September 09, 2012

More of Professor Ray's Funky Ways

[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.]

Before getting to the music at hand, I just have to ask. What kind of weird deja voodoo runs another jumbo hurricane into the New Orleans area seven years to the day after Katrina?  If that doesn’t punch your PTSD (Post Tropical Storm Disorder) buttons, you have the nervous system of a yogi, or the Dude. Thankfully, New Orleans fared far better this go-round, making it through the bloated, somewhat disorganized, lumbering Isaac’s still potent onslaught without failures of levees, floodwalls, or pumping stations, while sustaining what friends describe as moderate wind damage and power outages of three days or more.

Meanwhile, those beyond the federal protection zone around the city, relying on inadequate “private” levees, fared far worse, as usual. Water, water everywhere. Due to cyclone physics, the Eastern quadrant of Isaac delivered the biggest hits, reaching into Mississippi and Alabama for several excruciating days of torrential rain bands and rotating winds. Meanwhile, here on the opposite side of the storm, we rode it out at home and never even lost power, getting just a few inches of rain and some sporadic tropical storm force blowing, but nothing severe. It’s all about location. location, location. . . and, needless to say, sheer luck.

And remember, hurricane season doesn’t end until about November. . . . But enough already about the weather. You might recall that my last instalment back in July featured a few records by pianists James Booker, Mac Rebennack and Ray Johnson doing some more or less rare workouts on organ. This time I’m doing a spin-off to focus on several other rare keyboard numbers from Mr. Johnson that reveal more of his propensity to funk, plus his capabilities as a piano powerhouse.
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Within days of the prior posting, I ran into what appeared to be good deals on two of Ray’s other records I had been looking for. The rarer of those is the second of a pair of singles he did for the Mercury label, “Boogie the Blues”/“Smilin’ Blues” (#70231) from 1953/54, on which he sang with a Charles Brown affectation and played piano. The other find is on tap herein, a relatively better-known instrumental single of his from the late 1960s.

Although I was eager to get a track from the Mercury 45 into this post, as soon as the needle hit the groove I discovered that the little edge warp I had noticed on it was trouble, bad enough to induce numerous skips and hangs. My turntable’s arm usually tracks well under fairly adverse conditions, playing records I thought were way too warped to work, but not this time. So, that gem is out of the running until I find a replacement someday or maybe make like Lattimore and try to straighten it out. Instead, you’ll have to hear Ray’s handiwork on "Boogie the Blues" via the ever-accommodating uploaders at YouTube.

While I’m on the subject, allow me to correct my statement last time [now updated on the post] that his four Mercury sides were cut in New Orleans. I discovered when I belatedly dug out the notes to the Mercury Blues ‘N’ Rhythm Story CD box set that they were instead Los Angeles sessions that had Ray’s brother, Plas, leading the horn section. I guess my memory was colored by the sound and feel of “Boogie The Blues” in particular, which has that blues-rhumba groove and Ray’s impressive solo turn, both obviously influenced by what Professor Longhair was laying down back home in those days.

But, I’ve still got three examples of cool and bravado left to ramble on about, starting with this derivative but distinctly hip top side from another of his few and far between ‘60s singles, which was the first Ray Johnson single in my collection.

Sherry’s Party” (Ray Johnson)
Ray Johnson, Loma 2030, 1966

No doubt, this tune and production were inspired by the success of jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis and his trio, whose instrumental hit cover of Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” in 1965 (as well as follow-ups “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade In the Water”) became a million-seller. Ray wrote and arranged “Sherry’s Party”, giving it a highly danceable groove and the rhythmic, chord-comping piano style that at least suggested a relation to “The ‘In’ Crowd”. Also, because Lewis’s record had been cut at a club date with the actual crowd audibly evident, Ray’s producer, Russ Regan, attempted to simulate a “live” feel by mixing in a tiny studio audience of sorts talking and responding to the music here and there during the song. While certainly not convincing, at least it wasn’t too distracting.

Setting aside those incidental efforts, it’s also obvious that Ray's purpose wasn’t mere imitation. This track can stand on its own in terms of groove and vibe, with a distinctive Afro-Cuban feel and great playing by his studio combo. The arrangement included plenty of poly-rhythmic interplay among the ensemble: his own percussive piano attack, the punchy, elemental bass lines (maybe done on an acoustic), two guitar parts (one chopping chords, one running a tasty lead), and subdued but funky drumming interwoven with both congas and bongos, sounds like.

While I’ve found no direct verification of who the groove-oriented players were on this Los Angeles-based session for Loma, I have a hunch that there may have been more New Orleans connections in the woodshed. Not knowing much about the label, which Warner Brothers Records set up as their soul music subsidiary in 1964, I found and read the late Chris Savory’s highly informative two-part article/discography, The Loma Story, online. In it, I saw that Mac Rebennack wrote “Back In Circulation”, the A-side of a record by Dick Jensen (#2029) released just prior to Johnson’s. Russ Regan also produced that session, which like Ray’s was cut in February, 1966; and, as Savory further stated, “It’s also believed that Mac was. . .one of the musicians o[n] the session.”  Indeed, Mac was an active studio musician, songwriter and arranger in LA at the time, having relocated there a few years earlier. As he describes in his autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon, he knew and frequently played recording dates with many of the other New Orleans expatriates working on the Left Coast scene. So, I would not be surprised to learn that Mac and several more hometown musical cohorts joined Ray on his Loma session, too. He could have been one of the guitarists. But that tantalizing possibility needs confirmation and more details to hold up.

Despite its merits and attempts to catch some of Lewis’ action, “Sherry’s Party” did not find an audience and had a brief shelf life, if any, perhaps not even going beyond its white label promo pressing. Thus, the career of Ramsey Lewis continued to rise unabated, while Ray’s solo prospects and public profile failed to improve. 

