April 20, 2014

Tracking The Big Q Factor, Pt 5.2: More Sansu/Sea-Saint Sessions

It’s time to get back to the Big Q thread.

My prior entry last November (Part 5.1) in this sporadic series on the career of producer/arranger Wardell Quezergue discussed his transition back to working in New Orleans around 1973, following a two year association with Malaco Studios in Jackson, MS. At the newly opened Sea-Saint recording facility operated by Sansu Enterprises, he was contracted to do arrangements on several projects, including a reunion with singer Robert Parker for sessions that resulted in a series of singles released by Island Records. You can read about ‘em and find links to earlier parts of the series in that post, too.

This go-around, I’m featuring Wardell’s work with another New Orleans “name” artist, Ernie K-Doe, who had already been on the Sansu roster for five years, plus several examples of his involvement in the making of albums for outside artists and labels. As you’ll see, these were not high profile jobs by any means, but helped pay the bills along with his similar work for other companies who needed his services. Whatever the circumstances, he always operated with consummate professionalism and imparted a sense of harmonic and rhythmic class to the proceedings.

K-Doe’s Sansu Sojourn

Ernie K-Doe signed with Sansu Enterprises in 1970, right after partners Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn changed the company name from Tou-Sea Productions, and several years before Sea-Saint was built. At the time, the principals were going through a general revamp of operations and objectives, having managed to barely survive the Dover Records debacle and its dire ramifications for the local music and recording scene. In those lean times, Sansu lost or let go most of their previous roster of singers and began to turn away from issuing singles on their in-house labels - Tou-Sea, Deesu, and Sansu - in favor of licensing more productions to outside companies with better access to the national market. Even more importantly, as the record industry became increasingly focused on the long-playing album as the main product format, Sehorn set about aligning the company with that business model.

At the time, Sansu’s remaining artists were Lee Dorsey, who had not had a significant hit for several years, the remarkable but never commercially successful Eldridge Holmes, Willie Harper (mainly a background singer), and the Meters, whose instrumental funk singles on the New York-based Josie label were hot in the charts. Sehorn had just negotiated a new deal for Dorsey with Polydor, which would result in the Yes We Can album, written and produced by Toussaint, and get the singer briefly back in the charts. Things were looking up; and it seemed a good time for K-Doe to join the team, as the prolific Toussaint had plenty of good material for him to sing.

Of course, K-Doe and Toussaint already shared a legendary connection, having made pop music history back in 1961, while working for Joe Banashak’s Minit Records. As the label’s one man A&R department, the young Toussaint established his reputation by bringing forth numerous soon to be classic hit records performed by various in-house artists, including K-Doe, whose take on “Mother-In-Law” (written under Toussaint’s nom de plume, Naomi Neville), certainly one of greatest novelty tunes of the era, rose to the top of the R&B and pop charts. He cut more than a dozen fine, less successful singles for the label up until 1963, when Toussaint was drafted and Minit was assimilated by Liberty Records; but that one big hit was to be K-Doe’s professional calling card for the rest of his life. For a fascinating and complete telling of the ultra-flamboyant performer’s story, do yourself a favor and read Ben Sandmel’s beautiful extravaganza of a book, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans.

Following his run with Minit, K-Doe was picked up by Duke Records, the Houston-based label run by the notorious Don Robey. There were at least nine singles by K-Doe released on Duke between 1964 and 1970; but only two of the songs got into the national charts, both stalling-out shy of the Top 20. Considering that lack of commercial appeal, it is surprising that the label kept K-Doe around so long. Maybe Robey was a fan. In any case, he finally cut his losses and let the singer go as the 1960s came to an end.

That’s when Sansu brought K-Doe into the fold and put him in the studio (Jazz City, which was being run by engineer Skip Goodwin with the bankrupt Cosimo Matassa as silent partner) to work his vocal magic on a cache of Toussaint songs that had been tracked by the Meters [at least most of them, as their drummer, Zig, may not have participated on all cuts]. Sehorn then took those, along with an EK-D original, plus one by tunesmith Al Reed, and shopped the lot around as an album package for national release. In 1971, Janus Records in New York took it on, issuing the LP, Ernie K. Doe [see my earlier post]; but, despite the first rate soul-pop songwriting, excellent arrangements and performances throughout, the record was not well-received and quickly wound up in the cut-out bins when the two singles issued from it failed to get significant airplay.

