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Harold Battiste: The story of All For One Records

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 5:52 pm
by Charlie
Alan Balfour has scanned a long piece I wrote in Cream Magazine back in 1971 about Harold Battiste, an unusual musician from New Orleans who had a gift for organisation, whether arranging songs or managing record labels. Harold worked with Dr John on the famous Gris Gris album and on Sonny & Cher's biggest hits. And much more, as the following will reveal.
I'm going to paste it in instalments.


All for One: A Study in Frustration and Black Organisation

By Charlie Gillett

[Cream 5 Sept 1971 p. 22-25, 50-52]

HAROLD BATTISTE has worked on a lot of very big hits, but although you probably have some of them, it's unlikely you'll be able to place his name. He's a black musical arranger from New Orleans, and right there are three reasons why you haven't heard more about him.

New Orleans usually does get proper credit as the birthplace of Jazz and as one of the Homes of the Blues. But it has not yet been fully celebrated for its role in the evolution of rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, and modern 'funky' soul. Dave Bartholomew, who arranged the music for most of Fats Domino's records and several other hits including 'I Hear You Knockin' by Smiley Lewis and 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' by Lloyd Price, is fairly well known, but he should be really famous, like Sam Phillips, Alan Freed, and Bill Haley. But his successor in New Orleans, Allen Toussaint, is hardly known at all, despite his seminal arrangements and accompaniments on 'Ooh Poo Pah Doo', 'Mother-in-Law', 'Ya Ya', 'Fortune Teller', and a lot more hits in the early Sixties; Booker T. and the MGs and the Rolling Stones were among the many people who capitalised on Allen's funky rhythms.

However, Harold Battiste, unlike Dave and Allen, did not work only in New Orleans; most of his biggest hits were made in Los Angeles. Surely he should have broken through there? Phil Spector and Sonny Bono, for instance, became internationally famous. But Phil and Sonny had two advantages; they were white, and they were producers. Harold was black, and an arranger. And that, as Doris Troy used to sing, is 'double jeopardy'.

By a strange process, people seem to assume that musical ability is somehow 'natural' to black people, and that their achievements are consequently less impressive than whatever the white musician, handicapped by native inability and inhibition, struggles to achieve. Phooey. On top of that, there is a fashion among critics and journalists to celebrate the wheeler and dealer in popular culture, the director of films and the producer of records, rather than the people who lay out the essential framework, the scriptwriter or the arranger. Sonny Bono, the famous record producer, doesn't play an instrument or write music. So who does the musical arrangements on the sessions produced by Sonny Bono? Harold Battiste. Or he did, when Sonny was making hits. Harold's name didn't appear on 'I Got You, Babe' an arrangement for which he was paid the session fee of 125 dollars and not a penny more, but it is there if you look on the label of Cher's 'Bang Bang'. Since Harold stopped doing the arrangements for Cher, she stopped having hits with Sonny Bono. Which may be just a coincidence.

Harold hasn't worked on a hit for a couple of years, partly because a lot of the people he had been helping were trying to prove they could do without him, but he has been doing OK making TV jingles and running his publishing and management firms, Marzique Music and Hal-Mel Enterprises, with Mel Lastie. Harold manages Tami Lynn, and came to Britain with her when Tami came to sing for the people who liked her hit, 'I'm Gonna Run Away From You'. His story is a good introduction to the workings of the record business, with its crazy series of clashes between egomania and naivety, greed and stupidity, dishonesty and innocence. If Harold's tale is representative, it proves that you can still make out in the music business if you're honest, considerate, conscientious, and genuinely talented. But it takes a long time.

Harold Battiste (1) You Send Me: New Orleans/LA '52-58

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 5:55 pm
by Charlie
Part One: You Send Me: New Orleans/Los Angeles, 1952-58:

As a teenager, Harold Battiste didn't have any particular ambition or expectation to be professionally involved in popular music. He majored in music at Dillard University in New Orleans, and took jobs in local schools, first as band director at a school in De Ridder, southern Louisiana, and then teaching music at a high school in New Orleans. At both schools, Harold was aware that the black students had worse facilities than equivalent white schools, and he did what he could to balance things out a little.

At De Ridder, 'the white school had certain advantages that we didn't have — like instruments. So I got together the kids who wanted to play in the band, and got some of their parents interested, and we made some large signs and majorette uniforms for the girls, and paraded up and down the main street. That was about 1952 and you didn't do those sort of things then. But it had some effect, because the principal and I persuaded the school board to give us three instruments.'

Two years later, in New Orleans, Harold came up against the same double-think; his music supervisor told him that he was spending too much time teaching his students to read music. All the parents (of black musicians) expected was that their kids could play recognisable songs.

