Friday, July 28, 2006

Benny Spellman - If You Love Her (Sansu 462)

If You Love Her

Today's post just goes to show ya how, in so many ways, Allen Toussaint is like the Patron Saint of The "B" Side. I mean, here's a guy who was just so GOOD that even his B sides crackled and sizzled... there were no "throw-away" songs. He just couldn't produce one.

When Joe Banashak and Larry McKinley hired him as the arranger and producer for their new Minit label, at the infamous WYLD studios audition in January of 1960, they got more than they bargained for. As we've mentioned before, one of the first records he produced for them, Jessie Hill's Ooh Poo Pah Do (MINIT 607), just ate up the charts.

Two other guys that passed the audition had already had releases on the label (MINIT 604 and 606) that went nowhere. Those guys, Ernie K-Doe and Benny Spellman, were always hanging around the studio waitin' for the next big thing. As Irma Thomas said in I Hear You Knockin', "They sang background on a lot of my records, and I did the same on theirs. It didn't seem like work then... it was just a whole lot of fun to me."

Benny Spellman had come to New Orleans in 1959 when Huey Smith and the Clowns had a car accident in his home state of Florida, and he gave them a ride home. As legend has it, their first stop was at the fabled Dew Drop Inn, and when owner Frank Painia heard Spellman sit in with Edgar Blanchard and the Gondoliers, he hired him on the spot. Huey also used him on a few 'Clowns' recordings at Ace Records before he struck out on his own, becoming quite the local smash. As Banashak remembers; "He was by far the most popular Rhythm & Blues artist in New Orleans. He always was working even when nobody else could find a job. He had those teenagers mesmerized..."

When his next release on Minit (613) failed to hit, he began moonlighting at Ace, providing background vocals for people like Roland Stone. He was in the studio as usual, however, for Ernie K. Doe's next session. Toussaint grabbed him and had him lay down those deep baritone 'mother-in-law's that would propel K-Doe's record all the way to #1 on the pop charts in the spring of 1961. (Something Benny felt he never got enough credit for...) In typical Johnny Vincent fashion, he attempted to cash in by releasing Roland Stone's next Ace single "Roll On Big Wheel", to which Benny had contributed his baritone 'rrroll on's, under Benny's name. It didn't help.

As Toussaint tells it, Spellman kept bugging him to come up with a big record for him too and, partly to shut him up, he came up with two of 'em. The great Lipstick Traces, (with it's deep 'don't leave me no more's) made it to #28 on the national R&B charts in the Summer of 1962 (it would also hit #28 when the O'Jays covered it three years later...), and the novelty B side, Fortune Teller, would go on to become a favorite in the UK, being covered by both the Stones and the Who. That's what I mean about Toussaint, not only was he the producer and arranger of all this stuff, he could write great songs like these seemingly at will. Truly amazing!

Benny's next two Minit releases failed to keep up the pace, and after Toussaint was drafted in 1963, he began working with Earl King on Joe Assunto's WATCH label. Two solid singles sold well locally, but that was about it.

When Allen got his discharge from the Army in 1965, he was back working for Joe Banashak, on his new ALON label.

Benny came back too. His second single for Alon was another incredible Toussaint two-sider, The Word Game b/w I Feel Good. After the record started to make some noise down in Sugar Town it was picked up by Atlantic for national distribution. It bubbled under the Hot 100 for a while, but never did hit the charts.

Two more Alon singles on Spellman died on the vine as well, and by 1966 Toussaint had left Banashak behind and formed "Sansu Enterprises" with the infamous Marshall Sehorn. Sehorn had worked with Bobby Robinson up in New York, and it was his connections with Larry Utall's Bell Records that got their company off the ground.

Benny stuck with his man Toussaint and, in December of 1966, was back in Cosimo's Jazz City studios cutting yet another smokin' two-sided gem. The A side, Sinner Girl, is a great track, and I like it a lot... but the B side of the record (today's selection) is, in my opinion, the best thing Benny Spellman ever recorded, and a real Toussaint masterpiece. Talk about yer basic catchy tune! I'm not sure if it's Leo Nocentelli and George Porter Jr. on here or not, but how about that guitar and that bass? Whew! They say that Allen was a perfectionist in the studio, and essentially wrote out EVERY NOTE for each instrument involved. What a workout they get here (check out the horn charts)! The lyrics are so cool, and the brilliant call and response thing between him and Benny on the chorus just rocks. As you can tell, I just LOVE this song and consider it one of the absolute high points of New Orleans music. (Both sides of this single have recently become available again, along with some 48 other awesome Sansu era sides, on the phenomenal Sundazed Records 2 CD set, Get Low Down. You should buy one.)

