Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Robert Parker - All Nite Long (Part 2) (Ron 327)

All Nite Long (Part 2)

The centerpiece of this year's fabulous Ponderosa Stomp was the incredible performance of Wardell Quezergue's New Orleans Rhythm & Blues Revue.

Wardell has put together a tight band that's been playing his latest arrangements on various dates in the Crescent City (most recently at the French Quarter Fest). Along with featured vocalist Tony Owens, Sam Henry Jr. on keyboards, and Wardell's son on the bass, this horn heavy outfit has just been rocking the town. At the Stomp, the horn line was joined by the great Herb Hardesty and a host of other members of the local brass. If you were a musician in New Orleans that night, this was where you wanted to be.

The reason for that was a very rare appearance by the man who started it all, Dave Bartholomew. As the writer and producer of so many great Imperial sides throughout the fifties, he laid the groundwork for just about everything that was to follow (we'll talk more about all of that in a future post). When Allen Toussaint showed up and sat in on the Hammond Organ, and later spoke to the crowd about the importance of both Bartholomew and Quezergue, I felt truly honored to be there that night.

Jean Knight was also on the bill, and hearing her perform Mr. Big Stuff with the man whose arrangement took it all the way to #1 R&B in 1971 was just great. What blew me away, however, was the unannounced appearance of the legendary Robert Parker. Now 77 years old, I hadn't heard anything about him in years. Watching him tear into Barefootin' made me feel like I did almost forty years ago when I first heard it on the radio... really happy. This was truly a rare treat, man, and kudos go to the Mystic Knights for pulling it off.

As these things happen, I had just gotten a double dose of Robert Parker 45s laid on me before I left by my all-time favorite vinyl maven, Diggin' Dave of Illinois, so I figured it was time to check things out.

Parker came up idolizing Louis Jordan and decided to take up the saxophone in the Booker T. Washington High School Band. As he told Jeff Hannusch a few years ago, "Everybody I hung around with in my neighborhood played music - June Gardner, Huey Smith, Lee Diamond, Sugar Boy Crawford, Big Boy Myles, Danny White, and Irving Bannister. Guys like Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, and Professor Longhair would come to our neighborhood looking for musicians." That must have been some neighborhood, huh?

When Parker was eighteen years old, he sat in with Professor Longhair at The Caldonia Inn, and Fess hired him on the spot, taking him along on his regular gig at The Pepper Pot across the river in Gretna. This was the place where Mardi Gras In New Orleans was born, and where, as one of Longhair's 'Shuffling Hungarians', Parker has said he "learned the ropes". In 1949, Longhair made his first recordings (for the short-lived Star Talent label), and Parker was there. He was also there a year later when Fess signed with Mercury, reportedly just hours before he was approached by the young Ahmet Ertegun, who would record him for Atlantic anyway.

Parker next took up residency at the fabled Club Tiajuana in New Orleans, where he led the house band for over five years. "I was a showman." he said, "I walked the bar, took my horn out in the audience and played under the tables on my back..." (that's Robert pictured on the left, with fellow 'bar-walker' Lonnie Bolden on the right). He backed everybody that came through there, and became known as the 'go-to' tenor man in town. He did stints with Tommy Ridgley's Untouchables and Huey Smith's Clowns before going on the road with Eddie Bo in the late fifties. Bo had just waxed the seminal I'm Wise for Apollo Records, and included Parker in his touring band that went on to back other national acts like Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, and Big Joe Turner.

When Bo signed with Joe Ruffino's upstart Ric and Ron labels in 1959, he took Robert with him. Parker credits Eddie with helping him develop his own style, telling him "Do your own thing, man. Play what you feel." This red-hot cut we have here today is the B side of Parker's first release under his own name. According to John Broven, it was produced by dee-jay Larry McKinley, who shares writer's credit with Parker on the A side. Here on the B, however, you'll note that it's written by 'Parker-Bocage-Rebennack'. Bocage being, of course, Eddie Bo, and Rebennack none other than an eighteen year old Doctor John. That's him playing that wild electric guitar, which was his primary instrument in those days. You go, Max!

