December 01, 2011

TRACKING THE BIG Q FACTOR , PT 2: The Unemployed & the Barons

After innumerable sidetracks crisscrossing by best intentions, I'm back with the next installment in this series of posts on one of the most significant producers and arrangers on the New Orleans popular music recording scene, Wardell Quezergue, who passed away on September 6th. As noted last time, since I started HOTG in 2004, I've done well over a dozen posts featuring his work; and the links are listed at the end of that piece, should you care to take note. He was deeply involved in bringing many songs and artists to prominence over the years, yet also had countless projects that attained almost instant obscurity, despite his best efforts - such is the nature of the business. In no way am I capable of covering it all. I'll just be engaging in some more representative sampling, leaning toward the lesser known and rarely heard records, while limiting my focus to the busy period from the early 1960s up into the 1970s, when Big Q was primarily working in the singles format.

Last month, I kicked things off somewhere in the middle by featuring singles he made in the late 1960s with the Barons, a distinctive and under-appreciated local vocal group. For the next several segments, I’ll be heading into his years spent commuting to and from Malaco Studio in Jackson, Mississippi during the early to mid-1970s, where he oversaw the production of many fine records, including several national hits. I’ve got sides this time from the two singles the Barons cut there, and am featuring two more by the Unemployed, another vocal ensemble who were in on the first session Wardell did at the studio. But, first let’s pick up the back story where I left off last time and relate, among other fascinatin’ factoids, how he wound up recording New Orleans artists some 200 miles North.
When the Mode label folded in 1969, Wardell and his partner, Elijah Walker, who provided the don’t ask-don’t tell financial backing for their production enterprise* and managed the artists, were at loose ends. The recording scene in New Orleans had woefully deteriorated. As often discussed here, many local labels had folded, unable to operate as a result of the financial collapse of both Dover Records, the go-to distributor for most small independents, and Jazz City, the only decent studio in town at the time. Both businesses had been owned and operated by the legendary local recording pioneer, Cosimo Matassa, whose money management skills simply did not match his technical expertise in capturing music on tape and records.

After Cos declared bankruptcy and forfeited his equipment to the IRS for unpaid taxes, a young recording engineer and musician, Skip Godwin, opened his own studio at the Camp Street location, kept the Jazz City name and had Cosimo working with/for him; but it was not as well-equipped and only lasted a few years. Godwin likely had to charge more for studio time, unable to make deals as Cos had done. So, record producers in the city, such as Toussaint and Sehorn (Sansu Enterprises), Senator Jones, and Quezergue/Walker, were forced to seek more favorable circumstances at out of town recording venues, until Sansu built a new facility, Sea-Saint Studio, which came on line in 1973 with both Godwin and Matassa as part of the engineering team.

In the case of Wardell and Walker, they found out about Malaco, a financially struggling facility that had been started several years earlier by a group of young Jackson area musicians, songwriters and concert promoters. As Rob Bowman relates the circumstances in his excellent notes to the CD Box set, Malaco Records: The Last Soul Company, the duo from down the road met with the Malaco staff around the beginning of 1970, and proposed a working relationship that would be beneficial to both sides. Wardell and his production team would develop material to be performed by Walkers’s roster of New Orleans artists and use the studio and in-house band to record the songs. Malaco would then work to place the results with record labels for a percentage of any profits. The impressive and well-known Quezergue name and reputation in the business helped seal the deal, as the Malaco’s principals surely saw a golden opportunity to get quality sessions run on premises by an experienced hit-maker.

The initial single to come from the deal was the two-part “Funky Thing”, by the Unemployed, a group comprised of various members of the New Orleans production team. Possibly because of Wardell’s past association with Atlantic Records, who had released some of his Nola Records output (notably, Willie Tee’s “Teasin’ You” and its follow-ups), that company's relatively new Cotillion affiliate issued “Funky Thing” soon after it was cut, in the first quarter of 1970, and would later sanction a second 45, as well.