In the wake of the album’s failure, K-Doe remained under contract with Sansu but did not get the opportunity to record again for several more years, well after Sea-Saint opened.

Big Q’s First And Last K-Doe Sessions

When K-Doe finally did get green-lighted to make some more singles, the sessions were arranged, if not wholly produced, by Wardell Quezergue over the span of a year or so. As far as I know, it was the only time that the two worked together on records in the course of their long careers.

The first songs issued, “Let Me Love You”/”So Good”, appeared on a 1975 Island Records single. As previously discussed, the label was also releasing 45s by Robert Parker that Big Q had arranged. Island would also put out a single by Tony Owens that Isaac Bolden produced and arranged, as well as the 1976 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival double album mentioned last time.

I recently realized while rummaging through my archives that the Sansu/Island relationship was not really about those singles, or even the JazzFest LP set - they were merely incidental. Instead, the companies first crossed paths in 1974 when Island brought Robert Palmer to Sea-Saint to record part of his debut solo LP, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, with the Meters. The company then contracted with Sansu to make albums for two funky rock groups on its roster, High Cotton and the James Montgomery Band, under the partners’ direction. Those production deals provided Sehorn with a window of opportunity to place Sansu’s local projects with the label, as well.

That brings us back to the first K-Doe/Big Q collaboration.

“So Good” (M. Monley)
Ernie K-Doe, Island 031, 1975

“Let Me Love You” (M. Monley)

I’m reversing the order of the songs because “So Good”, with its pronounced gospel feel was too good to be a B-side. The ever-fervent singer played off the danceable, poppin’, soul groove to good effect, making this the puller of the two, despite some hard to decipher lyrics, and worth replays.

Unfortunately, the down-tempo “Let Me Love You” proved to be an ineffective lead-off choice, having a repeated descending progression that made the song kind of one long verse, a floating fragment without much melodic direction. It lacked the structural interplay of a chorus and bridge to plant some hooks into listeners. Not only that, the lyrics, though well-sung, weren’t very engaging, either.

Beyond the running order problem, there was another factor that probably kept this record off radio playlists. Both tunes were stylistic throwbacks to the previous decade, in spirit and probably in fact. M(arie) Monley, credited as writer, had been so designated on quite a few of K-Doe’s Duke sides, too. As Sandmel discovered, she was one of the singer’s girlfriends in the 1960s, leading the biographer to believe (as do I) that the songs attributed to her were actually the singer’s own compositions, probably a ruse to dodge the taxman should the record have hit and made money. To my thinking, Monley’s credits on the Island sides confirm they were left-overs from his days with Duke and well past their pop freshness date.

Wardell took the tunes at face value, keeping the arrangements simple and straightforward, with no attempt to update the sound. Considering how little he had to work with on the A-side, we’re left to wonder who thought this was a good choice for a national release in the first place. When it inevitably tanked, Island opted-out of another try.

Within a year, though, Sansu issued two more K-Doe singles on their own reactivated namesake imprint. The new Sansu label would operate from the mid 1970s through the rest of the decade, and seems to have been intended for local consumption 45s. While Wardell’s work was not credited on any of those K-Doe sides, evidently he did do the arrangements. That lack of acknowledgement and the general low profile of the records was most certainly due to the unusual circumstances of how they came to be. As it turns out, one track on each single had been recycled from another Sea-Saint project going on at the time.

“You Got To Love Me” (Ernie K-Doe)
Ernie K-Doe, Sansu 1006, 1975

The mid-tempo A-side, “You Got To Love Me”, was a marked improvement in all respects over “Let Me Love You” on the Island single. The structure of this EK-D original was more developed, having an appealing progression and melody line, not to mention a nice rhythmic swing to it. Most outstanding musically, though, is the big league horn arrangement Big Q graced the track with - simultaneously tasteful and adventurous. Just listen to the intricate turnaround phrase the horns negotiate between the intro and verse, and choruses and verses. Im-friggin’-peccable.