The fact that this same trio would go on to appear on so many of those classic Ric and Ron sides (like Don't Mess With My Man, Carnival Time, A Losing Battle, and Go To The Mardi Gras) is simply amazing. Parker signed with local promoter Percy Stovall around this time, and formed a band called Robert Parker and the Royals that backed up Stovall's other clients (like Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas and Chris Kenner) all along the gulf coast 'circuit'. After one more release on Ron, he signed on with old friend Dave Bartholomew on Imperial in 1962. This arrangement produced three singles, none of which went anywhere. By 1963, the bottom seemed to drop out of the New Orleans R&B scene, and Parker took a job as an orderly at Charity Hospital, while still playing whatever gigs came along.

When Wardell Quezergue started up his NOLA label in 1964, Parker began doing some session work for him. He remembered something the always entertaining Chris Kenner had said to the audience one night while he was playing behind him out on the road; "Hey everybody, get on your feet. You make me nervous when you're in your seats", and he began developing an idea for a song based on that. Wardell recorded Parker's Barefootin' in 1965, and used it as a demo to try and interest other artists in singing it. When nobody went for it, he finally released Parker's own version in the spring of 1966. It just took off, spending 17 weeks on the charts while going to #2 R&B (kept from the top slot by the mighty When A Man Loves A Woman), and breaking into the top ten Pop... Just a MONSTER of a song. In some ways, I don't think NOLA (or Parker himself, for that matter) was prepared for such overnight success, and they had a hard time keeping up with demand.

In any event, Parker was soon headlining at The Apollo, and would go on to dominate the label's releases from that moment on. As often happens, they were unable to duplicate that kind of smash, and managed to place only one more of Parker's eleven singles (Tip Toe) in the R&B top fifty the following year. Please be sure and check out Larry Grogan's excellent article on Parker's NOLA period over at the Funky 16 Corners.

As we've mentioned recently, NOLA went out of business when it got caught up in the collapse of Cosimo Matassa's Dover Records in 1968. By 1970, Parker was 'back on Bourbon Street' working in Clarence 'Frogman' Henry's band. He did some work with Allen Toussaint around this time as well, whose Sansu Productions leased a couple of singles to Shelby Singleton's family of labels. For more on that part of the story, please head on over to Dan Phillips' cozy Home Of The Groove. He would reunite with Wardell Quezergue for a few more singles on Island in the mid-seventies, most notably with A Little Bit Of Something (Is Better Than A Whole Lot Of Nothing) in 1974.

The continued popularity of the irresistible Barefootin' (it was used in a Spic 'n' Span commercial in 1983, and re-released in the UK in 1987) has kept Robert Parker's name in the public eye. It has also, in my opinion, contributed to the idea that he is little more than a 'one hit wonder'.

He is so much more than that.

Monday, May 21, 2007

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.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Irma Thomas - We Won't Be In Your Way Anymore (Canyon 31)

We Won't Be In Your Way Anymore


Well boys and girls, I'm back. Between Jazz Fest and The Ponderosa Stomp (not to mention assorted bars and dives) I saw some absolutely incredible performances down in New Orleans. None of them, however, could touch those given by the mighty 'Soul Queen', Irma Thomas.

Irma was born in Ponchatoula, Louisiana but was living in the big town with her family by the time she was in fourth grade. She was singing in the choir at the Home Mission Baptist Church, and won first prize in a local talent show before she was out of grade school. She began taking voice lessons, and actually recorded her school song with Chick Carbo by the time she was 13. Within a year, however, she was pregnant, and everything changed. By the time she turned 18, Irma was the mother of three, and a veteran of two failed marriages.

Working nights as a waitress at the Pimlico Club to try and make ends meet, she became friends with the leader of the house band, one Tommy Ridgley. Tommy asked her to get up and sing one night, and Irma just tore the house down. After the owner of the club fired her, Ridgley hired her as his featured vocalist. He brought her down to meet Joe Ruffino, the owner of the Ric and Ron labels, and he signed her up. Her first record for the company, the very cool Don't Mess With My Man, was a huge local hit, and would climb as high as #22 R&B nationally in May of 1960. Written by Dorothy LaBostrie (who had provided the lyrics for Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti' a few years before) and arranged by Ruffino's crack A&R team of Eddie Bo and Mac Rebennack, it just cooks. One more single for Ron would follow, A Good Man (which was written by Bo as well), but it didn't do much.