Benny Spellman apparently only recorded one more tune, Don't Give Up Love, on the local Mor Soul label. I don't know anything about the label, or even exactly when this single was released (it's not even listed in the Benny discography on Soulful Kinda Music). The scan comes courtesy of the lovely and talented Larry Grogan over at Funky 16 Corners (the Atlantic scan does too).

In 1968, Benny took a job in the promotion department at Budweiser, and threw in the towel on his career in music. He returned to New Orleans in the 1980s, and was performing again when he suffered a debilitating stroke towards the end of the decade. He's been living in his home town of Pensacola, Florida ever since.

Every memory lingers with us yet.


There was a great article in the Pensacola News Journal about Benny this past weekend. As it turns out, he was being honored by the Tipitina's Foundation on August 5th at Southern Oaks, the nursing home where he resides in Pensacola.

Benny was interviewed for the paper by Reggie Dogan, and appears to be doing fine. "Performing was natural for me," he said. "When you put yourself into it, you become part of a show. I didn't like being a star. I wanted other people to be the star."

The article also confirms that, yes, that IS Benny singing the deep baritone on Earl King's Trick Bag!

An incredible career.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Dinah Washington - Congratulations To Someone (Mercury 71812)

Congratulations To Someone

Irvin Green passed away on July 1st. He was 90 years old.

Irv grew up on the west side of Chicago in a rough and tumble "mixed" neighborhood, and worked side by side with "all types of people". He left college during the depression to try and get a job to help support the family, and became involved in manufacturing the hydraulic presses that were used to make records. Intrigued by the music business, he soon found himself the owner of record-pressing plants in both Chicago and St. Louis.

His main customers were the guys with "jukebox routes" who lugged the heavy and fragile 78s around the country switching out the records in the boxes every week or so. During World War II, the shellac used to make the records was needed for the military, and was in scarce supply. Green and his company pioneered the use of the newly invented "plastic" in record manufacturing and came up with the 'unbreakable' 10 inch 78. This not only revolutionized the industry, but made him many friends among the jukebox guys.

Those friends came in handy when he and a few partners started their own record company, Mercury Records, in 1945. They saw to it that Irv's records were the first ones to make it onto the boxes, often before the big hits from Decca, Columbia, and the other major conglomerates.

Ruth Jones, meanwhile, had moved from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Chicago with her family while still a baby. She learned to sing and play the piano from her mother, who was the choir director at St. Luke's Baptist Church on the South Side. By the time she had reached her teens, she was performing with Gospel legend Sallie Martin. Ruth won an amateur talent contest at the Regal Theater when she was 15, and that convinced her to try and "cross-over".

When she was 18, she got a job opening for Lionel Hampton at the Garrick Bar in Chicago, and before long she had become his vocalist and was touring with his band. (This is the period where she was re-christened Dinah Washington, although it's unclear just WHO came up with the idea...) British jazz freak Leonard Feather heard Washington singing with Hampton at the Apollo in New York, and organized her first recording sessions for Keynote records in 1944. The resulting Salty Papa Blues and Evil Gal Blues broke into the R&B top ten, and Dinah was on her way.

Irv Green signed her to his label in January of 1946, and began sending her records out along the jukebox routes. With virtually no radio airplay, they became immensely popular among black audiences and were selling like hotcakes. By 1949, she became known as The Queen of the Jukeboxes, and had sold over a million records for Mercury.

The label allowed its artists to control their own songwriting and publishing rights, unlike most of the big corporations, and was respected by the musicians because of it. His roster of artists soon included people like Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Nina Simone.

Green worked to lift the ban on live music performances on the new medium of television, and convinced his friend Ed Sullivan to begin featuring black artists like Dinah on his "Toast Of The Town" variety show by the early 50s. When Nat King Cole's own TV show was under fire by racist network execs and sponsors in 1957, Green sent white Mercury star Frankie Laine to sing a duet with him on the show free of charge, something that was positively unheard of before.

