June 01, 2014

A Sea-Saint-Island Addendum: The Sneakin' Sally Sessions

While researching the relationship of Sansu Enterprises and Island Records covered in the two prior posts, I realized that an earlier project had kicked off their business dealings. It was Robert Palmer’s solo debut album, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, which wasn’t a Sansu production, but utilized Sea-Saint Studio and associated musicians for half of the tracks. I’ve had the record in my collection a mighty long time, enjoying it without knowing much about the backstory.

Over the years, I had heard that the Meters and members of Little Feat were involved in the sessions, with the slide guitar of Lowell George easily recognizable on the tracks. But the back cover of the LP offers no player information or recording location(s), and few other details. So, I remained generally clueless about how it was made until last year, when I was trying to see if Big Q had anything to do with it.

Turns out he didn’t, which I learned while googling around on the singer and album title, finding links to relevant pages on the late singer’s official website. In 2007, the producer of his first three Island LPs, Steve Smith, provided many definitive details on how the album came together, revealing that during the course of the recordings three completely different studio bands were involved at two separate studios in New Orleans and New York City, and a later location in London.

In an interview supplementing the personnel credits and locations he provided, Smith explained that the production project was his first for Island, whose owner, Chris Blackwell, let him choose an artist to work with. He picked Palmer, who he had gotten to know when their prior bands were signed to the label in the early 1970s. For several years in the late 1960s, Smith had been an engineer and producer at Muscle Shoals Sound, the in-demand Alabama studio owned by the legendary recording rhythm section known as the Swampers. He worked on many high profile records there, before going out on his own. Though Smith was from the US South and Palmer from England, they had in common the deep influences of soul and R&B music.

Although he did not say in the interview exactly how the two US recording venues for Palmer’s album were chosen, I'm sure the musicians they wanted to work with had a lot to do with it. Smith identified the sites as New York’s state-of-the-art Mediasound Studios, and Sansu’s Sea-Saint facility. Mediasound was an ideal place to work with the first-call, veteran R&B players recruited for the sessions there: guitarist Cornell Dupree, pianist Richard Tee, with Bernard Purdie on drums, aind Bernard Odom on bass. Meanwhile, Sea-Saint, just getting off the ground in 1974, was well-equipped and had a no less significant and seasoned pool of available talent, including, of course, Allen Toussaint and the Meters (Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Jr,, and Joseph ‘Zigaboo’ Modeliste), who both Smith and Palmer were already way into.

In planning for the project and establishing its musical direction, Smith introduced Palmer to the music of Little Feat, whose sound was [still is] a convergence of roots, rock and funky R&B. The singer was enthused; and, subsequently, Lowell George was invited to participate and played on all the US sessions. With well-chosen locales and music-makers, the principals were assured of great grooves and potent collaborations.

Of the album’s eight songs, the four featured here were cut in New Orleans, three more in NYC; and one, “Hey Julia”, was done later in a London rehearsal room, using a mobile studio. Another, “Epidemic”, was likely also recorded at the Mediasound sessions; but only appeared on the B-side of the single version of the title track. 

Smith also related in the interview that “Sailing Shoes” and “Sneakin’ Sally” had not been chosen ahead of time, but quickly became undeniable after the assembled musicians at Sea-Saint dug into them.

“Sailing Shoes” (L. George - F. Martin)

Written by Lowell George and Martin Kibbe (using the nom de plume, “Fred Martin”), “Sailing Shoes” first appeared in 1972 - without the “g” - on Little Feat’s second LP, which was named for the song.. There, the band gave the tune a spare, sort of country blues feel; but, in the fecund atmosphere of the City That Care Forgot, George and the locals reconstituted it into pure-D funkiness, to which Palmer and his backing vocalists later added distinct gospel highlights.

Smith’s session notes some 30 years farther on confirm that all of the Meters graced this track, as well as the others cut at Sea-Saint. You might have expected drummer Zig Modeliste to apply his patented broken-beat expressions to it; but, instead, he set the pocket with a poppin’ R&B backbeat; and multiple syncopated instrumental parts were layered over it. Unlike Toussaint’s style of micro-managed arrangements, Smith seems to have been more laissez-faire, allowing the musicians to come up with their own grooves and riffs to a great extent. He says that George was primarily responsible for getting this arrangement together with the Meters, which they nailed on the second take.

“Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” (A. Toussaint)

Here, the Meters revisited and helped to significantly revise the original version of the song they had tracked for Lee Dorsey’s 1970 LP, Yes We Can, produced by Toussaint. The laid-back funk he crafted for that take recalled the spirit of his mid-1960s work with Dorsey on songs like “Working In The Coal Mine”. But Smith oversaw a new interpretation of Toussaint’s tune, in which the band, subtly at first, intensified the rhythmic interplay of their parts; with more layers mixed in as the tune progressed, until the track positively writhed with pulsations, pushing Palmer’s performance to paroxysms of soulful amplitude.

