Monday, November 28, 2005

Art Neville - You Won't Do Right (INSTANT 3256)

You Won't Do Right

It was at the colossal, stupendous, incredible Meters show in Manhattan on Friday (more on THAT later on...), that I knew that today's B side post would attempt to pay tribute to the one and only "Poppa Funk" - Art Neville.

While still in High School, Art's band "The Hawketts" recorded a song at the WWEZ studios for disk jockey Ken Elliot, aka "Jack the Cat". Cut in one take, "Mardi Gras Mambo" was leased to Chess and became THE Carnival record of 1954. Alongside Professor Longhair's "Go To The Mardi Gras", it has become one of New Orleans' most enduring anthems.

The Hawketts became the hottest group in town, playing everywhere from High School proms to backing up Larry Williams on his swings through the South. Oddly enough, Chess would never record them again.

It was Harold Battiste, then working as A&R man for Specialty Records, who brought Art back into the studio in 1956. The resulting single, Oooh-Whee-Baby took off, and for the next year or so Neville was criss-crossing the country playing in rock & roll package shows with the likes of Lloyd Price and Little Richard.

In 1958 Specialty released "Zing-Zing", backed with something called "Cha-Dooky-Doo". It was the B side that would become the hit, with its groundbreaking distorted guitar sound (which actually was the result of guitarist Irving Charles' blown amp!). Art, meanwhile, had been drafted into the Navy, and first heard the record on the radio while suffering and shivering his way through boot camp up in Illinois.

While he was in the service, Specialty Records essentially gave up on New Orleans music and sold Art's contract to Joe Banashak's Instant label in 1961. It was here that he would do his first work with Allen Toussaint.

It was his second single for Instant, the timeless Toussaint composition "All These Things", that became a huge local hit in 1962 (watching Art perform it with Toussaint backing him on the piano at the Katrina Benefit thing from Madison Square Garden this past September gave me chills!).

Today's offering, the flip side of Skeet-Skat, was the follow-up record, released in 1963. I think it just rocks! I mean, check out the fat organ solo, the drums, the guitar, Toussaint's piano, that background vocal minor-key mantra thing... but mostly, just dig this man's voice! (I know a certain other A. Neville that gets a lot of press for his pipes and all, but I'll take Art any day!)

Banashak (Art has called him "one of those smiling dudes") released one more single on him that would make a little noise locally (the great "Lover of Love" on his Cinderella label), but for the most part his relationship with Neville was through. It was at this point that Art formed the Neville Sounds which were, of course, to become the mighty Meters (please see our post from a couple of weeks ago for this part of the story...)

After the breakup of The Meters in the late seventies, Art Neville gathered the family together and started The Neville Brothers. They would go on to become New Orleans' most recognized ambassadors of da groove, not only closing out Jazz Fest most years, but touring world-wide just funkin' it up!

In 1989 their critically acclaimed album Yellow Moon (produced by Daniel Lanois) propelled them to the next level (It seemed for a time there that you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing brother Aaron singing a duet with somebody or other...).

Meanwhile, Art was getting back to his funk roots, forming The Funky Meters (as close as he could get to the real deal without Zigaboo on the skins) as a side project, reaching a whole new generation of "jam band" types with his music.

The Neville Brothers released a series of uneven albums for a variety of labels during the nineties and, soon after the release of Valence Street in 1999, found themselves without a record contract. They were basically supporting themselves by playing lucrative corporate gigs but, after 9/11, even those began to dry up.

Late in 2001, Art Neville had serious back surgery that somehow went wrong. Muscles and nerves were damaged. He almost died. The doctors told him he would never walk again.

They didn't know Poppa Funk well enough.

Not only is he walking (although "kinda funny" as he puts it), but he's realized a lifelong dream in opening his own recording studio, "Neville-Neville Land", in New Orleans with his family. Their excellent 2004 album Walkin' In The Shadow Of Life was recorded there, and critics are calling it their best record since Yellow Moon.

The most incredible thing he's done, though, is to bring the original Meters back together! After years of arguments and back-biting, the good finally outweighed the bad. It was time.

As I said, I saw them perform Friday night at the Nokia Theater in NYC. GREAT GOOGLEY-MOOGLEY!!! I mean, I really can't find enough superlatives to convey to you how truly awesome they were! This was no old-timer's day reunion, this was a vibrant, happening band - even better than what I remembered from 29 years ago! each individual musician is, obviously, a master of his instrument, but it's the SYNERGY, the "sum of the parts" thing that just blows me away! They are talkin' to each other, they are listenin' again, they are actually having a great time doing it! YEAH YOU RITE!!

Art Neville will turn 68 next month.

He is a National Treasure.