“Funky Thing” - Part 1” (The Unemployed)The Unemployed, Cotillion 44085, 1970

“Funky Thing - Part 2"

I’ll admit that for a long time I didn’t pay much attention to this repetitious little dance record. It’s got a groove going on with a nice tight rhythmic pocket, but, beyond the title, there’s really not any funk to be found, either in James Brown or New Orleans terms. I had heard it only on CD comps over the years; but, then, I got a good deal and bought the single. Once I dropped the needle and gave it a few spins, that old vinyl mojo kicked in, and “Funky Thing” finally won me over.

The Unemployed were Michael Adams, Joe Broussard, George Quezergue (Wardell’s son), Charles ‘Chuck’ Simmons, and Ronald Walton, who all collaborated to write and record this tune, it seems. As detailed in my earlier feature on Simmons, he and Broussard had been mentored by Big Q since the mid-1960s; and, with the producer's assistance, Simmons had recorded several singles on his own small labels. Broussard started out writing songs for and with Simmons and had become Wardell’s head writer by the time of the Malaco deal. His participation in the Unemployed was a rare venture into performing. Vocally, the group wasn’t nearly as polished or talented as the Barons; but I get the sense that Wardell got them together to do this tune specifically as a somewhat low-impact trial run session at Malaco to see what kind of sound he could get from the house band and new studio environment. The Malaco staff convincingly proved they could take his direction and deliver the goods; and the fact that the resulting single got picked up by Atlantic was even more encouraging.

Cut early in 1970, the tune contains the common elements (or cliches, take your pick) of dance records: rudimentary lyrics, vocalizing that tries to foster a party atmosphere, a few perfunctory references to some steps or moves, shout-outs to various cities and regions around the country, and, of course, the most essential ingredient, a good groove to move to.

The house band at Malaco consisted of guitarist Jerry Puckett, bassist Vernie Robbins, and drummer Steve Featherston (who would soon be replaced). Wardell played organ on the track and directed the horn section, likely imported from home. It’s pretty much a bare bones arrangement delivering the tune’s one main riff that repeats each bar with a lightly syncopated “and four” on the last beat. What prevents total monotony is the mid-song bridge where the horns suddenly burst in for an energetic eight-bar change-up. Though no creative masterpiece, it made for a catchy, danceable novelty number worthy of radio play, not that it got any.

I’ve seen quite a few promotional issues of this record, but don’t recall running across any red label stock copies, which would have been the ones for sale. Likely that means the release was quite limited and left to miraculously fend for itself without intervention by Cotillion other than passing out some promo copies to radio stations to encourage airplay. As the label photo attests, those incorrectly showed both sides as instrumentals, which may or may not have influenced the DJs, but surely bummed the vocalists!

Even so, “Funky Thing” served its other purpose as a good shakedown cruise for the new collaborators. Soon thereafter, Wardell got seriously down to business at Malaco with some impressive commercial results around the corner. As noted, Cotillion did put out a second single by the Unemployed almost exactly a year later; but, once again, they gave it no push, and it fared no better, becoming the group’s final release.

“Funky Rooster” (The Unemployed)The Unemployed, Cotillion 44108, 1971

It’s hard to see how “Funky Rooster”, another novelty collective writing effort, could have gotten much commercial traction, anyway, as it neither improved upon or even equaled “Funky Thing” as a song or just a pure groove; and the musical funk was negligible, only cropping up in the brief breakdown before the final chorus, where the drum beats got nicely broken up - too little too late.

Melodically and lyrically, pickings were also slim. Having made a passing reference to chickens getting funky at night and putting a fake rooster crow into ”Funky Thing”, the group stretched that into the ultra-thin song premise of "Funky Rooster", a strange barnyard trope in which a droopy rooster is injected with funk (!?) and runs amorously amok among the chickens. Allot them a point at least for presaging the era of ED medications (or whatever the avian equivalent might be), but deduct 20 for the annoyingly excessive, ersatz roosterisms, which even the energetic horn interjections Wardell summons up can’t counteract

Thankfully, the gang redeemed themselves completely on the other side.

“They Won’t Let Me” (The Unemployed)
Here’s a case where the plug side definitely should have been reversed. “They Won’t Let Me” was a far more substantial piece of songwriting, with an effective arrangement and execution. It would have worked better if the clever, inspirational question and answer lyrics had been delivered by the more expressive voices of the Barons, as the song has the Motown feel to it that Wardell and his writers liked to go with for that group; but this does nicely all the same.