'I told him that the white kids of the same level were playing music far in advance of what these black kids were playing, although the black kids had at least as much ability. I told him that I thought the black kids were being held back intentionally, so when they left school they wouldn't be able to compete for the same jobs, and when statistics were compared it would seem that the black kids didn't have as much ability—and so it would seem to be a bad idea to integrate them into the same schools. I got pretty heated during the argument, and I looked at the supervisor straight in the eyes, and for the f1rst time I realised how scared that could make a white man. Here I was, a full grown man, and this was the first time I'd ever looked a white man in the eyes.'

Harold was asked to resign his post; by now an active and militant Muslim, he did so, vowing he would never work in the school system again. Instead, he left the backward backwoods of New Orleans for Los Angeles, along with a couple of friends who played drums and piano. Harold was by now interested chiefly in jazz, and the three of them linked up with a guy who was working as an elevator operator in a downtown store, Ornette Coleman. They played occasional gigs, rehearsed together, and decided to invest a few dollars on a demo record.

As the one who was closest to having some kind of business sense, Harold was deputed to take the demo around the record companies, but he got no response until he tried Specialty Records, a well-established gospel and rhythm and blues label that had just broken into the pop market with Little Richard. Bumps Blackwell was A&R man at this time, and on the day Harold arrived at the office he was setting up a pop session for Sam Cooke, lead singer with the label's most successful gospel group, the Soul Stirrers.

'I'd met Bumps in New Orleans once, and he remembered me. He was called an A&R man then, but now you'd call him a producer. The word 'producer' has only come into use fairly recently, and for quite a while I wasn't sure what people meant by it. But then I met a few people who were called 'producers', and I realised that this was the name given to somebody who knows how to talk to the right people and get some money out of them for a record he promises to deliver to them. He then has to run around to find the people who can write, and arrange, and play, so that he can deliver what he has just promised to produce.

Bumps Blackwell

‘Anyway, Bumps was that kind of producer, and he was running around the studio, trying to set up a Sam Cooke session. He didn't want to hear our demo, but he told me to hang around and help him do the Sam Cooke record. He already had Rene Hall in as the arranger, and Ernie Freeman was there on piano, so I couldn't see what I might be able to do. But I figured if I hung around long enough, maybe he'd listen to the demo, so I stayed. Bumps had one song he knew he wanted to cut, "Summertime", and a bunch of other songs that had been submitted. One of them was "You Send Me", which was really just "you send me" in the first verse and again in the second; then there was the bridge, and "you send me" again in the last verse; so I suggested Sam change it in the second verse, to "you thrill me" instead.

'They started doing a song, and I still couldn't think of any way I could help, but then Rene gave me some sheets of paper and asked me to write some parts for four white girls that Bumps has brought in to do back-up harmony. I was a little nervous about writing them up in sixths, because I figured maybe that was a little too hip for a rock 'n' roll date, but I did them anyway, and it all went off OK.

'We'd just finished, when Art Rupe, Specialty's owner, came into the studio. First he saw the four girls there, and then he heard the tapes and how sweet Sam was singing, and he started to get mad about how much money Bumps was spending on a session that would never mean anything because the public wanted gospel styled singers to be rough like Little Richard. So finally, he sent everybody except Sam and the musicians out of the studio, finished producing the session himself, and the next day he offered Bumps a deal where he said Bumps could take Sam Cooke's contract, his own, and the tapes of the session, in return for which Art would keep the royalties that he owed to Bumps, which he said were around 10,000 dollars. So Bumps took the tapes to Bob Keene, who put "You Send Me" out on Keen and got a number one pop hit.

'Soon after that, Art Rupe hired me to work in his office, supervise recording sessions, and do some arrangements. He only paid 75 dollars every two weeks at first, but it was a job, and I wasn't getting anywhere playing jazz. I've always been a very methodical person, and I spent a lot of time organising Art's office, getting the tapes in order, filing everything so I knew where to find it, and Art would kid me about it but I guess he was impressed because after a few months he suggested that he set up an office in New Orleans, with me in charge.

'While I was working in Los Angeles, a kid used to come up to the office with songs he'd written, called Sonny Bono. He was driving a butcher's van, but he was so enthusiastic that Art Rupe hired him as my assistant, and showed him how everything was run, in the office and in the studio.'

