October 28, 2012

HOTG Reviews: The Rarest of Ric & Ron, Herb Hardesty's Lost LP Found, and more....

Several impressive new reissue compilations have made 2012 a memorable year for collectors and fans of vintage New Orleans R&B. This time out, I’ll be reviewing two of them.

Also, as long as I’m in the reviewing mode, I’ve got short takes on a few relatively new albums by soul/funk artists mainly from New Orleans.

But, first, forward into the past....

From The Vaults of Ric & Ron Records: Rare and Unreleased Recordings 1958-1962Rounder Records, 2012

Just about three years ago, I was contacted out of the blue by Adam Taylor, the eventual co-producer of this impressive collection. He had seen the blog and wanted to let me know that, at the behest of Rounder Records, he was in the midst of re-mastering the entire recording catalog of the short-lived but classic New Orleans record labels, Ric and Ron. Adam asked me for some help with getting discographies of the labels together, and I was happy of oblige and pleased to hear that Rounder was getting back to their reissue series on this material, which they had begun shortly after purchasing the original tape archives about 25 years ago.

The entire Ric and Ron project was actually just a fortunate by-product of Rounder’s involvement with New Orleans music in general at the time. Starting in the mid-1980s, the well-respected and still-vital Massachusetts-based American roots label began to get seriously into releasing new music by important, under-recorded New Orleans artists, including James Booker, Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler, Willie Tee and Earl Turbinton, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Rebirth Brass Band, the Golden Eagles and Wild Magnolias. Their efforts soon became a monumental, long-term commitment to making high quality, locally recorded albums in a variety of genres highlighting some of the city’s best music-makers. It continues in some respects to this day (see the new CD reviews below). Guiding much of that enterprise has been Rounder’s go-to producer, Scott Billington, an arbiter of good taste and great grooves who deserves all the accolades he has received for his success in highlighting the deep pool of New Orleans talent and unique musical heritage that was being neglected, revitalizing the prospects of many older artists, and opening doors for some newer ones in the process.

As I’ve discussed here before, Ric and Ron were two of the earliest locally-owned independent imprints, started by Joe Ruffino in 1958 and operated until his death in 1962. They were responsible for launching the solo careers of a number of the city’s notable singers, including the sublime Adams and Thomas, along with Robert Parker, Warren Lee, and Skip Easterling. Popular more established names such as Eddie Bo, Edgar Blanchard, and Tommy Ridgley also recorded memorable material for Ruffino; as did a host of lesser known artists. The trove of tunes Rounder acquired consists not only of sides from a combined total of 71 singles the labels put out - plus one LP by Edgar Blanchard and his band, the Gondoliers - but also numerous unissued tracks from audition tapes, demos, alternate takes, and other completed but unused sessions. Appreciating the historical and cultural significance of what they had, Rounder assigned the oversight of many of the early collections to music journalist, historian, and author, Jeff Hannusch, who also provided brief, but informative notes on the artists and tracks. Their series of compilation packages on LPs, cassettes, and CDs quickly made Rounder an important player in the reissue market, as well.

Leading off was the 1988 two-album set, Carnival Time! The Best of Ric Records - Volume One, and We Got A Party! The Best of Ron Records - Volume One, which, along with the various compilations that followed, brought the music to many people who had never experienced it before. I know they got a lot of play on my radio show in Memphis through the years. In his notes to one of the early comps, Hannusch mentioned that there were unreleased tracks from the vaults that a future release would explore; but who knew that it would take so long to appear!

With this limited edition box set, which came about as a result of the recent digital re-mastering endeavor, Rounder has finally fulfilled that promise, and in a very hip way. They put the tracks onto ten freshly minted vinyl 45s! We have Adam and co-producer, Paul Kolderie, to thank for the concept and its execution, using the best of both modern and vintage technology.

Out of the twenty sides available, most are previously unreleased tracks; but two of the records have the master take of a song on one side and its demo version on the other. Thus, we get Eddie Bo’s classic “Every Dog Got His Day” that originally appeared on Ric 969 [It is titled “Every Dog Has Its Day” on the reissue], plus Al Johnson’s immortal Mardi Gras standard, “Carnival Time”, first released on Ric 969, both paired with their never before heard demos. The only other released version of a song included in the set is also by Johnson, “Lena”, the A-side of his very first single (Ric 956), that has a demo of another of his songs on the flip. All tracks have superb sound, of course, thanks to the expert remastering. As always, I strongly suggest listening through full range speakers or headphones to appreciate how well the pristine vinyl grooves deliver. You’ll get a sense of what it must have been like to be in the studio when the sessions were cut.

