Posted: January 19, 2012
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
It’s snap easy to explain what producer/label executive Scott Billington has meant to American music—especially to New Orleans and Louisiana music—over the past three decades.
Billington has over 100 albums to his credit, and you have to dig deep to find a dud in the batch.
He has worked with Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams, Ruth Brown, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Boozoo Chavis, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Beau Jocque, Solomon Burke, Charlie Rich and many others.
Billington has worked for Massachusetts-based Rounder Records for over 30 years. He is currently its VP of A&R.
A studio warrior, Billington oversaw production of a new album, “Unlock Your Mind” by the Soul Rebels that will be released by Rounder on Jan. 31, 2012. Guest musicians on the record by this genre-breaking New Orleans brass band include Trombone Shorty, and Cyril Neville.
While Concord Music Group's 2010 acquisition of Rounder Records came as a surprise to many, the label’s individual catalogs have unquestionably made the two entities a more natural fit than expected.
Since its beginning in 1970, Rounder Records has been one of the music industry’s most prominent labels, and distributors. Its 3,000 album catalog covers the full gamut of American roots music, including folk, bluegrass, blues, zydeco, Cajun, and soul.
Launched in 1972 as a jazz imprint, Concord—which later became part of Village Roadshow Entertainment—had acquired Fantasy which owned the Stax label in 2004; and bought classical label Telarc in 2005.
Both Rounder and Concord are distributed by Universal Music Group Distribution.
This month, Louisiana’s influential OffBeat magazine has recognized Billington’s work with its Lifetime Achievement in Music Business Award.
How busy are you as a producer these days?
I have made two records in New Orleans in the past year. The Soul Rebels (““Unlock Your Mind”) which is coming out Jan. 31 on Rounder; and I just remixed a new Dirty Dozen Brass Band record. I worked with the Dirty Dozens years ago. I made their four records on Columbia. They just called me up, and asked if I would work with them on their new record. I did that as a freelancer. I took off some time to work on that record.
Do people still want to make records for Rounder?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
With music sales slipping, why sign with Rounder today? What’s your argument?
When the right artist comes along that is right for the Rounder team…We have about 30 people working here in Burlington, Massachusetts now. We also have the resources of the Concord Music Group out in California which now owns Rounder. We have a much bigger international reach than we ever had before. (We have) the ability to get records out all around the world. Even when Rounder has been distributed by Universal (on its own), it was more or less in North America.
So it has to be the right match. When our team can engage, and can go out there with all cylinders firing at once—the press and publicity, the online marketing, which is increasingly important, radio, street teams—all of these different things. If you get everything working in synchronicity, and it’s the right record, and if there’s a good enough story to get out there to people, we can still be a viable partner for someone accomplishing things that they are never going to accomplish on their own.
But the bind we are in today, when it comes to all of the different kinds of root music, is retail has vastly been diminished. There’s no Tower Records or Borders anymore. They used to stock all of our stuff. And with the flood of music that just comes out every day—everybody is making records—you have got to have absolutely great music, and you’ve got to have a great story in order to rise above that great sea of noise.
American roots music continues to travel well as an export.
Yes, I think that is still true. But, the changes have just been so profound over the past few years. It used to be possible for us to sell, maybe, between 7,500 and 15,000 or 20,000 copies of any really good roots record that we made; whether it was bluegrass or reggae or New Orleans or zydeco. The point came when we could only sell 2,000 or 3,000 (copies) now with retail gone; and, maybe, there’s downloading or whatever. So it was no longer a viable, economic model for us to continue making records of much of the music that we still love so much, and wish that we could record.
The fall-out (of sales), I think, has been a decline in quality of the roots music that you hear because the musician is left with the only option of recording their record on his or her own, and they may not have access to a support crew of professional people involved in the craft of record making.
There’s still no replacement for a good recording studio that sounds great. A good-sounding, well-tuned room. Good microphones. Good mike pre-amplifiers. You hear over and over again that anybody can make a record in their bedroom now. Yeah, everyone can; but there’s those one or two people who make absolutely fantastic records in their bedroom, but almost any musician will benefit from having the support of a crew of people who know how to make records around them.
Following Concord Music Group's purchase of Rounder in 2010, what changes have come to your life?