Joe Banashak, meanwhile, was kicking himself because he had passed on the young Ms. Thomas at his fabled Minit auditions that January. He somehow convinced Ruffino to let her go, and brought her in to work with his resident genius, Allen Toussaint. Great records like Cry On and I Done Got Over It would follow, before Allen wrote what would become her signature tune, It's Raining. Although all of these singles were getting local airplay in New Orleans, they weren't doing much outside of the city limits (as legend has it, Otis Redding heard Irma's recording of Toussaint's Ruler Of My Heart on the radio while he was down there and took it back to Memphis. After changing 'Ruler' to 'Pain', his version would spend some 11 weeks on the R&B charts, while Thomas' died on the vine...) When Banashak sold Minit to Imperial in early 1963, he apparently kept the rights to Irma's output, and re-issued it in various forms on his Bandy label for years to come.

Those were heady days in the record business, as the independent 'record men' were all looking for their chance to 'cash in'. Such was the case with Lew Chudd, who would sell Imperial (along with the newly acquired Minit label) to the west coast based Liberty Records later that year. Better promotion and distribution led to Irma's biggest chart success ever, when a song she wrote herself went to #17 R&B in the spring of 1964. Wish Someone Would Care still holds up as one of her most loved works, and was originally arranged and produced as a demo by old friend Sax Kari.

The follow-up record, Anyone Who Knows What Love Is would climb as high as #52 R&B that summer, but it's the B side of that single that gets all the attention today; a little number called Time Is On My Side, which was originally written by Jerry Ragovoy for Kai Winding in 1963. Arranger H.B. Barnum had pulled out all the stops - hiring New York songwriter Jimmy Norman to flesh out the lyrics and Allen Toussaint to oversee the production, he would create a masterpiece. The rest, as they say, is history, as The Rolling Stones would make it their first top ten hit in October, 1964. Irma's next single, Times Have Changed, barely cracked the top 100, and the title seemed to say it all. Imperial seemed unsure of what to do with her at this point and, after actually hiring James Brown to produce her (a move which Irma says resulted in her 'worst record ever'), they declined to renew her contract in 1966.

She was signed by Leonard Chess in 1967, and sent down to Muscle Shoals to record at Fame. Chess had been getting great results down there with Etta James and Laura Lee, and thought that Irma would be a perfect fit. She was, producing three great singles for the label. According to Thomas, Chess also wanted to manage her, and take 25% off the top of her earnings. She had been a 'road warrior' for years at that point, carrying her own band to chitlin' circuit clubs all over the south, and wasn't about to agree to those terms. Chess apparently lost interest after that and her cover of Otis Redding's Good To Me would be her last recording for the company. Despite a lack of promotion, it would reach #42 R&B in early 1968, which would turn out to be her last chart appearance.

At this point, Irma decided to concentrate on family, moved out to the west coast and got a 'day job'. Although still performing in local clubs, not much else was on the horizon.

Wally Roker had come up as a member of Shep & the Limeliters, and worked A&R for Wand/Scepter in New York for years. After moving to Los Angeles himself, Roker set up his own Canyon label and Irma Thomas would become his first 'big' artist signing in 1969. Her first single, That's How I Feel About You, was written and produced by Maurice Dollison, and didn't do much. At this point, Roker hired the legendary Swamp Dogg (aka Jerry Williams, Jr.) as his right hand man. Williams had been under contract to Atlantic both as an artist and producer, and felt his talents were being wasted at the big company. In addition to his monumental work with Doris Duke at Canyon, today's cool selection shows just how great Swamp was during this period. Written (with Troy Davis), produced, and arranged by Williams, this awesome B side managed to recapture all of Irma's fire, and was right on the money for the dawn of the 1970s. I'm loving that lead guitar! Due to the lack of any real national distribution, neither this side nor the flip (another great Swamp tune, I'd Do It All Over You) made the charts, and it wasn't long before Canyon ran out of steam. Irma would have one more release for Roker (on a subsidiary label he named after himself), before the company went bankrupt in 1971.