Harold Battiste (2) You Talk Too Much/You Put The Hurt on Me

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 6:04 pm
by Charlie
Part Two: You Talk Too Much and You Put The Hurt On Me: New Orleans, 1958-63:

'When I went to New Orleans, Sonny was put in charge of the Los Angeles office, and the two of us more or less ran the company, because Art didn't spend much time at it, although he always wanted to know what we were spending his money on. In New Orleans, I got to know all the session musicians, and I auditioned just about every singer in the area. I would send the tapes across to Los Angeles, with my comments, and I had to call up every evening to say what had happened during the day. I began to get upset, though, when I had to give my audition tapes and reports to Sonny — who was much less experienced than I was. We missed a lot of good artists that way, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner. But although I knew I wasn't being treated fairly, I stayed because of what I could learn, and because I couldn't see any other job I could do.'

The records Harold produced and arranged in this period are not widely known, compared to Specialty's famous hits by Lloyd Price ('Lawdy Miss Clawdy', 1952), Little Richard, and L,arry Williams (whose 1957 hits, 'Short Fat Fannie' and 'Bony Moronie' were supervised by Sonny Bono and Art Rupe in Los Angeles). But although they aren't so famous, Harold's productions are in some ways better, with a very clean, disciplined and yet relaxed sound. 'Lights Out', recorded in New Orleans in 1956 by Jerry Byrne, is in every way a classic rock 'n' roll record, with a funny lyric by Mac Rebbenack, and sung very fast by Byrne, a white teenager who managed to keep pace with the breathtaking piano playing of Art Neville.

The main reason for the obscurity of the records Harold produced between 1956 and 1959 was Art Rupe's refusal to go along with the prevailing custom of paying cash to disc jockeys in return for a specified number of plays for each record. Little Richard had generated sufficient interest for his records to get played anyway; but Specialty's more obscure singers couldn't make a breakthrough without payola. When Little Richard abandoned music for the church, Art lost heart and gave up the business too. At the end, not only did he not pay the disc jockeys anything, he didn't even send them free copies of his records. They should go out and buy them.

In his three years in the business, Harold hadn't exactly made a fortune. Art had upped his pay to 100 dollars a week; but Sonny Bono was getting 125, plus expenses, for a less complicated job in Los Angeles. Sonny was on Harold's side - he called him up and told him, 'Bat, he's screwing you'. But there hadn't been any obvious alternatives, so Bat stayed till the bitter end.

At the same time that Bat had been administrating Specialty's New Orleans office, a couple of independent labels had been set up in the city. Two other out-of-town companies had New Orleans offices like Specialty's – Imperial and De Luxe, whose records were produced by Dave Bartholomew and Paul Gayten, respectively. But Joe Banashak, a local distributor (who handled Specialty), had formed Minit Records, with Allen Toussaint as main producer, arranger, composer, talent scout, and session leader. And a man called Joe Rufino had formed Ric Records, for whom Bat began to do some work.

After a few minor local hits for Eddie Bo, Johnny Adams, and Irma Thomas, Rufino found he had a much bigger record on his hands with a song called 'You Talk Too Much' by Joe Jones. Joe was a man of moderate creative abilities, but had a flair for creating opportunities for himself; he could almost always persuade somebody to employ him, and consequently was a good man to play for, since it meant regular work. Bat played sax in his band, and on the record.

'You Talk Too Much' sold very well in every area where Rufino normally distributed his records — Louisiana, East Texas, Mississippi — but Joe and Bat were convinced it could become a national hit, with promotion. They went to Rufino — who so far hadn't paid them any royalties on the record - and persuaded him that if he were to give them 600 dollars they would do a promotional trip across country and in the process establish Rufino's label nationally. He was convinced, and they set off.

'We went to every little town on the map, and stopped wherever we saw an antenna. Country stations, pop stations, 50 kilowatt to 5 watts, we made sure they all had the record, even if we couldn't make them play it. We even got a little story on the record in Jet magazine. At that time, Castro was doing a marathon series of speeches on TV in Cuba, so we thought it would be a good idea to send him a copy of the record. "You Talk Too Much". And we got a reply, some guy sent us an official letter on headed notepaper, thanking us. We showed the letter to Jet and they did a little story on us.'

Joe Jones
[photo courtesy ]

'We went up to Chicago, across to Detroit, and finally made New York; when we got there, we had 29 cents between us, not even enough for both of us to go on the subway. But we found out that Lloyd Price, who's from New Orleans, was working in Coney Island, and we got a penny from one of the guards and took the subway out to where he was playing. Lloyd was glad to see us — and by this time the record was big, going up all the charts, and Lloyd fixed us up with a hotel to stay. Lloyd and his partner Harold Logan were connected with Roulette in some way, Maurice Levy, Phil Kahl and those guys. These are powerful people, you know, and we were starting to get scared.

