Soul, Funk and Disco

From A Whisper To A Scream: Allen Toussaint, The Meters, and the Funky Sound of New Orleans

Allen Toussaint is one of those names people know, but don’t know why. One of the enduring figures of the New Orleans music scene, he got his feet wet in the late ’50’s as a session man for the likes of Fats Domino, moving into production and ghostwriting in the ’60’s for soul luminaries like Lee Dorsey and Irma Thomas and penning many of the songs he is (or other people are) known for today. However, it wasn’t until the ’70’s that Toussaint really hit his artistic and creative stride, when he started consistently working with The Meters and releasing records under his own name. Despite penning and producing reams of classic tunes during this period, his name remains one that, while not unknown, isn’t fully understood. The albums below are a handful of our favorite moments, some better known than others, that defined Allen Toussaint and the New Orleans sound in the ’70’s.

Dr. John In The Right Place (1973) Dr. John’s early “Night Tripper” recordings are classics of n’awlins hoodoo spook, fully evoking the hallucinogenic world of the crazed Creole witchdoctor he built his image on. But after four albums of this kind of dark mojo, the Dr. understandably grew curious as to how the other, day-light-dwelling half lived. Initiating this move with the previous year’s Gumbo, Toussaint and The Meters helped bring it all together on In The Right Place, stirring in an extra dose of traditional New Orleans R&B and funk that helps propel and lift the songs in ways he’d never dared before. While the mood is definitely brighter, some of the signature touches of his early recordings remain, like the moody tribal hand-drumming that pops up on the slower cuts. And then there’s that voice – few things exude the charm and menace of the Deep South like Dr. John’s slurred creole growl – a tool no amount of polish can completely neutralize. This one catches the key players of the scene at the height of their powers, bringing the untouchable sound of The Meters and Toussaint’s stellar horn and songwriting arrangements together with one of the more singular voices of their generation.

Labelle Nightbirds (1974) Though they’re rarely mentioned with the same esteem held for their predecessors (Aretha Franklin, The Supremes) or their direct descendants, Labelle effectively built the bridge between the two. Their high-energy, funky modernization of the classic soul/R&B girl group sound looked forward to the disco inferno of Donna Summer as much as it did the unhinged ’90’s diva-isms of En Vogue or TLC. Notable for the presence of the Toussaint-penned hit and calling-card, “Lady Marmalade” Nightbirds is probably their best album through and through, thanks to Toussaint’s spacious production and arrangements and the lithe maneuvering of The Meters in the pocket funk support. Patti Labelle’s move into a more mainstream solo career sometimes overshadows just how great Labelle were for awhile, especially Nona Hendryx, who wrote most of the group’s material and was responsible for their increasingly flamboyant attitude and image. Along with P-Funk, Labelle were at the vanguard of Nubian-space-glam, predicting the outre stylings of Kool Keith, Outkast, and any number of modern Hiphop/R&B divas.

Wild Tchoupitoulas (1976) Tchoupitoulas St. is an ancient New Orleans thouroughfare, named for the Native American Indian tribe who cut it’s original path along the Mississippi as a trade route. The deep history of the name bleeds through this joyful and unique album at every instance, imbuing the proceedings with a real sense of place, and the people who inhabit it. The band was made up of members of The Meters and their extended family – representatives of the nearly-extinct Tchoupitoulas tribe – and produced by Allen Toussaint. In terms of definitive New Orleans records, this ranks with the best work of Dr. John in the way it wholly embodies the spirit of the city, taking the Meters signature groove and riding it through the streets of the Mardi Gras parade without a care in the world. You could be sipping a cup of dirty Mississippi River water and still be in a good mood when the needle drops on this one.

Allen Touissant Southern Nights (1975) Toussaint seemingly gave some of his best stuff away, perhaps having the intuition (and humble nature) to know when a song was just right for someone else. No matter how many times they’re covered in a House Of Blues revue, Lee Dorsey’s versions of “Working In A Coalmine” and “Get Out Of My Life Woman” will always be the definitive ones. However, like any good man-behind-the-scenes, Toussaint managed to hold back some of his best material for himself. All of his solo albums from this period are more than worthwhile, but Southern Nights may be the crowning achievement of his solo oeuvre. The record employs some of the same tools that made his hand in The Meters and Dr. John’s output of the period so evident while side-stepping the confines of the typical soul-funk record, with laid-back, soul-baring deliveries that roll as much as they groove. He filters his vocals through what sounds like a Hammond Leslie on many of the tracks, contributing to the humid, swampy effect of the proceedings, and transporting us into the otherworldly night scene depicted on the cover. Glen Campbell popularized the title track, but Toussaint’s performance of it remains one of the more moving things ever committed to tape, and a convincing, sublime love letter to New Orleans and The South.