Mercury had grown to be a major player in the industry by the mid-fifties, not only in Jazz and R&B, but in the pop field as well with chartbusters by folks like Patti Page, Vic Damone and The Platters. They also went on to create what many still consider to be the finest recordings of Classical Music ever made on three-channel 35mm film for their Living Presence series.

Green had hired a young arranger by the name of Quincy Jones to work with Dinah Washington, as 'old-school' singers like her found it hard to compete in the rock & roll era. Her new 'adult-oriented' kind of sound concentrated more on Jazz standards and ballads, and kept her in the charts throughout the decade. Green took Jones 'under his wing' and taught him the business from the ground up, making him A&R man and vice-president, and first black executive of a major record company, by the early sixties.

Dinah, meanwhile, was not content to just fade away, and took her coronation as Queen seriously (just ask her seven husbands!). The pairing of producer Clyde Otis with arranger and orchestra leader Belford Hendricks would give her her biggest hit yet when What A Diff'rence A Day Makes hit big in early 1959. The record became her first million-seller, and was one of the first 45s ever to be issued in stereo! Although many of her Jazz and R&B fans were put off by her new lush sound, and accused her of 'selling out', she was squarely back in the public eye. Her great version of Unforgettable followed, and broke the top 20, but the best was yet to come.

Dinah had teamed up with fellow Mercury artist Brook Benton to form a production company that summer, and toured together with James Moody, Eddie Jefferson and The Falcons. When the Clyde Otis produced duet Baby (You've Got What It Takes) was released in January of 1960, it just took off, spending ten weeks at number one. The word on the street was that Washington and Benton couldn't stand each other by then, and Otis' decision to use the take where he messes up and has to be corrected by 'the Queen' was pure genius! The follow-up, A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love), went straight to the top as well.

A song Clyde Otis wrote for her, This Bitter Earth, would also top the charts that summer, and is considered by many to be her "signature song". Today's B side (the flip of Gershwin standard Our Love Is Here To Stay) was released shortly thereafter (in early 1961), and is typical of her Belford Hendricks backed sides of the period. I just love the way her incredible voice cuts through all the fluff and delivers the goods there by the end of the record. A Queen indeed.

Dinah would break the top ten one more time later that year with her version of September In The Rain, but would leave Mercury for Roulette Records in 1962.

In December of 1963, she died in her sleep from a lethal combination of "diet pills" and booze. She was 39 years old.

Mercury Records was taken over by North American Phillips in November of 1961, and was broken up into smaller subsidiary labels (like Smash and Fontana), but still continued to crank out the hits. It would later become part of Polygram in 1969, and, as I'm sure you know, was home to cool artists like Jerry Butler, Roy C, and The Ohio Players.

Irv Green would go on to become a major real estate developer, building some 18,000 homes in Iran before he and the Shah were kicked out in the late seventies. He retired to Palm Springs, and was still active in the business when he died. He was loved and respected by all who knew him, and his many contributions to the music industry changed it forever.

What a guy.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Roberta Flack - Go Up Moses (Atlantic 2851)

Go Up Moses

Today's B side is one of my favorites... it's just such a cool record on so many levels.

Joel Dorn was a disk jockey on Philadelphia's legendary jazz station, WHAT FM. Atlantic Records honcho Nesuhi Ertegun, a big "jazz man", heard him and offered him a chance to produce an album for the company. When The Laws Of Jazz, the first record to feature Hubert Laws as band leader, became a breakthrough success in 1964, Ertegun hired Dorn full-time. He went on to essentially head the jazz division of the label, and soon became a vice-president.

One of his favorite artists at Atlantic was Les McCann, a great piano player and vocalist whose ground-breaking work with his trio came to be known as "soul-jazz". It was Dorn and Ertegun who paired them with sax giant Eddie Harris at the Montreux Jazz Festival and recorded the hip classic Swiss Movement in 1969. When they released Compared To What, the incredible tell-it-like-it-is proto-rap message song that still rings true today ("...have one doubt, they call it treason!") as a single from the record in early 1970, it broke the R&B top 40 and became somewhat of a cult classic. The tune was written by Gene McDaniels, who would go on to create hip-hop underground favorite, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse, the following year...