One spine-tingling example comes on Johnny Adams’ 1959 audition tape, where he informally runs down songs that he would soon record for the first single of his career. A young man of 26, who had only sung gospel prior to being coaxed into the studio by Dorothy Labostrie to sing two of her compositions, he was backed by just a guitar player (very likely Edgar Blanchard), and exhibited many of the amazing vocal attributes that made him one of the greatest soul singers on the planet. His composure, control, range, and purity of tone were flawless, especially on “I Won’t Cry” (on the tape, still called by its working title, “Oh Why”); and you hear every nuance. I’m sure it was a jaw-dropping experience for everyone in the control room that day; and it remains so.

Speaking of Edgar Blanchard, another bonus of this collection has to be the two fine instrumental originals he recorded with the Gondoliers, who also functioned as Ruffino’s house band for the first year or so of operation. The incredibly cool full session takes of “Blues Cha Cha” [featured here in 2006] and “Bopsody In Blues” were slated for release in 1959, but got bumped so that Ric could rush Adams’ first single out. It took over half a century to get them pressed! While the tunes did appear on one of Rounder’s earlier CD comps [Troubles, Troubles] back in the ‘80s, having them finally on an officially sanctioned, fabulous-sounding 45 [even if the labels are reversed on my copy!] is exceptionally sweet.

Other treats of note include four completed but unreleased tracks (on two 45s) by Eddie Bo that are good enough to make you wonder why they were passed over at the time. The best of them to me is the bouncy testimonial, “Satisfied With Your Love” [not the same song recorded by Barbara George later in the decade for the Seven B label]. Also interesting are two rockers by Paul Marvin (Marvin Geatreaux), an alternate take of “Hurry Up”, a song that appeared on his lone Ron release (#322), plus the previously unissued “Goofer”.

When I first got into the box, my only real question mark about the choices of material had to do with the inclusion of two early demo tracks by the great soul artist from Beaumont, Texas, Barbara Lynn, singing her own songs and accompanying herself on guitar. Found on an unmarked reel of tape in the collection by Adam and Paul, these jewels are surprising, since Barbara never had a release on Ric or Ron, or on any New Orleans label for that matter; but it is well-known that her original producer, Huey Meaux, recorded many of her early tracks at Cosimo’s with the best local musicians. I asked Adam if they had been forced to choose between Lynn’s demos and any unissued takes by Irma Thomas or Martha Carter, Ric/Ron’s only female artists; but he said they found no such leftovers, so it was an easy call.

I hope you can score a copy of the set before it sells out completely, as it probably will not be available again on vinyl. As for the complete remastering project covering all of the Ric & Ron original releases, Rounder has made them available for purchase, but only as mp3 files. No hard copies in the plans, it seems. While I highly recommend the music, I don’t have much praise for the compressed mp3 format, which by design discards sonic information. If you would like CDs or, at least, better quality flac files of all that great material for serious listening, an email campaign to Rounder might be in order.

The Domino Effect - Herb Hardesty & His Band - Wing and Federal Recordings 1958-1961, Ace Records, 2012

As my friend, George Korval, points out in his highly informative notes to The Domino Effect, this outstanding CD from UK-based Ace Records, New Orleans saxophone master Herbert Hardesty still does not have anywhere near the name recognition he deserves, even after more than six decades in the music business, the majority of them spent as the main soloist in Fats Domino’s legendary studio and road bands. His distinctively inventive reed work has been an integral part of numerous classic R&B and rock ‘n’ roll records; but sidemen are regularly taken for granted and overlooked by casual listeners, leaving intensive appreciation to a small but loyal core of music insiders and connoisseurs.

Things might have been different had the rare or never before issued tracks on this collection, featuring Herb as frontman, been heard by more, or any, of the public, at the time they were recorded, between 1958 and 1961. While on tour with Fats in the late 1950s, Herb made connections that resulted in a deal with the Wing label, a division of Mercury Records, for whom he wrote and recorded an album’s worth of instrumental material. The January, 1958 sessions were done in New Orleans at Cosimo Matassa’s studio, using some of the best local players, including members of Domino’s band. Yet, despite the excellent quality of the project, the dozen tracks that resulted were mysteriously not released; and the tapes sat forgotten on a corporate shelf until Korval finally tracked them down this century and helped arrange with Ace to release the songs in a package with sides from Herb’s handful of Federal 45s.

Not only are the tunes and performances exceptional on the Wing recordings, but the sound Cosimo got, as revealed through the utterly transparent digital mastering for this release, is among his very best engineering work, revealing the distinct character and dynamics of each instrument and riveting musicianship. And, speaking of the players, one of the many highlights on this CD is the appearance on every track of one of the greatest of New Orleans drummers, Cornelius ‘Tenoo’ Coleman, who played almost exclusively with Domino. Recording with Herb and other bandmates wasn’t very far outside that tight-knit musical world; but, all the same, it provides an opportunity to hear Tenoo in another setting, and displays what a versatile, strongly poly-rhythmic percussionist he was.

