July 01, 2014

SUMMERTIME SYNCOPATIONS, Part 1

No big theme this time. School’s out. Summer’s in. So, whether ensconced in air-conditioned confines escaping the steamy, tropical heat, or out late at night seeking a cool breeze off the bayou that might sneak through the foliage, ‘tis yet another season to get loose and groove.

For the next month or so, I’ll be featuring some random. mostly instrumental tracks. Nearly all have some creative syncopation working and are fairly rare, or at least rarely heard. As usual, I’ve got commentary on each, but nothing too deep or heavy; and, of course, you have the option to blissfully ignore all that and just move to the grooves. No final exams or even pop quizzes ever, here at the HOTG Conservatory of Funk.

Let’s kick it with the track that inspired this whole little series.

Gatemouth’s Funky Before Its Time "Summertime"



“Summertime” (Gershwin-Heyward)
Gatemouth Brown, Cue 1050, 1964

I first heard this stunner by Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown about a year ago and had to have a copy of my own, which took a while to track down. It’s not really a certifiable New Orleans record; but seems to be Gulf Coast material from the next major seaport West. Still, the horn-heavy instrumentation and intense poly-rhythms sure make me think that, if it wasn’t recorded in the Home of the Groove, it was certainly influenced by it.

In particular, the incredible broken-beat drumming reminds me of the proto-funk Smokey Johnson was putting down in sessions at Cosimo’s back then. As a matter of fact, he just happened to record his classic percussive instrumental, “It Ain’t My Fault”, with Wardell Quezergue for Nola Record that same year.

A multi-instrumentalist, Gate started his professional music career on the drums in the late 1940s, before switching to guitar one fateful night in 1947 when he took over for the ailing T-Bone Walker at a Houston club. His high-octane playing brought the house down; and, as a result, he soon became the first artist signed to Don Robey’s Peacock label. He may not have been the most precise picker working the fretboard; but his playing and arranging were strongly rhythmic, with a drummer's sense of beat manipulation.

In this case, the liberties Gate took with the standard, “Summertime”, made the tune almost all about the groove, an approach that presaged the funk movement to come a few years farther on. But there was even more innovation going on. Listen to the breakdown after the sax solo, where, to augment the Smokey-esque, heavily syncopated drum patterns, he turned his guitar into both a percussive instrument and sound-effects generator, as his reverb-drenched slurs and slides up and down the muted strings induced some freaky, Hendrix-like atmospherics that would have been tagged as psychedelic had they come later in the decade. It’s hard to believe this track is from 1964.

Not a lot of people could have heard this low-profile record. The small Cue label, based in Houston, operated for a few years in the late 1950s, releasing probably less than a dozen singles, before it dropped out of sight, and then briefly resumed operation around 1963-64 and issued a few more, including Gate’s lone contribution. Most likely, his Cue tracks were cut at a Houston studio.

At the time, Gate had been disengaged from Peacock since 1960 and wasn’t doing much recording, as far a I can tell. One wonders what he and Cue’s A&R man, Jimmy Duncan, thought would happen commercially with such a way out of left field take on a Gershwin tune. The odds were long for any kind of pay-off. But, no matter. Whatever the mysterious motivation might have been, instant obscurity was the destiny of this outre novelty cover-tune; but I’m certainly glad they put it out and pressed up enough copies that a few made it through 50 years of neglect into the next century where an aging groover, a relic of the 60s himself, could find one and offer it and the gonzo guitarist some props.

I had the pleasure of seeing Gate play live several times in the 1990s, and interviewed him twice on my old WEVL radio show. He was a great talker with a quick wit and wealth of wisdom. Wish I would have known about this record then and asked about it. I’m sure he would have had a good story to tell.