Go See Him.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Jessie Hill - Ooh Poo Pah Doo Pt II (MINIT 607)

Ooh Poo Pah Doo - Part II

The importance of the disc jockey in the R&B market cannot be overstated. If a hot DJ liked your record and plugged it on the air, you were pretty much guaranteed a hit. The hottest DJ in New Orleans back in 1960 was a cat named Larry McKinley. Many's the R&B classic he "broke" on his show and sent on it's way to the top of the national charts (not the least of which was Ray Charles' "What'd I Say"). It was a stroke of brilliance when vinyl distributor Joe Banashak asked him to be a partner in his new label, MINIT records. Talk about air time!

In January of 1960, McKinley arranged to hold an open audition at WYLD studios as a way of scouting talent for the new company. That one night resulted in the signing of Benny Spellman, Aaron Neville, Allen Orange and Jessie Hill (Irma Thomas and Joe Tex also tried out but were still under contract to other labels). Allen Orange brought along a piano player to accompany him, one Allen Toussaint. He ended up playing behind most of the other folks who had shown up, and so impressed McKinley and Banashak that they asked him to be the new label's producer and arranger.

Jessie Hill was a drummer that had worked with such luminaries as Professor Longhair, Bobby Marchan, and Huey "Piano" Smith as well as with his own group, "The House Rockers" (Longhair claimed he was the only drummer who could keep up with him!). He brought a "raggedy" tape to the audition with him of a tune he had written that was just tearin' it up at his live gigs. That song was the immortal "Ooh Poo Pah Doo", and Minit decided to go with it. Toussaint produced the session, playing piano along with Jessie's regular band.

The record broke big in New Orleans, and absolutely buried poor Al Johnson's "Carnival Time" as the big Mardi-Gras record in 1960. After Banashak worked out a few kinks with national distribution, the song just ate up the R&B charts. Although it was the truly incredible Part 1 that was creating a disturbance in everyone's mind, and has become a perennial Carnival classic, it was today's B side, Part II, that crossed over to the pop charts and actually is listed as #28 in Billboard's Hot 100 for 1960 (I guess white America just wasn't ready for Jessie's vocals...)! This track provided the first national exposure of Toussaint's piano based productions and laid the groundwork for Minit's string of big hits. It also is one of the first recorded examples of true "9th Ward Music" - that infectious call and response funky thang that guys like Eddie Bo and Oliver Morgan (who jammed with Jessie as neighborhood kids) would run with so well.

In addition to good ol' Alvin Robinson on guitar, The House Rockers at this point also included the awesome David Lastie on sax, as well as future AFO Executives John Boudreaux on drums and Richard Payne on the bass. They went out on a national tour to support the record, making it as far as the famed Apollo Theater in New York City. Jessie had never seen that much money in his life, and apparently was blowing it as fast as it was coming in, without saving too much for the rest of the band. Before they even got back to New Orleans, the group had broken up for good. Minit released a few more singles on him, but Jessie never was able to match the success of his first hit.

In 1961 he discovered a young singer named Barbara George and brought her around to Harold Battiste's newly formed AFO records along with his brother-in-law, Lawrence "Prince La-La" Nelson. George went on to score the number 3 record on the pop charts that year, while La-La would become the stuff of New Orleans legend.

The following year Jessie left town on a tour with Joe Jones and just walked away, winding up in California. By the mid-sixties he was working with Battiste, Rebennack and the rest of the NOLA in exile crowd in L.A.. He had never stopped writing music, and teamed up with Rebennack to form a publishing company called "I Found It Music". They would hole up for days at a time and crank out tunes for Battiste's productions on ATCO and PULSAR. BMI lists Jessie as the author or co-author on 132 tunes covered by artists ranging from Sonny & Cher to Ike & Tina Turner to Paul Revere & the Raiders!

He teamed up with Shirley Goodman (of Shirley & Lee fame) to record some duets for Wand records (Jessie and Shirley also became founding members of Dr. John's "Night Trippers", appearing on the voodoo classic Gris-Gris), and released a few singles of his own on Pulsar and Chess, without much success. A universally panned album, "Naturally", was released on Blue Thumb records in 1972.

By the mid-seventies, Jessie's fortunes in California seemed to be on the decline (punctuated by a trip to jail and a stolen Cadillac), and in 1977 he returned home to New Orleans. Despite the occasional gig at Tipitina's and the annual dual-tambourine shakin' second line at Jazz Fest, Jessie wasn't doing much musically. He actually began operating a black Caddy nicknamed "The Poo Cab" as a way of making some money...

Some time in the eighties I saw a show upstairs at The Village Gate (now a CVS pharmacy...ugh!) in NYC; Dr. John along with Allen Toussaint and Jessie Hill... My, My! Toussaint on piano, Rebennack on guitar, and Jessie just brought down da house!