The remaining tracks collected on this album come from sessions Herb did that Federal Records released under his name on four singles in 1961. The tunes on the first two, “Beatin’ and Blowin’”/”69 Mother’s Place (#12410) and “Perdido Street”/”Adam and Eva” (#12423) had been cut earlier in New York City with jazz pianist Hank Jones, and again backed by members of the Domino rhythm section. The A-sides of those two Federal 45s had previously appeared as an enigmatic single issued without success by both the Paoli and Mutual micro-labels out of Philadelphia. The remaining Federal releases, “A Little Bit of Everything”/”It Must Be Wonderful” (#12444) and “The Chicken Twist”/”Why Did We Have To Part” (#12460) [featured here in 2005.] were recorded in Cincinnati by Herb and his Domino bandmates. The top sides were instrumentals; but both flips had guitarist Walter ‘Papoose’ Nelson, who would pass away not long thereafter, on vocals. As far as I know, those enjoyable sides were his only such turns on commercial releases.

Without question, this compilation too has my highest recommendation, and its availability on CD is a further plus. Vinyl does not seem to be an option for Ace at this point, but let’s not push it. The notes for The Domino Effect are exemplary, as I said, providing a detailed overview of Herb Hardesty’s life and career, thanks to George’s many interviews with the still sharp and active horn man, plus his other extensive research. Not only that, the photos, many provided by Herb himself, are priceless, especially the down and dirty cover shot!

On the other hand, the notes included with the Rounder singles are not quite as extensive and the overall design is more spare; but including the complete Rick and Ron discographies is a nice touch, if I do say so myself. Still, the equally revelatory content and limited edition vinyl format, fitted into a compact but sturdy box, make their package hard to resist for any collector or ardent fan.

I can only hope that the many insights provided by both of these well-presented, enlightening, and utterly enjoyable projects succeed in generating a new wave of knowledgeable fanatics about the robust, rewarding New Orleans music scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

[Thanks to both Adam Taylor and George Korval for taking the time to let me know about their projects while in development, allowing me to hear the results, and providing additional details for these reviews.]

Some New Fish in the HOTG Radio Stream

As you may already know, the HOTG 24/7 webcast plays most all the music I’ve featured here since starting the blog in the fall of 2004. Once audio links are removed from a post, I transfer the files, ripped from my vinyl, to the webcast playlist for streaming. Occasionally, I also stock the stream with other groove-oriented tracks that come from my CD archives and might relate to particular posts, plus more or less current cuts from New Orleans-related albums that fit the HOTG spirit. I’ll even include a tune or two from non-natives once in awhile, as long as they have some local connections or are obviously inspired by the city’s rich musical legacy. Don't worry, no Asian carp will be jumping up in your face as you go with the flow.

Back in the summer, I new added tunes from some recently released CDs to that ever-growing, rotating song-loop [in excess of 30 hours long at last count, which has been a good while ago]. So, here’s the list of new titles in no particular order with some nearly brief comments on each:

“Chicken Dance” - from Khris Royal & Dark Matter, Hypersoul 2012: Guaranteed to give you the chicken head and have you struttin’ wildly ‘bout the barnyard, this track has the spirit of some long lost Junior Walker number wrapped up in it. Sax man Khris Royal, and drummer Terrence Houston have been playing in George Porter, Jr.’s band, Runnin’ Pardners, for several years now; but the two, along with the rest of hiply named Dark Matter, also create their own particular brand of dance-inducing rave-ups. As the CD attests, ingredients in their deep bag of tricks include heavy funk, R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and rock, freely mixed to set off perpetual motion chain reactions.

“Liver Splash” - George Porter, Jr. and Runnin’ Pardners, from Can’t Beat The Funk, Independent, 2012. Speaking of George, he definitely still matters, being, after all, one of the co-founders of funk as we know it. Along with the other fine repertoire in his stage shows, he and his well-picked Pardners have been playing material from the extensive back catalog of George's legacy band, the Meters. Though the original group still performs infrequently, they have never done any of their many lesser-known single and album tracks live, for whatever hard to fathom reasons. George obviously thinks they should be heard. So, this latest GPJr&RP CD is totally devoted to some of those tunes. Listen and behold the funkified excursions taking off from unequaled compositions conjured-up in New Orleans, but undeniably universal.

