July 10, 2011

Suiting Summer To A Tee: Willie & the Gaturs

The always groovin' music of Willie Tee (Wilson Turbinton) goes particularly well with summer; and hearing it any time of the year summons up that seasonal vibe for me, especially the songs by his early 1970s funk band, the Gaturs, which just seem imbued with heat, humidity, and a feel-good, hang-loose spirit.

So, with the advent of the summer season, I'm pulling out a few rarities by Willie solo and with the Gaturs. I've done a number of background posts on him over the years; and you can find links to them at the end of this post, if you're new to the man and his music or just want some more details on his career, which ended all too soon when he
passed suddenly back in 2007.

"I Found Out (You Are My Cousin)" (W. Turbinton)
Willie Tee, AFO 311, 1962

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

This track comes from only the second single of Tee’s career. His first,
“Always Accused” b/w “All For One”, also came out on AFO (#307) that year. Still a teenager (18) and just learning the ropes, Tee surprisingly started out recording his own compositions. His songwriting was already well-developed; and he was being mentored by AFO founder, Harold Battiste, who had taught him in a junior high music class a few years earlier. Realizing how much promise Tee held as a vocalist, musician, and composer, Battiste was glad to give the young man a shot on the label, which had been launched the previous year as a partnership of idealistic local African-American studio musicians wanting their fair share of music business profits.

Arranged superbly by Battiste and performed by some of the best of the city’s players, “I Found Out” succeeds musically in every way with its infectious popeye beat (a lightly syncopated, highly danceable shuffle frequently used on New Orleans records of the early to mid 1960s), bright, well-placed horn lines, an organ substituted for the standard piano, and Tee’s exceptionally expressive, supple singing. But when it comes to the lyrics, there is an incongruity between the sunny, dance-inducing, soul-pop feel and the subject matter that surely subverted its commercial potential. Catchy as the song is, I can imagine people suddenly going “say what?” or just laughing (my response), once the words sink in.

While much the rest of the world might be more accepting, even encouraging of the circumstances in question, here in the US, unless you’re part of a polygamist cult or living in, let’s say, a particularly close-knit rural community, it’s an awkward buzz-kill to meet the parents of your new girlfriend and find out they’re your aunt and uncle - especially if, as the song implies, you and she are already well beyond merely kissin’ kin. Ouch. Interestingly, the lyrics never resolve what came of the relationship; but we can assume it had as much chance of success as this song did of getting airplay and selling.

A shame, really. Had Tee just chosen more innocuous subject matter, no doubt the record’s prospects would have increased exponentially. I wonder why he wasn’t taken aside and told something like, “You know, Willie, Jerry Lee Lewis married HIS cousin, but even he didn’t record a song about it! How about a re-write?”

On top of that little obstacle, there was another factor working against all of the AFO projects at this point. Having lost their national distribution deal with Sue Records when that label’s owner ran off with their only hit-maker, Barbara George, Battiste and his partners were left with just the prospect of local exposure for releases by the rest of their roster. Underfunded and sharing mostly red ink by then, not able to generate even hometown hits in the pay to play days of radio, they closed down the New Orleans operation in 1963, with Battiste and some others relocating to the West Coast.

Before leaving, Battiste worked a deal for Irving Smith’s new local label,
Cinderella, to release two worthy tracks left over from earlier AFO sessions, which were bundled into the imprint's second 45.

“Foolish Girl” (Ken Kerr)
Willie Tee, Cinderella 1202, 1963
Hear it on
HOTG Internet Radio

This rarely heard, addictive piece of pop ear candy with much more conventional lyrics was one of Tee’s best performances for Battiste and company, impeccably backed by the AFO Executives. There’s really not a lot to the song; but the jazzy, uptown arrangement with its insinuating, bossa nova inspired drum groove by John Boudreaux perfectly made up for that and gave the still teenaged Tee a perfect excuse to again display his deceptively smooth vocal power on the affecting melody line.

It’s hard to understand why he never made it to the music business big leagues by virtue of his singing, let alone his other gifts; but opportunity, timing and luck never quite lined up for him. In the case of this single, Smith, who ran a successful record store on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, did not prove to be an adept record promoter, as none of the seven releases on Cinderella went very far at all, with sales probably limited to his shop.

In addition, this 45 is unusual in that it was split between two artists. The flip side features Harold Battiste doing a jazz sax instrumental with the A.F.O. Executives, a well-rendered, big band arrangement of “These Are The Things I Love”. Maybe we’ll get to that when I take a look at the career of Mr. Battiste, who later did go fairly far into the upper echelons of the industry as a producer, arranger and music director while out in Los Angeles. That’s another project too long on the HOTG back burner. Of course, you can avoid the middle blogger here and the wait by simply reading Battiste's excellent memoir,
Unfinished Blues.

A few years father on, Tee came close to getting a boost up to the next level when recording for Nola Records, a new label owned by his cousin (this hook-up was all about business!) Ulis Gaines, Wardell Quezergue, and Clinton Scott. They had a deal giving Atlantic Records the option to take any release on the label that they thought had promise; and that was exercised on Tee’s first Nola single, “Teasin’ You” /
“Walking Up A One Way Street”, two deft, easy-going Earl King soul-pop songs. “Teasin’ You” broke big on Atlantic, nearly making the R&B Top Ten; but, although they issued two more top-shelf singles on him, neither did well enough to keep Atlantic interested. Not surprisingly, though, those singles have become favorites of the Beach Music scene with its perpetual summertime slant.

