July 31, 2011

Tracing Benny Spellman's Fortunes, Pt. 1

I really expected bigger things from Benny. He was by far the most popular rhythm and blues artist in New Orleans. He always was working even when nobody else could find a job. And he had those teenagers mesmerized, they just loved him. - Joe Banashak to Jeff Hannusch in I Hear You Knockin’.

Benny Spellman, who would have turned 80 this December, passed away in early June in his hometown of Pensacola, FL. A singer with a pleasing, recognizable sound, whose career in music came about rather by happenstance, he arrived in New Orleans just as the era of the independent local record labels began, and became one of the many new artists who participated in the busy performing and recording scene there during the early to mid 1960s, though, for the most part, he remained on the periphery.

In this post and one to follow, I’ll present some of his lesser-known recordings, which is what nearly all of them were, really, and ruminate on why his talent seems to have been under-utilized over the course of the near decade that he was active.

If you are not all that familiar with Mr. Spellman and want some overview, I recommend a couple of decent recent sketches of his life and career, one by Jeff Hannusch in
Offbeat, and the other by my friend, Red Kelly, at the B-Side.

Possessing a mellow, smokey baritone, limited in range but rich with character, Benny would have made a promising soul artist; but that was generally not the kind of records he got a chance to make. He worked primarily with legendary producer and A&R man Allen Toussaint, who wrote much of his material and preferred to cast him more in the role of a pop singer. Of course, at the time, Toussaint was largely focused on releasing quick pay-off R&B/pop songs and had a genuine gift for making them happen, generating a number of national hits, with eager singers lined up to cut more.

Benny didn’t make it to New Orleans until he was in his late 20s, after a hitch in the service. Earlier, he had attended Southern University in Baton Rouge on a football scholarship and got into singing there, including several talent contest wins, but nothing much else came of it at the time. As fate would have it, though, in 1959 he chanced to come to the aid of Huey Smith and the Clowns, who were stranded in Pensacola due to a wrecked vehicle. After giving them a lift back to New Orleans, Benny decided to hang around town for a while. At the famed
Dew Drop Inn, he reconnected with guitarist and bandleader Edgar Blanchard, who he had known in Baton Rouge, and was invited up to sing with the band. That opportunity caused such a positive stir in the club that owner Frank Painia hired Benny to sing there regularly, breaking him into the local scene in a hurry, where, over the years, he would earn his reputation as a charismatic on-stage performer.

His first solo recording session also took place in 1959, after he auditioned for the brand new Minit label, started by Joe Banashak and influential disc jockey Larry McKinley. He joined a roster of young talent such as Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville, and Jessie Hill (with more soon to follow) under the direction of Toussaint, who was only 21 at the time.

Being a team player, Benny did background singing in the studio whenever needed, but soon got his first feature shot singing his own compositions,
“Life Is Too Short” b/w “Ammerette”, which comprised Minit’s fifth release (#606). The top side was a down tempo, minor key meditation that didn’t light any fires but demonstrated that he could create a mood. The flip was the real stand-out, seemingly inspired by the Little Walter hit, “My Babe”, with a burning baritone sax solo. But the record didn't get much radio play or sales action. Early in 1960, Benny was tapped for another single; but this time both sides were penned by Toussaint and his writing partner, Allen Orange, who was also a Minit artist.

“I Didn’t Know” (Toussaint - Orange)
Benny Spellman, Minit 613, 1960
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

With strings, no less! Despite that production flourish, the song was a pretty straight 1950s style pop number flawlessly handled by Benny in his smooth mode of delivery. While it did moderately well locally, other artists on Minit were starting to score national hits and get more attention from Toussaint. Thus, Benny didn’t get back onto the production schedule for quite some time, at least as a featured artist.

Later in 1960, he was in the studio when Toussaint was working up a new tune with K-Doe called
“Mother-In-Law”. Not satisfied with the voicing of the main hook, which was the title of the song, Toussaint put Benny on mike and had him sing ‘mother-in-law” in his lower register. That did the trick, making it stand out from the start of the song on through and providing contrast to the tenors of K-Doe and second backing vocalist, Willie Harper. The gimmick also put the song into the winning novelty style of the Coasters or the Clowns; helping hook a big hit. After it was released early in 1961, “Mother-In-Law” soon rose to #1 on both the R&B and pop charts and eventually was awarded a gold record.

With that impressive achievement, K-Doe’s star shone brightly for a time, leaving Benny on the sidelines wanting both more credit for his contribution and another release of his own; but that would be almost another year in coming on Minit.

In December of 1960, shortly before “Mother-In-Law” came out, Benny cut a promising new tune for Toussaint, “Anywhere You Go”; but it never appeared on a single. Over 20years went by before it was finally included on a limited issue Bandy retrospective LP simply entitled Benny Spellman (#70018), followed by compilations on Charly and Collectables.