What many people don't realize is that the song was first committed to vinyl by Roberta Flack. When Les McCann heard her singing at The Bohemian Caverns in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1968, he flipped. "Her voice touched, tapped, trapped and kicked over every emotion I've ever known", he said, and brought her down to Joel Dorn at Atlantic. He agreed, and the album they recorded in early 1969, First Take, is simply amazing. Produced by Dorn, it blurs the lines between jazz, soul, and folk (yup!) and comes up with some truly powerful stuff. An all-star jazz line-up featuring John Pizzarelli on guitar and Ron Carter on bass complemented Flack and her piano. In addition to Compared To What, it features two songs written by a friend from her days at Howard University, one Donny Hathaway. It also includes a little something called The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face... more on that later on.

Her next album, Chapter Two, continued in the same vein, with Dorn using his jazz chops to bring in folks like Hubert Laws and Chuck Rainey. Donny Hathaway contributes another song, and actually plays keyboards on a few tracks. Although the album lists King Curtis as co-producer, he doesn't seem to be playing on it (kind of like with The Rinkydinks, right detectives?).

Meanwhile, Atlantic had, of course, become a giant of a label. If nothing else, Ertegun knew talent when he saw it, and in 1963 offered fellow Turk and jazz lover Arif Mardin a job at the company. He started out as an assistant to fabled engineer Tom Dowd, and went on to become an arranger and, eventually, a producer for the label. He was the real deal.

His breakthrough record was Groovin' by The Young Rascals, an album that's still one of my all time favorites. Later that year (1967), he collaborated with Dowd and Jerry Wexler to create what can only be described as a soul masterpiece, Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. When her cover of Otis Redding's Respect was released as a single from the album, it changed everything, soaring to number one on both the R&B and Pop charts, and putting Atlantic squarely on top of the heap. Mardin joined Dorn as a vice-president of the company, and went on working with Aretha, producing unreal albums like Spirit In The Dark and Young, Gifted, And Black, not to mention her string of #1 hits. His influence on soul music cannot be overstated. He had an unerring sense for what worked and what didn't for each artist he produced.

You find his name on great records that you never realized he had a hand in (like Meet Me In Church!) all the time. In 1969 he worked with Wexler and Dowd on another of my 'desert-island discs', Dusty In Memphis. How cool was this guy?

When Joel Dorn began production on Roberta Flack's third album, Quiet Fire, in 1971, he brought in Mardin as an arranger. The album features more jazz session heavyweights like Hugh McCracken, Bernard Purdie and Grady Tate. Today's B side (the flip of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow) was co-written by Flack, Dorn and Jesse Jackson(!), and is an answer to the traditional spiritual Go Down Moses. It exhorts Black America to quit begging off Pharoah and just let HIM go. Powerful stuff, delivered in this kind of spooky 'night-tripper' groove that just keeps building... I love it! In one of those little known places that Arif Mardin turns up in, that's him and Dorn joining in the background vocals on here. WAY cool, man.

Mardin started working with Roberta's pal Donny Hathaway that same year, producing his self-titled second album for Atlantic. It seemed only natural then that Flack and Hathaway record together as a duet, with Arif producing. Two singles released in the latter half of 1971, You've Got A Friend and You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', would crack the R&B top 40. Atlantic followed them with today's single (which they of course already had in the can), and that made the top 40 as well.

In a bizarre Hollywood twist, Clint Eastwood used Roberta's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face from First Take in the soundtrack for his smash directorial debut Play Misty For Me. Atlantic promptly released it as a single, and it spent eight weeks at number one on the pop charts in early 1972. Not bad for a three year old album cut!

When Where Is The Love, the next installment of the Flack/Hathaway/Mardin collaboration was released, it ate up the charts as well, becoming the monster hit it remains to this day... the rest of that story is, as they say, history.

Arif Mardin continued on to even greater heights as Atlantic's 'hitmaker', and was the quiet genius behind great records by Hall & Oates, Laura Nyro, The Average White Band, The Bee Gees, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler and Willie Nelson to name but a few. After he "retired" from Warner Brothers/Atlantic in 2001, he became a vice-president at EMI's Manhattan/Blue Note label and produced a little album called Come Away With Me for Norah Jones, earning him four more Grammy awards to add to his collection. He would pick up another one the following year for his work with jazz singer Dianne Reeves, bringing his total to twelve...

When he died last week at age 74, we lost another of the great unsung heroes of American popular music. He was truly a remarkable man.