So far it has opened things up. It has been a great opportunity for me. To begin with, I’m still lucky that I have a job in the record business at all; nevermind one that still has room for me to be part of the creative part of the business. But, I think the international reach…that is the thing that has really been sinking in lately from an A&R perspective (when I am) looking at who we are going to work with. We have to think about the whole world in that now. Not just in North America.
Also thinking about working within Concord Music Group.
Yeah. I have really enjoyed being part of their overall A&R meetings. There are people there I have known for many years. Joe McEwen (VP/A&R, Concord Music Group), I worked with when he was head of A&R at Columbia, and when he was with Warner Bros. I worked with him making a Charlie Rich record (“Pictures and Paintings” in 1992, his last record before his death in 1995) on Sire. Not that I have done a lot of freelance work over the years, but Rounder was always good at letting me go off, and make one of these other records when the opportunity came.
“Unlock Your Mind” will be the Soul Rebels first nationally-released record.
It is. That’s been in the wind for years. I had wanted to work with them probably 10 years ago. First off, they appealed to me because they are really good musicians and they were doing something a little different from some of the other brass bands. They come out of the college marching band tradition as much as they do out of the New Orleans’ second line and street band tradition.
It was increasingly hard to put together a business deal that made sense. And they didn’t have the greatest infrastructure in terms of management. It must be three years now that Ted Kurland, who is one of the pre-eminent jazz booking agents in the world, came to me and said, ”We’ve got to get together on this.” He had seen the Soul Rebels in New Orleans, and he’d seen incredible potential in them—but he still waited awhile before he took them on for management, and booking. Now they are co-managed by Adam Shipley (Hep Cat Entertainment) in New Orleans, and Ted here in Boston.
They’ve got a very focused business infrastructure behind them now and the wherewithal to tour. So there’s somebody who’s smart there looking after interests that, maybe, a record company wouldn’t totally be able to do. It was that partnership coming together that finally enabled us to go ahead with the deal.
[The Soul Rebels (aka the Soul Rebels Brass Band) will release their debut Rounder album, “Unlock Your Mind” on Jan. 31. The band recently performed on the BBC TV show “Later...With Jools Holland” and met members of Metallica who were so impressed with the band that they asked them to be the opening act for two nights of their four-night, 30th Anniversary Fillmore shows in San Francisco in early December. According to RollingStone.com, the band kicked off the first night with a set that included brassy rearrangements of Metallica’s “One” and “Enter Sandman.”
The Soul Rebels will be touring the U.S. in Feb. and March, 2012, both as a headliner, and as part of a tour with Galactic.]
What is your approach to production?
I will always rehearse as much as I can with anybody, and get as much pre-production done as possible. That was a part of the Soul Rebels (recording). Just bring a little digital recorder with me, and record rehearsals and see what needs to be sorted out and try to see what a record needs in terms of, perhaps, more material to give it a more complete shape. I didn’t bring a lot of new material to them. I brought them Allen Toussaint’s “Night People” and the title track of the record, “Unlock Your Mind,” which is a George Jackson/Mississippi soul song that Cyril Neville sings. They generated most of that material themselves. The last cut on the record (“Let Your Mind Be Free”) is a reprise of something that was on their first record which is a nice thing because so few people have heard those early records.
When an artist insists on recording something you know is wrong for a track, how do you handle it?
Usually roll with it. If I’m wrong and see that it works, then I just shut up. If it’s wrong, I hope that it will become clear to everybody, and they will reach that conclusion. Ultimately, I may finish it, and have one more go around with the artist and say, “I think we should leave this song off the record.” I can usually convince them of that. But it’s a back-and-forth. I am there to serve the artist. Not the other way around. I do look at the records as my creation in the end. Hopefully, it is a reflection of the artist at their best; and hopefully I have heard that environment with both heart and mind well enough to be able to give the artist what they need.
With your studio work there over the years, why haven’t you moved to New Orleans?
I tried to once but Rounder said no. At that point, I had become vice president of A&R. So they said, “We’d like you to stay here. In fact, we’d like you to start doing more A&R for us.” I’m glad I missed Katrina. I still think I will end up there at some point.