“Where Did I Go Wrong” - Willie West, from Can’t Help Myself, CDS Records, 2012: That’s right, a brand new CD from Mr. Soul Survivor, co-produced by Willie and another expat NOLA music veteran, Carl Marshall. With a tight, tasteful band and a decades-spanning soul-funk sound, Willie and ensemble lay down palpable performances track after track on this well-recorded collection of moving grooves. His 50+ year career has only enriched the character and authority of his incredibly expressive, supple voice, gifted with the ability to consistently connect on an emotional level. It’s the hallmark of a great soul singer, which once again leaves us wondering why Willie West is still not better known. Don’t miss out on another chance to say you heard him before he got famous.

“Take Five” - Doug Belote, from Magazine Street, 2012: A Lafayette, LA native, Doug has taken his masterful drumming chops to New Orleans and the world over the past 15 years, backing the cream of local talent there and on the road, plus a long list of heavy-hitting outside artists. As far as I know, this diverse bag of grooves and genres is Doug’s only album as a leader. He takes no prisoners on the re-aligned classic “Take Five” (arranged by master keyboardist Larry Seberth), yet never over-plays, leaving no doubt about his status in the elite of beats. Producer and hot-shot guitarist Shane Theriot wrote the majority of the material and plays on most of the tracks along with a knock-out assortment of eminently qualified A-list enablers. A real fine find.

“Needle In The Groove” - Papa Grows Funk, from Needle In the Groove, Funky Krewe, 2012. Led by keyboardist and vocalist John ‘Papa’ Gros, this band, all seasoned sidemen, have always taken not only their funk but their their middle name seriously, exhibiting progress year after year in improvising and songwriting chops - and they started out on the high end. You can hear the evidence on this CD, their best studio project yet, and at most any live PGF set you are fortunate enough to catch. Lending even more cred, none other than Allen Toussaint produced four of the album's nine cuts. The title track is something all us vinyl hounds can relate to, but begs the question, where's the 12”, y’all?

“Kingdom Of Izzness” - Dr. John, from Locked Down, Nonesuch, 2012. Probably due to being a certified old fart, and even though the album is blessedly available in both CD and vinyl formats, I was prepared not to be partial to this latest joint venture of Dr. John and producer Dan Auerbach, a youngish rocker, guitarist of the Black Keys duo, with diverse musical tastes, or so I’ve read, and an obvious enthusiasm to experiment. But I have to say my mind has been modified. I find it refreshing to hear the good Docta, Mac Rebennack (who’s even older than me, bless ‘im), nudged somewhat out of his musical comfort zone into new instrumental and sonic conjunctions. He’s definitely up to the challenge. The feel may not be exactly homegrown, recorded in Nashville by a band of the producer's cohorts, but the grooves still provide powerful support for Mac’s uniquely expressed songwriting. While some find too much gloom and bitterness in his latter day pronouncements, the mutterings of an man in the winter of his discontent, what’s really going on is simply Mac telling it like it T- I-Tizz. He offers up immediate, bullshit-free visions of a world long usurped and plundered by the powerful few to the detriment of the remaindered multitudes, and a country really free only for those with the financial ways and means to do whatever they want to keep it that way. Think of this raw, rockin’, album of angular funk as an edgy, cautionary soundtrack for the coming revolution, and take heed of the fifth column action by one bad-ass, second-lining soothsayer.

“Say Na Hey” - Soul Rebels, from Unlock Your Mind, Rounder, 2012. Leo Nocentelli wrote this Mardi Gras Indians-inspired carnival mover and sat-in with the band for some patented rhythmic guitar comping and a searing solo. The Rebels continue to creatively stretch the brass band boundaries, especially on their albums, with results that are always melodically appealing, kick-ass and booty-freeing. George Clinton only wishes he could funk like this. Kudos to producer Scott Billington and the Rounder team for ensuring a superbly slammin' sonic presentation and keeping their NOLA flame burning.

“Eyes On Fire” and “Balls Deep” - The Mason Affair, from Eyes On Fire, Independent, 2012. From out Los Angeles way, main instigator Mike Mason took a random shot earlier this year and sent me some links to cuts from this album via email, which I nearly deleted, since I get so many unsolicited pleas for attention from bands and artist of all stripes. But something told me to listen. Good thing I did. Their high quality recordings revealed hot, tight, ensemble playing, and simply irresistible grooves. After I said yes to the teaser, Mike let me hear the rest of it. New Orleans funk and brass influences are definitely evident in the mix, but incorporated into a broader creative agenda by Mason and crew, who definitely have their own thaang going on. More power to ‘em. Since there are a lot of good choices, I chose two tracks with different approaches to put into play. You can hear more at their website, see some videos, and get the album as a download or CD. If you’re on the Left Coast, catch their gigs. Hope they’ll do some touring and head this way. I for sure want to know where this affair will lead.