Of course, leave it to K-Doe to turn the proceedings into another novelty song by incorporating the titles of popular daytime TV soap operas into his lyrics. Sandmel notes that the singer watched the soaps regularly - so that’s where he got the idea; but it really was a clever, quirky twist to add them to a love song, as many of his female audience, and even some of the men, no doubt, could relate. The fact that he also peppered the track with self-references, his patented giggles, and other ad-lbs, probably limited the potential appeal to his local fan-base, but certainly left no question about who did it.

“Stoop Down” (Marshall Sehorn)

On the flipside was a decidedly different, a spicy variation on the highly suggestive blues song, “Stoop Down Baby”, made popular by Chick Willis in 1972, which had origins (a/k/a “Drop Down Mama”) going back at least to pre-WWII blues performers. Wardell’s arrangement transformed the tune into an effective, uptown funk strut with multi-layered poly-rhythmic counterpoint highly similar to a song on the next single, as well.

“Hotcha Mama” (Paul Lenart-Larry Levine)
Ernie K-Doe, Sansu 1016, 1976

While looking up information on the writers of the equally funky “Hotcha Mama”, which was obviously in the same groove as “Stoop Down”, I suddenly realized that both songs appeared on the eponymous James Montgomery Band LP Island recorded at Sea-Saint during this period. I had not listened to it for years; and, when I pulled it out and played the tracks, I was shocked into laughter to hear that the music tracks for both were the same ones on K-Doe’s Sansu singles! The singers were different, of course, and the mixes varied a bit; but the playing was identical.

On the JMB album, both Toussaint and Sehorn were credited with production for Sansu Enterprises, and Wardell shown as arranger. For whatever reason [cheapness comes to mind], someone at Sansu {Sehorn, most likely] “borrowed” the two JMB tracks and replaced Montgomery’s vocal with K-Doe’s. I doubt that Island or the band, whose lead guitarist, Paul Lenart, co-wrote “Hotcha Mama”, were consulted. As part of the album deal with Island, Marsaint Music, the producers’ publishing company, shared rights to the music, which I guess was their general excuse to re-use the tracks; but a more honest approach would have been to re-record the songs entirely. In a further feat of misappropriation, Sehorn also implausibly took the writer’s credit for “Stoop Down” on both the JMB LP and K-Doe’s single. The lack of commercial impact for either K-Doe record resulted in no one outside the studio noticing the subterfuge, maybe until right now.

Anyway, back to the song at hand with K-Doe again secretly backed by the James Montgomery Band on one of their originals [see below]. Only the horn section, who Big Q gave somewhat more challenging charts than on “Stoop Down”, were Sansu session regulars. As you might expect, I prefer K-Doe’s takes on the appropriated JMB tracks. His supple, playful, and eminently expressive singing style combined with Wardell’s arrangements to give these standard-issue funk grooves (Sandmel deems them “generic”) the necessary personality to keep us involved.

The B-side had K-Doe doing the incongruous “(I Can’t Believe) She Gave It All To Me”, a Conway Twitty ballad that benefited from Big Q’s artful arranging (again, uncredited), with backing by the Sansu session staff, augmented by a string section. In the spirit of Ray Charles’ famously soulful renditions of country songs, K-Doe’s performance affirmed that he was well-suited for such interpretation.

Like his Island outing, these two singles got no more than minor local action thanks to scant promotion, and turned out to be his final releases during a tenure with Sansu Enterprises that, surprisingly, continued until 1980, according to Sandmel. The reasons the principals at Sansu, who did not include Big Q, kept K-Doe on the hook so long, considering the spotty output and poor sales, remain unclear. But it seems no less than a disservice to the artist, who received no boost whatsoever to his public profile from the association. Lacking sufficient new material of his own to record and with nothing written by Toussaint made available for his use after the initial LP, K-Doe was marginalized by Sansu, either by design or indifference.

As a result, he was unable to get regular bookings, sending his career and personal life into an extended downward spiral. It took until the late 1980s for K-Doe to record again and begin to get his life and performing mojo back together.