"Anywhere You Go" (writer unknown)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

The most upbeat, danceable track he had recorded up to that point, with an early example of what would become known as the popeye beat, “Anywhere You Go” had its charms as a purely pop endeavor; but, despite Benny’s winning delivery, the song may have been passed over because of its weak lyrics (though they seem Shakespearean in comparison to something like Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”). I have found no writing credit for the song on my Collecatbles compilation LP, Fortune Teller, which has the best (but not perfect) recording details, in BMI, or the US Copyright Office database; which leads me to think that it was a Spellman original that never got registered.

Remarkably, there would be 30 singles issued on Minit between Benny's second and third records, making him best known for his back-up singing to that point, a situation that was not improved by a side project that bore his name and slipped out on an unrelated label in the meantime.

Admittedly, Benny had hard feelings about helping to make “Mother-In-Law” a hit, then not being rewarded with at least a chance to cash in with a single of his own. So, Allen Orange, who was soon to leave the Minit fold, brought him to Johnny Vincent’s Ace label in 1961, recording tracks with Mac Rebennack producing (and playing guitar) that resulted in a one-off 45,
“Roll On, Big Wheel” b/w “That’s All I Ask Of You” (#630). Though Vincent billed him as Benny “Mother-In-Law” Spellman so no one would miss the connection, the record proved neither successful, nor quite honest, as Roland Stone actually sang the majority of the A-side on the master take (written by Orange and Earl King) with Benny just doing the “roll on” of each chorus. But Benny, who was still under contract to Minit at the time, did all the singing on the other side, which was a pleasant enough ballad, and one other cut that was not released, the Latin-esque, mid-tempo “Everybody Needs Somebody” which was pretty lightweight and featured a flute as lead instrument. [Versions of these tunes can be found on the WestSide CD collection Soul Stirrings, and probably on at least a few online download sites.]

That little side trip obviously did not put Benny in good graces at Minit and is likely why it wasn’t until February, 1962 that he got the green light to cut what would be his biggest single, “Lipstick Traces”/“Fortune Teller”, on which Toussaint outdid himself, writing and producing a sophisticated soul-pop masterpiece on top, plus a clever, highly rhythmic novelty gem for the other side - both of which are now considered classics.

“Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)” (Naomi Neville)
Benny Spellman, Minit 644, 1962
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
"Fortune Teller" (Naomi Neville)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

These sides should be abundantly familiar to most of you. If not, they soon will be, as they reward repeated plays. "Lipstick Traces" has a more sophisticated structure than most of the records of the period, yet is so seamlessly well-written, arranged and performed that it flows naturally from start to finish, never drawing attention to its superiority. Toussaint touches worth noting include the instrumental solo by a trombone section (you didn't hear that every day back then) in keeping with the sound of Benny's voice, and the nicely done hook back to “Mother-In-Law”of Benny singing the refrain “don’t leave me no more” in the same lower register, which also repeated at the end of the song with Willie Harper echoing the line as on the K-Doe tune.

As with a number of the Toussaint-generated hits of this period, the song entered both the pop and R&B charts; and by late spring it had climbed to #80 and #28 respectively - not a mega-hit, but certainly a respectable showing. Many stations played “Fortune Teller”, too, turning the 45 into a double-duty seller. Still, despite that significant success, Benny was not favored with an appreciable improvement in his status at Minit, and would have no more hits.

The direct follow-up to “Lipstick Traces” had Benny taking on Toussaint's musical rehash of the hit with far inferior lyrics, “Every Now And Then” (#652), a title that inadvertently but accurately described Benny’s recording schedule. Unable to chart, it was certainly a misstep by Toussaint, who failed to effectively exploit the singer’s momentary prominence, going instead with, at best, uninspired material.

Benny’s next single didn’t appear until the following year; and, although it got back to form with two cool, danceable contenders, “Stickin’ Whicha Baby” b/w “You Got To Get It”, the timing of its release wasn’t favorable. No only had he been too long gone from the public’s minute musical attention span; but Minit was embroiled in continuing problems with its national distributor, Imperial Records, and had by then taken a backseat to Banashak’s other label venture with Irving Smith (and silent partner McKinley), Instant, which also relied totally upon Toussaint’s production skills.

“Stickin’ Whicha Baby” (N. Neville)
Benny Spellman, Minit 659, 1963
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Reinforcing the syncopation of the tune’s mid-tempo popeye groove with rhythmic accents from the horns, Toussaint created an effective get-loose mover that gave great musical support to Benny’s supple vocal. It also subtly refers back to “Lipstick Traces” in the lyrics (quoting its hook, “don’t leave me no more”) and use again of trombones. Toussaint’s piano accompaniment quotes “Fortune Teller” in spots, too. With a chorus that actually does stick with you, this number would have made a far better immediate follow-up to Benny’s lone hit 45, were time travel an option. Instead, it came along too late to garner anything more than a little local exposure.