[In 2005, New Orleans flooded severely from Hurricane Katrina and additional levee failures. Recovery has been slow. Slightly more than half of the pre-Katrina population has returned since. It’s rare a city is almost wiped off the map.]
What lasting impact has there been in New Orleans from Katrina?
Katrina had a double impact on the city. There is certainly the negative part of it. So much of the culture that everybody appreciates; so much of New Orleans—the food, the second line parades, jazz, gospel music—so much of it goes back to the African American community there. Many of those people with whom the culture strongly resides were working poor people, but many of them owned their own homes which is very unique in New Orleans. Small homes. But the 9th Ward (located in the easternmost downriver portion of the city) was a place that was affordable for people. Some of those homes had been in a family for generations and were just handed down from one generation to the next. And so many of those people couldn’t return. They got a job in Houston or Atlanta. They put their kids in school (there). They might even have found that, “Hey, the schools here are better.” Simultaneously, the bank in New Orleans wanted them to keep making their mortgage payments on their wrecked house.
They wouldn’t have had insurance.
No. The banks ended up owning a lot of property that way. They would ultimately take it. There was nowhere to go for mortgage relief, and then there are regulations, particularly for the lower 9th Ward now. They (city officials) want people to build their houses up higher now. That’s expensive. So the system has conspired to keep many of these people away from their homes. There are still many people who haven’t returned. And yet, anybody who worried that the culture was going to go away, I think at this point, is somewhat reassured that it hasn’t. It is challenged in many ways including with gentrification in some of the neighborhoods that once were the places where working people lived. There’s a troupe of circus performers now living in the Upper 9th Ward which gives it a really nice feel. A sort of bicycle oriented culture. Young people have moved in.
So it is evolving.
But there are still second line parades almost every Sunday afternoon during the cool months. The gospel music is going strong. Since Katrina, we have even seen the emergence of one bonafide star come out of New Orleans, Trombone Shorty.
Did Katrina bring an even greater closeness to New Orleans’ music community?
Yes. Anybody who went through Katrina feels a bond with anybody else that did. It has made the whole community closer, and it has made many people more determined not to let go of the culture too.
You weren’t in New Orleans when Katrina struck, but you recorded in Louisiana a few weeks afterwards.
The Irma Thomas “After The Rain” record. We had to do it in Lafayette (at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, outside Lafayette) because the studio where we worked in New Orleans, Ultrasonic went under. It’s been torn down.
An emotional session?
Oh, it was. This was the first time many of these musicians had seen one another since before Katrina. It was very emotional. I think that you can hear it on the record too.
Musicians came in with stories and photos?
Everybody had a story. David Torkanowsky, the piano player, concocted some sort of sign for his car that said, “Emergency Relief Medical Team” or something. His girlfriend was a nurse. I believe that his story was that he used this to drive into the city before anybody else could. One of his objectives was to rescue instruments for musicians that he knew. I can’t remember whose instrument he was getting but he was reaching up onto a shelf—getting a soprano sax case or something—and there was this big ole snake on the shelf.
When Irma sang “If You Knew How Much” at the session, she broke down and cried.
Yes. I have seen her break down and cry several times in the studio now. She puts herself into those songs. She’s tough on songs. She won’t sing a song unless it really does mean something to her. Once she puts that song on, it becomes part of her.
[Irma Thomas’ career was further re-ignited in 2006 after "After the Rain" won the best contemporary blues album Grammy Award. In 2009, the compilation album “The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration” was released by Rounder Records to commemorate her 50th year as a recording artist.]
To a large degree, Irma Thomas’ career was resurrected in the early ‘90s when she signed with Rounder.
And Johnny Adams’ too at the same time. Well, my whole career has been—when I look at now—has been a fortuitous accident that I almost owe to the success of George Thorogood and the Destroyers ("Move It On Over") on Rounder Records (in 1978). Up until that point Rounder had never had a hit record. All of a sudden, we had something that goes “gold” (selling 500,000 units). It was actually very stressful for the company at the time because the network of independent distributors that Rounder used, they got the records out there, but they often didn’t pay us for 120 or 150 days. The pressing plant, of course, wanted to be paid right now before they make anymore.
One of my favorite records you produced was James Booker’s “Classified” in 1982.
