July 22, 2012

Some Locally Grown Organics

[UPDATE: Audio is no longer available on this post. The tracks have been transferred to the HOTG Radio webcast stream. If you want to hear them individuality, check YouTube, purchase in the digital format of your choice, if available, or track down the vinyl.]

A fairly rare record I picked up recently kicked off this current chain of digressions. Despite derelict labels, mottled vinyl, and worn grooves, the seldom seen AFO single with two groovin’ instrumentals featuring Mac Rebennack on organ was too just too tempting to pass up. 50+ years of relative neglect, plus a Katrina-induced baptsim, obviously couldn't stop its music from being heard. So who am I not to celebrate it, impart some information about its origins in the process, and even use it as some sort of convenient metaphor for homegrown resilience.

But enough romantic notions of the Deep South. As I was listening to it, a couple of other New Orleans-related organ instrumentals from the same period came to mind - there weren’t all that many - and the seeds of this post were planted. Just seeing and hearing the three singles presented here, you might be hard-pressed to detect any connections among them, unless you know the back stories. That’s once again where HOTG comes in.

* * * * * * *

With the rising use of the mighty Hammond electric organ in gospel and jazz during the 1950s, before long it began to show up in R&B, rock ‘n’ roll , and pop. Bill Doggett’s instrumental hits and Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez’s pop chart-topper, “The Happy Organ” in 1959, did much to popularize the sound with youthful boomer record buyers, bringing about more such records in their wake.  Before long, two young New Orleans musical hotshots and one somewhat older expat got in on that action.


When fate threw him a life-altering change-up in the early 1960s, Mac Rebennack temporarily took up the organ abetted by his friend, keyboard wizard James Booker. They had first met as teenagers in mid-1950s New Orleans, hanging out at Cosimo Matassa’s studio watching recording sessions go down, being flunkies, and eventually, as their musical skills developed, playing on tracks themselves. 

In his younger days, Mac had absorbed the rudiments of piano from various family members and friends in his Third Ward neighborhood. He always had a good ear, and picked up more being around Booker and the many great players at Cosimo’s. But his instrument of choice at the time was guitar; and Mac had progressed quickly after being tutored by two of the city’s best guitarists, Walter ‘Papoose’ Nelson and Roy Montrell. So, that is the instrument he was known for when he was getting established as a go-to musician, writer, and budding producer on the local scene. His 1959 record, “Storm Warning”, on Rex is ample proof of his six-string prowess; and so things likely would have continued, but for a fateful night in 1961, Christmas Eve, about a month past his 21st birthday. While in Jacksonville, Florida for a gig with his band, he was involved in a fight, during which the ring finger of his left hand was nearly blown off by a gunshot, requiring emergency surgery. 

After the finger was salvaged and Mac recuperated, he could not fret the guitar strings effectively for quite a few years, and his playing ability was never the same. Trying to maintain life as a musician, he first painfully tried switching to bass guitar, as it required fewer fingers, but the pressure needed to fret the thick strings was too hard on his hand. Luckily, Booker offered a solution. He had been gigging on organ in a road band and around the French Quarter, as well as cutting some cool instrumentals on it for the Ace, Peacock and Duke labels, and quickly taught Mac the ins and outs of the instrument, on which a powerful sound can be had using just the right hand. He also helped Mac get organ gigs in various bars on and near Bourbon Street. Soon thereafter, Roy Montrell stepped back into the picture and gave Mac some session work with AFO Records. The older guitarist had become one of the founders of the label, owned by a group of idealistic black session musicians headed by Harold Battiste. As Mac told it in his autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon

During the last year or so of the AFO scene, in the early sixties, my former guitar teacher Roy Montrell. . .hired me to play organ on a few songs - I guess to help me out, because he knew I was grinding away at my scene down on Bourbon Street. He had a tune called “One Naughty Flat” on which I played organ, although it was written for two guitars.

What could have been a career-ending injury instead sent him off on a new musical path toward eventual keyboard virtuosity; and he got a great confidence boost doing the tunes on this 45.

“One Naughty Flat” (E. Montrell)
Mac Rebennack, AFO 309, 1962

The title. . .was kind of an inside joke with musicians. The song was in the key of F and there’s only one flat in the key of F. - Harold Battiste, quoted in the notes to More Gumbo Stew. [the songs on this single can be found on the Ace UK Gumbo Stew CD series, but they have an alternate take of this one.]

