Allen Toussaint, Sea-Saint Studios and Hurricane Katrina

E. Mark Windle 16 August 2020.

Photo: Courtesy of Phil Shields

For Roger Branch, original founder of the sixties R&B band The Tempests, New Orleans had an attractive pull for studio engineering and production work. Like most musicians in the South, there was a deep affinity for the city’s musical cultural vibrancy. He had already forged professional links with key industry figures there like Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, from his early days as an engineer at Reflection Sound back in North Carolina.

Toussaint and Sehorn had already been working closely some ten years before Roger had first connected with them in the early 1970s. Toussaint’s musicianship had helped define the Nola R&B sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a consequence of him feverishly absorbing the milieu of country music, blues, Creole rhythms and of course the honky-tonk piano which had initially put New Orleans on the musical map. As a musician, song writer arranger and producer, Allen Toussaint was the driving force behind many hits of the day, during the same time that The Tempests were doing their thing on the east coast.  Indeed, his career and influence has continued through popular music over the last five decades.

Toussaint had come from a poor but musical background, heavily influenced by his parents, neighbours and other musicians who visited his family home. As a young adult he developed keyboard and producing skills and played with most of the major artists of the day in New Orleans, until an RCA talent scout picked up on his potential. Toussaint’s first true foray into the commercial world was as Joe Banashak’s producer and A&R man in 1960, giving Banashak’s Minit and Instant labels a string of hits which typified the early to mid 1960s New Orleans R&B sound.

Toussaint met Sehorn after returning from a two-year draft in the US army; Sehorn was a Carolinian who played guitar in various bands at college before securing a position with the A&R team at Fire and Fury Records in New York. Their initial professional collaboration was when Sehorn brought Toussaint in for some Lee Dorsey sessions. After both labels closed, the pair moved to New Orleans to form Sansu Enterprises and Sansu Records, Tou-Sea, Deesu and other imprints. With Toussaint as songwriter, pianist, and producer, and Sehorn’s industry knowledge, Lee Dorsey was brought back into the studio. Licensing to the Bell subsidiary label Amy ensured that Ride Your PonyWorking In The Coalmine and Holy Cow benefitted from national exposure and distribution.

Cash and acclaim started to roll in, but Toussaint and Sehorn were in danger of becoming victims of their own success. The list of hits was growing, yet the pair were still having to depend on other recording studios around the city such as Cosimo Matassa’s studios and facilities outside of Louisiana. The need to operate their own studio for convenience and to facilitate more control of production was clear.

By 1973, a contract with Warner Bros. for composition, production and recording work enabled Toussaint and Sehorn to finance and build Sea-Saint studios on an old service station site at 3809 Clematis Street in the Gentilly area, on New Orleans’ East Side. Work soon poured in, from local sources but also from national labels wanting to use the the contemporary recording facilities they had just installed. The major labels were the ones that would keep Sea-Saint afloat financially, and the studio targeted its services towards them. Sea-Saint rapidly became associated with numerous national hits across soul, pop and country music charts. The 1970s saw in Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, a couple of albums by Paul McCartney and Wings, and a series of Billboard chart smashes by Glen Campbell, Paul Simon and Joe Cocker.

Sea-Saint formally joined forces with Cosimo Matassa when he closed one of his studios in 1978, and their services could now be offered to a wealth of R&B producers resulting in further seminal recordings by Bobby Powell, Lee Bates and Tony Owens. The 1970s may have represented the peak of Sea-Saint’s success, but the studio remained active through the 1980s and beyond. Whether pop, rock or R&B artist, it was a longtime go-to for anyone after quality recording facilities, engineering and production.

Roger Branch’s connection with Toussaint and Sehorn started when Sansu Enterprises first started using Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte for production and engineering duties as early as 1971, whilst Sehorn and Toussaint were waiting for Sea-Saint studios to be constructed. Eventually Roger Branch Branch also made the move there. A background in electronics served him well; Sea-Saint studios needed an individual with technical know-how as well as musical ability. And so, a position at Sea-Saint was secured in 1990, initially as a sound engineer to work on New Yorker Willy DeVille’s new album. The ex-Mink Deville lead singer was moving into a new creative phase, drawn to explore the latin, blues and soulful roots of old New Orleans. This culminated in Victory Mixture, a project initially started after a conversation about the possibility of covering old delta songs and a session playing old 45s together of Louisiana artists between DeVille and his friend Carlo Ditta. DeVille called in Earl King, Eddie Bo and Allen Toussaint for the project.