That was a record that almost didn’t get made. I introduced myself to him at Jazz Fest and I got to know his manager John Parsons, who also managed the Maple Leaf Bar where Booker worked frequently. So we decided that we would make this record. And probably for six months before these sessions, Booker played every Wednesday night (at the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton neighborhood of uptown New Orleans) with Red Tyler on sax, Johnny Vidacovich on drums, and James Singleton on bass. He was engaged in thinking about songs that he wanted to record and playing them on the gig.
[A feature-length documentary entitled "Bayou Maharajah" is currently being produced on the life of James Booker. It is scheduled to be released the Spring of 2012. Booker tragically died at the age of 43 while waiting to be seen at New Orleans Charity Hospital. The cause of death was renal failure.
From 1977-1982, Booker was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar. In 1983, film maker Jim Gabour captured his final concert performance there that is featured in the film “All Alone with the Blues.”]
About a month before the sessions, James Booker had some sort of breakdown?
He was a very fragile person. He ended up in the hospital. However, he said that he wanted to go forward with the record, and we did. But the first couple of days were maddening. He wouldn’t work on the songs that he had planned to record and he just led the musicians on this constant cat and mouse chase. Where he would start something, usually not giving us any cue that we should start rolling tape. We kept the tape rolling the whole time. But by the time the other musicians figured out what he was playing, he’d switch to something else.
It was like, “I need Allen Toussaint here. I need Earl King here. I need Cyril Neville. I need more songs.” Allen sent down a song and Cryil and Earl showed up, but by the time they got there, he wouldn’t say anything to them. And the next day was even worse. He sort of went inside himself. There’s one track on the record that came from those (first) days which is his incredible reading of “Angel Eyes.” It just came out of nowhere.
The third day I showed up at the studio, and I was kind of depressed. I figured, “This is the first time that Rounder has given me all of this money to go and make this record and I’m going to spend all of it and I’m going to have nothing.”
You were only then in your early 30s.
I had the Gatemouth Brown record (the Grammy-winning “Alright Again!”) under my belt and I had made a record with Sleepy LaBeef (“Rockabilly Blues"), the rockabilly singer. Gatemouth and Sleepy, these are professional entertainers. So even at their worst, they were still really good. There was still that challenge of drawing the best performance out of them, but Booker was much more erratic and so much more fragile. Although sometimes I think, he just enjoyed the attention that he got in the studio that much; and that he was screwing with all of us by not talking to us or not playing the songs that he had rehearsed. I really don’t know at this point.
Wasn’t he classically trained?
He was a prodigy. He was playing when he was three or four years old, and he learned a lot of classical repertoire. He knew a lot of Chopin by heart. When he played it, he would change it a little bit; but he could play it straight if he wanted to. It’s hard to use the word “genius” with anybody, but if I have ever worked with anyone who is a genius, it was Booker. Of course, he was plagued with all of these problems too—with addictions and a personality disorder. He just seemed like the loneliest person I’d ever met; and he had such a difficult time breaking out of that way of being.
You have worked with a great many Afro-American musicians. Were you an outsider in the early days?
I don’t think so. People knew that I was bringing opportunity to them I think. And New Orleans always felt like home to me. People were always so welcoming. But I’ve seen that (attitude). I remember the Johnny Adams’ record “The Real Me” (“Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me” in 1991) which is all Doc Pomus songs. It was the last record that Doc worked on before he died in terms of writing new material. That’s one of the favorite records that I’ve produced. But I remember reading a review of it, I think it was in a British publication, and they made some comment about the white band. I was like, “What the hell is this? It was with Red Tyler (who made his recording debut on Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man”), and Dr. John. I think, particularly in New Orleans’ music community, people aren’t all that race conscious, and I certainly have never been in hiring musicians to play on records. You just hire who is right for the job.
Actor Hugh Laurie recently got some snide reviews for his album “Let Them Talk” about being a British white pianist playing New Orleans music.
