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WILLIE WEST


Willie West interviewed by Heikki Suosalo at Porretta Soul Festival, Italy (Photo by Marjo Parjanen)

The funky Fairchild was Willie West’s opening number on Friday evening at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy on July the 19th this year (2019), and it was followed by the slow and sentimental Wind beneath My Wings. Similarly the funky Said to Myself was succeeded by the laid-back Sam Cooke song, You Send Me. A nostalgic and beautiful ballad called NOLA My Home preceded the next uptempo number, the ever-compelling Higher and Higher. In Willie’s case, the unforgettable and haunting Greatest Love is a perfect song to close the set. Still two days later, on Sunday evening Willie introduced his version of I’ve Never Found a Girl, along with Greatest Love and Fairchild.


The Sharks:Willie, Daniel, LeRoy, Elmer, Alfred and David

THE SHARKS

Millard Leon (aka Willie) West was born to Ella Louise Bentley and Miller West.

Willie: “My mom was a domestic worker. She used to work for white families in New Orleans and stay there all week. She came home on the weekends. My grandparents took care of me and my sister and brothers. Then my older sister Shirley took care of me, when she got old enough. My dad was not married to my mom and I didn’t know him at all. My oldest brother Albert and sister Shirley Mae were Bentleys. My mom was married to their dad. They split up. My younger brother Melvin went by Holmes, my mom’s maiden name. His dad was not married to our mom either. None of them were very musical, and they are all deceased. But my sister sang in the church choir.” 

Willie’s place of birth was Raceland, Louisiana on December the 8th in 1941, so Willie recently turned 78. With a population of around 10,000 people, Raceland is located close to 60 km southwest of New Orleans. Willie: “Everybody was poor, so you didn’t realize you were poor. Everybody took care of each other. When you were at your friend’s house at dinner time, their folks would feed you, too. It was a happy childhood. If any neighbour would slaughter a hog, they would share the meat with less fortunate. Being kids, if we did something wrong, the neighbours would discipline you, and then your family would discipline you too, when you got home. It really was a whole village that raised us.”

In the list of Willie’s early idols – alongside Bobby Bland, B.B. King and Eddie Bo – you can also find Guitar Slim and James “Thunderbird” Davis, who were regular performers at the Sugar Bowl in Thibodaux, 25 km west of Raceland. “Hosea Hills used to run that night-club. Actually Hosea Hills was Guitar Slim’s manager, and he used to book Guitar Slim, and James ‘Thunderbird’ Davis used to go on tour with him with the big band that played behind Guitar Slim. It was the Lloyd Lambert Orchestra. James ‘Thunderbird’ would open up singing blues and stuff with the band.”

The Sugar Bowl bar opened in 1932 and relocated into a bigger building twenty years later. It was a popular venue in that area, and at one point Eddie Jones aka Guitar Slim (1926-59) was the club’s biggest attraction. With the help from Ray Charles, who was a frequent visitor to Sugar Bowl, he released a single called The Things That I Used to Do on Specialty and scored gold in 1954. James “Thunderbird” Davis (1938-92) recorded for Duke Records in the early 1960s and again for Black Top in the late 1980s. The Sugar Bowl existed till the early 1970s.

Willie: “I used to listen to a radio station out of Nashville, WLAC. They used to play a lot of the old blues and also country & western, a mixture of stuff. I went to Tim Hadley Elementary and then they sent us up to Thibodaux, Louisiana, which was C.M. Washington High School. I didn’t graduate. I got so much caught up in my music that it just led me to a different path. I got my schooling by just being around other musicians. I learned a lot through that. Through the years I educated myself how to read better.”

“My first group was the Sharks that we put together with my cousin around 1957.” Willie’s cousin, David Douglas, played the lead guitar and Daniel Douglas was on rhythm guitar. Elmer Hadley was on bass and Leroy Hadley on drums. Alfred Pollard played the trumpet. “David and Daniel Douglas were brothers, and Elmer and Leroy Hadley were brothers. We would do r&b, blues and doo-wop and the regular stuff off the radio.”