The 90s were some hard times for "Poo". Years of heroin addiction and booze began to take their toll. Despite a few benefits held for him around the Crescent City, there were reports that he was actually homeless for a while. When he died in 1996, Antoinette K-Doe made matching outfits for herself, Ernie, and Jessie (as pictured in the truly bizarre, only in New Orleans photo at right...). He left behind 14 children, and 50 grandchildren (one of whom, James Andrews, is following in his footsteps, making records with Allen Toussaint and Mac Rebennack!).

Jessie's Minit material is available on CD.

They called him The Most!

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Meters - Loving You Is On My Mind (REPRISE 1314)

Loving You Is On My Mind

In the late sixties, Art Neville started a group called "The Neville Sounds". In addition to brothers Charles and Cyril, the band boasted one of New Orleans' go-to session guitarists, Leo Nocentelli (think "Ya-Ya" and "Mother-In-Law"), along with a couple of neighborhood kids that were comin' up, George Porter Jr. on bass, and Joe "Zigaboo" Modeliste on drums. Their gigs at the Nitecap Lounge soon led to a regular job at the Ivanhoe Piano bar in the French Quarter. It was there, doing 3 and 4 sets a night, that they honed their skills and became the true progenitors of funk!

Allen Toussaint used to come down and listen with his new partner, former Fire/Fury promotion man Marshall Sehorn. They soon hired them (sans vocalists Cyril and Charles) as the 'house band' for their newly formed Sansu Enterprises. While in the studio backing up other artists, Toussaint suggested that they record some of the instrumentals they had worked out during their stint at the Ivanhoe. Changing their name to The Meters, the singles were released on Jubille subsidiary Josie Records. Much to everyone's surprise, "Sophisticated Cissy" and "Cissy Strut" went straight to the top ten on the R&B charts in 1969. The following year, "Look-A-Py-Py" and "Chicken Strut" climbed as far as #11... The Meters were on a roll!

In addition to more singles, Josie released 3 albums of their unique funky grooves, then promptly went out of business by the end of 1970. The Meters then signed with Warner Bros/Reprise and issued Cabbage Alley in 1972. The label seemed unfamiliar with the R&B market (especially in the South), and the record went nowhere. It was also around this time that Cosimo Matassa's fabled Jazz City Studios went bankrupt, leaving New Orleans without a decent recording facility. Toussaint and Sehorn, along with some heavy financial backing, worked out a deal and opened the state-of-the-art 'Sea-Saint Recording Studio' in 1973.

One of the first albums recorded at the new plant was Dr. John's In The Right Place, an incredible collaboration between Rebennack, Toussaint and The Meters. The record was a huge international success, which saw the Good Doctor touring Europe in support of the album with Professor Longhair and The Meters in tow!

The studio began to get noticed, and in 1974 things started to happen. Dr. John's equally excellent follow-up album Desitively Bonnaroo was recorded as was Robert Palmer's Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, both with absolutely awe-inspiring backup provided by The Meters. This year also saw the release of The Meters' own Rejuvenation, one of the truly great albums of all time. A single from the record, Hey Pocky A-Way even made it into the Pop Top 40!

People like Paul McCartney and Paul Simon were suddenly knocking on Sea-Saint's door, looking to capture some magic of their own. The Meters opened for The Rolling Stones on their 1975 and 1976 tours, at which point Mick Jagger called them "the best mother-f#%king band on the planet".

Their next album Fire On The Bayou was released in late 1975, and once again just rocked da house!

My first Mardi-Gras was in 1976, and a local single released from the album "They All Ask For You" (Sansu 1014) was THE carnival song that year, blaring from every car radio and jukebox in New Orleans. When I got back to New York, I saw The Meters open for The Staple Singers at the late lamented Bottom Line. Talk about your basic life-changing experience!! I became their biggest fan.

1976 also saw the release of The Wild Tchoupitoulas, the all time classic Mardi-Gras Indian record, a tribute to Art Neville's uncle Big Chief Jolly's uptown rulers. In addition to The Meters, the album also featured Art's brothers Cyril (who had actually re-appeared on "Fire On The Bayou"), Charles and Aaron. While truly a great album, I believe it foreshadowed the end of The Meters and marked the beginnings of The Neville Brothers.

The uneven Trick Bag was released later that year, followed by the underwhelming New Directions in 1977. This was to be The Meters final album.

