musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Allen Toussaint’

New Orleans Legends You May Have Never Heard


I recently picked up a compilation of 1960s recordings by Betty Harris titled The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul. That’s a bold claim, considering all of the great music that has come from that musically-endowed city, but Harris is so good that she does indeed deserve such a moniker. All of the songs on this 17-song collection were written and produced by Allen Toussaint, the legendary singer-songwriter and pianist-producer who sadly passed away about this time last year (a few songs are credited to Naomi Neville, but that’s an alias that Toussaint used for a few years when he was in legal limbo. That was also his mother’s maiden name!).

In addition to Toussaint’s magic touch, the other special ingredient on these songs — recorded from 1965 to 1969 — is the backup band; none other than another legend of New Orleans music, the mighty Meters. But the real highlight is Betty Harris herself. She was a bold soul sister before such a classification even existed. Imagine a sassy, sultry, funky cross between Tina Turner and Irma Thomas, and that’s close to what Betty Harris sounds like. Good for your soul, indeed!


Oddly, Betty Harris never released a full album all those years ago. Most of these songs were released as singles on the Sansu label, but none were ever big hits, and her career stalled. After a national tour with Otis Redding and Joe Simon — curtailed by the tragic plane crash that killed Otis — in 1967, Harris recorded a few more songs with Toussaint but in 1970 she decided to retire from the music business and start a family. But the story doesn’t end there. Betty Harris is still alive and singing, and since 2005 she has resumed performing again.


Also on the subject of the Crescent City, I’ve been listening to The Domino Effect, an album from veteran New Orleans musician, Herb Hardesty. For many years Hardesty was the saxophone player in Fats Domino’s band. He also played sessions and went on tours with many other recording artists, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and even Tom Waits. He recorded a solo album himself, back in 1958, but that album was never released … that is until four years ago, when Ace Records finally put out that album along with some other sessions that Hardesty recorded in the early 1960s. The Domino Effect is a mostly instrumental collection that showcases Hardesty’s vibrant sax playing. With song titles such as “Sassy”, “Rumba Rockin’ With Coleman”, “Herb’s in the Doghouse”, “Feelin’ Good”, “Bouncing Ball”, “Beatin’ and Blowin’”, and “The Chicken Twist” you can pretty much guess that this is one very upbeat and fun set of songs. Plenty of rockin’ R&B with some nifty jazz and blues flourishes.

Herbert Hardesty acknowledges the audience in the Blues Tent during his set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest Saturday, April 27, 2013.(Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune)

Herbert Hardesty acknowledges the audience in the Blues Tent during his set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest Saturday, April 27, 2013.(Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune)

In an earlier version of this story I was going to mention that, like Betty Harris, Herb Hardesty is also still alive and still playing shows, but sadly he passed away earlier this month, on December 3, at the age of 91. But even in his advancing years, Hardesty was still playing live shows around New Orleans, including an enthusiastically received set at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. They say that music keeps you young and I’m a strong believer in that adage.

Meanwhile, here are the other albums I’ve been playing on a daily basis and keeping me company on those lonely nights lately:


Various Artists – Urgent Jumping: East African Classics

Wilco – Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracsk 1994-2014

Ramones – Too Tough To Die

4th Coming – Strange Things 1970-1974

Dan Penn – Close To Me: More Fame Recordings



The Monkees – Good Times!

Cannonball Adderley – What Is This Thing Called Soul: Live in Europe

Parquet Courts – Human Performance

Various Artists –Come Back Strong: Hotlanta Soul 4

Sneaky Feelings – Positively George Street



Milk ‘N’ Cookies – Milk ‘N’ Cookies

Jimbo Mathus – Dark Night of the Soul

Baby Huey – Living Legend

Michael Carpenter – Hopefulness

Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues



John Prine – For Better or Worse

The Edge of Darkness – Eyes of Love

The Fantastic Four – The Lost Motown Album

Sunburst – Ave Africa

David Crosby – Lighthouse



Dieuf-Dieul de Thies – Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2

Various Artists – Celestial Blues

The Independents – Just As Long: The Complete Wand Recordings 1972-74

Santana – Santana IV

Dexter Johnson – Live At Letoile



The Flat Five – It’s a World of Love and Hope

Robert Ellis – The Lights From the Chemical Plant

Waco Brothers – Freedom and Weep

Various Artists – Super Funk Volume 4

Various Artists – Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Dancers: Vol. 2