Yes, and that’s a beautiful record. There’s also was (for me) this blue-eyed Yankee coming in and, unlike a more folkloric approach to recording where you are trying to document something, I was really trying most of the time to create something that I had heard. Hearing the potential in an artist like Johnny Adams. It took me awhile to realize and to know that I could even do it. But in understanding that if I gave them (artists) everything that they could possibly want in a recording session—and this includes finding all of the songs for them, putting together the right band, the right personalities, and with Johnny, in particular, getting him into a soulful place by giving him everything that would make him feel that way, that he could feel coming from the music—then he would make his best record. So it was almost as if I could hear the record before I made it. I could hear what I was going for. The feeling at least. Then (I’d) fill in the blanks to make sure it’s all there.
Before Rounder, you were a professional musician?
I started part-time (at Rounder) as a salesman. I was playing full-time as a musician with Roseland. It was a good little band that worked in New England and down (the coast) a bit.
Playing music by Glenn Miller and…
No. We did Ella Mae Morse, Duke Ellington and some Western swing. In fact, if we had been around 25 years later for the Squirrel Nut Zippers and all that happened, we would have fitted right in.
Did Roseland record?
We did a few recordings but it really wasn’t our objective at the time. We were just having so much fun doing gigs, and playing music for people. I look back at that, and I see how so many young musicians and bands today are so focused on career development, and using the social networking sites and getting in touch with their fans. I don’t think that we even thought that any label was going to sign us. We just liked playing music. Sometimes, we’d get up to $350 or $400 a night. We had five in the band, and we’d have four or five gigs in the week. That was enough. This was in the mid to late ‘70s.
I look at it now and some of the clubs in Boston, they have 4 bands a night and they really don’t pay (bands) anything; and bands don’t even get booked unless they can drag their fans in with them. Back then, we would play places that people knew that there was good music at the club even if they might not know who it was. It was a different world (than today.)
Where are you from?
I am from Melrose right outside of Boston but I grew up partly in Arizona and New Jersey as well. My dad was transferred to Arizona when the Cuban missile crisis (happened). It meant that all of the American sugar companies’ plantations in Cuba had been nationalized. So they shipped him and several other engineers out to Arizona to build a refinery for beet sugar. At the same time, they were planting their first crop of beets. We lived in Tempe when I was in junior high and first year of high school. Then they transferred him to the home office in New York, and we lived in East Brunswick, New Jersey. He passed away while we were there.
Afterwards, my mom moved us back to Massachusetts. Then I went out to Arizona for a year to go to college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. I had been there (in Arizona) when I was in junior high school, my first year of high school—and I had loved it out there, and I wanted to go back there.
So you didn’t graduate?
I am now within several courses of getting my B.A. from the Harvard Extension School. I have been taking a lot of environment management courses. That’s something that has interested me. I have also done music composition (courses). It’s been great.
Were you playing in bands while in high school?
Yeah. When I was a junior in high school, I had a little local band, the Picket Fence Blues Band, and it was a blues band. I remember that our big day was a Battle of the Bands. Five bands and everybody else is playing Vanilla Fudge and Bee Gees songs, and we were covering Paul Butterfield, and the Siegel–Schwall Band.
That first Paul Butterfield album on Elektra in 1965 was influential to a generation of white blues players.
It was. It truly was. I heard it when I was 14. I saw him at the Café Au Go Go (in New York) when I was around 14. I wanted to be Paul Butterfield when I was 14 and 15 years old. I was playing harmonica.
When I was in high school, I had a little part time job. I would take my check every Saturday afternoon, and go to Skippy White’s record shop in Roxbury. Skippy turned me on to so much music. A lot of it I still have today—Percy Mayfield’s “My Jug and I” (released in 1966); it’s on Tangerine, Ray Charles’ label. That record has come back to inspire me so many times over the years, particularly when I was working with Johnny Adams.
How did you come to play professionally?
When I was a senior in high school, there was a Boston folk music paper called the Broadside (aka Broadside of Boston). There was a little classified ad there that somebody was looking for a harmonica player. So I wrote up this little resume and mailed it to him. It was a guy called Mike Allen and Lana Pettey who had just moved to Boston from Austin, Texas. He had sort of been in the orbit of Mother Earth. He had played with Powell St. John, the harmonica player in Austin. Mike had recorded with Janis Joplin.
So barely a senior in high school, I was suddenly playing with these musicians who were eight or 10 years older than I was and I was playing all of the folk clubs in Boston. I didn’t really go to school as much as I should have in my senior year.