A Wa-Wa Guitar Man



 
“Wa-Wa Guitar Man, Part 1” (Senator Jones, Bobby Lacour, David Douglas)
David Douglas, “Hep’ Me” #1, 1970

David Douglas’ seldom seen or heard two-part “Wa-Wa Guitar Man” has at least two distinctions. It was his only known single, and the first release on Senator Jones’ “Hep’ Me” label (soon to lose the quotation marks, but not the apostrophe - or, as it is known in South Louisiana, the comma on top!). Though Jones had several micro-labels before this, and would have various other imprints off and on during the decade, Hep’ Me would become his mainstay.

The traceable part of Douglas’ career in New Orleans music as a guitarist or bass player seems to start with this record. He co-wrote and arranged the tune with another guitarist (and vocalist), Bobby Lacour, who would record some memorable deep soul on Hep’ Me and Great Southern soon thereafter. In her comment on this post, ana-b astutely suggests that Lacour likely sang what passes for lyrics, repeating the title over and over,  on the track. Since Douglas was credited as the featured artist, I had just assumed he sang it, as well as playing said wa-wa guitar [Note: For the non-technical, the more commonly spelled “wah-wah” sound is an electronically generated effect applied to a guitar signal, rather than an actual type of guitar]. Listening to other recordings by Lacour from around this time, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt on that, especially since Lacour was also involved in the writing and arrangment.

The identity of the other players remains a mystery to me; but I’ll venture a guess that the session was recorded at Jazz City Studio on Camp Street, formerly operated by Cosimo Matassa, who by this time was bankrupt, having lost his equipment and master tapes to the IRS. The studio kept running somehow as a bare bones operation with Cosimo’s oversight, but his assistant engineer, Skip Godwin, was the nominal owner. The late John Berthelot, who was starting up the Great Southern label at the time and working out of an office at Jazz City, told me in an interview that Senator Jones also recorded there.

[Geek note: Another clue is the 133 prefix of the matrix number on this 45, which was Cosimo’s designation for numerous small client labels he had recorded for over the years (See The Cosimo Code for more details). Given the date, it is an indication that Jazz City was the recording site.]

Neither the song itself or the production quality of this single really provided a great showcase for Douglas. The melody was almost non-existent, and the central riff very rudimentary. The playing seems under-rehearsed, and the recording quality sounds much more like a demo than a finished, radio-ready product. Then again, Jones was never known for meticulous standards in the studio, often going for the quickest and cheapest way out. As a result, “Hep’ Me” #1, was no competition for the Meters, whose hip, funky hits at the time were surely the inspiration for this attempt. Consider it more of a conversation piece than some gem in the rough.

Beyond this obscure footnote in David Douglas’ career, his credits include serving as guitarist on a number of Senator Jones productions later in the 1970s, including sessions for Johnny Adams and Bobby Powell, which would have been done at Sea-Saint. Most notably, Douglas also played bass or guitar in Fats Domino’s road band from early in the decade on into the 1980s (as mentioned in Rick Coleman’s essential biography of Fats, Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘N’ Roll).

In the second part of my 2007 feature on guitarist Teddy Royal, Teddy related the story of how he joined Fats’ touring ensemble in 1979. Roy Montrell recruited him as the bassist (though Teddy didn’t play bass) for an upcoming European tour on which Douglas was to play guitar. During rehearsals, Douglas had trouble getting a guitar part, and Fats had Teddy try it. When he immediately nailed it, Fats summarily made Teddy the guitarist and put Douglas back on the bass.

The most recent credit I have found for Douglas listed him as guitarist on Tommy Ridgley’s 1992 Modern Blues Recordings LP/CD, She Turns Me On.

Tropical Funk Via Shreveport



“Tropical” (Louis Villery)
African Music Machine, Soul Power 111, 1972


I featured this song almost 10 years back, but it was a cut from an LP that re-issued all eight sides of the four singles African Music Machine released on the Soul Power label between 1972 and 1974. I’ve since tracked down all of those 45s. My post at the time was light on information about the eight-member band, as I had only the LP track information and some brief notes from a 1973 piece on them by David Nathan included on the inside cover. But, fortunately two commenters and notes from a later CD compilation have since filled-in at least some of the gaps.