Various Artists – The Afrosound of Colombia: Vol. 1

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Songs: Ohia – Magnolia Electric Company (Deluxe Edition)

Hank Ballard – You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down

Bill Lloyd – Lloyd-ering



Various Artists – Afterschool Special: The 123s of Kid Soul

Arthur Alexander – The Monument Years

Danny & the Champions of the World – Danny & the Champions of the World

Close Lobsters – Firestation Towers 1986-1989

Stiff Little Fingers – Original Album Series (5-CD Box)



Orlando Julius – Super Afro Soul

Johnny Clarke – Ruffer Version

Black Heat – Black Heat

Nada Surf – Live in Brussels

Various Artists – Senegal 70


Sorrow in the Music World

After the recent deaths of David Bowie and Glen Frey, I was going to write something about this disturbing surge in grim reaper visits that has occurred in the music world in the past couple of months. But just when I start to compose my thoughts and write something, yet another noted musician passes away and I have to revise what I’ve written.

A few months ago we lost Wilton Felder from the Crusaders (a band I like quite a lot), and then Lemmy from Motorhead (never was a fan, but I loved reading about the guy — what a character!), the great soul singer Otis Clay, the “unforgettable” Natalie Cole, P. F. Sloan (the underrated singer-songwriter who was perhaps better known for the song written about him than the actual songs he wrote!), and another fabulous singer-songwriter, Billy Joe Royal. Even one of Gladys Knight’s backup singers in the Pips passed away last month. In the past two weeks we’ve lost a couple of more notable musicians: Paul Kantner from Jefferson Airplane (and yes, Jefferson Starship too) and Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire. White and his group were one of the most popular acts in the business from the mid 1970s until the mid 1980s. Earth, Wind and Fire were also one of the few acts that could appeal to such a wide range of listeners: Black and White to Hispanic and Asian, they were a true crossover act.


I haven’t resorted to wearing black or gone into mourning as a result of all these deaths, and yet I feel a deep sense of sadness and sorrow lately. These are all singers and bands that I grew up with and listened to for many years. They’ve been a big part of my life. For some reason Bowie’s death really unsettled me, and I’m not even one of his diehard fans. Nevertheless, I do enjoy his music and own nearly ten of his albums, so maybe I’m a mid-range fan. Besides his considerable talents as a recording artist and performer, Bowie was one of those guys who aged so gracefully, almost as if he’d been sipping from that proverbial fountain of youth, that I could never fathom him getting old and dying. Hell, so much for that fantasy.


Of all the recent deaths, though, the one that hit my hardest was the passing of Allen Toussaint back in December. Toussaint was one of my musical heroes, a man that accomplished so much as a singer, songwriter, musician, and producer, but one who never received the mainstream recognition that he so justly deserved. I won’t rehash all his accomplishments on this page — if you are really curious, do an online search and read all about this amazing gentleman — but suffice to say that the words “genius” and “legend” both apply to Allen Toussaint.


Another death last month that didn’t receive a lot of headlines was that of Clarence Reid. Reid was a recording artist who recorded a few songs for Miami’s Deep City label in the 1960s, but he was mostly a very prolific songwriter for several decades. He wrote songs — some them actual hits — for the likes of Betty Wright, Sam and Dave, Irma Thomas, Dusty Springfield, Gwen McCrae, and even KC and the Sunshine Band. If you want to hear the evidence of what a talented singer and songwriter that Reid was, check out the Eccentric Soul: Outskirts of Deep City compilation that the Numero Group released a few years ago. It includes two songs by Reid, plus twelve other tunes that he wrote or co-wrote. Clarence Reid’s music qualifies as classic soul indeed. But Reid’s biggest claim to fame, if you want to call it that, was his musical alter-ego, Blowfly. To call Blowfly “outrageous” or even “nasty” would be an understatement. Not only was Blowfly a sight for sore eyes — dressed as some sort of wacked-out caped crusader — he was a shock to the ears as well thanks to his bawdy songs. As Blowfly, Reid recorded dozens of “party” albums, starting with The Weird World of Blowfly in 1971 and ending with Black in the Sack in 2014. These records, highlighted by sexually suggestive lyrics and plenty of profanity, punctuated by funky beats, escaped the attention — and wrath — of mainstream music listeners (no, he never made Casey’s Top 40), but among the black community in the United States, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, Blowfly was an enormously popular recording artist.