She would sign with Atlantic later that year, and they sent her down to Malaco to record with the great Wardell Quezergue, whose syncopated funky sounds were ruling the airwaves at the time (think Groove Me and Mr. Big Stuff). Perhaps it was Jerry Wexler's exalted opinion of Full Time Woman (he has said that it was his all-time favorite Irma Thomas record) that relegated the cookin' She's Taken My Part to the B side of her lone Cotillion release, I don't know. In any event, neither side charted, and the 17 other tracks Atlantic cut on her that year remain unreleased to this day! (although Full Time Woman was included in the great Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Sisters last year).

By 1973, Irma was back working with Swamp Dogg, who had formed his own label by then - the interestingly named Fungus. Three great singles would follow, along with the very collectable LP In Between Tears. The highlight of all of this was Irma's 12 minute monologue 'rap' Coming From Behind, in which she just lays it all out as the prologue to a retake on her old chestnut Wish Someone Would Care. Great stuff, man!

After a failed reunion with Allen Toussaint at a latter day Sansu (the only release being a shoddy recording of her 1976 Jazz Fest appearance which she still considers a 'bootleg'), the remainder of the decade saw her recording for local Louisiana labels like Maison De Soul and RCS. Produced by folks like John Fred and Dan Penn, her RCS album Safe With Me collected the best of those singles in 1979. The great Kent CD A Woman's Viewpoint - the Essential 1970s Recordings gathers most of her output from those stormy years (except, of course, the Cotillion sides) into one place, and is a must have.

As the eighties dawned, Irma had settled down to a comfortable living with her husband Emile Jackson, singing commercial jingles for radio and TV, and playing gigs in local Crescent City clubs. As Rounder Records became interested in all things New Orleans, she would sign with them in 1986 and began her twenty year affiliation with producer Scott Billington. Great albums like The New Rules and The Way I Feel still hold up today as some of her best work. She and Emile would open up their own club, The Lion's Den, and tour extensively in support of the albums with her crack band, The Professionals. In addition to seeing them at Jazz Fest every year, I would catch them whenever they came through New York. I'm a huge fan.

Like everybody else, I watched in horror as the levees gave way in August of 2005. Irma was on tour in Austin when Katrina hit, and although she lost everything in both her home and club, she vowed to rebuild. I remember watching her on the pay-per-view benefit thing from Madison Square Garden, and thinking that she looked heartbroken. Relocating temporarily to Gonzales, Louisiana she recorded her latest Rounder release, the aptly titled After The Rain, and released it in time for Jazz Fest last year. This great record would win her a long overdue Grammy, and finally earn her the international respect she so richly deserves.

Her vibrant performance on the big stage at Jazz Fest this year seemed to exude a whole new level of confidence, as if she had truly 'stepped into the role' of Soul Queen once and for all. As good as that was though, it was her tribute to Mahalia Jackson in the Gospel Tent that just knocked me out. Good God, this lady can sing! Her soaring rendition of Precious Lord gave me chills, man, and is a moment I will not soon forget.

All Hail The Queen!


Just a word here on the state of things in New Orleans.

While it did my heart good to see all the restaurants (like two of my all-time faves Mandina's and The Camellia Grill) back in action, and all of the music going on in the clubs and everything, a trip into the poorer neighborhoods revealed little improvement from last year. Nobody seems sure about what's going to happen here, as the fight continues on to save places like the Lower Ninth Ward from the bulldozer.

The Insurance Companies, meanwhile, are refusing coverage to those who want to rebuild (or charging exorbitant rates nobody can afford to pay, which amounts to the same thing), and driving people away. I'm not one of these 'doom & gloom' guys, and as more and more folks return home everyday there's a lot of good news, but there's still some serious problems to overcome.

A case in point is that of Crescent City good time ambassador Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson. Al lost his house, and everything in it (including his Hammond organ), in the Lower Ninth. As his name implies, Al's the man that gave us the eternal Mardi Gras classic Carnival Time in 1960. He's put together an enhanced CD that includes his new composition Lower Ninth Ward Blues, as well as some stark photos of just how hard he got hit by Katrina. The package is being sold as a fundraiser by Patty Lee Records at the Louisiana Music Factory. Please consider buying one and helping Al out.