I’m not certain if either side of this single came from that original session at Malaco, or if they were cut later that year. Conceivably, the two “funky” titles could have been done at the same time; but “They Won’t Let Me”, with its far more sophisticated soul-funk groove, leads me to suspect that it was tracked after James Stroud took over the drumming chair.

After that initial session for the Unemployed, Wardell came back to Malaco in May of 1970 with many more songs from his writing team, plus some demanding arrangements. Not only did he have to familiarize the band with the new music; but his methods took some getting used to, such as expecting them to reproduce his concepts virtually note for note, beat for beat. For these sessions, the Malaco staff recruited Stroud, an impressive new drummer from Shreveport, LA, to join Puckett and Robbins; and that unit [later dubbed the Chimneyville Express] would become the long-term core rhythm section at the studio. Once trained and rehearsed, these fine musicians, along with a horn section of top Jackson-area players [the Chimneyville Brass] proved up to the task and completed the backing tracks in preparation for the second wave of vocalists Big Q would soon bring in from New Orleans to finish the projects.

He then returned home to thoroughly prepare the singers in his highly methodical way. About ten days later, they arrived at the studio, a few by car, but the rest making the three and and a half hour trip on a well-worn school bus - Elijah Walker’s idea of limo service - not elegant, but it got the job done. Cutting the vocal tracks on these sessions were King Floyd, Jean Knight, Joe Wilson, Bonnie and Sheila, and the Barons, all of whom would have resulting singles released on various labels.

While most of those records did not score, two most definitely did. Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” both became chart-toppers, though Malaco initially had trouble placing each of them with a label. Both Stax and Atlantic passed on the sides when first presented for consideration. Finally, Malaco started their own new imprint, Chimneyville, in order to release Floyd's single a few months later. Meanwhile, Knight's tracks languished on the shelf at Malaco for nearly a year, until Stax was convinced to reconsider and issue her single. Despite such all too common music business hurdles, the resounding success of those two records was an incredible outcome from that little caravan northward.

Early positive radio response to “Groove Me” in the summer of 1970 helped to facilitate an after the fact deal with Atlantic, who realized they had misjudged the single and offered to have Cotillion distribute Chimneyville releases nationwide for a piece of the action. Once accomplished, the added clout took the song to #1 on the R&B charts; and it crossed over into the pop Top Ten, as well. With Atlantic cooperating, Wardell and the Malaco staff thought they had a good thing going for the material in their production pipeline; but, as is often the case in the music business, it didn’t quite work out that way. What happened (or didn't) to the Barons’ singles Chimneyville released later that year is a good example.

Unlike most of the other artists onboard the bus to Malaco, the Barons had been making Wardell-produced singles for several years already, appearing on the Shagg, Mode and Shout labels. The group had enjoyed some local popularity from those, but failed to break into the much ballyhooed mainstream beyond the confines of home. [For more details on that phase of their career, see my prior post.] Still, all involved were sure it was going to happen.

Around the time of the Malaco deal, the Savoy twins chose to bow out of the group and work behind the scenes on production, writing material and helping to coach the singers in the ways of the Q. Replacements Clement Smith and Karl Matthews were then recruited to join remaining co-founders Lloyd Shepard and James Youngblood; but, as Matthews has stated in the comments to an earlier post, Smith did not last long and wasn’t on either of the Chimneyville records. Still, the tracks certainly sound like more than a trio was involved, but overdubbing or the Savoys adding some backing vocal support could account for that; but also note that their are four Barons in the hole photo from the period, shown below (not to mention that there are five [!] Barons in the photo of unknown date on the cover of the Funky Delicacies CD comp? Any help?).

Perhaps to give the group more implied class, or to differentiate them from other groups using the name, their Chimneyville singles showed them as the Barons Ltd, first without a comma, then with. No matter how the name was displayed, these records definitely had something extra gong on in the grooves.

“Making It Better” (W. Quezergue, M. Adams, A. Savoy)The Barons Ltd, Chimneyville 436, 1970

Following the release of “Groove Me” (#435), this was the second record out of the chute for Chimneyville, and at first gave every indication that things were being made better for the Barons at Malaco. The involvement of Atlantic/Cotillion was reason to believe that the boost they needed to hit the big time was close at hand.