'They sent Joe Robinson over with some money, to buy up the rights of the record. But we say no, and the next day his wife Sylvia came over; and by now, we were really getting scared, man. Phil Kahl took us out to the Roundtable, a big night club in New York, and gave us the big time treatment, and the next thing, they got hold of Joe Rufino, and they had him flown up to New York. And there were no way out. So, one way or another, Roulette got the rights to "You Talk Too Much". Which didn't make any difference to Joe and me, we were just happy for the record to sell, it didn't matter which label it was on.

'While we were up there, Lloyd had me write some arrangements for a recording session he was doing, and he was very happy with what I did and wanted me to write the arrangements for his band, he had a big band then, and I did a little tour with him, and Joe, and the Shirelles, but then I went back down to New Orleans, where Joe Rufino wanted me to work for his company.

'By now, I was beginning to formulate a plan, how I could bring all my experience to bear on a new kind of company. I had started thinking about it even when I was with Specialty, saying to myself "Do you realise, man, that here we are writing the songs, playing all the notes, doing everything and here's some cat who probably can't even keep time with what we're doing, he's got a few dollars in his pocket, and he pays us the money, and he walks off with all the profits? All he's doing is taking the risks, but for that he's getting the whole bundle?"

'There was a cat called Lee Allen, who was a very popular tenor player in New Orleans at that time, and who played on a lot of records. I figured that if Lee was to play one session every week for a year, at the scale rate of $41.25, he could earn somewhere around 24, 25 hundred dollars a year. But suppose instead of accepting payment for the sessions he were to say, 'no, don't pay me anything now, but give me one cent for every record you sell that you use me on', well if only one of the records that he was on in a year sold 500,000 copies, he's already doubled his take, right there. It seemed to me right that the musicians who worked on the session should own it, and benefit if it was successful.

'So I said to myself, there's an answer. But there was a hitch - the Union. The Union says, you're a hired servant, a labourer, and you get paid for the services you provide. It took me about a year to get round that, and I read up some books on business and law, and I worked out a plan: the musicians would form a co-operative company, in which they all had stocks, and we would employ the session musicians - pay them the Union scale, from which the Union could subtract its two per cent levy - but with their cheques they could buy stocks in the company, which meant that they would then reap the benefits from sales. I would be the elected president, who would carry out the actions we agreed on. But I had a problem, how to convince the musicians who were very sceptical about any kind of financial dealings, because they'd been burned so often. And I also had to get the Union on my side, because they were going to find out anyway, so it would be best if they knew what was going down before we started.

'Well, there was a young cat I knew in the local union, Mel Lastie, who was a trumpeter with his own band, a good hustler, and as soon as I called him and told him about the idea he was ready to go, today, he knew instantly what I was talking about. So now I had to get just the right cats, who would be not only the right musicians to make a good session group but also had to understand what we were doing. The first cat I called was Allen Toussaint, who was already working with Joe Banashak. He really liked the idea, of an all black company. Alvin Tyler would be the tenor man, Chuck Badie the bass player, Roy Montrell on guitar, and John Boudreaux, who was already playing drums with Toussaint on all his dates, would make up the group, with myself and Melvin.

'So all we lacked was an attorney who knew about the record business. The only lawyer who worked in the business in New Orleans was Levy, Charles Levy, who worked with Fats Domino and a lot of other people. But we wanted a black lawyer, to keep it an all-black company, and we decided it was better to take a black lawyer, who knew nothing about the record business, because we could teach him about the business.

'Melvin thought up the name, All For One, which we cut down to AFO Records, and I said, yeah, and we'll call the publishing company At Last Publishing; we had black business cards, oh we were really into it.

'We got our first artists through Jesse Hill. He was Melvin's uncle, I believe, and of course he'd just had his big hit, "Ooh Poo Pah Doo". Well, he brought us Barbara George, and Prince La La. Prince's real name was Lawrence Nelson, and he was the brother of Walter Nelson, who was for a long time the guitarist in Fats Domino's band, nicknamed "Papoose". At this time I was still working for Joe Rufino, and I said well, look, we don't have a studio yet and this cat has all the necessary equipment, so it's time for us to turn the tables a little bit. So every night we would go up there and practice.

'Prince La La wasn't intending to be a singer, he just came along to show Barbara how to sing "She Put The Hurt On Me". But when I heard him do it, I said he should make the record, we'd find something else for Barbara. Joe Banashak had found out about the company and he told Allen Toussaint to choose between Minit and AFO, and since we weren't established yet, Allen stayed with Minit. So I played piano on most of the dates.

'In the meantime, Juggy Murray of Sue Records in New York was looking for an A&R man, and somehow he'd heard about me and wanted to know if I'd work for him. So I said, no, but I had a thing going down here that might interest him, a new record company staffed by the best cats in town, and he said, don't tell another soul about it, I'll be down there tomorrow.

