Thursday, February 13, 2014

John Williams & The Tick Tocks - Operation Heartache (Sansu 459)

Operation Heartache

Back in 1976, I experienced my first Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I would never be the same.

As I've mentioned before, The Meters' They All Ask'd For You was the Carnival Song that year, and you heard it everywhere you went. As soon as I got back home to New York, I went out and bought the album that single was taken from, Fire On The Bayou. When I saw the Meters live at The Bottom Line shortly after that, there was no turning back, I was hooked on 'Dat Fonk!.

My friend Bernie (all-knowing and all-wise) then turned me on to an album called The Wild Tchoupitoulas, which featured The Meters along with Aaron, Charles and Cyril Neville (an album that would foreshadow the formation of The Neville Brothers a year later). The phenomenal opening cut on that record was about a slain Mardi Gras Indian Chief who 'died on the battlefield', Brother John.

Now seriously on the trail of all things New Orleans, a few years later I bought an import LP named Sehorn's Soul Farm. I don't think I can adequately explain what that record did to me. It cracked me open like an egg... I never knew this kind of music existed, man. The album focused on Allen Toussaint (who had produced the two aforementioned albums) and the mid-sixties Sansu, Deesu and Tou-Sea 45s he produced (according to a guy named John Broven, who had written the liner notes) " Cosimo Matassa's now defunct studio in the French Quarter."

One of the best tracks on that album, Blues, Tears and Sorrow, was by someone I had never heard of named John Williams. I played it over and over...

When the selfsame John Broven asked me to work with him on The Cosimo Code Project many years later, it was the sheer power of that music that convinced me I had to accept. There are those that say "Oh, that Cosimo Code thing ate Red Kelly..." and maybe they're right. I have devoted countless hours to the site (just ask my wife!) but, in many ways, it has been its own reward. Never more so than when we were asked to host John Williams' life story as told by his daughter Deborah. Talk about the interconnectedness of all things!

I don't want to spoil the story for you (I'd much rather that you read it for yourself), but as it turns out, John was adopted by a street-performing Gospel singer named Adelle Williams when he was only five days old. Steeped in the music, his mother told him "You are meant to sing!" While still a teenager, he was picked up by Huey 'Piano' Smith to lead his Clowns on the eternal Rocking Pneumonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu. Once The Clowns broke up (for one reason or another) John formed his own group out of the ashes and called them The Tick Tocks. An absolute fixture at The Dew Drop Inn, they were wildly popular for their antics on stage. After a couple of 45s in the early sixties for Bobby Robinson that withered on the vine, Bobby's erstwhile partner Marshall Sehorn signed them to Sansu, a new venture he had formed with Allen Toussaint. According to Mr. Fine Wine, Toussaint and Williams were old friends, who had some kind of 'trampoline and high-diving acrobatic act together...' Imagine?

When this great B Side we have here was cut in 1966, it was prime time at Cosimo's down on Governor Nicholls, and Toussaint was firing on all burners. He had used Tick Tock Walter Washington's guitar the year before to help propel Lee Dorsey's Ride Your Pony into the Top 40, and uses it here to great effect as well. Love that baritone sax, baby! Toussaint liked the track so much that he used it as the flip of Dorsey's top ten R&B smash Holy Cow (with Lee's vocals taking the place of John's) later that year. As the Louisiana Weekly article at left from early 1967 shows, Williams and The Tick Tocks were right there in the thick of things during 'The Soul Era' in New Orleans, and part and parcel of one of Allen Toussaint's most creative periods.

To hear from his daughter that John Williams was also 'Big Chief' of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe he founded, The Apache Hunters, was amazing enough, but to find out (after 38 years) that 'Brother John' was written about his tragic death just floored me... incredible! (Please be sure to check out Deborah's great retrospective of her father over on The Cosimo Code...)

Looking back, it had been Williams' tenacious spirit and personality that had run like a thread through my ongoing love affair with New Orleans, a city I have visited so many times that I've lost count. That ineffable aura of hoodoo and mystery... the quivering sensation of centuries of ghosts walking beside me on unknown streets - it still grabs me every time.

My oldest daughter is turning eighteen next month. I offered to take her on vacation during the upcoming 'Presidents Week' school holiday. "Where do you want to go?" I asked her. "New Orleans," she replied without hesitation.

My work here is done...