And earlier this week I was stunned to hear about another sudden passing, that of Colin Vearncombe, the singer better known as Black. If that name still doesn’t ring bell, Black was the guy who sang “Wonderful Life,” one of the most glorious and captivating songs of the late 1980s. I have the 1987 album that includes that song, as well as his self-titled album from 1981. They are both excellent recordings, full of melodic songs with sharp hooks, all transported by Black’s effervescent vocals. It’s a shame that he wasn’t a bigger name.


Damn, the passing of all these musicians is making me feel very old, not to mention very much mortal all of a sudden.

Jesse Winchester Tribute

One of the most gifted singer-songwriters in American music, yet one of the most unrecognized over the past several decades, is Jesse Winchester. His songs have been covered by the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, Wilson Pickett, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Ian Matthews, Nicolette Larsen, the Everly Brothers, and many others. Winchester is a talented performer in his own right and recorded several highly acclaimed solo albums. Back in the 1970s, a review in Rolling Stone magazine even called him “the voice of the decade.” Yes, he’s that good.  


Winchester has always comfortably straddled different musical styles, from folk and country to pop and R&B, but he never really broke out of the “critic’s favorite” corner and achieved mass success. One problem for him was the inability to play shows in his native United States during the prime of his career. For most of the 1970s, Winchester could not even set foot in the USA due to his status as a draft resister. In 1967 he had fled to Canada to avoid the US draft, and a subsequent stint in the Army, which at that time would have meant fighting in the Vietnam War. You have to admire someone like Jesse Winchester who stuck to his principles and refused to join the ranks of those fighting in yet another ill-thought US-led war. Even to this day, there are frightening numbers of misguided people who still believe they are “protecting people’s freedoms” by going off to war and fighting for their native country. The government, of course, loves subservient mindless patriots like that. I could go on and on about such patriotic nonsense, but I’ll save that diatribe for another day.


Winchester’s decision to move to Canada, naturally, was a big, big deal at the time. Being a notorious “draft evader” caused him no small amount of grief and verbal abuse and there were more than a few idiots who accused Winchester of not being patriotic, or worse. It wasn’t until 1976, after receiving amnesty from the government, that Winchester was able to return to the US and finally tour for the first time. But by that time, the golden era of the singer-songwriter had started to fade, and Winchester’s relatively gentle tunes were overpowered by the onslaught of the disco craze and the rise of pop-rock bands like Fleetwood Mac and Boston.


After his impressive run of studio albums in the 70s, and the solid Talk Memphis in 1981, Winchester lost his major label recording contract and has only recorded a handful of albums since then. Last year Winchester was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and the outlook looked grim indeed, but after undergoing radiation treatments and surgery he has been given a clean bill of health by doctors and is once again playing live club dates. Excellent news!


To help pay for Winchester’s medical care, his buddies Jimmy Buffett and Elvis Costello came up with the idea of doing a tribute album. The result is Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester, an excellent 11-song collection of tunes from James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Vince Gill, Mac McAnally, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Little Feat, Costello, and a duet from Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. That’s as stunning a collection of living musicians as it gets, and if that doesn’t get you excited, you just don’t recognize good music. But due to changes in the music industry, not to mention the aging of the music-buying population, the release of an album chock-full of big names like this has barely made a ripple. I only found out about it while surfing online late one night. Whoa … what’s this!? The fact that the CD was released on a small label, Mailboat Records, doesn’t help matters either.

If you’ve heard Jesse Winchester’s music in the past, it should come as no surprise that his songs positively shine in the hands of the gifted artists on this collection, all of whom are devoted fans of Winchester. In Bill Flanagan’s excellent liner notes for the album he writes: “Elvis Costello points out that it is quite remarkable how every song on this collection fits the style of each singer so well that you could swear he or she wrote it.”

And that’s definitely the case. These artists take Winchester’s songs and put a distinctive personal stamp on them. Listen to Rosanne Cash easing into “Biloxi”, Lyle Lovett’s distinctive take on “Brand New Tennessee Waltz”, or Lucinda Williams putting everything she has into “Mississippi You’re On My Mind.” This is beautiful, emotionally powerful music. My favorite cut on the album is Mac McAnally’s tender cover of “Defying Gravity,” a song that Jimmy Buffett also recorded many years ago on his wonderful Havana Daydreamin’ album.

Tribute albums can often be hit and miss affairs, but each and every song on Quiet About It is a winner. Track this one down and buy it … and enjoy it!


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