Thursday, November 24, 2011

HooDoo U Think U R?

I was recently reading Offbeat, the monthly arts & culture magazine outta New Orleans (yes! I've gotten that silly that I paid for a subscription to keep up with the goings on half a continent away!)and came upon an extended obituary for Wardell Quezerque. His is a name that I'd never encountered till I start regularly reading Offbeat but looking over the testimonials included here from the likes of Dr. John (who's musical career started as guitar player in Wardell's band), and seeing his various accomplishments over a long and distinguished career, it became immediately clear that he was a major player on the NOLA music scene -- apparently in a league with the likes of Allen Toussaint when it came to writing, arranging and producing amazing, distinctive and often highly successful tracks.

Going over his discography, one that stood out immediately was Jean Knight, who's "Mr. Big Stuff" was a national pop hit that I remember from my college days -- funky as shizzle! With it's cannily syncopated bass, chicken scratch guitar and high steppin' drums it registered as archetypal "funk" in my teenaged brain. Having attained some little grasp of its place in the overall context of Afro American musical stylings passed it's obviously rooted in New Orleans' unmistakable rhythmic traditions (I'd like to say "unique" but as those traditions have been so influential, elements of that sound in fact permeate American musical culture).

Doing a little searching I found a couple Jean Knight titles that covered this period, covering a wide range of prices - from $4.83 to $30+. On further study it turned out that this was the same repertoire issued at various times with various cover art in various countries. As usual I opted for the bargain price (leaving me with more money to buy more music with!)

A few weeks later my "Mr. Big Stuff" CD arrived and I eagerly popped it on, being instantly entranced by the title track - every bit as spikily beat-driven and stark as I remembered. As the album proceeded...well, I found a mixed bag, at least for my tastes. A fair amount of weepy soul ballads, a number of songs that basically were "Mr. Big Stuff" knock offs and...some more sharp and spicy stunners!

I do understand that this sorta programming makes perfect sense for long playing product of the time -- you wanna make an album that takes you on a trip and moves from style to style with plenty of variety, changing tempos and moods and this does that quite nicely. As per the soundalikes -- well, pop music and R&B was a very singles-driven business, most especially on the indie label level. An artist started by cutting tracks for singles, that'd be released in succession with the hope of achieving a national or at least regional hit by the 3rd or 4th, at which point the label would compile the singles sides and record enough additional tracks to fill out an album. In the pop world the policy of biting the style is a time honored business strategm, in fact major labels have made fortunes following such policy - witness Columbia cloning the Snap! sound via C + C Music Factory and Whitney Houston via Mariah Carey in quick succession... and so on. was established policy to follow up a hit with a nominal rewrite of same -- and usually with great success. This is a strategm that DOES work well in the single market, on mainstream radio (again, MANY a superstar career is predicated on copying a preceding star's successes) -- but as part of an album, not so much.

Ultimately, if you're a funk fan, "Mr. Big Stuff" is something you'd likely wanna cherry pick via iTunes or Amazon digital or whatever other download service you favor. If you just dig vintage soul and treat this as a compilation -- either "Mr. Big Stuff" you'll find is the original album with bonus tracks (but the initial release was in fact a couple singles collected and supplemented with tracks recorded to flesh out a full album) -- you'll prolly enjoy the mix of booty shakers and ballans and find the copycat numbers as amusing and instructive.

Once I'd listened to this it made me pull out "The Best of Ann Peebles" and "The Best of Betty Wright" and I must say -- while I do dig the high points of Ms. Knight's album -- both of the former make for far more consistent listening. Peebles stays with mid-tempo material pretty much throughout -- always staying at a slow boil rather than kicking into heavier jams. But this is super soul-stirring with grooves provided by the same incredible house band and producer that created Al Green's classic material. Betty Wright is much more high octane, dirty-assed and rambunctious. Betty, infamously, was little sister of "Little Beaver," guitarist for the Florida-based studio musicians who eventually started recording and touring in their own right as KC and The Sunshine band. I also pulled out my copy of Betty's debut album -- and must report that it's less consistently pleasing.

Earlier this week I was blabbing with my dear old pal Glenn Morrow (Bar/None Records) talking about "Treme" and NOLA music and wound up talking about Jean Knight and Wardell Quezerque, and he mentioned that he'd snagged some great vintage NOLA soul and funk jams from an indie label called Tuff City. And checking that site ( clicked on "New Orleans" and saw that the first item listed is "Various Artists / Wardell Quezerque: Sixty Smokin' Soul Senders" which appears to be filled with amazing tracks! So you KNOW what I'm picking up next!

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