Montrell, who gave the writing credit for this upbeat, well-crafted tune to Edna Montrell [I'm guessing his wife], probably as a tax dodge, also provided the hip, almost big band arrangement for Mac’s session. The resulting conjunction of jazz and instrumental R&B had a distinct New Orleans flavor thanks to the lightly stutter-stepping second line bounce that drummer John Boudreaux gave the groove. Though Mac was a relative novice on organ, his lead work was fluid and rhythmically right on the money. He almost got lost towards the end of the take, but recovered in milliseconds, finishing with some nicely improvised riffing. 

Other players on the session included AFO’s core ownership team, including ‘Chuck’ Badie on bass, Montrell on rhythm guitar, with Mel Lastie on cornet, ‘Red’ Tyler on baritone sax, and perhaps Battiste on alto. Session regular Nat Perrilliat likely played the tenor solo. All of them were accomplished jazz musicians for whom playing R&B was the way they earned their living.

While this is a very cool rendition, most of the supporting band later cut a different take as the AFO Executives that appeared the next year on their LP entitled Compendium.  Even with no organ and fewer horns, it’s a great track in its own right and worth seeking out.

For the flip side of his single, Mac, in no way intimidated by the company he was keeping, came up with a very strong contender of his own.

“The Point” (Mac Rebennack)

Also edging close to jazz territory, this aggressive, minor-key burner with a highly rhythmic, Latin-flavored arrangement [I’m guessing by Harold Battiste] gave AFO 309 the distinction of having two equally strong sides. Props to Mac for having the compositional skill and keyboard chops to pull it off. 

Unfortunately for him, the single’s prospects were dim from the get-go. AFO had growing financial problems (previously discussed here) which restricted their ability to properly promote and distribute the records they made and would force the membership to shut the operation down by 1963, with Battiste and most of the principals relocating to Los Angeles that year. Mac eventually followed, after running afoul of the law one too many times at home. Out there, he hooked up with Battiste again, which led to their collaboration on an ambitious and unusual project, the Gris Gris album - trippy and experimental, yet steeped in the roots and culture of their hometown - that launched Mac’s career as Dr. John in 1968.


Although much of his studio work was as a sideman, piano prodigy James Booker got an earlier start than Mac as a featured artist. Around 1953, he was already performing on a local weekly radio show, when one of the regular session pianists at Cosimo’s, Ed Frank, who had dated Booker’s older sister, brought the fourteen year old in to audition for producer Dave Bartholomew. The result was a session and single for Imperial as Little Booker in 1954, before his voice had even changed; but the shaky novelty song on the top side, “Doing the Hambone”, did not catch on. In 1956, Chess Records local A&R man, Paul Gayten, paired James with Arthur Booker (no relation) and issued a 45 on them billed as Arthur & Booker; but that angle didn’t click with the public either. 

Around 1958, Booker was signed to Ace Records by owner Johnny Vincent (Imbragulio) on the recommendation of a young Joe Tex, who was based in New Orleans at the time and also under contract to the label. Only one single resulted, which was supposed to have been a two-sided instrumental featuring Booker playing piano on one and organ on the other, over the same rhythm track. When it came out, though, the artist [billed again as Little Booker] discovered that Vincent had poorly overdubbed a hyper vocal track by Tex onto the piano side, "Open The Door", which obscured the instruments. That faux pax doomed the record, which meant that the killer take, “Teen Age Rock” [featured here in 2009], Booker’s first recording on organ, was totally overlooked. Because of Vincent’s shenanigans, Booker broke his contract and walked away. He continued to do session work and gigs around home and on the road, before winding up in Houston, Texas recording under his own name for Don Robey’s Peacock label.

Booker had been to the city before as a part of various road bands and played piano on occasional sessions for Robey’s Duke label, including the 1958 Larry Davis blues classic, “Texas Flood”. Late in 1959, he was back in Houston at the end of a tour on which he had been organist in singer Dee Clark’s band. Clark supposedly borrowed money from Robey and left the organ behind as collateral. Since Booker kind of came with the deal and needed some work, Robey decided to put both to good use in the studio and had Booker cut some original instrumentals. 