Sea-Saint would also be the location for a latter day professional reunion for Roger, and Tempests’ bassist and drummer Van Coble and Nelson Lemmond:

“Even though The Tempests had disbanded, some of us worked on projects every few years” Nelson comments. “Probably the most fun was doing a promotional album for Camel cigarettes in the late 1990s. Through my point-of-sale advertising company I’d done a lot of work with R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco company, with shop displays and billboard signs. I kept telling them that I had a band in mind who sounded fantastic and we should record them for their advertising. Eventually they gave in. They said, “here’s a piece of money, now go do some demos – but shut the f**k up”. I got Van and Nat Speir from The Rivieras working on writing some material and called Roger Branch so we could get a few local musicians together. A month was spent on that album at Sea-Saint. We stayed at the Pontchartrain, one of the great old hotels in the centre of New Orleans. Up at around 11am for the recording sessions, go eat at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and then over to the studio to work through until 2 or 3am. Then back to the hotel for some turtle soup and gumbo. Initially we looked at the idea of using all-star New Orleans line up, including Fats Domino. Marshall Sehorn and I woke him out of bed at noon one day which he didn’t thank us for. In the end though we wanted the project to seem like it was featuring one band. A bar band was used that played on Bourbon Street. Luther Kent was the singer who played with Blood, Sweat and Tears when David Clayton Thomas left. Luther had a big blues band called Trick Bag – when B.B. King or Bobby Bland came to town they would back them. For the camel session, Allen Toussaint played on some of the songs to help us out. On the first day the rhythm section was having a real problem with tempo. Very politely Allen asked if he could sit in. Well, he immediately straightened everything out. The guy was a genius.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it made global news, and instantly wiped out what was more than a century-old musical and cultural heritage. The storm surge and Mississippi levee failure had catastrophic effects. Fifty-three breaches occurred in what were often ill-designed and constructed flood protection barriers. Eighty percent of the city was flooded, and water levels remained high for weeks after the storm. The death toll attributed to the violent effects of the storm is still disputed but placed conservatively between 1000-1500 in New Orleans area alone. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless, forced to move from the area, and many were either unable or did not wish to return. Given that more than half of New Orleans residents prior to the storm were African-American, the impact on the black music industry was devastating. On 28th August 2005, Sea-Saint Studios was destroyed. Allen Toussaint found himself without a home, a business and most of his possessions. Like thousands of others in the immediate aftermath, he initially sought a place of safety at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, relocating in the longer term to New York before eventually returning to New Orleans.

Roger Branch continued to work in New Orleans. “Four feet of water flooded the ground floor and Katrina had damaged the Sea-Saint building beyond repair. But by a stroke of luck, I had a place – originally an office – on the other side of town. It was situated in an elevated position. Although only a few blocks away from the Mississippi River, it avoided damage by Katrina, other than some roof damage which we quickly repaired”. Those office premises would become Oak Street Recording Studio, which to this day continues to record new and established artists.

The effects of Hurricane Katrina didn’t deter Toussaint from picking up his career again. Within six months he performed on the David Letterman Late Show. Offers of a number of live performance opportunities around New York were accepted before he eventually returned to a rebuilt, smaller New Orleans. He recovered financially to some extent when approached by advertisers for use of his song Sweet Touch of Love in what would become an award-winning TV advertisement. Toussaint continued to support the revived New Orleans music scene. He was already inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998; by 2013 Toussaint was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. The National Medal of Arts awarded by U.S. President Obama was the icing on the cake.

This article is a chapter excerpt from the book “The Tempests: A Carolina Soul Story” by E. Mark Windle.