“Making It Better” was by far the most complex and intense composition of the school bus sessions. Fashioned by the writers (this time, Big Q, Michael Adams, and Albert Savoy) to again go after the hard-driving blend of soul, funk and rock found on contemporary records by the Temptations, the song benefited greatly from the talents of the Malaco players and recording engineers (Tommy Couch and Wolfe Stevenson) under Wardell’s direction, making it cook from start to finish, with the sound of a true contender.

The arrangement built an unrelenting dynamo of interactive rhythmic elements, with Stroud’s sharp, hard-hitting drum work, by turns broken-beat and propulsive, providing the perfect internal combustion. The voices themselves were part of that synergy, flawlessly fused with the patterns of beats. Without a doubt, the song was one of the most ambitious and well-executed projects Big Q did while working out of the studio; and, despite the continuing attempts to sound like Motown South, a performance of such high caliber can't be discounted.

“Symphony Of Gratitude” (W. Quezergue & A. Savoy)

The other side was no less an ambitious composition and production, but got somewhat entangled in its attempt to get symphonic within the confines of an under three minute song. In particular, the “lala” sections seem tacked on and fail to mesh with the rest of the tune. Maybe if the Barons had not sung on these, things might have flowed better; but, whatever the reasons were, I think the song deserved its also-ran status.

Still, the playing on this multiphase piece is first rate; and it’s revealing to see Big Q already stretching the studio band and taking them places they probably didn’t think they could go. Listen to James Stroud's frenzied drumming under those lala's, slicing and dicing the beats with some serious syncopation, almost contrary to the song’s rhythmic flow - an edgy bit of arranging on Wardell’s part, for sure.. Meanwhile, his handling of the strings and (at least) one flute on the track displays a harmonic command that goes beyond the pop realm. Considering his expansive abilities; he can be forgiven for occasionally trying to cram too much into such a short format. It must have been frustrating at times for a man who probably really did compose symphonies in his head.

As strong as the topside of this record was, it went nowhere commercially, part of an emerging pattern become a pattern with the way Cotillion handled much of the Chimneyville product. Simply put, they did not live up to their end of the bargain and encourage radio stations around the country to add“Making It Better” to their playlists, other than sending out perfunctory promo copies. Stations got stacks of them each week from many labels; and it was easy for a record to get lost in the pile, unless fortune really smiled and some DJ or station manager plucked it out and dug it, or the distributor brought it to their attention in a more, um, accommodating way.

Still hopeful, Wardell and Malaco released the second Barons record not too long after the first. The A-side, “Gypsy Read Your Cards For Me”, was another strong soul-pop effort, which I covered back in 2007, as linked. I haven’t featured the flip side up to now, but it’s well worth hearing for the stronger funk influence Big Q brought to bear on the production.

“Love Power" (Michael Adams, Albert Savoy)The Barons, Ltd, Chimneyville 440, 1970

A pulsating funk-rock rave-up with some gospel roots, “Love Power” still retained touches of a Temptations feel [the guitar intro reminds me a bit of the start of their “(I Know) I’m Losing You”], but quickly got down into its own primal thing. Predominantly, it's a one chord wonder of intensely rhythmic linear grooving, with the only musical changes cropping up on the middle eight bar bridge. Remarkably, that was pretty much the “Funky Thing” formula, also co-written by Michael Adams, but boosted to a whole other dynamic.

Instrumentally, the song ran lean and mean with no horn accompaniment. The harmonic energy of the track comes almost exclusively from the lower end of the sonic spectrum, which enhances its elemental feel and reinforces the idea of where that love power is coming from. Wardell switched over to electric piano (Wurlitzer, I think) on this one, and voiced it, too, in the lower mid-range. Along with the prominent tambourine, a staple of the Barons tracks, this time a cowbell was added to augment Stroud’s intensely syncopated staccato attack. All in all, the compellingly strong yet simple arrangement highlights Big Q’s unique feel for and emerging expression of poly-rhythmic funk; and, while it was not an identifiably New Orleans vibe, the city’s juice certainly nourished this new hybrid hatched in that central Mississippi incubator.