'Next day, I went to meet him at the airport in Allen Toussaint's Cadillac, not knowing at that time whether he was black or white. But I'd already figured that we wouldn't be able to keep it all black anyway, so now was as good a time as any to make the break. But when he got off the plane and I saw he was black— he had a black face, anyway—I was really happy, thinking this is gonna be perfect. Within two days, we had a contract for him to supervise our national distribution. We would cut the masters and ship them up to him, and he would decide what to release; I think "She Put The Hurt On Me" was one of the first.

'But around this time, Bobby Robinson — another black record man in New York — got in touch with me, wanting me to produce a session for him on Lee Dorsey. I'd done a record with Lee for Joe Banashack a couple of years earlier, around 1958, "Lottie Mo". Allen played piano — he'd been on tour with Shirley and Lee, and I had met him when he'd come in to do some auditions when I was with Specialty. So Bobby Robinson had got together with Lee's manager, Renald Richard, and they'd figured I could do another session with Lee, with Allen playing piano. So we cut "Ya Ya".

'This was recorded just after we'd recorded Barbara George doing "I Know", and Prince La La doing "She Put The Hurt On Me" at Cosimo's studio in June 1961, but Bobby issued his record first, and Juggy Murray was really pissed that we'd done something for his arch-competitor. His thinking was altogether different from ours. To us, it was cool for all of us black people to work together, and we thought these cats shouldn't be fighting among themselves. But they were New York record men, and they couldn't see it our way. And that's why there isn't a major black company in New York, why RCA and Capitol have been taking all our biggest singers and we've stayed small.'

Barbara George
[photo: courtesy]

Barbara George's record was a huge pop hit, making number four on Billboard's Hot 100. But although it should have made AFO Records secure, Juggy Murray undermined the New Orleans label by signing Barbara George away from AFO, onto his own Sue label.

'At first, we didn't realise it was happening, but we found out that when Barbara went to New York to sing at the Apollo, Juggy took her down town in a Cadillac to buy her mink coats and all of that kind of thing — using her royalty money to do it. But she didn't understand, and wanted to know why we hadn't been buying her all those kind of things.

'After that, running the company was never the same. We'd been very close to Barbara — she'd been about seven months pregnant when she cut "I Know" and I'd had rows with my wife because of the time I'd spent taking Barbara to the hospital in the month before she had her baby — and somehow our hearts weren't in it after she left. And apart from everything else, I realised that a black face wasn't going to guarantee co-operation.

'So what was I going to do now? I changed the colour of the label, changed the distribution in one or two places. But it got so that I was doing too much administrating, and that wasn't how I wanted it to be. I was doing everything from writing out the lead sheets to sweeping out the office, and some of the other cats wanted to play big-time, you know, coming in and sitting back, and I said to myself, no, something's wrong.

'We did one or two things after the severance with Juggy Murray, but nothing ever got past Memphis. I signed Willie Tee, did a couple of records with Mac Rebennack, and did one with Tami Lynn, who was singing with the band that we'd put together to play around New Orleans — Alvin Tyler wrote a song for her. Willie Tee, by the way, had been a student at the High School I taught at; his real name was Willie Turbinton.

'The main thing I wanted to do was record some of the cats who were playing jazz, who would never be widely known and might soon lose that thing they had, so we did albums with Ellis Marsalis — the pianist who'd gone to LA with me in '56, James Black, Nat Perrilat — who was in Fats Domino's band later, before he died when he was still only 33 years old. I didn't care if those records never sold, but they should be recorded for posterity, before the environment started getting to them, as I knew it would.'

Harold Battiste (3) A Change is Gonna Come, '63 - 71

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 6:14 pm
by Charlie
Part Three: A Change is Gonna Come: Back in Los Angeles, 1963 to 1971

'So finally I decided to wind the whole company up, so we timed it that we could all go out to Los Angeles for a disc jockey convention, and see if we could get something started out there. But there was a problem because of the Musicians Union ruling that you can't get a regular engagement until you've lived in a new area for six months — that protects the local musicians against outsiders coming in.

'Just about the only work I could get was with Sam Cooke, who had his own Sar label out there with his manager J. W. Alexander, and he had some of us to play on his album, A Change Is Gonna Come.

Sam Cooke
[photo courtesy:]

'I got talking to Sam, and found that he had a lot of the same ideas that we'd had when we formed AFO, and I said to him that one of the things I'd noticed about Los Angeles was that a lot of the talent was in the Watts area and South East Los Angeles but that most of the record companies were in Hollywood. So the singers had to come and hustle the companies to get recorded; but the ones that came out and hustled weren't necessarily the most talented singers. If we wanted to get the really good people, we'd have to go into Watts for them.