The Meters Struttin’ (1970) It would be remiss (and nearly impossible) to write about New Orleans music in the ’70’s without mentioning The Meters own studio albums – though so much ink has already been devoted to this pursuit, we chose not to single one out here. They are the building blocks of all the aforementioned classic albums, and a bunch of other songs you’ve heard and loved without knowing why (it’s The Meters). Struttin’ is a highlight, but it’s hard to go wrong with any of their early ’70’s albums.

Further listening: One of  Tousaint and The Meters’ more interesting appearances proved to be Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, the debut of one Robert Palmer. Although remembered for his MTV-era hits (and the models in his videos) of the ’80’s, Palmer was a dedicated dilettante…err, soul man, at heart. Although not quite a classic, The Meters, Toussaint, and Lowell George help make Sneakin’ a pretty compelling look for Palmer, making his white R&B moves as close to natural as he’s likely to get. Not for the faint of heart, Toussaint’s involvement in The Mighty Diamonds Ice On Fire remains one of the more curious entries in either of the aforementioned parties’ repertoires and one of the few known specimens of the ill-fated Reggae-Funk sub-genre to this day. File under: much further listening. — Jonathon Treneff

Kid Creole & The Coconuts “Tropical Gangsters/Wise Guy” (1982)

Coming out of the same NYC/Ze Records school that fostered the likes of Tom Tom Club, James Chance, and Was (Not Was), Kid Creole managed to stand out in a scene with no shortage of eccentrics, jokers, and flat-out freaks. One glance at the album covers confirms that no two words could have better summed up the entire ethos of this bizarre ensemble better than Tropical Gangsters, the UK title of the Coconuts third album. Kid Creole was an ex-English teacher who put his Masters degree into the service of a theatrical, but light-hearted take on the post-disco-funk explosion that was setting NYC clubs on fire in the early-’80’s. Creole’s former career bled through into the highly conceptual narratives that pre-occuppied his songs and albums, and Tropical Gangsters is no exception. The loose theme of the album revolves around the group being shipwrecked on an island of outcasts and their “gruesome ordeal”, as they are forced to play “RACE MUSIC” to broker their escape. Being of Latin descent, the Kid and his half-brother and bandmate never demurred from their background, often winkingly embracing it in the music and image of the band. Their sense of humor naturally extended into the songs themselves – “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” employs the female Coconuts in a dialogue wherein our hero must settle a question of paternity the only way a tropical gangster knows how – with brutal frankness – “See if I was in your blood/Then you wouldn’t be so ugly”. Tropical Gangsters takes the coconut and runs with it from here, with seven more hilarious tales of island-life scandal and intrigue that duly threaten to grind the dance floor to dust while they’re at it. KC had made good albums before this, but this was where the songs and the groove finally came together to create the perfect tropical storm. —Jonathan

Curtis Mayfield “Curtis/Live” (1971)

For better or worse, Curtis Mayfield is destined to forever be identified with Superfly. Never having been much of blaxploitation film buff, or funk disciple, I’d more or less shelved him under “important, but not for me”. Then one day – one misbegotten, hungover Sunday of yore, a friend unassumingly dropped the needle on Curtis/Live and blew what was left of my delicate mind. In the moment, the sounds emanating forth felt like a godsend – the only thing that could have possibly soothed my shattered and disheveled mind. This was music beamed down from the cosmos, painstakingly prepared by benevolent hands. This may sound like a lot of hyperbole, but I’ve kept myself honest, revisiting the record months and years after the point of impact, and the results remain the same: this record is a stone-cold masterpiece.

