Willie West - Fair Child
Back in 2002 I grabbed a copy of the ‘Crescent City Funk and more…’ comp on the UK Grapevine label. I addition to having a number of tracks I hadn’t heard it had been put together by Garry Cape and had liners by Jason Stirland, two cats who know what they’re talking about when it comes to old soul and funk. There were lots of NOLA rarities, and some previously unreleased cuts (including Eldridge Holmes ‘Ooh Baby’ which held special interest for me). The track on the comp that really hit me though was ‘Fair Child’ by Willie West. West was a dude with some serious history behind him, having recorded for a number of New Orleans labels through the 60’s (including Frisco and Deesu). His ‘Hello Mama’ on Deesu is a mid-60’s New Orleans classic with a great vocal by West and some of that rolling Toussaint piano. ‘Fair Child’ which I’d never heard of before was an Allen Toussaint composition /arrangement/ production and a mind blower. It featured West’s soulful vocals over a spare, haunting background, featuring bass, drums, organ and acoustic guitar. The record was like almost nothing else I’d heard from the pen/studio of Allen Toussaint (with the exception of Eldridge Holmes’ epic reading of ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ on Deesu, which seems to feature the same guitarist). The tune creeps in like a bayou fog, insinuating, building slowly with a laid back country funk. The acoustic guitar accents are really unusual and the drums manage to be crisp, restrained and funky at the same time. I instantly started to track down a copy of the record, but it proved elusive. It was like a monkey on my back for years, taunting me now and again in Ebay auctions where I wasn’t bidding high enough to bring home the bacon (or vinyl as the case may be). I eventually scored a copy from a seller after a high bidder didn’t pay up (heh, heh…). When the 45 finally dropped through the mail slot, and found its way onto my turntable, I was in for quite a surprise. About six seconds into the 45 a horn section dropped in, and then additional rhythm guitar. It was soon obvious that the mix on the 45 (at least the copy I had) was a much funkier affair than the cut on the compilation. The differences were fairly radical, and took some getting used to. The dark atmosphere of the first version (aside from the lyrics) was replaced by and large by syncopated funk and the record became a much more danceable/upbeat number with a fuller sound. I did some asking around from folks who should know, and was unable to get a definitive answer, though the consensus seems to be that what appeared on the Grapevine comp was an unissued take of the 45 (if anyone knows for sure, please let me know). There’s always the possibility that there was a local issue of the 45 with the different mix, but no one seems to know if it exists (and I can’t think of any other Toussaint/Josie product that came out locally first). Either way, both versions are worth hearing. Listen to the compilation version first, and then the 45 mix, and let me know which one you dig. ‘Fair Child’ is another irrefutable example of the genius of Allen Toussaint. It’s also an example of another absolutely brilliant record that didn’t really get any notice outside of New Orleans. I can’t really think of another musical auteur (writer / arranger/ producer/ performer) that made as many great records of consistently high quality that mainly played in a regional market. Certainly Toussaint wasn’t/isn’t hurting for money, but c’mon…The critics that get in line to build memorials to Burt Bacharach ought to spread some of that love down Louisiana way. As amazing as Bacharach was, Allen Toussaint is his equal – or superior – in every way. Like Bacharach, Toussaint seemed to “write records” more than just songs. His productions and arrangements are as much a part of his songs as what’s down on the sheet music and it’s hard to imagine many of his records reaching the levels of sophistication they do in anyone else’s hands. Unlike Bacharach, Toussaint rarely broke through to the pop mainstream and his songs, as amazing and memorable as they are do not occupy a large segment of the American musical consciousness. The time is long since past for some intrepid label to put together a comprehensive (at least five or six disk) survey of Toussaint’s work from 1960 to the mid-70’s with serious annotation and remastering. There have been smaller (no less admirable) tributes, most notable the recent RPM release ‘The Toussaint Touch’ (which includes ‘Fair Child’) and Sundazed Record’s ‘Get Low Down’ survey of his work with the Sansu and Amy/Mala labels, but neither of these really do justice to the awesome span of his career, working with nationally known artists like Lee Dorsey and stunning local singers like Diamond Joe and Wallace Johnson.