Again, Zig’s drum groove emphasized the backbeat, while the uncredited conga player (‘Uganda’ Roberts or ‘Afro’ Williams?) added percolating counterpoint reinforced by the other instruments. Truly, though, the driving force on this track is Porter’s bass work, creating a powerful, eminently danceable pocket while simultaneously tightening the tolerances with the intricate off-beat
riff he played every fourth bar, except for the bridge, doubled by Nocentelli’s guitar. I don’t know who came up with it, but that tricky lick totally turned up the heat and cooked. It makes the song for me.

By the way, kudos to Steve York for his inventive harmonica solo, likely overdubbed back in the UK. He managed to hold his own admirably amidst the rhythmic onslaught. I would have bet a hundred bucks back then that a harmonica solo could never have worked - glad I didn’t.

“How Much Fun” (R. Palmer)

The singer wrote five of the songs on the album, including this, the only one recorded in New Orleans. Not quite in the same league as the Toussaint and George covers, it still worked as a sly little musical come-on that fit well with the band’s hometown, push-pull funk arrangement, complete with Neville’s insistent piano riff lifted from the intro to “Hey Pocky A-Way” on the Meters’ Rejuvenation LP, recorded around the same time. As a matter of fact, Lowell George made an uncredited appearance on that album, adding insinuating slide guitar licks to “Just Kissed My Baby”.

“From A Whisper To A Scream” (A. Toussaint)

Certainly one of Toussaint’s classics, the song first appeared on his own 1970 LP, Toussaint, released by the very short-lived Tiffany label, but soon picked up and re-issued by Scepter. He had been brought out to Los Angeles to record the album and was backed by a number of New Orleans expatriate musicians there. His take was masterful; but the finished package flopped commercially, so few heard that version.

The next year, Esther Phillips recorded a soulful, dramatic cover as the title track for her 1972 Kudu LP, giving the tune far more prominence. Three of the players on Palmer’s New York sessions (Purdie, Tee, and Dupree) had played on Phillips’ album; but Smith chose to record the song in the New Orleans realm of its writer.

Elsewhere in his interview, the producer acknowledged that Toussaint was in the control room for most of the album sessions, but mainly stayed in the background, as befitting a true gentleman. At Smith’s request, he personally familiarized the band with the changes of this song; and, from the sound of the acoustic piano on the finished track, I get the feeling that Toussaint got in on the recording, too (though Smith failed to mention it), with Neville on organ.

While not of Esther Phillips calibre, Palmer did a fine job with his own interpretation. It was a gutsy move to take it on. Pretty much following Toussaint’s basic outline, the musical track took on the feel of a hybrid soul-rock anthem. George’s tasteful, expressive slide work is a highlight here, even sounding like a pedal steel at times, to add yet another rootsy influence.

Considering the New Orleans portion of this album project among his career highlights (he dug the food, too!), Smith has said he was disappointed when the record did not break Palmer in the US - a failure he blamed on Island’s distributor, Capitol Records, for doing a poor job on promotion. The age-old buzzkill. The LP did much better in England at the time, making Palmer a performer to be reckoned with there, although he wouldn’t have a US pop hit until late in the decade. Of course, in the mid-1980s his career reached escape velocity when the stylized rock-models video for “Addicted To Love” got him maximum exposure on MTV. Sales of Riptide, the album it came from, went double platinum.

Following Sneakin’ Sally, Smith produced Palmer’s next two albums for Island. On Pressure Drop in 1975, Little Feat served as the main session band, and also did a cut or two on Some People Can Do What They Like from 1976. Pressure Drop had another Toussaint cover on it, “Riverboat”. originally done by Dorsey. Keeping that flame alive, Palmer then did Toussaint’s “Night People”, from Dorsey’s album of the same name, on his self-produced Double Fun LP in 1978. Later, he also put a rather abstract version of Earl King’s “Trick Bag” on Riptide, in a much higher profile nod to New Orleans proto-funk, which I’m sure paid for Earl’s coffee and doughnuts for the rest of his life.

Just last year, the US re-issue label, Culture Factory, released a remastered and expanded CD version of Sneakin’ Sally, as well as a number Palmer’s other releases. As always, if you can’t get vinyl, at least go for high resolution digital copies of this material, play ‘em through decent full-range speakers or headphones, and deeply explore those Crescent City connections. Good groovin’, y'all.