Some Other Big Q Assignments

As noted earlier, beyond the less than lucrative singles market, Sansu’s bread and butter during the 1970s at Sea-Saint was contracting with various mainstream labels to record their artists there and, if possible, have Toussaint produce the albums, or parts thereof. The famous, obscure, and all shades in-between made LPs at the studio as a result. Probably the most notable of those sessions involved LaBelle’s Nightbirds LP for Epic, which generated a monster hit with the Toussaint's treatment of “Lady Marmalade”. As time went on, there was more work than Toussaint could handle, especially on the arranging front, so Wardell would be called upon to ply his talents on various projects, as needed.

To round out this episode, here are a few examples ranging from the mid-1970s into the 1980s.

High Energy

In 1975, a seasoned and already legendary blues outfit, the James Cotton Band, made this LP at Sea-Saint for the Buddah label. Production credit was shared by Toussaint and Sehorn, with Big Q handling the arrangements.

For New Orleans music fans, the album is notable for several reasons. Toussaint contributed two songs to the sessions, the bouncy “Hot ‘n Cold” and easy-going “Hard Time Blues”. Also chosen for Louisiana flavor were Bobby Charles’ “Keep Cooking Mama” and Bobby Rush’s funky get-down, “ Chicken Heads”. Wardell and Isaac Bolden also wrote two of the tracks, “Weather Report (The Weather Man Said)” and “James’ Theme”. Besides Cotton’s fine group, other session players included not only the house horn section, but several frequent contributors: Toussaint, James Booker and Big Q on keyboards, plus guitarists Steve Hughes and Teddy Royal.

I featured “Hard Time Blues” along with an overview of High Energy on a post back in 2006. So, I won’t go into much detail about it here except to point out, as I did then, that the album’s title is misleading at best, since the material and grooves never rise above mid-tempo, having a mainly laid-back, in-the-pocket funk vibe. While cool, the general lack of dynamics certainly didn’t represent what Cotton and his powerhouse band could do so well, blow some take-no-prisoners blues.

I’m sure everyone involved in the project from the record company on down shared some blame for that design flaw; but let’s hear some of what Big Q did with the material he was given.

“Hot And Cold” (Allen Toussaint)

Definitely the least laid back track of the lot, “Hot And Cold” sticks out for that catchy bounce it talks about, being neither a blues nor a funk groove, but one of Toussaint’s prototypical pop tunes. Its intricate construction of interlocking rhythmic parts, perfectly represented by Wardell’s arrangement, and the cheery, sing-along melody deserved a shot at radio play, even delivered by a gravel-voiced bluesman.

As fate would have it, Robert Parker recorded this song around the same time, as part of his Island sessions, but the track was not released until a 1980s compilation. It was certainly more in his pop wheelhouse; but James ‘Superharp’ Cotton got the release. Go figure.

Note: There are two pianos on the track. I think Toussaint is playing, rather sparingly, the acoustic, while Booker vamped it up on the electric. Also, that’s Lon Price on tenor sax solo.

“I Got A Feelin” (James Cotton)

I chose this cut both because it has Cotton’s harmonica playing on it, and Big Q’s horn arrangement is a stand-out. As an added bonus, you can hear in the background Booker percolating on the keyboard. Once again, Price served up a fine solo of his own, too.

The funk pocket on this Cotton original is more or less where the rest of the album sits, all well and good. But certainly not high energy.

Not long thereafter, another blues-based band rolled in to record, the one mentioned earlier that Ernie K-Doe got unwittingly tangled up with. As did Cotton’s group, they set aside at least some of the spontaneity and dynamics of their live performance style for a more controlled, calculated approach.

James Montgomery Band

“Hotcha Mama” (Paul Lenart-Larry Levine)

“Foot Floppin’” (James Montgomery/David Woodford)

James Montgomery, a Detroit native, formed his funky, rockin’ blues and R&B band in 1970 while attending college in Boston. After becoming one of the most in-demand groups in the Northeast, they signed with Capricorn Records in 1973, making two decent, but not strong-selling LPs before switching to Island, who brought them to Sea-Saint to record with Toussaint in charge, hoping, I’m sure, for some commercial magic to happen on this eponymous album. Apropos of where they were at, the proceedings kept to funk, soul and R&B feels; and, with Big Q arranging, they cut a mix of original material and cover tunes, including two New Orleans classics, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns’ “Don’t You Just Know It” and Willie Tee’s “Teasin’ You”, the latter, of course, first produced by Wardell.