Moments in Time. The Reflection Sound Studios Story

E. Mark Windle 30 July 2020

“Looking back, I’m really proud of what we achieved in the 1960s” drummer Nelson Lemmond once told me. “As The Tempests, out of Charlotte, North Carolina, we made some great R&B and played with some great talent too. We never got a chance to perform with Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett. But pretty much everybody else in between. At the end of the day though, by the late ’60s, the atmosphere was changing. Otis had been killed in a plane crash in that lake in Wisconsin. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis. Civil unrest was everywhere and there was a militant air, even in North Carolina, often considered one of the more progressive areas of the south. People ended up taking sides.”

Lemmond’s comments echoed previous remarks made by other session musicians and singers through the south, including those at Stax and other studios where white and black musicians and singers previously rubbed shoulders. The 1970s marked now dramatically changing times in the south and throughout the USA. The cusp of the two decades witnessed political unrest through Vietnam War and internal racial tension, demonstrated through riots in Detroit and other urban areas of the north. The musical landscape was also changing. Soul music was evolving. Hard hitting funk became the new musical voice. In the south, artists such as Chicago, Allman Brothers band and southern rock were now popular choices with white radio listeners. Other events happening around the country would also affect R&B programming. Nashville’s WLAC was changing its format. John Richbourg, the purveyor of soul who influenced so many local radio stations across America and including the Carolinas, was to leave in disagreement with the new radio policy. Within a couple of years, the final nail in the Nashville R&B coffin was displacement of the black community to make way for new urbanisation projects, dispersing black culture and music.

The beginning of the new decade saw a dramatic wane in popularity among the white record buying audience for soul music. There would still be clear pockets where the R&B industry would thrive, but these were primarily in the cities of the north and the west where the symbiotic relationship between funk and politics existed. In the south studios had their own issues. Socio-political evolution, revolution, and demand for racial identity bled through musical directions and created a true cultural divide. Bridges built via integrated bands and musicians through the mid to late 1960s were largely burned. Many small white-owned studios of the south would turn their focus to country music and southern rock.

There were some exceptions of course. To survive in the industry, independent studios did have to cater for new musical styles and artists but some, like Charlotte’s Reflections Sound Studios felt it was foolhardy to discard relationships with previous key industry players and artists from the black community, and would still be worth of keeping one eye on the residual R&B market.

Wayne Jernigan was the studio’s creator. He had previously enjoyed popularity and some financial success as the drummer with Ernest Tubbs’ country band. Travelling on the road however had put a major strain on Jernigan’s relationship with his wife, so they took the plunge and moved east from Nashville to Charlotte to start anew, with plans to build a studio. Reflection Sound Studios opened in 1969. Jernigan initially struggled to get studio off the ground recording music only. It also become a place for hire for commercials, jingles and film audio tracks at least until business momentum secured its survival. Paul Scoggins, owner of Paul’s Lounge on the same street which featured several local and national acts, joined forces with Wayne as a silent partner with Jernigan’s production company. Ultimately the studio didn’t save Wayne’s marriage, but the facility would enjoy more than forty years of steady recording success via R&B and mainstream artists such as James Brown, Whitney Houston and Kenny Loggins.

Back in the very early 1970s, Wayne Jernigan would perform multiple roles at the studio including management, production and as session musician, but realised a team of similarly talented individuals was needed for the studio to function effectively. With that, Tempests co-founders Roger and Mike Branch came on board as sessions musicians and to learn some production skills along with Don Strawn, ex-engineer from nearby Arthur Smiths’ studio.

The late Steve Calfee, guitarist, singer and songwriter with the band Lost Soul (who recorded northern soul collector favourites “Secret of Mine” and “I’m Gonna Hurt You”), remembered his time at Reflection Sound:

“About 1972 I was performing in a band that was supposed to become the back-up guys for what eventually became The Intruders, the R&B group. That bit didn’t work out unfortunately. Anyway, we went to Reflection Sound to cut some tracks for a demo, and to add tracks for a guy called Ronnie Arthurs, who I believed performed and recorded as King Arthur. He was repairing a boat behind the studio for Paul Scoggins during his down-time to pay for the sessions. Wayne Jernigan was our engineer. Roger Branch was in and out at various points. The studio was located right on the highway at the time. As you walked in the front door there was a hallway, a waiting area with some couches and a chair or two. The control room was about twelve by twenty feet and looked out on the studio floor. Across the south end there was a raised stage area along the wall and the main studio floor, with baffles for sound isolation.”