Curtis/Live gets across everything a live album should, but rarely does. For starters, Curtis had the savvy to assemble a batch of musicians who knew how to set up a vibe and dig their heels into it. The band is supernaturally in tune with each other, letting the songs expand and contract with an unhurried precision that intuitively follows Curtis’ restrained, yet highly emotional delivery. Many of his best known songs make appearances here; “I Plan to Stay A Believer,” “If There’s A Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go), and “Superfly” all get makeovers, and are the better for it. Stripped of the flowery arrangements and porno-funkisms that could de-tooth his studio recordings, these songs are allowed to breathe and inhabit the loose-limbed bodies they deserve. The meditative readings almost border on the devotional, conjuring the same spirits as Sun Ra’s Arkestra at it’s peak, or the hazy and haunted spirituals of Rastafarian nyabinghi music. Thankfully, the recording quality matches the performances, with a room sound so stunningly balanced and alive you can almost hear a guitar pick drop onstage. The definitive Curtis effort, and a must-hear for anyone interested in music, or feeling, period. — Jonathan Treneff

Mandrill “Solid” (1975)

There aren’t a whole lot of bands like Mandrill! Even in the days of War and Santana when a psychedelic stew was bubbling and latin styles were merging, this band was a standout due to the heavy rootedness of their music. Throughout this album the band serve up a set of tunes that blend rather foreboding, dark funk with surreal strings, harmonies and wah-wahs such as on the compelling “Wind On Horseback,” “Yucca Jump” and the title song. They rock hard in a funky place on “Tee Vee”, a song whose message and almost proto hip-hop groove predates the Disposable Heroes Of Hisprocrisy’s “Television” by about fifteen years. There are also some hardcore grooves such as “Peck Ya Neck” and “Stop & Go.” The final song “Slick” is pretty much an instrumental that takes on some very dynamic influences: from the cinematic soul popular with Isaac Hayes to a sort of afro cuban jazz sound. Mandrill and Solid are potent reminder of the cross cultural pollination, from jazz to soul to pop, that the golden age of funk represented.  –Andre

Jean Knight “Mr. Big Stuff” (1971)

It’s easy to overlook Jean Knight’s sole – killer – Stax album, as it so evidently centres on the huge, huge hit “Mr. Big Stuff”. But that smoking, slightly reggae-esque funk jam really wasn’t a fluke. Miss Knight had pipes that were greased in the finest Deep South gospel tradition, and, when paired to the producing magic of Wardell Quezerque, she had the ability to churn out a soulful masterpiece of an album, every bit the equal of Aretha Franklin or Mavis Staples’ finest moments.

Knight’s rough, blues-drenched vocal is apparent on the slow grinding, gospelish workout “A Little Bit of Something (Is Better Than All of Nothing”), where her huge voice is accompanied by Jerry Puckett’s sweet, country-soul guitar noodlings and divine back up vocals. It’s back to the Funk with the hard socking “Don’t Talk About Jody”, a sturdy answer song to Johnnie Taylor’s smash hit “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone”. Jody’s been getting a bad rep, per Jean Knight, and she’s here to set some things straight, cause Jody made her happy. Fat, sleazy funkin’ comes your way once more with the ploddin’ “Take Him (You Can Have Him)”, an incessant groove-based finger-snapper layered in horns and propelled by William Laverne Robbin’s thick bass. There’s an old-timey feel to the glorious, slow ballad “Why I Keep Living These Memories”, with its jazzy guitar chops and low-fi piano. A great showcase for Knight’s churchily testifyin’ vocal power. The same can be said for the bone-chilling, richly orchestrated mid-tempo lilter “One-Way Ticket to Nowhere (It’s the End of the Ride)”, a warm tune filled with Bacharach-like hooks and melodies. That chanking guitar, poppin’ bass and gutbucket groove is back with the swankin’ “Call Me Your Fool If You Want To” and the incisively rompin’ “Your Six-Bit Change”, featuring more crunchy guitar lines and piles of brass.

It’s a shame Jean Knight has been typecast as the “Mr. Big Stuff”-singer. This album is testament to a huge talent. Do yourself and justice a favor and get this gem of an album. —soulmakossa

Prince “Parade” (1986)

Parade is definitely one of Prince’s finest releases. It’s a sprawling kaleidoscope of sounds and textures, many new to his oeuvre, many previously explored. And it all coheres awesomely, feeling much longer than its forty-five minute running time. Opening with a brisk four-song suite, Parade’s atmosphere is set: that is, anything can happen, and its all going to be quirky and beautifully strange. Images of France embellish the album’s lyrics, while musically there is everything from swooning ballads, vaudevillian pop, funk, psychedelia, and, oh yeah, some of what was to be expected from Prince by this point. That comes in the form of Kiss, the magnificent lead single and the most popular song here. But really there are plenty of gems to found, from New Position’s clanking march, to Girls and Boy’s bouncy textures, and all the way to the achingly gorgeous closer, Sometimes it Snows in April. A much bigger hit in Europe than the U.S., Parade is unfortunately overlooked on a popular scale, but is worth anyone’s time who is willing to let its wonderful world envelop them. —automatic1