“You Got To Get It” (B. Spellman, J.L. Spellman, N. Nichols)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Another fine popeye groover, this turned out to be a pretty strong flip side, even though it sounds like a lot of other songs emanating from New Orleans at the time. Co-written by Benny, whose enthusiastic vocal really makes the song stand out, it has some clever lyrical turns and another winning arrangement by Toussaint. I consider both sides of this 45 to be among the singer's best.

Benny’s next release. “Talk About Love”/“Ammerette” (#664), would be his last for Minit, as a hurricane of changes was brewing for Banashak’s inter-related enterprises. It's a hard 45 to find, since it had a poor prognosis to begin with. My transfer of the A-side comes from the Fortune Teller LP.

“Talk About Love" (Naomi Neville)
Benny Spellman, Minit 664, 1963
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Despite its spare instrumentation, this Toussaint composition is a great little upbeat mover with a bit of gospel feel to it. Basically, it has just piano, minimal bass (acoustic?) and drums, with a sax coming in briefly behind the vocal and for a short solo. What sells this arrangement for me are the backing vocals, with the males simply singling “love” four to the measure, until Toussaint kicked it up a notch, adding the females on the off beats behind the second and third verses, the solo, and the ride out. Benny’s vocal, though pleasant enough, seems too understated overall for the song’s testifying mood. Even though he intensified and upped his volume and register on a few lines, it was not enough to transform the song’s catchy bounce into an outright rave-up.

Interestingly, Benny’s own “Ammerette” from the back of his very first 45 appeared again on the B-side of 664, indicating that there was nothing else left on the shelf to use. “Talk About Love” had been recorded back in May of 1962; and its delayed release meant that it had virtually no chance of success, as Minit was on the verge of being swallowed up and losing its identity as a New Orleans label.

Imperial Records had not been an enthusiastic promoter of the Minit catalog for quite a while, which had proven to be a read drag for Banashak and company in several senses of the term, limiting the number of markets the records got into, and, thus, possible sales. For that reason, he started Instant (initially called Valiant) in 1961 and was distributing those releases though his own company, A-1 Distributors, which he had run since 1957. By 1963, Banashak learned that Lew Chudd, owner of Imperial, was selling out to the much larger Liberty Records in California, leaving their tenuous distribution agreement completely in limbo.

Then came the even worse news that Toussaint had been drafted and would soon be reporting for duty in Texas. leaving Banashak’s labels, including ALON, which he had set up for Toussaint to run, without a producer, arranger and chief songwriter. On top of that, due to cutthroat competition, A-1 suddenly lost many of the biggest labels it handled, quickly forcing the company into bankruptcy. Just like that, the triple whammy.

Cash-strapped, Banashak sold Minit to Liberty, which chose not to keep any of the label’s artists except Irma Thomas, who wound up recording for their reconstituted Imperial imprint. Meanwhile, Banashak was left to tread water with Instant and ALON, almost giving up the music business at one point, but hanging on. Fortunately, Toussaint had left some tracks behind that allowed Banashak to release records by a few artists such as Willie Harper, Eldridge Holmes, and Skip Easterling on ALON. Also, Toussaint started recording instrumentals for the label with a band he got together in Texas, the Stokes.

Meanwhile, having been cut loose from the semi-submerged ship, Benny soon got involved with a new local label, Watch Records, though he would return to Banashak and Toussaint; but, we’ll get to that next time when we cover some sides he did during the last half of his music career.

Minit’s track record with Benny was haphazard at best. While not a world class singer, he was a popular live performer whose sound and ability were certainly equal to, if not beyond, some of the artists on Minit and Instant who had more opportunity to record - Chris Kenner for one. Some careful consideration might have led Toussaint to develop more soulful material for Benny along the lines of what Irma Thomas was getting; though, admittedly, none of her records caught on nationally at the time. But, although Banashak expected better outcomes for his work, Benny, Mr. Go with the Flow, seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

I have to remind myself that artist development was not commonly practiced back in the days of seat of the pants, small-staffed, independent record labels scrambling week to week and month to month to find enough of a hit to pay the bills. As Banashak told Hannusch, his initial decision to get into record making was inspired by a friend’s simplistic notion that all it took was to “throw $750.00 [production/pressing costs] up against the wall and hope [you] come up with a hit.” That kind of thinking makes your artists rather disposable commodities in an inherently uncertain and random process - gambling, as always, being the best analogue for the record business.

In that light, Benny was fortunate to have recorded what little he did for Minit and had a bit of success to show for it. Nobody who knows what they are talking about has ever claimed that the music business is the place to get a fair shake.


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