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.  


Blogger gilhodges said...

Thanks for a stunning year of sounds, Dan. I greatly appreciate your exquisite taste, thoughtful comments and copious info. You put a ton of work into your offerings and it shows. Have a great '11.

5:59 PM, December 30, 2010  
Blogger Wallofsound said...

Thanks for last year's education. I look forward to more in 2011.

6:24 AM, January 03, 2011  
Blogger Johnny Pierre said...

Thanks for another year of keepin the real music alive! Sincerely, JP

4:53 PM, January 08, 2011  
Blogger ana-b said...

I'm a little late to the party, but I wanted to second Wallofsounds comment.

Once again you've filled in some gaps in my meager knowledge. Sometimes the gaps are small, sometimes they're huge....but I always learn something when I read your posts.

Best of the New Year and Happy Mardi Gras.

2:08 PM, January 14, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

The party's always goin' on, dontcha know, ana. This is all a learning experience for me, too. You wanna talk gaps...don't get me started! All the best to you and the new little vinyl geek comin' along!

Appreciate all the comments and encouragement, y'all.

5:19 PM, January 14, 2011  
Blogger Raphy said...

I'm appreciative yet disappointed that allen toussaint - I've Got That Feeling Now was not posted...

Big Up!@!

1:12 PM, March 28, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Maybe later, Raphy. Soon come.....

7:33 PM, March 28, 2011  

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