Once again, the Barons' soulful, authoritative vocalizing synced perfectly to the rhythmic pulse; and that's the kind of delivery and groove that I think suited them best. But, this was to be their last single of the Malaco period, although Wardell would try with them one more time back in New Orleans a few years later on a single for Senator Jones' Super Dome label. It must have been doubly disappointing that another worthy effort, that all concerned gave their best shot, turned up missing on the airwaves and charts, and came to naught.

Rob Bowman's take on the Atlantic/Cotillion pact with Chimneyville is that they agreed to distribute the label just to get a favorable deal on “Groove Me”, which was hot and poised to make some real money, and did. It's also worth noting that, having been acquired by Warner Bros in 1968, Atlantic was already a corporate entity far removed from its close to the street, independent days when getting good music heard was the main concern. Thus, for the other releases trickling out on Chimneyville, it was virtually sink or swim, much more the latter than the former, with no marketing and minimal promotion to radio. After Floyd’s hit faded and his follow-ups did less business, Cotillion cut Chimneyville and Malaco loose entirely around 1973.

Next time, I’ll feature sides from the rest of the school bus session artists, most of which were released on other outside labels. So, check back.

* [Quezergue and Walker seemed to have never quite had a solid name for their operation, as it has been referred to at various times as Big Q Productions, Pelican Productions, and Skyline Productions. Plus, I’ve also seen Music Masters used for the artist management company. Meanwhile, while they were working with Malaco, record label credits often simply showed Wardell’s name (no aliases) as producer and arranger, or sometimes Walker got the producer credit. Most of the records also stated their work was for Malaco Productions, as the studio was wisely building its brand in the business.]


Blogger ana-b said...

Great piece...I'm hoping there are ten parts to it.

Thanks for the listen to the Unemployed cuts. I don't think I've heard them before. "They Won't Let Me" is a great tune.

One small [and slightly off topic] question. Do you know what name Skip Godwin used for the revitalized studio on Camp St.?

4:56 PM, December 02, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, ana. I'm kinda hoping there won't be ten parts to it! At least not this involved...but we'll just see how it goes.

As to your question, Godwin kept the Jazz City name for the studio. I should clarify that in the post. Cosimo worked there, too. But everything was in Skip's name.

I did a long interview and background discussion (hours!) with John Berthelot of Great Southern Records early this year, just a few weeks before he died - quite a shock! He worked at Jazz City starting in 1970 as an arranger and budding producer. Anyway, he was not exact on the dates, but, from his recollections, he was there for a couple of years - worked with Senator Jones in the early days of Hep' Me and J. B.'s as well as his own projects.

I am not really clear on why the studio could not accommodate Sansu and Wardell's productions - but I think it was no longer as technically well-equipped as when Cos owned it. Also Skip probably had to charge the going rate for studio time, unable to cut deals the way Cos did. That's likely what drove the bigger producers out of town and became the impetus for Sea-Saint to be built.

Unfortunately, Godwin died a few years back, I never got a chance to meet or talk with him. Most of what I know of him is through his many credits, and what I learned from Danny Jones, who worked with him at Sea-Saint in the later 1970s.

Skip went to work for Sea-Saint as soon as it opened, I think. But that's a story (or three) for another post down the line.

9:40 PM, December 02, 2011  
Blogger ana-b said...

That's too bad, I didn't know John Berthelot had died. Seems like only last fall he was playing around town with his jazz group.

Didn't happen to ask him anything about Bobby LaCour did ya?

I asked about the studio because I'm still hoping to figure out where 21st Century Studios was [as listed on The Electrostats 45's].

The subject came up recently because I saw another 45 with the same notation.

9:59 PM, December 05, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Sorry, I spaced and didn't post your comment when you made it, ana. Senior moment. JB and I did discuss Bobby LaCour, his first Great Southern artist and production. Senator Jones helped him promote that. I hope to do some more posts on JB and Great Southern in the coming year.

I've never found out anything about where 21st Century Studios was or who was behind it. I have the "21st Century Kenya" 45. Don't know who was behind the Three Oaks label, either. I've yet to reseach all that's a good project for you to continue to pursue! Was the other 45 that referenced the studio on Three Oaks? Feei free to shoot me an email about it sometime, as I note that we are now way off topic for this post....

10:22 AM, December 10, 2011  

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