Tee spent the next few years back in relative obscurity, making records for the local market again on Nola and its subsidiaries, Hot Line and Bonatemp, until the company went under. He also teamed with Gaines to start a new label, Gatur, which had to shut down almost as soon as it opened due to the crash of the city’s multi-label distributorship, Dover Records, owned by Cosimo Matassa, which caused much collateral damage to the local music business. You can find his Atlantic and Nola-related sides, plus a few from Gatur, on the Night Train compilation
Teasin' You.

Late in the decade, Tee got another shot at national recognition on a deal with Capitol that resulted in an ill-conceived, quickly scuttled white-bread pop album,
I'm Only A Man, (over)produced by David Alexrod, from which two largely ignored singles were also released. I’ve previously discussed* the utter disconnect of this project (which is still highly prized by collectors) with the rest of Tee’s career. So, suffice it to say here that Tee quickly moved on.

By around 1970, he and Gaines decided to reactivate Gatur, giving Tee a chance to jump into the flourishing funk scene in the city with his new band, simply dubbed the Gaturs. Of the ten soul-funk singles on the label credited either to the Gaturs (4) or Tee (6), none did especially well commercially, even though Atco picked up the first of them, “Cold Bear” / “Booger Man” (#508), for national release in 1972. Yet today, a number of the Gatur tracks are considered classics and coveted by collectors worldwide.

Naturally, because they're highly sought after, these records are hard to find (or afford), but Tuff City/Funky Delicacies did compile a lot of them on the
Wasted CD way back in 1994 allowing far more people to hear them than ever did at the time they were made. I’m featuring a couple of sides today that I haven’t gotten to before from the woefully limited Gatur section of my vinyl archives.

“Wasted” (W. Turbinton)
The Gaturs, Gatur 510, ca 1972

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, most of Tee’s instrumental compositions and productions on Gatur were more about atmospherics and pure groove than structural elements, and “Wasted” is certainly strong evidence of that. It’s like the musical treatment for some movie scene, meant more to suggest a mood than go much of anywhere musically. While still cool, it has much less impact than the impressive, addictive top side,
“Gator Bait” (misspelled on the CD). “Wasted” was probably a more or less spontaneously composed track on which Tee’s electric piano (Wurlitzer), his brief flurry of soloing, and spare, slightly abstract chord voicings reveal the jazz sensibilities never far from the surface in much his work.

Bassist Erving Charles seems a bit lost on this track; but what makes the groove immediately engage and carry us through the tune is the intense percussion, reinforced by Louis Clark’s wah-wah guitar attack. The use of congas (probably ‘Uganda’ Roberts) and a hi-hat (Larry Pana) in lieu of a full set of drums summons up a primal, ancestral kind of rhythmic drive that may well have been inspired by the concurrent collaboration Tee and his band were having with the Wild Magnolia Mardi Gras Indians during this period.

For more details on the flip side of this record, plus Tee’s work with the Indians, see my "Of Gaturs and Indians"** post from 2007.

“Yeah, You’re Right You Know You’re Right” (M. M. Turbinton)
The Gaturs, Gatur 555, ca 1972

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Both sides of this 45 stand apart from the other instrumentals Tee wrote and produced for the Gaturs due to more substantial structures and his use of a horn section on the arrangements. “Yeah You’re Right” is similar in approach to some of the vocal tunes he did under his own name for the label, such as
“I’m Having So Much Fun” on #557, most all of which were more involved productions, some even having strings.

On this laid back but engaging groove, the congas and a closed hi-hat carry the beat for the acoustic piano and bass in the intro, until Pana kicks in on his drum kit and the guitar picks the central riff of the tune, followed by the horns coming in on the chorus. Funky Delicacies dates recording of the Gatur material at around 1970; and, if so, the tracks were probably cut at Jazz City in New Orleans, Cosimo’s former studio being run by Skip Godwin, and then released over the next couple of years.

“A Hunk Of Funk” (M. M. Turbinton)

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Belying it’s title, the far more high energy flip rocks a series of loosely strung together riffs with more high energy conga action atop minimal drums, plus solos on overdriven lead guitar and organ. Meanwhile, Tee’s voice soulfully moans away in the background. It’s kind of strange and doesn’t go much of anywhere, but still makes for an enjoyable rave up counterpoint to “Yeah You’re Right”.

As for the writer’s credit to M. M. Turbinton [possibly his wife, Marilyn] on both songs, I haven’t a clue, since the name is not shown in the BMI database; so it was not one of Tee’s registered monikers; and, oddly, neither of these song titles shows up there either.

But rather than geeking out on that tangent for a fortnight, I’m moving on to explore some other topics and will try to be back soon with more from the overflowing boxes and teetering piles of grooved black plastic discs here at HOTG central. Hope these tracks help to augment your revelries and enhance your reveries this summer and beyond. Yeah, you’re right.

A Series of Firsts for Willie Tee AFO, Atlantic, & Nola sides
More Than A One Hit Wonder "I Want Somebody", Atlantic 2302
Did Saying Yes Lead To Mercy? "You Better Say Yes", Atlantic 2302
*Willie's Reach Capitol, Gatur, and UA tracks
A Cracked Bell and A Cold Bear The ATCO single &
Anticipation LP
Gatur Grooves "Get Up" from the Wasted CD
Indians Comin’ "Handa Wanda", Wild Magnolias, Crescent City 25
Carnival Funk Convergence "Ho Na Nae" from
The Wild Magnolias
Hey La Hey "Fire Water", Wild Magnolias, Treehouse 801 B
Of Gaturs and Indians "Gator Bait", Gatur 510 plus "New Kinda Groove" from
They Call Us Wild, Wild Mangolias


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