“Leroy Hadley lives now in Atlanta. He owns a cab company. Leroy started playing guitar and he went on to play with Joe Tex, Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, Z.Z. Hill... and with a lot of other people. He would play a few gigs with Aretha Franklin and Candi Staton, too. My cousin, David Douglas, played with Fats Domino for many years, and did some gigs with Ray Charles. He died in 2016. Elmer, the bass player, died five years ago, Daniel Douglas died maybe twenty years ago. The only two that’s left from the group the Sharks is me and Leroy.”

“A Cajun guy used to run this club called Tee Maws. That’s a Cajun name. We’d play there on Sunday afternoons from 4 o’clock till about 7. We’d play another club, Two Tone, from 8 or 9 o’clock till one.”  Both of those clubs operated in Raceland.


DID YOU HAVE FUN

In a nearby town called Houma, which is located 25 km southwest of Raceland, a lady by the name of Dorothy C. Lee spotted the Sharks during one of their gigs to neighbouring towns. “She owned the label RusTone, which was named after a little place called Ruston, Louisiana. She knew people from that area, so she named the label RusTone. We first recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s (1926-2014) studio in New Orleans. It was in December of 1959, going into the new year of 1960. So I recorded my first song, but it didn’t get any promotion.”

Released half a year later, in June 1960, You Stole My Heart by Little Willie West is a sax-driven, slow-to-mid-paced rhythm & blues swayer, written by Willie West and Dotty Lee. At that time, it was common for record companies to share writing credits, even though they had nothing to do with writing. The flip, Sweet Little Girl, is a run-of-the-mill r&b romp, and - as Willie noted - the single went unnoticed. Other artists on the RusTone label included the Scotchtones, Emmet & the Jades and one Bobby Jay.

“The next one, Did You Have Fun, made a little noise. Dotty made a deal with disc-jockeys out of Baton Rouge, and they played it.” Again written by Willie West and Dotty Lee, Did You Have Fun is an r&b ballad imbued with self-pity. Released three months after Willie’s debut single, once more the Sharks backed Willie up. Only now on the label Willie isn’t ‘Little’ any more.

The B-side, A Man like Me, is a honky-tonk mover with a lot of Little Richard elements in vocalizing. James Mars played the tenor sax solo. “On piano we put James Booker. Little Richard was one of my favourite artists. I used to do a lot of Little Richard, like Lucille.” Towards the end of 1960 Willie’s career was on the rise, not only in terms of increasing airplay but also getting better gigs after Percy Stovall’s agency took Willie under its wings.

The third Rustone single was released in March 1961. “It’s No Use to Try was written by a group out of Houma, Louisiana, the Jades. I did that song with them in Houma. I don’t think we went into the studio for that. We did that in ‘Emmet’s house’, although I was never introduced to an Emmet. I just thought it was a band name.” Kenneth Filardo on guitar, Nolan Zirangue on bass, Addie “T-Boy” Lee Domangue on drums, Curtis Cooke on piano and Lionel Hebert on sax formed the blue-eyed Emmet & the Jades, which was another Rustone recording group.  It’s No Use to Try, a laid-back r&b ballad, was written by Roy John Chauvin and Eldr Robicheaux. Roy, who plays trumpet, and Eldr on tenor sax were also members of the Jades. “I’m sure also George Picone rotated through and was a member at one time. Dorothy Lee was producing me at that time and hooked me up recording with these guys. It was the first time I recorded with a white band, but I never performed live with them.” On the label of the single it reads “produced by Le-Con”, which refers to Dorothy Lee and the co-owner and secretary-treasurer, Anthony D. Conino.

The flip, Willie Knows How, is a horn-heavy jump, written by Willie and performed by Willie with Raymond & the Kings. “It was really the Sharks, but Raymond put his name on the band. Raymond Griffin was the manager of the band. He used to book us.”

Soon after Willie’s third single, Rustone Records ceased its operations. “Dotty didn’t have much connection for promoting stuff, so that caused a lot of friction because they didn’t know how to promote me. They had a good record, but at that time she just didn’t know how to deal with people to get it really out there. I was lucky to get that far with it really, and I’m thankful.” If you wish to get acquainted with Rustone’s product more in detail, there’s a 16-track CD titled The Best of Rustone on Night Train International (NTI CD 7115), released in 2003.