The Cannonball song “You Keep Telling Me Yes” which enjoyed some popularity on both the beach music and the early northern soul scene was recorded at Reflection Sound Studios. Songwriter and Cannonball member Joe Crayton Clinard Jr. recalls:

“Roger Branch was always around the studio. We recorded three tracks there as Cannonball. I think he may have been working the board with Wayne Jernigan on “No Good To Cry”, “Sunny Day Today” and “You Keep Telling Me Yes”, though that was recorded at a separate session. Everything thing was quick in and out in those days to save money.”

Jeff Ayres was on the inside: “I recorded at Reflection Sound in ‘74 with Roger. I was probably twenty years old at the time and knew very little about the professional recording process. The thing I remember most was the vintage 414 microphone….or at least vintage now…and how much I loved the sound of that mic. Also remember sleeping under the console while Roger was mixing one of our tunes at three or four o’clock in the morning. Does it really take that long? I found out in later years …it really does take that long!”

Marshall Sehorn, who was originally from North Carolina, and industry partner Allen Toussaint were using Reflection Sound as an interim facility to record some of their own label artists and to edit pre-recorded material whilst waiting to finance their Sea-Saint Studios project in New Orleans. Roger Branch already knew Sehorn and Toussaint through an introduction some years earlier by a Smash representative during promotion of The Tempests recordings. Ron Henderson and Choice of Colour, Wilbert Harrison, Eldridge Holmes and Aaron Neville were among those artists.

A characteristic of Reflection Sound was the multi-talented nature of its studio personnel and artists, as demonstrated by the latter-day discovery by the UK northern soul scene of Choice of Colour’s Your Love recording for ABC APT. The song was co-written and produced by Roger Branch. Washington-born lead singer Ron Henderson (ex-singer with The Orioles, The Spaniels and The True Tones), would not only record his own material with Choice of Colour but would also be employed as backing singer and writer for other artists.

The studio would attract other artists from neighbouring states to utilise the facilities. Arthur Freeman was one example, originally recording “Played Out Playgirl” years earlier on the custom label Regal in Florida. Freeman would re-record it with better quality production at Reflection Sound. Jernigan was in the habit of shopping demos around of their in-house productions to other labels, but for this recording struggled to find an interested label. Reportedly a desperate result of a financial deal with a local adult movie cinema owner, the 45 appeared first in 1971 on the ultra-rare Asta Arts imprint, then received a much wider distribution shortly after via the long running Nashville label Excello.

Local black singers were represented at the studio by Louis King, who previously appeared as King Louie with the Court Jesters on ‘Doc’ Johnson’s Wilmington Mockingbird label (which also featured The Generation’s version of The O’Jays “Hold On”). King had most likely been brought to Reflection Sound by Scroggins due to his appearances as a popular act at Paul’s Lounge. On these recordings Roger’s backing band would bring horns and a funk groove to the proceedings to support Louis’ competent baritone vocal. 

What was effectively the Reflection Sound house rhythm section adopted the name of Backyard Heavies, for ensuing Scepter releases in 1971 and 1972. Consisting of Roger (guitar), Mike (keyboards), Stan Cecil (keyboards), Mike Russell (bass) and Paul “Mickey” Walker (drums), the band recorded the competent funk instrumentals “Soul Junction” / “Expo 83”, and “Chitlin’ Strut” / “Humpin’ ” ; released as respective 45s. One final recording, Just Keep On Truckin’ was released on Hot Line, a subsidiary of the Cutlass label and essentially a Branch-Sehorn collaboration. Neither the Scepter nor Hotline 45s achieved any particular commercial success. However latter-day hip-hop producer Pete Rock and artist Kanye West would acknowledge the Backyard Heavies through sampling elements of Expo 83 in their respective works, namely “The Basement” and “Runaway”.