Bass player and bandleader Louis Villery was a session musician at Sound City, a recording studio in Shreveport, LA, where the African Music Machine material was cut. As I learned from Paul Mooney’s excellent notes to the 2007 Soulscape CD, Sound City Soul Brothers, which featured three artists associated with the successor to Soul Power, Alarm Records [subject of a future post], Sound City was started in 1969 by Jerry Strickland and two partners with the help of a group of investors. By 1971, Strickland was recording a number of regional soul singers and needed a viable outlet to release records by some of those artists. So, he set up the Soul Power label with Stan Lewis, who ran Jewel Records, a successful record distributorship in Shreveport that handled a number of independent labels, including three of its own, Jewel, Paula, and Ronn.

During its two years of existence, Soul Power’s main artists were George Perkins (from Baton Rouge), Ms Tommie Young (from Texas), and African Music Machine, who were Shreveport-based. There was also a lone funky soul single (#107) by Shay Holliday, a local female singer [hope to feature that record one of these days]. Villery likely played bass on all the Soul Power singles, which numbered around 14; but, contrary to what David Nathan wrote, none of the other members of African Music Machine were in the studio band, according to Da Clinic, a commenter on my earlier post, and backed-up by Mooney’s CD notes.

Instead, Villery put together AMM with other musicians from the area,, giving each member an African-Muslim type alias, as listed on the LP; but the true identity of about half of them remains unknown, at least to me, because their actual names weren’t included. My friend Art Edmaiston, a sax player who toured with Villery in Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s road band around 2000, said in his comment on my earlier post that the bassist was originally from Tunisia, which explains the African references. Art added that Villery had also been in Bland’s band during the late 1950s and early 1960s. How he came to be in Shreveport, I’m not sure.

Clearly, though, the man was a musical multi-tasker. Not only did he write the six instrumental tunes and collaborate with lyricists on the other two, he produced and arranged the AMM sessions, as well. His tunes, while well put together and played, were somewhat derivative, evoking other funk artists and bands of the day.

For example, “Tropical” sounds influenced by the JB’s (certainly not a bad thing), and positively cooks from the bottom up. Villery’s offbeat bass patterns are juxtaposed with the broken beat drumming of Louis Acorn (Abdul), Osman’s percolating congas, and Jumbo’s primo guitar scratching. Layered on top are some fine horn chart counterpoints, adding melodic lines with their own rhythmic flavor. Tyrone Dotson (Yuseef) and Ete-Ete were on tenor saxes, with Amal on trumpet.

Further credits I have seen indicate that Villery also played and recorded with B. B. King in the later 1970s. As also mentioned by Da Clinic, he released an African Music Machine digital album of new material in 2001 on eMusic, which I grabbed back when it was still available. It is a worthy collection of well-arranged and impressively played funk instrumentals with overtones of jazz, African, and Caribbean influences. We can only hope there will be more.

Eight Minutes In The Middle Of The Road



“Middle Of The Road” (The Meters)
The Meters, from Fire On the Bayou, Repirse, 1975

Of course we all know, or should know, the Meters as the definitive New Orleans funk outfit. After coming together as Art Neville and the Neville Sounds in the mid-1960s, they served as house band for Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s Tou-Sea Productions/Sansu Enterprises starting in 1968. Toussaint soon began recording their unique, funky instrumental jams, and Sehorn placed them with Josie Records in New York which released the tracks on singles and albums under the band’s newly chosen name, the Meters. They had a few well-deserved hits; but Josie went out of business within a few years. Sehorn then got them signed with Warner Brothers/Reprise which released five impressive, influential albums in as many years; but the corporate overlords gave them little promotional push, causing weak commercial results. The association came apart at the seams due to prolonged band in-fighting and lack of financial rewards; and, by 1978, founder Art Neville and his brother, Cyril, left the band, who regrouped, enlisting Willie West as lead singer, but did not last too much longer.