Ed Frank, who was working as a producer and arranger for Duke/Peacock at the time, was in charge of the sessions, which resulted in enough material for four singles issued on Peacock. The first featured “Gonzo”, a subversively titled little number on which the organ shared lead with a flute. A substantial hit in 1960, it was the only chart success of Booker’s career. His remaining Peacock releases followed between 1961 and 1962; but none came close to the success he had out of the gate. I’ve featured several of those enjoyable sides before; and at least some can be heard on YouTube or downloaded from various purveyors. Night Train/Tuff City included them them on a 1996 CD compilation of Booker's early recordings, Gonzo: More Than All The 45s, and on a somewhat differently titled 2000 LP.

After those singles, Booker had no more commercially released 45s in his name; but, in this same period, he did appear as lead organist on two others that came out on Duke, credited to a drummer and vocalist from Memphis, Earl Forest.

Forest had been recording for Duke as a featured artist since 1952, when the label had just started up in Memphis, right before Robey bought it. With the Beale Streeters band, Forest backed some of Duke’s most promising Memphis-area new talent back then, including Johnny Ace, Bobby Bland, and Rosco Gordon. After a succession of singles over the course of a decade, Forest cut what would be his final two 45s for Duke, mainly instrumental sides with dance-related titles, released in 1962 and 1963. When neither sold well, they slipped into obscurity; but Booker’s contributions have revived interest in them among latter day aficionados.

“Beal Street Popeye”(Forest-Cople-Malone)
Earl Forest, Duke 349, 1962

As has been noted by others, this stop-time track with Forest’s vocal interjections in the gaps has similarities to the classic Mar-Keys 1961 hit, “Last Night”, which appeared on the Memphis-based Satellite label, the precursor of Stax. Since that record was a million-seller, it easily might have inspired Forest and his co-writer to fashion something along the same lines. But Booker’s more improvisational keyboard attack set it apart, adding some barrelhouse flourishes that mixed some New Orleans in with the South Memphis flavor.

Although the title links the Popeye, a dance that probably hit its zenith of popularity in the Crescent City back then, with Beale Street, which for decades was Memphis’ black entertainment district, there’s really no musical connection to the dance. The beat is too up-tempo and straight-ahead to be mistaken for the casually syncopated popeye groove laid down in much of New Orleans R&B for at least the first half of the 1960s, if not longer (far outliving the dance fad it was designed for). But, this being a Forest record, Memphis would have been the intended target market anyway. So the discrepancy probably wasn't an issue.

Fuzzy demographics aside, the track certainly has its redeeming musical charms, from Booker’s nimble, rhythmic keyboard running to the hot sax solo mid-song. I don’t have a clue about the other players on the record besides Booker and Forest. Whether some of them came along from Memphis, or were part of the in-house studio crew in Houston, their solid professionalism made the tracks well worth hearing despite the limitations of the tunes.

The more purely R&B approach on the flip side proved to be more focused, if less current.

“Memphis Twist”(Forest-Cople-Malone)

In fact, this song is a stylistic throwback to the earlier days of R&B with a generic shuffle beat and a crucially effective, high class horn section arrangement and delivery. The production decision to keep the horns high in the mix, even though they compete for attention with Booker’s riffing, makes for compelling listening. For him*, it was a pretty straightforward outing - nothing flashy - but still well-rendered and in the pocket. Speaking of which, Forest’s drumming was minimal at best; so it fell to the unidentified bass player to step up and be the driving force behind the grooves on both tunes, making for a fine rhythmic ride. Whether it was actually a good record to twist to is not my area of expertise [still looking for one]. Not that it makes a difference these days -  just dance it like you feel it. 

*[As fans of Booker already know, he was much more musically subdued on organ, despite his chops. Maybe the difference in attack between organ and piano, on which he excelled, inhibited his legendary dynamics. Piano notes vary in loudness depending on how hard you hit the individual keys, while organs decidedly do not work that way. Volume is controlled separately for the entire keyboard, though that lack of nuance is balanced by the large range of tonalities you can control via variable electronic drawbars, at least on Hammond models. Additional amplification makes the organ a formidable instrument; but it is still hard to beat what 88 piano keys can do in the hands of a master.]  

I didn’t include Forest’s last Duke single, “The Duck”/“The Crown” (#363), as Booker’s contributions to the top side were lessened by the fact that it was a vocal number, and not a very engaging one at that. On the back is an instrumental with little or no organ, but some good piano running instead, which I’m pretty sure was also Booker's doing; so look for it on a later post of piano instrumentals.

