Dorthy Moore - Here It Is (Malaco 1029)
Here It Is
Please join me in saying goodbye to Carson Whitsett, who passed away on May 8th.
Carson grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. His older brother, Tim, had a band called The Imperials, and Carson kept bugging him to let him join. Tim told him that the only way he'd let him in is if he learned to play the Hammond B3. So he did. That band, which would later become known as The Imperial Show Band, would become one of the most popular acts in the south, and record a few highly collectable 45s for Ace, Epic, and Whitsett's own label, Rim. They were the first truly integrated touring act and, when Tommy Tate came on board as their featured vocalist, they were more in demand than ever. Chips Moman would offer them the job as the 'house band' at Stax (and later American), but they turned him down because they were doing so well on the road.
They were simply HUGE on the 'Fraternity Circuit', and were booked by a young guy named Tommy Couch who ran an agency named Campus Attractions at Ole Miss. He and his partner Wolf Stephenson became tight with the band and, when they teamed up with Couch's brother in law Mitchell Malouf to open a recording studio in the Whitsett's home town in 1967, the brothers were among the first to record there. Although nothing much came of those initial sessions, Tim opened an office in the same building as the studio in 1968, and everybody kind of hung out together.
Along with local personality George Soulé, Carson and fellow Imperial Show Band member Jerry Puckett began helping out, and playing behind local acts that booked studio time. Another friend of Tommy's, Jimmy Johnson (who would soon open up his own studio in Muscle Shoals), helped them figure everything out. As Malaco's own 'house band' began to take shape, with the addition of James Stroud on drums and Vernie Robbins on bass, things really started to happen up there on Northside Drive.
When Wardell Quezergue began driving up from New Orleans and drilling them on his complex, funky arrangements, they were suddenly out there on the cutting edge. The big record companies (like Atlantic) just weren't ready for Quezergue's innovative sound, and passed on the incredible Groove Me, King Floyd's timeless original composition. Undaunted, Couch and Stephenson released it on their own Chimneyville label. Atlantic ended up signing on as the distributor, as the record took the country by storm, spending a month at #1 R&B in late 1970. Tim Whitsett, meanwhile, took a tape of a song recorded by Jean Knight at the same session, and brought it to a friend of his up at Stax in Memphis. They agreed to release it, and Mr. Big Stuff did even better, spending 5 weeks at #1, and putting Malaco squarely on the map.
Oddly enough, Carson, who was still very much a part of the Malaco rhythm section at the time, wasn't playing on either of those cuts, as Wardell himself was on the B3. When Tim took a job working music publishing at Stax, he brought Carson up to replace the recently departed Booker T. Jones in a new version of the MGs in 1973. They released one solid album, but that was about it. Later that year, he was back at Malaco full time, actually releasing a single under his own name. Hard as it is to believe, the studio's initial flush of success in 1971 had by now run it's course and, although they continued to record and release records by King Floyd and others, nothing much was happening.
Dorothy Moore, a Jackson native, had come up singing Gospel in the New Stranger Home Baptist Church choir, and was winning talent show competitions at the Alamo Theatre while still in grammar school. After singing background vocals at local entrepreneur Bob McRee's studio in Jackson, he helped her form her own 'girl group', The Poppies, in 1966. Signed by Epic Records, their first recording, Lullaby Of Love, would reach #56 on the Billboard Hot 100 that Spring. Although remaining a popular performer locally, she continued to record at McRee's studio under various names for the next few years without much luck. Jerry Puckett had brought her to Malaco in 1971, as part of their team of back-up singers that also featured Fern Kinney and Jewel Bass.
Malaco had leased a few records by her to AVCO and GSF, and managed to crack the R&B top 100 themselves with a duet Dorothy did with King Floyd on Chimneyville, We Can Love (written and produced by the great Eddie Floyd). In 1973, they also recorded a Country song that had become a top 50 R&B hit for Joe Simon the year before, Misty Blue. With soaring string arrangements provided by Wardell Quezergue, and Carson Whitsett's ethereal piano (not to mention Dorothy's killer vocals), they were sure they had a hit.
Only nobody would touch it. Not one record company was willing to take a chance on it, fearing it wasn't right for the burgeoning 'disco era'. Finally, faced with looming bankruptcy and the consequent loss of the studio, Malaco released it themselves in November of 1975 (after old friend Jimmy Johnson talked them into letting him overdub his rhythm guitar on there). The record, of course, was simply a monster, climbing to #3 on the pop charts, and re-defining the seventies Southern Soul sound in the process. Today's great big greasy slab of funk was the B side of that awesome 45. Written by our man King Floyd (and a notoriously un-credited Teddy Royal), it was first released on Floyd as Chimneyville 446 in 1973. "Dorthy's" version we have here is better (a note on the mis-spelling of 'Dorothy' on the label... it's apparently a typo - although it's spelled that way on both sides of the record - as it was spelled correctly on the original release, before TK picked it up for distribution). Anyway, I'm not sure if it was recorded around the same time as it's A side, but I'm betting it was, as those sure sound like Wardell's horn charts. It's hard to believe this great song wasn't a hit on it's own, man! Check out Carson dropping that funky clavinet thang in between the bass and guitar parts... I love it.
Dorothy would go on to chart for the label throughout the seventies, with great records like Funny How Time Slips Away and I Believe You. After hitting the Gospel charts with a great album in 1986, she returned to R&B and is still active on 'the circuit' today. Dorothy has recently started up her own Farish Street Records label, which is committed to finally bringing the City of Jackson the recognition it deserves as a major player on the Southern R&B scene.
As Malaco's rhythm section evolved, Carson Whitsett remained it's one constant, developing the unique piano driven blues sound that would come to be identified with the label. In spite of the studio's decision to 'lacquer the hammers' on their piano in an attempt to accentuate the high end (which drove him nuts), he soldiered on, producing a body of work that is simply astounding.
Faced with yet another financial crisis in the early eighties, it was new label signee Z.Z. Hill that came to the rescue this time, when his Down Home became the biggest selling 'blues' album ever. Songs like Down Home Blues and Cheatin' in The Next Room were absolute R&B blockbusters, and once again became the benchmark for what Southern 'soul-blues' was supposed to sound like - thanks, in large part, to the work of Carson and the Malaco crew. As the label moved on to sign legends like Bobby Bland, Johnnie Taylor, and Little Milton, Whitsett worked with them all in re-inventing their sound for the eighties market, and making some of Malaco's best records in the process.
As Malaco shifted most of its recording to its newly acquired Muscle Shoals digs in the late eighties, Carson moved on to Nashville, where he became very much in demand. He had always been a songwriter, and began supplying hits for Country artists like Lorrie Morgan and John Anderson, while collaborating with two of the absolute coolest people on this earth, Tony Joe White and Dan Penn. He went on to work closely with 'new' Country star Kathy Mattea and her husband Jon Vezner, as well as working on his own material.
I didn't realize this until I started writing this post, but it was Carson who co-wrote (along with Dan Penn and Hoy Lindsey) the spine-tingling title track for Solomon Burke's 2002 Grammy winning Don't Give Up On Me. Wow. That same team would go on to work with Bobby Purify on his excellent 2005 effort, It's Better To Have It.
When Whitsett was diagnosed with brain cancer last year, his warmth and sense of humor remained intact. There is a very moving tribute posted by his family on YouTube, from which I have borrowed some of these excellent photographs. Please be sure to have a look.
Thanks for everything, Carson. May you rest in peace.