Billy Paul “War of the Gods” (1974)

Billy Paul was always one of the hippest talents on Philly International – mixing together soul and jazz influences with a deeper sense of spirituality, and long experience as a sophisticated vocalist. This album’s one of his most sublime efforts – kind of a quasi-spiritual record with a similar high-concept approach to some of Marvin Gaye’s work from the same time. Gamble and Huff produced and wrote most of the record – including the two long tracks that make up side one, “I See The Light” and “War Of The Gods”, the latter of which starts out slow and moody, then breaks out into a club groove. Other titles include the more standard soul tune “The Whole Town’s Talking”, plus “Thanks For Saving My Life” and “Peace Holy Peace”. —Chris

Bohannon “Stop and Go” (Dakar, 1973)

This album is pure and simple hard pulling, rhythmic funk that hits you over the head and electric kicks your aorta! The eight songs each hold on their own, weaved together intricately with the driving bass lines and thumping wa wa guitars that you might hear sampled by Dilla or even Large Professor.

The spirit of the album originates in a sense of the daily grind (the first track “Stop & Go”), penetrating that hustle with astounding resonance. Hamilton takes us to the grit of the streets in “The Pimp Walk” but raises the blaxploitation theme to an apotheosis of drum licked bluesy soul. And then shit gets flipped up. “Run it on Down Mr. DJ” is a bombastic proto-disco track that anticipates Bohannon’s signature style captivating the club music of the late 70’s and forever changing the game. Just after the boogie friendly joint, we get pushed into a crunching, funkified gospel number that sweats with a call to “Save their Souls.” It’s not enough. Hamilton grounds himself from the celestial realm into an earthly jazz croon to the mothers of this land in “Singing a Song for my Mother.” And how else to end such a powerful sonic reflection on the struggles, styles, and joys of life than a push towards “Happiness” that makes you realize that you’re not so jaded after all. A drum clap bass line holds down this anthem, and just wait for the booming vocals chant “happiness, everywhere / talkin’ ’bout happiness everywhere” to baloon this song into the heavens of the funk. —keskejecoute

Jon Lucien “Rashida” (1973)

1973 was a good year for chilled out, soulful grooves. Along with Terry Callier’s masterpiece “What Color Is Love” we have Lucien’s best work “Rashida.” It could almost be a companion LP to Callier’s as it has a very similar vibe. It is a lushly produced collection of spaced out soul and folk that adds in elements of Latin music and a hint of Lucien’s Caribbean heritage. He has one of the best voices in music and its warmth gradually draws you deep into the record. Lucien never feels the need to show off or be flashy and he lets the strength of his lyrics do the work. Buy this and Callier and you will instantly improve your soul collection. –Jon

Demon Fuzz “Afreaka!” (1970)

Progressive rock in the ’70s was traditionally recognised as being the realm of white, occasionally nerdy, hippy-types. However, challenging such notions was the all black Demon Fuzz, who signed to Pye’s prog label, Dawn, in 1970.

Afreaka!, released in the same year was there one and only album. Five tracks pitch Demon Fuzz somewhere between prog rock and psychedelic soul-laced jazz excursions, with a threadwork of world music, tribal beats and the ever-trusty wah-wah pedal weaving its spell somewhere beneath. The opening instrumental of ‘Past, Present and Future’ begins in purest progressive rock style with the meandering showmanship of a grinding bass, prior to some sultry horns kicking in and the song taking on a psychedelic jazz /soul feel that wouldn’t sound out a place on the backing track to a 70s blaxploitation flick. It continues to blend styles for just shy of ten minutes, and amazingly, for a song that is both instrumental and of a jazz-influence, doesn’t get boring. The first of three vocal tracks, ‘Disillusioned’, keeps the jazz infusion ball rolling, through the faster paced ‘Another Country’, and leading to the eight minute long ’Hymn to Mother Earth’, a gently drifting paean to the ecosphere that bursts with dramatic interludes and is underscored by the prog rock weapons of choice, the organ (sounds like a Hammond) and flute.