[For a good overview of the history of Don Robey’s labels, try Duke/Peacock Records An Illustrated History by Galen Gart and Roy C. Ames.]


Mac and Booker are much better known to fans and collectors of New Orleans-related music than keyboardist Ray Johnson may be.  He left the city when he was in his early 20s and has done all of his recordings as a featured artist elsewhere. His younger brother, Plas, jazz saxophonist extraordinaire and consummate first-call West Coast session musician for decades, has received the majority of the glory and name recognition; but Ray too has made his mark.

The brothers were born a year apart into a musical family in the Mississippi River town of Donaldsonville, LA, not too far upstream from New Orleans. Their dad, Plas, Sr., was a multi-instrumentalist. Their sister, Gwen,  a vocalist, recorded for Don Robey’s Peacock label in the early 1950s. Renald Richard, a cousin and jazz/R&B trumpeter in New Orleans, joined Ray Charles’ early band and in 1954 co-wrote with him the seminal hit, “I’ve Got A Woman”, that laid the foundation for soul music with its cross of gospel and R&B. Later, Richard also discovered Lee Dorsey and got him his first recording deal.  

Plas and Ray went to school in Thibodaux, LA and began playing professionally in their early teens. By the late 1940s, before either had even turned 20, they migrated to New Orleans and formed a hot, successful R&B band, the Johnson Brothers’ Combo, playing regularly in various clubs around town. The band recorded one single for Deluxe in 1949 under their own name, and a couple credited to their singer, Erline Harris, the next year. 

Soon thereafter, the great and popular singer/pianist Charles Brown hired Plas for his band; but that didn’t last long, as both brothers got drafted in 1951.  After their hitches in the Army, Plas relocated to Los Angeles, where he quickly broke into the music business scene and became in-demand  for recording dates of all kinds.  Ray briefly went back to New Orleans before following this brother westward, where he recorded two nice singles for Mercury in 1953, singing in the style of Charles Brown and playing piano, with Plas heading up the horn section. When they didn’t do much, he too found steady work as a session musician; but, through the decade, he kept trying for a solo career, cutting his own records for an assortment of labels, large and small, but never scoring a breakout hit. 

Ray started the 1960s with a high profile gig as pianist on Ricky Nelson’s records for Imperial, and, a few years later, played on Sam Cooke’s final album Ain’t That Good News. He also did plenty of other studio dates over the years from surf music to the blues-rock of Canned Heat, not to mention more of his own records here and there for various small labels. Several of his hip instrumentals have been re-discovered over the years, including the proto-funk gem, “Soul City”.

“Soul City” (R. Johnson)
Ray Johnson, Infinity 024 B, 1963/4

Though it was the designated B-side, this one has the juice. Rather than a virtuoso performance, it’s all about the groove. Johnson and his unnamed group aptly demonstrated what great feel and ensemble playing are all about, sounding simultaneously loose and locked into the multi-instrumental syncopation, and, of course, incredibly cool.

In a way, the tune reminds me of “Rooty Tooty”, a similarly structured sax instrumental groover by Lionel Torrence (Prevost) that came out on J. D. Miller’s Zynn label in 1961, a southwest Louisiana record (featured here in 2007). I doubt there are any connections outside of my strangely wired-up mental associations; but hearing one always makes me want to hear the other.

“Kinda Groovy”(R. Johnson)

The title kinda sums up how this track strikes me. With its driving rock and roll back-beat, Ray’s standard-issue riffs alternating with guitar licks for much of the song, and an all too brief sax solo, the feel is stock and trade ot the‘50s, and seems even more dated by the offhand hipness of the flip.  Not that it wasn’t well-done; but, for an A-side, “kinda” doesn’t cut it. Such frequently travelled musical ground needed a few surprise twists and turns, or, say, a way-cool groove to stand out on a crowded radio playlist.

No surprise then that I would have given the lead-off spot on the single to “Soul City”, which at least held some promising left-field hit potential. But that’s not how the producer, John Marascalco, saw it, pretty much insuring that this was Ray’s only appearance on Infinity, a modest, mainly rock and pop label based in Beverly Hills, California that lasted from 1961 to around 1965.

I hope to get around to picking more from Ray Johnson down the line, maybe even a combined post with brother Plas, who deserves far more attention than I've given him so far. Mac and Booker, too, will no doubt crop up again in the great scheme of things.

[Update 2013: Sadly, Ray passed away in March of this year.]