Friday, January 27, 2006

Willie Harper - You You b/w Soda Pop (plus Lee Calvin)

Happy Friday my peeps! I could not be more pleased that the (work) week is coming to an end. I needs me some more sleep, and relax-a-ma-cation and must set aside a few hours to sit-my-ass-down-ism and put-my-big-feet-up-ness. You know how it is. In the last 6 months I’ve made a few crucial strides toward completing my collection of all the 45s on the Sansu label. If you’ve been reading, you know I have a taste for the sounds of New Orleans, and especially the sounds created by Mister Allen Toussaint. As I’ve laid out numerous times here an over at the Funky16Corners web zine, Toussaint really was the “complete package”. His mastery of songwriting, arranging, producing and (last but certainly not least) performing was unparalleled. There were others that did all those things, but not on a level approaching the work in Toussaint’s curriculum vitae. Going back to his first releases as Al Tousan in the late 50’s, through his work with artists like Ernie K Doe, Benny Spellman, Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, Diamond Joe, Warren Lee, Eldridge Holmes, Wallace Johnson and many, many others, he created a formidable body of work. Studying the work of Allen Toussaint, it’s hard to miss the fact that the name (and the voice of) Willie Harper keeps popping up again and again. Harper worked steadily with Toussaint for most of the 1960’s, as a backing vocalist, “co-star” and featured artist on his own 45s. I first encountered Harper’s smooth, soulful voice several years ago via his first Alon 45 “A New Kind of Love” b/w “But I Couldn’t”. It was one my first – and cheapest - New Orleans 45 scores, and it’s still one of my favorites. When you listen to the breadth of Toussaint’s work, over the course of his involvement with Minit, Alon, Sansu, Amy, Tou-Sea and other labels, it becomes evident (at least to me) that their were artists that brought out the best in him. Whether these were his personal favorites, or even muses it’s hard to say, but many of his best records – those with the extra je ne c’est quoi – seem to be with the same, small group of artists, i.e Betty Harris, Eldridge Holmes, Lee Dorsey. Listening to Willie Harper sing ‘But I Couldn’t’ and ‘A New Kind of Love’ it’s obvious that he was in that group as well. Both sides have elements that are decidedly “New Orleans”, i.e. rolling piano, solid beat, but they also contain elements that transcend the local vibe. Like the production on Irma Thomas’ ‘What Are You Trying To Do’, the sound on ‘But I Couldn’t’ seems to be reaching outside of the Crescent City. Harper went on to record two more 45s for Alon, ‘You’re Gonna Pay’ b/w ‘Power of Love’ and ‘Cloudy Weather’ b/w ‘I’ll Never Leave You’. As I said earlier, Harper worked as a backing vocalist on Toussaint sessions. He’s the high (non Benny Spellman) voice in the background on Ernie K Doe’s ‘Mother In Law’, the harmony voice on Spellman’s ‘Lipstick Traces’, Diamond Joe’s “Hurry Back To Me” and many Lee Dorsey records. He also collaborated with Toussaint as an equal, the Willie in Willie and Allen’s ‘I Don't Need No One’ b/w ‘Baby Do Little’ (another recent find) and the second voice (with Toussaint) on one of the greatest two-siders in the Sansu discography the Rubaiyats ‘Omar Khayyam’ b/w ‘Tomorrow’. Today’s feature is both sides of the one 45 Harper recorded for Sansu under his own name. ‘You You’ b/w ‘Soda Pop’ eluded me for years, and then – in an entirely typical development – I ended up getting it for a bargain price. Listening to Willie Harper sing ‘You You’ makes me wish he’d had the opportunity to record more. He had a mellow tone to his voice that seems like it would have worked well in any setting. The backing is pretty standard for Sansu 45s of the period, i.e. relaxed with lots of laid back guitar, piano and nicely arranged horns. ‘Soda Pop’ runs at a similar tempo, but the arrangement is more complex with a more prominent bass line, and backing vocals from Toussaint himself. I like the melody a lot more on this side, and it’s not hard to imagine this song getting some pop radio airplay, had it in some bizarre way made it’s way put of New Orleans. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (right now coincidentally): Allen Toussaint crafted a bunch of truly amazing records that don’t seem to have been heard by anyone outside of the New Orleans metropolitan area, and that is no less than a Goddamned shame. I would include ‘Soda Pop’ on that list. Willie Harper went on to record at least on more 45, for the Tou-Sea label, and then did backing vocals for the Wild Tchoupitoulas in the early 70’s. After that, it’s anyone’s guess..... As a special bonus, I’m also posting a great track from Lee Calvin’s one Sansu 45. His was another disc that I had never even seen a copy for sale until a month or so ago, and I grabbed it (also not expensive, strangely enough). I know absolutely nothing about Calvin, aside from the fact that ‘You Got Me’ is at the very least a great example of the Sansu sound. Calvin’s vocals are recorded with a lot more echo than I’m accustomed to hearing on Sansu 45s, and the upbeat arrangement is quite good.
PS Sorry about the scan on the Harper 45. For some reason a few of the Sansu 45s in my collection seem to have originated in the same wet basement...


Blogger J Epstein said...

Larry: in this posting you mention several tunes that I'd like to point out are available on the awesome 2-CD set Get Low Down: The Soul Of New Orleans 65-67.

I bought this set about a year ago and I put the whole goddamn thing onto my iPod. I especially agree with you about the Rubaiyats' single, it's smokin'.

Great blog! I don't always comment, but I *always* dig.


1/28/2006 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Willie Harper is one of the most "unsung" heroes of New Orleans music (he does more singing on Lee Dorsey's records than HE does!)...

cool post, Lar!

1/28/2006 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Yup, Sundazed did a great comp on this era of Sansu, as J notes. That "“A New Kind of Love” b/w “But I Couldn’t” single has always been a fav of mine, too, Larry. Don't know why it didn't hit. I also dig "Power Of Love". Harper has a nice enough voice, but was just not a real attention grabber, I guess.

Anyway, Lee Calvin also recorded as Calvin Lee, I believe, with a single on Josie in this era, and also two earlier (1962) on Minit. Toussaint produced the Minit sides. I'm not sure about the Josie.

Enjoy your well-derserved days off, dude.

1/28/2006 10:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi funk master,
your space is great!

can i link your blog?
a funk lover

1/29/2006 02:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Besides the ones that you list, there's at least another 45 by Harper on Alon - "She's Far Away / Makin' Me Cry" (Alon 9011), both sides have the Toussaint touch - a personal spinning favourite from a great unsung artist.

3/24/2006 06:46:00 AM  

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