We called ourselves Red Dirt. We were an acoustic trio of guitar, bass, and harmonica. We played the folk clubs on Charles Street, the Turk’s Head, and the Sword and the Stone. We played the Unicorn. As well (in Cambridge) the Idler, and I think we played Jack’s at one point. Different coffee houses and folk clubs around New England. I learned so much from Mike Allen who is a very accomplished fingerpick blues guitar player. He had a really good feel for it too. He doesn’t play anymore. I wish that he did because he was a great talent.
After your year in college in Arizona what did you do?
I came back (to Massachusetts), and I got a job in a record store called New England Music City on Boylston Street in Boston. I ended up managing the store within a year. By the time I was 19, I was the manager of what was at the time the biggest record store in Boston. I started meeting more people in the business side of things. One of the people that I met was Peter Gurlanick, the author. He’s been just a wonderful friend over the year. I was also invited to join this group of people, the Boston Blues Society with Dick Waterman, Erika Brady, Durg Gessner, Jack Viertel, Steve Frappier, and Peter Guralnick.
We promoted and staged concerts by mostly acoustic blues people who had recorded in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and who were still around. People like Houston Stackhouse, Hacksaw Harney, Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, Son House, Mance Lipscomb, and Joseph Spence. Toward the end, we had "Hound Dog" Taylor but, for the most part, it was acoustic blues.
A very reverent kind of setting too because Harvard University would let us use one of their halls to stage these concerts. You’ve got Southern African-American players who mostly were on in years playing for this incredibly silent and respectful Cambridge audience. They were beautiful concerts. It may have been an odd juxtaposition of cultures, but people had the opportunity to hear some of these people. And some were still at the very top of their game too although they were on in years.
And the three founders of Rounder Records (Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton-Levy) came to these concerts selling records. They would set up a table in the lobby. They were raising money at the time to fund their first couple of releases by selling records on other labels. That, in fact, evolved into a very large distributorship at one point about 10 or 15 years down the line with 300 or 400 labels in there. But that’s how I met them.
Were you one of Rounder’s first employees?
No. I came in four or five years after they had opened up. But Ken Irwin became my sales person. He would come to New England Music City to sell me records and show me the new things that Rounder was putting out. I became friends with him.
How did you start working at Rounder?
A guy I knew who worked for ABC Records came to me with the idea that we would start this sales and promotion company, and present ourselves to Rounder as a partner because Rounder was growing. It needed someone who knew a little bit more about—maybe not knew more, but had the energy to try and get the stuff out into stores and to radio stations and so forth. So we made this pitch to Rounder that we worked with them as a team. He ultimately didn’t work out, but I did. I just started as a part-time sales person. So wherever our band went out (to perform), I would open up accounts and be in touch with them by phone, usually early in the week, on Monday and Tuesday. If we weren’t going anywhere, I would go to (music stores in) Cambridge and Boston.
Rounder didn’t have many artists in those early days.
No, but the distribution company was taking off too at that point. But there was always something. There was (guitarist) Norman Blake’s “Whiskey Before Breakfast” record in 1976. And Rounder started getting experimental with some things too like with the (self-named) Breakfast Special record which is essentially an off-center, very creative rock record by Richard Crooks, Kenny Kosek, Roger Mason, Stacy Phillips, Andy Statman, Jim Tolles, and Tony Trschka.
Rounder started becoming a bit more eclectic when I started working there but I also had all of these other labels to sell. I remember that there was a (polka) quartet of senior citizens called the Moms & Dads from GNP/Crescendo. For some reason, they took off in Maine. I ended up selling 1,000 Mom & Dad’s records through the distributor in Portland, Maine. Accordion and clarinet. Really dear-looking old people (from Spokane, Washington.)
You were also Rounder’s art director.
Yes. I designed 300 or 400 (albums) over the years. Lots of bluegrass, lots of reggae. For a period, when I started producing records, I designed all of those covers too.
Your first production was Johnny Shines’ “Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” album.
