Week 27: Au Naturel
Sorry, but before we get into this weeks album, I just need to get a couple of things off my chest. Like the fact that this weeks post almost got canceled…the passing of Michael Jackson kinda sucker-punched us all. Another one of the really great ones passing away much too soon – leaving us all numbed, in shock, and in some sort of mourning. Personally, I’ve mostly been reminiscing of all the good times spent with his music as the main soundtrack. And it hit me that I’ve been in mourning of Michael Jackson for the last 15-20 years – my musical relationship with the artist MJ ended some years after the release of “Thriller”, when it all basically became more about the weirdness than the music. So, it’s been a real sad week. But maybe it wasn’t just that his unexpected death really got to me…reflecting over his career and tragic last years really got me down. It all left me with a foul taste in my mouth, an eerie feeling of emptiness, and some well-deserved disgust over the music industry. The only thing offering me some sort of consolation is that I think that he’s better off now…maybe in a somewhat happier place, finally finding some peace. Sigh. OK, enough of the sadness for now (we’ll get back to that at the end of this post). Let’s take a breather from all the tragedy and dig into some music!
Week 27 comes with some rather wild and cajun crazy New Orleans tinged soul music, courtesy of the legendary Jessie Hill – who I thought, up until just recently, was your typical one-hit wonder. AMG’s Jason Ankeny begins his bio on Jessie like this:
“Best remembered for the classic ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’, New Orleans R&B legend Jessie Hill was born in the Crescent City’s Ninth Ward district on December 9, 1932. Raised alongside the likes of Eddie Bo, Oliver Morgan, and Prince La La, it was almost inevitable that he would pursue a career in music…”
That was about all I knew about Jessie, but when I stumbled across this album, “Naturally” – recorded in California – released on Blue Thumb in 1972, and later did some deeper research, I learnt much more…thanks to an awesome trio of seasoned bloggers: Larry Grogan (Funky 16 Corners), Red Kelly (The B side) and Dan Phillips (Home of the Groove).
Red hipped me to the fact that “BMI lists Jessie as the author or co-author on 132 tunes covered by artists ranging from Sonny & Cher to Ike & Tina Turner to Paul Revere & the Raiders”, that Jessie was a founding member of Dr. John’s Night Trippers, and that “by the mid-seventies, Jessie’s fortunes in California seemed to be on the decline (punctuated by a trip to jail and a stolen Cadillac), and in 1977 he returned home to New Orleans” – and that when Jessie died in 1996 “he left behind 14 children, and 50 grandchildren”! (Read Red’s full story here!)
Dan Phillips post offered vital facts like “Hill’s lack of singing skill did not stop him from performing and recording, but certainly limited his appeal to the general public”…and a great review of the album itself:
“Jessie’s final release, the 1972 Blue Thumb LP, Naturally, became an instant obscurity upon its blast off to commercial oblivion. While there is some good playing on the record, much of it gets lost due to sloppy arrangements, muddy recording, and chaotic mixes (or the total lack of mixes). There seem to be many (uncredited) musicians plugging away on the sessions, probably all done in California; but the whole staggering shebang sounds like it was done stoned, quick and on the cheap to fulfill some contractual obligation or, perhaps, just to give the record company a tax write-off. Rebennack’s former shyster manager, Charles Greene, is shown as the album’s producer; but that’s giving him far too much credit, since with just some judicious tweaking and attention to detail, this project could easily have sounded 100% better. His role was more likely to insure that any money allocated to the album production wound up in his pockets.”
Hehe…just need to butt in here and say that, yeah, the album’s uneven…but the good parts are REAL good (Dan totally agrees – read his complete story here). Like the title cut, “Naturally”. Check it out!
And Dan suitingly continues: “Maybe the best thing about the whole LP, though, is its packaging. The cover photographs of Jessie are stagy, but hip; and the back section has a wheel inside it that you can turn to see different smaller photos appear through holes. Man, if they had spent as much effort and money on making the sound more coherent, this might have been a lot closer to a classic instead of an odd artifact that became the early coda to Jessie Hill’s recording career.” And I agree, the cover art is magnificent!
Larry Grogan was the one who schooled me on some important facts like “Hill’s first hit ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ on the Instant label in 1960, had the distinction of being the first Allen Toussaint helmed disc to make it big” – and it was on Larry’s post I found this comment (and the return to sadness referred to earlier) from a Patricia Brown:
“Jesse Hill is in an unmarked grave in Holt Cemetary in New Orleans. Before Katrina, the grave used to be marked with a plywood painted sign of a musical note that was broken, and I have a photo of his grave and can tell by the photo exactly where he rests. If anyone is interested in getting him a permanent marker, so are we, but we can’t afford it at this time. If anyone is interested in helping with this project, let me know.”
Really sad. She left that comment in late 2007 – hopefully everything’s been sorted out by now.
To end this post on a more postive note, here’s another quote from Dan Phillips:
“By the way, take this as you will, according to Jeff Hannusch in I Hear You Knockin’, Jessie claims credit for coaching Rebennack in how to sing back in the early ’60s, saying the future Dr. John sounded like Alfalfa prior to that.”
Hehehe…my personal favourites on the album are, apart from the outstanding title cut, the B-side opener “Hand Me The Key”, the upbeat “I’ve Been Hurt” and the horn driven “Two Of A Kind”. Get yourself a copy of the original vinyl right here (ranging from $8 to $70) – if not for the music alone, do it for the story, the wicked cover art and the great packaging included in the deal!
Props are due to Red, Dan and Larry for the excellent write-ups – but first and foremost, big thanks to the New Orleansian showman Jessie Hill: Thank you for the music!
(Ps. Almost forgot, thanks to Flippin’ for helping me sort out that video preview clip – and Happy 4th of July everybody!)