'I said to Sam that we should set up some studios in the Watts area, where singers could come and not feel scared to death, where they could feel at home and be themselves — and Sam knew what I was talking about. So we set up Soul Station Number One — just a small room with a piano, and a tape recorder, and a microphone, where anybody could just come in and tape what they could do. All we got out of that, though, was the Valentinos record, "It's All Over Now".

'But the band couldn't hang around for the six months to end; first the bass player went back to New Orleans, then Melvin, who had really been my right hand, got a call from "You Talk Too Much" Joe Jones asking if he wanted to come and play with him at the World's Fair. So he went, and then Tyler said he was tired of hustling for work — he was very talented, but lazy, by his own admission, and if there was work he'd do it really well, like all that stuff he did with Jimmy Clanton and Frankie Ford at Ace, but he didn't want to go out lookin' for it. So he went back to New Orleans and became a liquor salesman.

'But I hung on, and one day Sonny came down to the Soul Station, with Cher, and they asked if they could cut a record. Sonny didn't have any money, but he said Cher's uncle would put some up, and so we cut "The Letter" for Jack Lewerke's Vault label, I think that came out under the name Caesar and Cleo. But then he got a contract with Reprise, and he came back to me and we did "Baby Don't Go".

'I didn't know what was doing on, really; at that time, they had got tied in with Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, real dynamite hustlers, who were acting as their managers, and the next thing I knew, they had a contract with Atlantic.

'Sonny had this song he wanted to do, "Just You". One thing about Sonny, he's a very good Iyric writer, he knows how to say things in a simple way. But as far as musical arranging goes, he really doesn't know a lot. But, we figured that we could build him into a second Phil Spector, and that's the image we worked on. He had little sense of melody, or chords, or metre; so I would have to sit at the piano, and listen to his ideas, which were often good, and we'd work out the song together.

'When we did "Just You", we had a big arrangement, and the session was very expensive — and nothing happened. But we followed through with "I Got You Babe", and that made everything all right. We knew that we could make the public think Sonny was a genius — he had the right kind of look about him that made it believable. Of course all I got out of "I Got You Babe" was the session fee, 125 dollars.'

Sonny & Cher
[photo courtesy:]

'A little earlier than this, Mac Rebennack had called me up, when I was still in Sam Cooke's office; he's been in a correction centre for a couple of years, straightening out after being on drugs of one kind or another, and I was able to get him a job playing organ in a little band, and from there I got him some session work. Mac was one of those cats who used to spend all his time with black people, and there were times when he must have wished he'd been black, because he would always be made aware that he wasn't — the black people would ride him sometimes 'cause he was white, and the whites would hassle him for hangin' around with blacks.

'And yet he knew that he got things through being white that he wouldn't have got if he'd been black—he'd get offers for jobs, get paid more, sometimes to the extent where he knew he was getting more than he deserved, but was getting it because he was white.

'Anyway, he came to Los Angeles, I got him some jobs, and finally I got him together with Sonny, and he did some sessions with Sonny and Cher, and went on the road with the band for a while, and everything was going pretty good. Then, carrying on this thing about building Sonny up as a producer, we started doing things with Cher, for Imperial, with Sonny listed as producer and me as arranger. By this time I was getting my name on the label; but you know, it's a funny thing, in all the times I was working with Sonny and Cher, I was never once in any of the published photographs they had taken together, you know, the recording session pics, publicity shots, Harold Battiste was never seen.

'But we did pretty good, "All I Really Want To Do," "Bang Bang," up to "You Better Sit Down Kids." Then Sonny figured he could do it by himself, but they never had such big hits again. And then Atlantic took Cher, and Jerry Wexler himself went down to Muscle Shoals with her. But with all they had going for them, they didn't get a hit with her. And that kind of hurt, you know, that they didn't make any approach to me, you know, to say, "Well we got Cher, and you were the one who found the sound to make hits with her, do you want to come down and try again?"

'Sonny, he'd figured he didn't need me anymore, that he could make it as a producer-arranger-writer all by himself, although I kept trying to tell him that he needed to spread himself out, that the star thing couldn't last forever and he'd need to have something to fall back on, some kind of business operation. I'd suggested to him that we run a record label together, and he got behind that for a while, it was going to be called Progress Records, and he sent a couple of people along, but although I did sessions with them, I couldn't see what they had, they didn't seem to be really talented.

