ground, hoping to appeal to a broader audience.
Bustin' Out, the well-executed result, left out the complexities of jazz to hit on the R&B side of pop, but did not result in significant sales.

“Hammerhead” (W. Quezergue)
Gentleman June Gardner, from Bustin’ Out, Emarcy SRE 66014, 1966

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Another of the Big Q’s originals, it was one of the few tunes on the album with even a drum solo, let alone some of Gardner’s syncopation going on - subtle in this case. With the exception of “Mustard Greens”, few of the LP tracks really reach out to grab you, making for a pleasant but not groundbreaking collection of songs that did not live up to its name. Many of them did not rise beyond background music, in my opinion. I think Joe Segal, who wrote the notes for the album, probably summed up the vibe best when he described June’s playing on it as “discrete swinging”, meaning it as a compliment. This drummer was capable of much more than that; and the fact that his talents were not more fully on display can only be chalked up to a production miscalculation. Quezergue’s instincts were usually finely tuned; and this conceptual misstep from him has long puzzled me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad LP, even if it was a commercial bust and doesn’t do much for me. I am trying to put it into context, rather than put it down. With the impressive talent assembled for the project, I am just truly surprised that the result did not have more to offer.

You don’t have to shell out for a pricey vinyl copy to hear for yourself. All the LP tracks and some lagniappe can be found the the Funky Delicacies CD, 99 Plus One, and via downloads, too, I think.

After this project, Gardner went to work for Allen Toussaint, doing various sessions, often with Walter Payton again on bass, up until the Meters were brought in to be Sansu’s in-house band in 1968. Most notably, he played on Lee Dorsey tracks from 1965-1967 on Amy, and was likely the drummer of record for quite a few Sansu artists of the period such as Diamond Joe, Eldridge Holmes, and Betty Harris, though documentation is spotty at best.

“Go Go Girl”
(Allen R. Toussaint)

Lee Dorsey, Amy 998, 1967

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

I thought I’d just offer a couple of examples of tracks I am pretty sure June was on. Of course, the Lee Dorsey song everybody cites for June’s playing was one of the biggest hits,
“Working In The Coal Mine”, with its smooth, stylized syncopation.

Recorded the next year, “Go Go Girl” is more straight ahead and upbeat; but if you listen closely, you can hear June quote the some of the “Coal Mine” beat several times throughout this song - a little trick the composer/producer used frequently, adding snippets of riffs in one song that refer back to an earlier song (or songs).

As did Quezergue, Toussaint meticulously constructed his arrangements, and expected his musicians to reproduce them exactly. Not just anybody could deliver with precision like that; and Toussaint was quite particular about who he used. So, it makes sense that June Gardner, once approved, was a regular, having the chops and temperament for the job. He and Toussaint also had a history going back at least to the Joy Tavern gigs.

“I’m Gonna Git Ya” (Allen R. Toussaint)
Betty Harris, Sansu 471, 1967

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

It’s likely that June was the drummer on some of Dorsey’s earlier Amy hits, too, such as “Get Out My Life Woman”, with its metronomic hit-hat and funky, push-pull kick drum foundation. On that song, Toussaint worked in some brief single note Professor Longhair-style piano riffs; and “I’m Gonna Git Ya”, with the sultry Ms Harris on vocal, had a similar approach, as Toussaint referred back to piano lines in “Get Out My Life Woman” and added a few more Fess-isms to boot. The tempo was slow and the drum pattern broken down to bare essentials of snare and kick - syncopated, but too abstract to be called funk. You can really hear the drummer being Toussaint’s equivalent to a programmable beat sequencer on this one. As unconventionally “simple” as it sounds, only a trained, technically adept (and very patient) drummer could have gotten it right; and, considering when it was recorded, I think that would have been Gentleman June, once again.

On the live performance side, Gardner got back into jazz, joining pianist Ed Frank’s band in the 1960s, and later forming his own traditional outfit. As for recording, he played on only a few more sessions that I am aware of after Toussaint took on the Meters. In the early 1970s, he cut a good instrumental funk single for Senator Jones’ new Hep’ Me label as Gentleman June Gardner, “Tennessee Waltz” b/w “The Jolly Little Midget” (#105), that sank without a trace and eludes me to this day, though I have the tracks on the that Funky Delicacies CD compilation I mentioned. In 1978, Toussaint used him again for two tracks backing Albert King on his New Orleans Heat album, recorded at Sea-Saint. There may have been other random sessions he made in those days, too. If you know of any, let us know.

While he might have seemed too straight for the hometown recording scene when stacked up against New Orleans funkiest session drummers, June Gardner played with some of the best artists of his day, delivered the goods for some demanding producers, and could summon the funk when the occasion arose, as these few examples of his recording work show. That’s why “the man on the boom boom”, as he often humbly and humorously described himself onstage, will always have a room in the Home of the Groove.

*[Hot Line 118 appears to have been the label’s very first release. The R&B Indies discography of the label starts with it, as it has the lowest matrix numbers (174-1290/1291) in the Hot Line series. Why the release number led off with 118 is a mystery; and there were only three releases with numbers this low (118, 119 & 120). The remainder ran from #901 forward.]