Inevitably, beyond the mid ’70s, the nature of work at Reflection Sound would change as would its location. It was now southern rock and mainstream pop which would guarantee its future. One of the studio’s biggest commercial associations would occur in the next decade, when Georgia college band R.E.M. worked on their Murmur and Reckoning LP projects, shooting them to global and long lasting fame. At that point the studio had long since been upgraded to new premises on Central Avenue. That, however, is another tale.

This article is a chapter excerpt from the book The Tempests: A Carolina Soul Story by E. Mark Windle, available to order at A Nickel And A Nail

House of Broken Hearts: The Northern Soul of a Southern City

E. Mark Windle, 27 July 2020

Regarding what has been pretty much an obsession with 1960s southern soul themes since I started writing around ten years ago, House of Broken Hearts was taken on to resolve one nagging omission. A fair chunk of my travels (virtual and otherwise) has been spent researching the Carolinas, Virginia, Louisiana and a wee bit of Texas, to cover beach music, soul influenced garage bands and black vocal groups for the books It’s Better To Cry and then Rhythm Message. But I was always conscious that one particular southern state was overdue attention.

Memphis and Nashville are perhaps among Tennessee’s most obvious music centres. The two cities may be separated by a couple of hundred miles – no distance at all in US terms of course – but they have rich and intriguing musical identities. To the casual observer, for culturally contrasting reasons. 

Memphis’ musical heritage is undeniable. There is no danger of it being eroded by the passage of time. Indeed it is comforting that there is an abundance of literature celebrating all aspects of the Memphis musical tapestry whether it be Beale Street, Sun Records, Stax, Graceland and rock ‘n’ roll, blues or jazz. As a writer looking for a soul music ‘angle’, I guessed that Stuart Cosgrove would maybe have it covered already in his plans for his soul trilogy, no doubt adding a political slant to previous reference works by Peter Guralnik and the like. Indeed, Stuart’s Memphis 68 soon appeared.

So then, what of Nashville? Well, much of its soul music history has until recent years been obscured by the city’s accolade as the country music centre of the universe. The Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum proudly stand testament to that. But to say that “Music City” is synonymous with country music is (technically) a contradiction. After all, the term was coined when the Fisk Jubilee Singers came to UK shores to perform their spirituals in the presence of Queen Victoria as part of their university fund raising effort. This would set the scene for future decades of race music, which would only be quashed by eventual dispersion of the local African-American community. Activities to redress the balance from the 1980s onwards include Nashville musician Fred James’ efforts to roll-call blues and soul singers to perform again and in some cases even to recommence recording careers; and a highly praised Night Train exhibition by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, coordinated by museum editor Michael Gray. The CD spin-off from the exhibition was even a Grammy winner. And to this day, the artists from back in the day continue to sing, reminisce and be remembered by others who come to watch them perform regularly at Carol Anne’s café off Murfreesboro Pike.

But what does 1960s Nashville have to offer specifically to soul fans from the UK and European underground scenes?  Some are no doubt aware of the huge catalogue of Sound Stage 7 and related releases. Enthusiasts of a different genre have long loved the Louisiana swamp blues which found their way onto Ernie Young’s Excello label. But to some younger generations or to those on the other side of the pond, Nashville’s soul music output sometimes appeared a little disconnected from the rest of what was going on in the music industry at the time. Was the R&B ‘thing’ in Nashville just a bit of luck with record industry leaders finding a brief niche within the national soul explosion?

Truth is, it was there all the time. Everything just came together at the right time for soul music. As the back cover blurb of House of Broken Hearts explains:

“….In the 1960s an exciting, vibrant black music scene thrived on Jefferson Street and in surrounding neighbourhoods. Night clubs, bars and theatres provided a focal point for the development of R&B. Ingredients for success were all in place – home grown talent, venues, charismatic DJs and promoters, entrepreneurial record store owners, independent black owned labels, a radio station making hip soul music accessible to teenagers across the southern states, and TV shows which featured local R&B acts. It was even the time for white artists and musicians to experiment with black music; a crossroads where soul met country music. For a brief period at least, the future seemed bright….”