'And then I got to thinking that here we had Mac, and he'd been through it all and had never really used all his abilities, and so we started working on an idea I had, to do some kind of Louisiana voodoo thing, that would get to all these kids who were becoming interested in the "real" music. So we read up all the books, and put together the songs, got Jessie Hill in to play the drums, and Plas Johnson on sax, made up the name Dr John Creaux, the Night Tripper, and made an album, Gris Gris.'


'Sonny did all the deals with Atlantic for its release, and I discovered afterwards that although the company we'd talked about would be a joint thing between him and me, it came out where Sonny and his managers were listed as presidents and all that, and I was just listed as producer. Which wasn't where it was supposed to be, man.

'Well the Dr John thing took off pretty well, and we started getting write-ups in magazines. Albert Goldman, a New Yorker writer, heard it and liked it, and called me up, talked to me for about two hours on the phone from New York, and he had pieces in Holiday Magazine, and in Life. But although he knew that the whole sound was something that Mac and I had worked out together, he didn't mention my name once; and that hurt me, to think that these guys would know how things were, and yet they'd go and write something entirely different.

'I did a couple more albums with Mac, Dr John things, but I couldn't stay together with Sonny, and so I tried to do something on my own. Now Mercury had heard about the Dr John thing, and they were out looking for him, 'we gotta get this genius to produce something for us'. And through Irving Green (ex-pres. of Mercury), they found that he was really Mac Rebennack, and that I'd been the producer. So I got a call, to come to see them.

'Now I had a couple of people I was looking to record, I had Tami, and King Floyd, and a couple of others. King hadn't recorded yet, but he d come to see me when he'd left New Orleans, with a couple of songs he wanted to get published, and I'd tried to get Ahmet Ertegun to listen to him when Ahmet was in L.A. for a Bobby Darin session. But Ahmet didn't have time, and here I was, still trying to get something for King and the others — and they didn't know what I knew, that doors were being slammed in my face, and that it was gonna be a tough fight to get something going.

'But I went to Mercury with what was a reasonable deal by the standards of the time, I wanted 80,000 dollars for quite a few singles and some albums by these four artists; and they couldn't make up their minds about it. In the meantime, Mac called me, and said, 'Man, Mercury are offering me 80,000 dollars to do some producing for them, but I don't know. ..' I told him, 'take what they're givin' you.’’

'He didn't want to, but finally he took it, and he goes up to San Francisco to produce an album by Wayne Talbot, a piano player who'd done some sessions with the Sir Douglas Quintet. Well, none of those guys were in a state to get an album finished, and they spent around 36,000 dollars and still hadn't finished the album. So then Mac told Mercury about me, that if they want this thing finished, they'd better get hold of ol' Harold, and so they called me up and I went up and got the album finished, and then they wanted to make a production deal between the two of us, Mac and me, Hal-Mac Productions.

'And I thought to myself, as I came out of that office with this deal — the same office that hadn't been willing to do a deal with me by myself - and I thought, "Here I am' with five or six gold records under my belt, a string of TV commercials, a movie score, everything I thought you had to do to prove yourself. But they're not interested. But here I come in with this guy who, much as I love him, is a hopeless drug addict, entirely irresponsible, and they'll give money to him, knowing I'm the one who'll be doing the work."

'Mac saw what was happening too, he said, man, these cats gonna give us all we want. So I said, OK, if I got to come in the back door while Mac goes in the front, OK, that's how it is.

'And they set up Pulsar Records. And straight away, they wanted albums. I don't know why, but Mercury always wanted albums. The plan I had was for singles first, from everybody, and then follow up with albums for the people whose singles had done OK. But no, Mercury wanted an album by King Floyd right away, in a week's time, if we could get the material together in time. So I got to write out all the charts, organise the session group (we had Paul Humphrey on drums, Plas Johnson on tenor), do all the producing; Mac's my partner and he's supposed to do half of this, but I know he isn't going to, so I have it all to do. And Mercury couldn't believe it, that I actually did bring them an album in a week. And it cost them about 12,000 dollars. It wasn't all that good — the studio was new, and the mixing was awful, but there was some good stuff on it.

'But Mac wasn't really helping me. I wanted him to put up a front, you know, at least look like he had some business sense, maybe look after the rhythm section. But even on the King Floyd sessions, he'd be turning up an hour or two late. He got busted a couple of times, and he was lucky, the Mercury attorney came in and helped him get off, but I needed somebody I could rely on. So I called up Melvin Lastie. Mel had been doing pretty well - he'd played the cornet solo on "I Know," and he'd been doing some things for Atlantic, quite a few of their jazz sessions, and some of Aretha's first Atlantic records, put together the Willie Bobo thing, and generally was making out, because he was always a good guy to have on your sessions because he helped create a good spirit around the place. But anyway, while I was in New York on some other business, I told Mel that I could afford to pay for him to come to L.A. for a month and see how things were out there, and if he liked it he could come in with me as my partner.