Guitarist Leo Nocentelli was never content just to pursue funk and continually pushed the envelope with his rock/fusion proclivities as the decade progressed. But whether or not he longed to be a rock guitar god doesn’t concern me here, because, on this one lengthy track, Leo displayed a whole other side to his talent: a tasteful, masterful jazzman who led the band down a different musical path, at least for 7 minutes and 57 seconds.

They never cut anything like it before or after they dropped “Middle Of the Road” smack in the midst of their third LP,  Fire On the Bayou, a collection of intensely funky songs and some good-natured New Orleans R&B. I love the atmospherics of this tune, the open-ended. languid feeling of a long, humid summer evening, interspersed with flurries of soloing.

Though everyone got the feel just right, the stage belonged to Leo on this one; and, while the writing credit was given to the group, I suspect this is essentially his composition. The tone of his guitar was less bright than usual, shifted down to the more sonorous midrange, which served to make his jazzy fretwork more expressive, as he alternated between sliding, melodic Wes Montgomery-like double-string octaves, and inventive, intricate runs.

They certainly held their own on this one-shot sojourn; but despite the song title, it was definitely not middle of the road music. Calling it that must have been an ironic in-joke. Had they played more of such stuff, it probably would not have taken them any closer to mainstream listeners than their usual brand of deep funk did. Anyway, they didn't try to find out.

The smoother part of the road has its charms; but the riskier route moves over the bumps and breaks closer to the edge, where frames shimmy and bottom-ends shake in surprising and exciting ways - and, being from the New Orleans streets, that’s how they chose to roll.

But this captivating side excursion is there to be taken and definitely worth the ride.

Sons Of Sam Punctuate The Funk



“S.A.M.” (Sam Bros.)
Sam Bros. 5, from self-titled Arhoolie LP 1081, 1979

In funk, sometimes a great groove is enough. You don’t even need a lead instrument or complicated vocals. You just jam on it, get down. . .and do a little spelling.

When this album came out, the five teenaged sons of Herbert “Good Rockin’” Sam, an old-school zydeco player, had already been performing as Sam Bros. 5 for about five years. Based in Scott, LA, right outside Lafayette, they played mainly uptempo zydeco in the tradition of the great Clifton Chenier, plus the occasional slammin’ funk groove, as heard here, while gigging around the Gulf Coast region and as far away as California, where Chris Strachwitz recorded them and released their first LP on his legendary Arhoolie label in 1979.

Since the high-powered “S.A.M.” was not a part of their regular zydeco repertoire, accordionist Leon Sam switched over to organ on the tune; and the cheesy sound of the keyboard contributed to the song’s garage-like, raw edge. But, to me, the standout player on the track was Carl Sam on guitar, whose relentlessly rhythmic chord comping (which probably owes something to Nile Rodgers) drove the groove, taking everyone else along for the joy ride, and making for a cowbell player’s paradise [look out, Will Ferrell]. It’s no wonder serious funk fans and collectors seek this tune out, which has made the LP harder to find and often expensive these days.

As the Sam Brothers, they recorded another album, Cruisin’, closer to home in 1981 for the Blues Unlimited label out of Crowley, LA. It had another funky, non-zydeco dance groove on it, “J.A.M.”, which also appeared on a 45 (#2026). Many groove-hounds obsess over that tune, too; but I don't think it measures up to “S.A.M.” Their next long player, Zydeco Brotherhood, on which they were Sam Bros. 5 again, did not appear until 1989, issued on the Maison de Soul label. The band broke up in the mid-1990s, probably due to increased competition from the many new zydeco bands on the scene

Leon Sam then moved to Houston and joined an existing zydeco group as front man, staying with them until early this century. Attempts to revive his family band were not successful; and it appears that none of the brothers are active on the music scene at this point. But their name lives on, spelled out with funky punctuation on this stand-out, anomalous track from their musical youth.

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.

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!