He didn’t record on his own again for several years, until a strange, well out of the mainstream label gave him another shot.

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The results can be heard on the second single of Ray’s I scored last month, cut for the short-lived InArts label in Hollywood, CA, toward the end of the decade, and containing exceptional instrumental cover tunes.

“Funky Way” (Calvin Arnold)
Ray Johnson, Inarts 107, ca 1968

Calvin Arnold’s 1968 bad-ass original on the LA-based Venture label at first might not seem like the best prospect for an instrumental cover. It’s a hot, bare-bones grinder with plenty of gritty get-down and vocal riffing that lacks much of a melody line. But, Ray made it a good choice. As he showed on “Sherry’s Party”, he had a way of letting the groove rule and working off the strong rhythmic elements of a tune. In the second half of “Funky Way”, his piano improvisations began to generate some new melodic ideas, but didn’t get far in the short time before the fade. A longer version, say an album track, would have allowed him and the group to work out on and develop their interpretation; but the 45 format was as far as it went - a tease of a taste.

The instrumentation on both sides retained the combo approach of “Sherry’s Party”, with an added organ that worked best on “Funky Way”, at times seeming to mimic the background singers on Arnold’s version. Again, the only thing I know for sure about the other musicians on these sides is that they could really lock down a groove.

As choice as the track is, the real tour de force is to be found on the back side.

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“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Whitfield & Strong)

Ray and his crew turned in a remarkably ecstatic rave-up on “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. Written by Motown masters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the song was a double-hit monster for both Gladys Knight & the Pips, who took to #1 in 1967, and Marvin Gaye in 1968, whose version became one of the company’s all-time best-sellers, and was probably still getting heavy radio rotation when this instrumental was cut.

Taken at a faster pace than either of those hits, the groove flat-out moves and motivates, led by the strong backbeat of the drums on the verses that shifted into sizzling syncopation on the choruses. Inspired by the group’s high-powered drive, Ray ran rampant on the eighty-eights, his energetic comps, diverse riffs, and amazing clusters of flourishes increasing in intensity and complexity as the song progressed. It’s another track that could easily have gone on twice as long and made even more of a statement. The only minor flaw on the take is that the organ never found its place in the arrangement, becoming a mere distraction that keeps us from catching every single juicy party favor Ray threw out.

The first time I heard this tune in full was on YouTube; and I was floored. Ray showed some impressive early chops on “Boogie The Blues”, but not even that prepared me for the amazing level of musicianship on display here. On the basis of that alone, this cat surely should be considered worthy of inclusion in the long line of piano masters - professors, as they are called - from the New Orleans environs; but, without breaks, he never got an extended opportunity to show his stuff and be recognized. As talented in his own way as his brother, Plas, you would think the connections would have been there to take him farther than an in-demand session player, infrequent recording artist, and club entertainer. He did make one jazz album, The Birth of a Scene, with his trio in the early 1960s - but had to release it himself on his own Goad label. It's a very hard to find limited pressing - but I've finally got a copy and will feature some tracks in a later post. [Note: Ray also put out a quite decent R&B/blues CD in 2000, Ray Johnson Bluz.]

Ironically, Ray let it all hang out on what seems to have been his last solo vinyl record, released by a label with limited prospects and certainly unequipped to find a market for something as dangerously hip as these tunes. According to some Billboard articles I found from 1967, InArts was started early that year by a company called International Artists, Ltd, who at first concocted the idea of developing talent for the label by holding multi-tiered talent contests at colleges around the country with the ultimate winner(s) getting to record for the label, sort of a proto-American Idol concept. Funding for setting up the contest structure came from one of the label’s financial backers, none other than “the one man Disneyland”, flamboyant showman/pianist Liberace. But, it was the ‘60s, and youth culture was quickly moving in another direction, to put it mildly.

A few months later Billboard had another blurb about InArts buying (!?) the name of a group called, “The Good Time Singers” [hope it wasn’t more than $5.00], to use for a seven-member pop vocal act they were developing and planning to put on tour and record. No more about the contest scheme. Maybe Liberace blew the money on a few new outfits, instead. Anyway, in all, according to the Global Dog discography, InArts had around nine releases, mostly pop/rock generica, starting off with those newly christened Good Time Singers, before the venture ran out of, um, ideas. So, how did a player of Ray’s caliber have his funky jazz project relegated to this non-starter of a label? It’s anybody’s guess; but just maybe it had something to do with Fred Darian, who ran the InArts recording operations and produced Ray’s record.

It’s likely Darian was the one who decided to go with another “live” simulation gambit to add some totally unnecessary ersatz excitement to the tracks. Fortunately, as on ”Sherry’s Party”, it didn’t sound lame enough to kill the grooves. What may have convinced Ray to work with him in the first place was the fact that, earlier in the decade, Darian had been Dobie Gray’s manager and produced his first big hit, “The ‘In’ Crowd”, in 1965. Of course, that later spawned the massive Ramsey Lewis cover version that Ray had tried to emulate to some degree on “Sherry’s Party”.  So, in that odd feedback loop, one of the things that the music business is full of, Darian did have at least a little bit of hit-mojo in his past.

Even though his chances to record as a featured artist were limited in the 1960s, Ray made the best of what he got, adapting well to the soul and funk of the time to deliver the memorable instrumental tracks featured here. It has only taken them about 40 years to begin to find their audience. I’m still on the hunt for other sides that flip my switch from among his somewhat more plentiful material from the ‘50s, especially another copy of that Mercury single I got burned on. Without a doubt, there’s more to be learned about and from Professor Johnson.

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

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Up next will be reviews of two new re-issue projects, one on vinyl, one on CD, and some commentary on relatively recent new material added to the webcast stream. So, do check back.