What happened? Essentially, like most music industry stories, it all came down to money... money and egos. Marshall Sehorn (considered by many as the Walter O'Malley of New Orleans music) stopped paying The Meters a dime, claiming they owed HIM for studio time at Sea-Saint, and that royalties from their record sales weren't enough to cover it (a lot of people, myself included, contend that he wouldn't even have HAD a studio if it weren't for them...)! Sansu Enterprises then actually claimed that they had the rights to the group's NAME, and that they couldn't continue to use it once they left their employment! (man!)

Needless to say, by the end of the decade The Meters had ceased to exist.

Much of their Josie material remained available under one re-package or another over the years (and has been heavily sampled by rap and hip-hop artists), but the Reprise records hit the cut-out bins, then remained out of print for the next 25 years! That is until SUNDAZED RECORDS (God bless their pea-pickin' little hearts) vowed that they will "...never rest until we've released every classic album ever recorded by The Meters!"

Today's selection, the B side of the mighty People Say comes from Rejuvenation. That piano... that guitar... go buy it!

Go buy Fire On The Bayou too, if only for the uber-funk of "Love Slip Upon Ya"... you won't be sorry!

NOW... why all of this long-winded spouting about some long defunct band? Because, dear readers, DEY BACK Y'ALL!!! That's right, after a triumphant reunion at this year's Jazz Fest, the ORIGINAL METERS have been touring this fall, and by all accounts they are JUST SMOKIN'!!

ANYWAY, they'll be playing at the brand new NOKIA Theater in NYC on November 25th... I am SO THERE!


Monday, November 07, 2005

King Floyd - Handle With Care (CHIMNEYVILLE 10202)

Handle With Care

In September of 1969, King Floyd had just about had it with the music business, and left Battiste, Rebennack et al to return to his native New Orleans and get a job in the Post Office. He had released an album on PULSAR ("A Man In Love") in 1967 that didn't do much, and was co-authoring some material for other artists (see last week's entry), but that wasn't puttin' no bread on the table. Floyd had written some lyrics, along with a bass line, for a new song that he submitted to Battiste, but was unhappy with the arrangement his people came back with ("...all pretty with the flutes and all of that in it..."). That was when he decided to head on home.

He shopped his tune around to some local artists without much luck. It was then that he came to the attention of the Creole Beethoven, Wardell Quezergue. Quezerque's NOLA record label had just folded, owing thousands of dollars in unpaid studio fees to Cosimo Matassa. He had worked out an arrangement with upstart MALACO records in Jackson, Mississippi that afforded him free studio time in exchange for exclusive rights on the music he produced there. Wardell, a true musical genius, would work out arrangements in his head, then rehearse the Malaco studio musicians until he felt they had it down. Once they recorded the instrumental backing tracks, he'd bring his stable of New Orleans talent up to Jackson in a rented school bus to lay down the vocals.

It was one of these artists, C.P. Love, who offered to give up his slot of studio time so that Floyd could record the song he had written back on the west coast. The vocals for "Groove Me" were recorded in one take, and the song was released as the B side of "What Our Love Needs". New Orleans disc jockey George Vinnett of WYLD flipped the record over and soon got the whole town rockin' and a boppin' to Quezergue's infectious funky beat. It wasn't long before ATLANTIC records was clamoring for distribution rights, and Floyd had a bona-fide monster hit on his hands with the number one record in the country, almost a year to the day after he left California (it would go on to top Billboard's 1970 R&B chart)!

In a way it was this sudden success that caused much of Floyd's superb subsequent output to be ignored. Although he would chart a few more times for Malaco's CHIMNEYVILLE label (most notably with "Baby Let Me Kiss You" in 1971 and "Woman Don't Go Astray" in '73), in many ways he is looked upon as a "one hit wonder".

Our current selection, the B side of the funked up "I Feel Like Dynamite", was released in 1974. This song, to me, is a true southern soul masterpiece, and shows the depth of Floyd's talents, not just as a singer, but as a songwriter as well. Quezergue's sparse guitar-driven Memphis-styled arrangement of the Malaco studio crew is just da bomb!

With that said, check out what MALACO has to say on the subject (both on the web and in the liner notes of their excellent box set, The Last Soul Company); "By 1974... Atlantic had not renewed their distribution option on Chimneyville, King Floyd had become difficult to work with, and Wardell Quezergue seemed to have lost his magic touch." (!) It seems to me more like they weren't makin' any money and were apt to overlook any of Floyd's compositions that didn't mimic the success of his first hit (for Dan Phillips' take on all of this, please check out the mighty Home of the Groove...).

A Greatest Hits album of Floyd's more obvious stuff is available, as is an excellent sampler of Wardell Quezergue's tenure at Malaco that was released last year (it appears that today's B side is even on there!).

King Floyd is still around today, and actually released an album on Malaco in 2000 - Old Skool Funk.

Groove me, baby.