It really wasn’t a production. That was a Boston Blues Society concert that Durg Gessner had recorded in 1971. Peter Gurlanick and I were thinking about this concert; how it was such a great representation of Johnny Shines. He really was at his best. So we went to the three Rounder owners, and presented it to them. Of course, it was right up their alley. Peter wrote the notes, and I designed the cover. We had a little taste of going into the studio, and editing it together. It was done to two-track so there was no mixing to do. That was really the first record that I had worked on.
Other things started coming in. Robert Nighthawk’s “Live On Maxwell Street” record (recorded by blues archivist Norman Dayron on the corner of 14th & Peoria in Chicago in Sept. 1964). Another fantastic record.
Did it become easier for you to work with more and more Louisiana artists as Rounder got bigger?
Yes, it did. And I think Ken Irwin should get credit too. He was the one who brought in some of the first Cajun stuff that we worked on. I guess it got easier. People wanted to make records for Rounder. Among other things, we paid people. Even if you were a session person on a record, you might make $500 or $1,500 depending on who the artist was for four or five days of work.
You obviously enjoy being in the studio.
Sometimes when I am in the studio I will work 15 hour days and think nothing of it. The energy gets going. I’m making a record which the important part is to get that great performance out of somebody. Almost always I will record with at least the rhythm section live and the singer singing; if there’s a singer in the band. With the two Ruth Brown records that I made, I cut them entirely live with the 14 or 15 piece band, and with her singing right off the floor. Which isn’t to say that you don’t go back, and do a vocal over again or work on something.
So you’ve got this moment when you are kind of at the edge of your seat in a way; when you know it is starting to happen. I will always know at the end of a great take when everybody starts laughing because everybody feels it. You know right then it’s there. It’s so much fun. Sometimes you might work for two days without getting there and all of a sudden you get yourself on a roll.
I remember with Johnny Adams we were working on an album of Percy Mayfield songs called “Walking On A Tightrope” (in 1989), and every day we’d work on (the song) “Walking On A Tight Rope.” I don’t know why but it never seemed to gel. We tried different tempos; we tried different bass lines, different grooves. Johnny would suggest things, but he just wasn’t feeling it.
Almost on the last day of recording, John Cleary started playing this little syncopated piano part; and James Singleton, the bass player joined in, and Walter Washington and Duke Robillard, who were playing guitars; they and drummer Johnny Vidacovich picked up on this groove. It really felt good right from jump. Then Johnny walked up to the mike and started singing “Walking on A Tightrope.”
This had nothing to do with anything that we rehearsed.
Got all of the way through the song—there were live solos and the musicians did a natural fade. So the musicians finished. Everybody cracked up laughing and everyone said, “Oh brother, you should have cut that one.” I said, “We did. We did cut it. C’mon in, and listen to it.” When I heard John Cleary start to play this little figure, I had nodded to David Farrell, the engineer, and he started rolling tape. It really is the greatest track on the record.
Any artist you wish you had produced?
I wish I had made a record with Danny Barker. (Trumpeter) Gregory Davis from the Dirty Dozen Brass band, and I were going to produce Danny. He was quite a pivotal figure in New Orleans music. He passed away (in 1994). He was a guitar player who grew up at the turn of the last century in New Orleans and ended up going to New York with his uncle Paul Barbarin. His longest gig was playing guitar with Cab Calloway for nine or 10 years. He also put out records with his wife Blue Lu Barker; one of them being "Don't You Feel My Leg" that Maria Muldaur covered.
He eventually returned to New Orleans, and got a job at the Jazz Museum. He went to the Fairview Baptist Church and him and the minister there started a brass band for kids, the Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band. Herlin Riley who played drums for Wynton Marsalis; Leroy Jones, the trumpet player (who was 13 when Barker recruited him); a couple of the guys in the Dirty Dozen; and Tuba Fats all went through this band.
[Barker's aim with the Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band was to teach young children old music. Notable alumni of the band include Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Leroy Jones, Herlin Riley, Dr. Michael White, Joe Torregano, Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, Kirk Joseph, and "The King of Treme" Shannon Powell.]
Danny, I think, should get a lot more credit—or any credit—for rejuvenating the New Orleans brass band scene, and bringing all these kids back into it. It had become something that was sort of a different time. Now the brass band scene in New Orleans—it’s kicking. Danny planted those seeds.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”