'So that was what happened, and it became Hal-Mel Enterprises, instead of Hal-Mac. I didn't want to ex Mac out completely, so I told him that he should stick together with Jessie (Hill) and Shine (that's what we call Alvin Robinson) and write songs - because Mac's a good song writer when he works with other people, although he can't do so well by himself. Meantime, his Dr John thing kept gathering strength, and although he was signed to a management contract to us, he signed another one to Charlie Greene at a time when he really didn't know what he was doing, and so, OK, that's gone, and then we find out that the whole Pulsar deal didn't mean anything because somehow Mercury had written off the money they spent on us and were just winding down their West Coast operation, preparing to make a new move.

'So now here I've got Melvin over to the West Coast and I'm feelin' responsible for that - even though he dug it over there and had been happy to get his wife over there, too. And I'm sort of embarrassed for not figuring Mercury out by myself, for not realising that they weren't serious — I'd been in their New York office and seen everybody sitting around not doing anything, and I should have realised.

'So Melvin and I started figuring how we might try to do the AFO thing over, but this time do it right, a lot bigger. We'd had ten years to figure out where the cracks in the road are, and we figured what we need is 250,000 dollars, which is a lot of money, but not such a lot when you look at what companies were paying for just one artist sometimes. And we had a track record, we had evidence to show what we could do. But we tried for a year, and nothing come up out of that.'

Less than a month after we taped the interview, Harold sent an optimistic note: 'In the meantime, several seemingly unrelated incidents have occurred and formed the nucleus of a bright reincarnation. Jerry Wexler has taken a personal interest in Mac (Dr John) and is well on the road to salvaging his talent. King Floyd has found his thing at Atlantic. John Abbey has come "out of left field" to rescue Tami. J.W. has also signed Irma Thomas and Johnny Adams. All of these are New Orleans people ... MY PEOPLE. Jerry and Mac want me to co-produce the next Dr John LP. J.W. has placed Irma Thomas in my hands on the west coast. And of course there is . . . and always will be my baby . . . Tami. NEW ORLEANS IS ALIVE AND WELL AT ATLANTIC'.

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 7:37 pm
by NormanD
Great stuff. Thanks so much for scanning this, Alan, and for writing it, Charlie.

I've recently heard that Harold Batiste is seriously ill. I hope his fame gets recognised more while he's still with us.

There is an excellent new compilation of music engineered by Cosimo Matassa - 120 tracks for the price of a single CD. It covers the earlier period of NO music, so none of the AFO tracks are included (was he the engineer?) but it's an essential introduction. It also has the Smiley Lewis track "Down Yonder We Go Ballin", which must be where Dr. John took his name from.


PostPosted: Fri Aug 24, 2007 11:34 am
by Alan Balfour
normand wrote:Great stuff. Thanks so much for scanning this, Alan, and for writing it, Charlie. Norman
Actually the person we should thank is Garth for reminding me of its existence; it is such a well considered, insightful and informative piece. For me it speaks volumes to the "sympathique" of the interviewer. "A rare talent for getting the best from his chosen subjects" was how the late Mike Leadbitter put it when recommending Blues Unlimited subscribers to check out Charlie's AFO feature. How many of them ever did is another matter.

I'll now step down from the soap box....

PostPosted: Fri Aug 24, 2007 5:11 pm
by garth cartwright
I think this feature - found in an Auckland 2nd hand book/magazine shop in the early 80s - may be my initial introduction to Charlie's particular form of brilliance. I was a Dr John fan ever since i heard Right Place when maybe 8 or 9 and caught him in the Last Waltz a few years later which confirmed his weird majesty. Picked up Gris Gris - again 2nd hand - and it blew my mind. I was impressionable enough at the time to believe it was a real voodoo record!

Reading Charlie's Battiste interview gave me a background on early rock'n'roll that i was previously unaware of and how important the "invisible" men like Bat were in creating music. I then found a second hand copy of SOTC and a 2nd hand copy of Another Saturday Night (with a 50p sticker still on it - obviously dumped by an English immigrant) - sorry if you haven't made much royalties off me, Charlie!

Around the same time a friend taped me Bobby Charles' superb Bearsville album which i later found out CG championed. I've said it before and i'll say it again: the 2 best music writers the UK has ever produced are Nik Cohn and Charlie Gillett. Wildly different individuals in every sense yet both convey a great love of music while managing to describe those who make the tunes and their communities. On with the book, Charlie!