The purpose of the book was to celebrate the individuals – not just the singers, but industry players, media drivers and record labels; bringing the spotlight once more back to this era. OK, so it’s written from a northern / rare soul enthusiast’s perspective. You’ll find the stories of Jimmy Church, Frank Howard and the Commanders, Freddie North, Johnny Jones and the King Casuals, Joe Simon, Jackie Beavers, The Spidells and many more in there. But I hope you will discover more than a collection of biographies. A story of dreams, exciting times, and harsh reality. Were it not for ill-planned urbanisation decisions which displaced the black community – and inevitably much of its musical culture – perhaps Nashville could have forged an R&B legacy comparable to cities of the north.

Music City is long overdue recognition for its role in popularising soul as a genre. This book cements some of this history with thorough research and a whole lot of help from those veteran singers and musicians who still keep the flame alive. If you’re passing through Nashville, be sure to call by Carol Anne’s Cafe.

House of Broken Hearts is available to order from A Nickel And Nail.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T ! That Woman’s Got Soul!

E. Mark Windle 26 July 2020.

Let’s face it. There would be no need for a Women’s History Month forty years on from inception, if under-recognition of female contributions to culture, society and the workplace wasn’t still a “thing”. The music business is as guilty as any other male dominated industry of inequality and denied opportunity. Female recording artists are still, on average, earning less than male counterparts. Less women reach music executive positions, and less are employed as songwriters, musicians within the industry.

The good news is that strong, determined, pioneering women are well represented though the decades, and in all facets of the business. Take Hattie Leeper, the first female African American DJ to be employed on a commercial radio station in North Carolina. At fourteen years of age, she would hang around the WGIV station. Hattie would make coffee for staff, answer the phone, file 78rpm records for DJs – just about anything to get her foot in the door. From these humble beginnings a chance to introduce records was offered after a DJ failed to turn up for work. “Chatty” Hattie, as she became known, was an established household name by the time she had moved up through the WGIV ranks and onto Big WAYS, two of the most popular stations in the Carolinas for R&B in the 1960s. Her secretarial position at the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers allowed her to meet luminaries such as Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records and Berry Gordy, owner of Motown. This helped further Hattie’s interests in promoting, managing and recording soul music artists in the region. Hattie enjoyed an extremely successful career in the media and was inducted into the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2015.

Back in her early days, Hattie struck a friendship with record label owner Florence Greenberg, another woman who worked in what was traditionally deemed a man’s world. She was not African American, but a Jewish middle-aged suburban wife, with two children in tow. Florence was captivated by the song-writing creativity coming out of the Brill Building in New York and driven by a strong passion for R&B. If it wasn’t for her Scepter-Wand label empire, the careers of The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick and Chuck Jackson would not have been catapulted to fame so quickly, if at all. Maxine Brown, another of Greenberg’s high-profile artists, commented once: “She was a brave woman – the only woman (at the time) to own a record label in this business, competing with men and standing in there toe to toe with male producers and record owners.”

Background tales of poverty and prejudice are found within the profiles of many of our female African American icons. Billie Holiday and Etta James had their demons, including heroin and alcohol addiction. Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin endured years of physical and mental abuse from their respective partners. Many artists succumbed to the consequences of their circumstances. But circumstance can also inform creativity, and some make it despite it all. Within just a few years of divorcing her manager-husband, Aretha’s “Amazing Grace” LP was a global big seller, and her Queen of Soul status was assured.

If there was one recording which epitomises the sentiment of this month’s theme, Aretha Franklin gave us that too. In her initial recording period with her first label Columbia, she was mainly resigned to presenting jazz and standards and was prevented from straying too close to soul music. Columbia just didn’t know what to do with her artistically. Signing to Atlantic in 1967 and “Respect” was a game changer. Placed near the top of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, the song landed two Grammys including the award for “Best Rhythm and Blues Solo Vocal Performance, FEMALE”. Aretha’s unique spin plus the musical punch from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section transformed Otis Redding’s original take as weary, bitter male commentary into a woman’s unambiguous demand for respect in the domestic setting. But it came to represent even more than that. “Respect” was recorded when the country was about to be embroiled in violent political unrest. The song hit the airwaves just at the right time to be adopted by the civil rights movement. And thus, it became a banner for both social and racial freedom. There may not have been any explicit political commentary within the lyrics but then there didn’t need to be. One word said it all.