At the risk of redundancy, I’ve got their version of “Hotcha Mama” up to demonstrate that it was the instrumental source of K-Doe’s take, and why I considered his vocal romp superior to Montgomery’s decent but rather lackluster vocal take.

The other track, “Foot Floppin’, written by Montgomery and his sax player, who takes the solo, stepped directly into the hip territory of the Average White Band, who were scoring mainstream hits at the time. As hooky and tightly coiled as it is instrumentally, the lyrics were perfunctory, making the final result no new “Barefootin’” by any means, despite Big Q’s seamlessly supportive horn arrangement.

Overall, the band and Sansu team put together some fine goovin’ and ensemble playing; but the album lacked any really stand-out moments. Again, like the James Cotton's outfit, the JMB were (and are, they still perform and record to this day), a unit best heard in their on-stage habitat. An outstanding record for them would have had to capture at least some of that edge and excitement; but, it didn’t quite happen that way at Sea-Saint.

Ice On Fire

This album by the Jamaican reggae vocal trio, the Mighty Diamonds, was tracked at Sea-Saint in 1977 for Virgin Records. Again,Toussaint and Sehorn received the production credit, while Wardell was the arranger of record; but, this time around, the studio’s staff musicians provided all the backing. I wrote an overview of the LP for a post back in 2010; so check it out, as I won’t rehash all the details here.

“Coming Through” (F. Simpson - L. Ferguson)

The work of Big Q and the band on this tune, an MD original, pretty much sums up the modus operandi on the record as a whole. As usual, his arrangements were tight and contained subtly effective interior rhythmic counterpoints; but, while the playing was professional studio grade, the reggae was a pop approximation. The sound and grooves were safe and similar, lacking that certain something that could inspire the Mighty Diamonds to shine.

The group had a prior string of hits at home and in England; but, bringing them in to record with the Sansu team, Virgin had hopes, it seems, of both breaking the trio in the US market and appealing to their fans; but that proved to be a naive miscalculation. The album was a commercial dud. Reggae music is such a vibe experience for seriously attuned fans that having “outsiders”, even great New Orleans players, do some hybrid interpretation of the genre proved unsatisfying to the group’s devotees, who refused to buy the record; and it failed to attract significant new audience, either, even among followers of New Orleans music.

Summing up the LP over 30 years later in an interview with Reggaeville, the Mighty Diamonds’ Fitzroy ‘Bunny’ Simpson, called it “a destruction” for its lack of true reggae rhythms and spirit, but acknowledged the recording team’s good intentions. He laid the blame with Virgin executives who inexplicably failed to bring along at least the killer rhythm section (Sly and Robbie) who played such an integral part on the trio’s previous hits.

Hold On To Your Dream

Actually, this final example of Wardell’s arranging jobs for outside artists, a track from the Staple Singers’ 1981 LP for 20th Century Fox, was not a Sansu production, though cut at Sea-Saint with local players, not that it showed all that much. The Staples produced the album with Englishman John Abbey; and I’m sure they wanted the esteemed Big Q especially for his skills working with strings and horns, since a number of the tracks were big, lush productions.

I’ve covered this record previously; and you can delve into more detail on that post. But I will point out again something out of the ordinary about the basic rhythm section: Sam Henry, Jr. on keyboards, George Porter, Jr. (and possibly David Barrard) on bass, guitarists Bruce MacDonald and Teddy Royal, along with Bernard Johnson on drums, and Ken Williams, percussion. Most of them were session regulars at Sea-Saint, with Johnson just coming on board; but MacDonald (a/k/a “Weasel” back then) was not. What got him into these sessions was the fact that he was a member of Porter’s popular band at the time, Joyride, which also included Henry, who was a long-time Big Q collaborator.

“Love Came Knocking” (George Jackson)

Penned by the great R&B, soul and rock songwriter, George Jackson, this was one of three stripped-down, funky numbers on the record, including another of his, “Stupid Louie”. I featured the third, “Show Off the Real You”, on that previous post.