Demon Fuzz’s blend is just right and succeeds in cooking up an appetising dish of progressive rock/soul/jazz/world fusion. One that’s well worth the more traditional progressive rock fan dipping their finger into. —Nick/Head Full of Snow

Jerry Butler “The Iceman Cometh” (1968)

Although mostly recorded in Philadelphia, this album by soul troubadour Jerry Butler is in the Chicago Soul vein all the way; it’s too hard and gritty to be called ‘Philly’ – which wouldn’t surface as a genre until the early ’70s – despite the beautiful arrangements and sometimes huge orchestration. Teaming up with future hitmakers Gamble and Huff, Butler cut his finest LP in 1968 with ‘The Iceman Cometh’. Veering between uptempo soul nuggets and truly magnificent, haunting ballads, many a contemporary R&B artist found inspiration in it and plenty of its tunes were covered well into the ’70s.

One of Butler’s best loved cuts, the bouncy, mid-tempo romper “Hey Western Union Man” became nothing short of a standard and the same can be said for the gently cruising gospelfide rockin’ soul beater “Only the Strong Survive”, one of the centrepieces on Elvis Presley’s comeback album ‘From Elvis In Memphis’. Speaking of Memphis, the horn heavy “Can’t Forget About You, Baby” smacks of that big brassy Stax sound. A ferocious floorshaker, drenched in the sweet, purring vibe of the Hammond organ and embellished with the right amount of strings. Butler’s pleading, warm voice is at its best here, especially on the chorus. Decidedly more Windy City is the breezy, mellow “How Can I Get in Touch With You”, with its warm jazzy guitar, vibes and swirling violins. And then there’s that deliciously groovy, laidback ballad “Just Because I Really Love You”, where the horns stretch out in suspense and the piano sounds dark and ominous. That same spooky atmosphere hangs around the brassy intro to “Lost”, a shufflin’, brooding piece sporting a crashing back beat, which works its way up to an anthemic, jubilant chorus. Another soon-to-become evergreen appears in the guise of the slow burning “Never Give You Up”, a brilliant pop-soul confection covered by everyone from The Jacksons to Isaac Hayes. Equally snappy is the soft, despondent lament “Are You Happy”, with more subtle orchestration and another heart wrenching vocal. Up next are two superb, dark, intensely sad ballads: the ghostly “(Strange) I Still Love You”, with its ethereal backing vocals, churchy organ and weeping strings, and the truly goosebump inducing “Go Away – Find Yourself”, an unbelievably touching, sweet rendering, majestically orchestrated. Butler ends this magnificent longplayer on a more upbeat note, as he swoons, croons and wails his way through the country soul gem “I Stop By Heaven”. A masterpiece. —soulmakossa

Marvin Gaye “Here, My Dear” (1978)

When Motown released Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye was not one of the most commercially successful soul performers anymore. Actually, he was not strictly SOUL at all, anymore. With What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye had created himself a new slot in pop music, just as Stevie Wonder had done for himself with Music Of My Mind (all the way up to Songs In The Key Of Life). Marvin Gaye would record only one more album for Motown after Here, My Dear; In Our Lifetime, despite its great moments, suffers from having been released by Motown without Marvin’s authorization (it was unfinished). Here, My Dear, however, was recorded and finished under his supervision. Most of the instruments you hear were played by Marvin himself. It is the testimony of an artist at his artistic peak, of his separation from his former wife, Anna Gordy, member of the Motown clan. Since the frankness in which Marvin sang about his marriage and divorce, collided with the fact that Motown was indeed the label to release the album, and also partly due to the fact that a double album with no obvious single was not exactly helpful in the year 1978 for big sales, Here, My Dear was a commercial flop.

Now, 25 years later, a listener who is interested in good music doesn’t care about such things. All that counts is the quality of the music. Unfortunately, until today, this album has been Marvin Gaye’s most unjustly underrated record. Okay, there aren’t any hit singles, but Here, My Dear is an exceptionally good album. There is not one filler song on this two record set. Instead, one is enchanted (and disturbed) by the straightforwardness of how Marvin Gaye relates the experience of divorce. Musically, it’s one of the most sensual albums ever recorded. Marvin sings like there’s no tomorrow. He supports himself vocally via playback recording. The tight playing and the almost chamber-music atmosphere create a density and harmony which cause addiction – you want to play the record again and again. The no-kitsch approach to the production has helped the album age with grace. Here, My Dear is one of the great masterpieces of the 70’s. —Yofriend