Here, Johnson played a fairly straightforward funk strut groove reinforced by Porter’s pulsating bass lines, while Henry comped basic electric piano chords, MacDonald interjected snarky-toned guitar fills here and there, and the horns, also used sparingly, popped in and out for rhythmic emphasis. The lean, open arrangement perfectly suited this simple song and allowed Mavis Staples, backed by her sisters, to get the maximum effect from her rather low-key, smokey lead vocal.

Neither Hold On to Your Dream nor the single featuring the title song charted; and the album was quickly forgotten, along with most of the records they made after leaving the Curtom label in the mid-1970s, including three for Warner Bros and a later one for Private. But their rich legacy of gospel, soul and funk music going back to the 1950s have ensured their place in the annals of great American vocal groups. Not only that, Mavis Staples remains an astonishing soul interpreter.

The fact that most of the outside projects recorded and produced by Sansu were not commercial winners meant that, by the early 1980s, the team had lost much of the appeal it had to recording companies; and that side of their business subsided. Without some big hits coming out, a studio and producer lose their cachet over time; and even at their “Lady Marmalade” height, Toussaint and Sea-Saint did not get in the really big industry accounts, with the exception of Paul McCartney and Wings’ LP for Capitol, Venus and Mars, recorded at the studio with a little help from Toussaint and a few other local players.

As for Wardell, his work for Sansu was not all he was up to in the 1970s. As I have noted, he regularly worked for Senator Jones’ group of labels and had his own private production projects from time to time. Not only that, for a few years mid-decade he regularly travelled to Shreveport, LA to do production and arranging for a soul label, Alarm. My next installment on Big Q will cover some of those Alarm singles by artists such as Ted Taylor and Reuben Bell.

Until then, I’ll be covering more artists and grooves from the HOTG archives, so check back. . . .

I’ll leave you with a re-quote from Danny Jones, who co-engineered the Staple Singers album at Sea-Saint, on what working with Big Q was like. It’s taken from my 2007 post about the LP:

Wardell.....what can I say? One of the nicest, easy going producer/arrangers I've ever worked with. Absolutely knew what he was going after and knew how to convey it to everyone. He was always in command, but ruled with a calm politeness. Wardell was always a gentleman, a very talented gentleman. Everyone had a great deal of respect for him. I knew if I was booked on a session with Wardell it would be good session, because it always was! Wardell is one of the reasons I still miss New Orleans!


Blogger Unknown said...

hi dan.
first and foremost, thanks for blog. amazing stuff.

i thought perhaps you could you help with something.
there's a recording of prof.longhair's 'mardi gras in new orleans' that i'm trying to find the history of with little success. It must have been cut some time between 1947-55. i'd email it to you but i couldn't find your on the blog so best i can do (its not on youtube) is tell you what cd's its on. which is this one as well as others...http://www.allmusic.com/album/saga-blues-new-orleans-rhythm-and-blues-good-rockin-tonight-mw0000549438

its track 1!

do you know what record company issued it? if it was issued? and when is what recorded.

thanks a bunch


9:53 AM, June 05, 2014  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Hi, Merlin,
Appreciate the kind words and glad you find HOTG useful. By the way, my email address is shown on the left in the sidebar of each page under the "hotg heads up" heading, third section down. Each section is divided by a line.

Anyway, on to your Prof Longhair song. It appears that the Allmusic clip taken from the CD you have is one of Fess' versions of "Mardi Gras In New Orleans" done for Atlantic Records. He originally recorded it for the Star Talent label in 1949, but the releases (on 78 rpm disks) were soon withdrawn after the musicians' union claimed they were from an unsanctioned session.

In 1949, Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson came to New Orleans and coaxed Fess to record some sides for them. He cut two takes of "MG in NO", one of which was released (#897) in 1950. That is probably the cut used on your CD. If I heard more of it, I'd be certain. I am going by the horn parts. One version (or both?) also has a clave on it.

I am at work, so I am pretty much going by memory (always risky!). But I'm pretty sure about which session it is. If you want to send me an mp3 later, I'll verify.

11:44 AM, June 05, 2014  

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