I’M BACK AGAIN

Warren ‘Porgy’ Jones hooked me up with Frisco Records. He died five years ago. He used to play trumpet with Joe Tex’s band. Actually he was the bandleader.” Established in 1962 in New Orleans, Frisco Records was owned by Connie LaRocca (aka Constance Sculco) and Harold Atkins, and it existed for over three years. Besides Willie, other artists on the label included Al Adams, who actually is Hal Atkins, Porgy and the Polka Dots, the Rouzan Sisters and Wanda Rouzan, also known as “Mama Roux” or “the Sweetheart of New Orleans.” Among soul music lovers the most cherished record in the Frisco discography today is their 4th single, a plaintive ballad called Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Danny White.

The 7th Frisco single was Willie’s I’m Back Again, a chirpy and melodic mid-tempo floater written and arranged by Warren Jones. Cut at Cosimos’s in March 1963, Art Neville is on piano, Alvin Robinson on guitar, George French on bass, David Lee, Jr. on drums, Eddie Williams, Jr. on tenor sax, Clarence Ford on baritone sax and Warren himself on trumpet. Clarence Ford played also flute on the track. “He played with Fats at one time, and played on a lot of the Frisco stuff, not just my songs.” The B-side, Lost Love, is a weepy ballad, written by Warren again, and Willie sings it in a rather high register.

“Porgy and I got together to write and record a few songs, but we didn’t get very much attention. We didn’t get very much sale either, because we didn’t get much airplay. Connie gave me a lot of those old records that were pressed, and I sold them to the collectors buying my stuff on-line and that way I made more money out of them than back then.”

In the summer of 1963 they released Willie’s second Frisco single, a pleading ballad titled I Need Your Love (Baby), credited to Warren once more. “I wrote I Need Your Love and the other songs. Warren put his name on them as a writer. I was just so happy being recorded that I didn’t credit myself as a writer.  Warren had no idea how to write a song.” The poignant I Need Your Love (Baby) is Willie’s own favourite among his recordings, and it’s flipped by Warren’s You Told Me, a speedy dancer with a lot of screaming and high notes.

WARDELL QUEZERGUE

Wardell Joseph Quezergue (1930-2011) was one of the most talented and influential figures in the New Orleans music scene. He composed and produced and – above all – arranged memorable songs and hits for numerous artists, including Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, King Floyd, Jean Knight, the Dixie Cups, Dorothy Moore, the Pointer Sisters, B.B. King, Dr. John, Will Porter and the Neville Brothers. A recipient of an honorary doctorate in music, he also played the trumpet.

Willie’s third and last single for Frisco was Don’t Be Ashamed to Cry. “That’s written by Al Reed and Wardell Quezergue did the arrangements. Wardell was a very, very sweet guy. He did a lot of arrangements for that Frisco label, He did I Need Your Love and You Told Me.” The musicians are mostly the same as on I’m Back Again, except James Booker on piano, Peter Badie on bass and Joseph Johnson on drums. Don’t Be Ashamed to Cry is a fine beat-ballad with a touch of Bobby Bland to it. Labelmates, The Rouzan Sisters, handle the background vocals. The flip, Am I the Fool, is another southern ballad, and both sides were written by Al Reed, a recording artist in his own right, too.

After his debut single as “Little Willie West”, on five succeeding ones they used the normal “Willie West”, but when you look at the label of Don’t Be Ashamed to Cry, this time it reads “Lil Willie West.” “That’s what they called me from the beginning. The lady out of Houma, Louisiana, called me Little Willie West.” After a few more single releases on Frisco, Hal Atkins died, which put an end to Frisco’s operations, and Connie went back to work at her husband’s fried chicken restaurant. Incidentally, the name Frisco comes from San Francisco, where Connie was born. In 1998 Ace Records out of the U.K. released a 25-track CD compilation titled The Frisco Records Story (CDCHD 679). Frisco was the second record company in a row that went bust after only three single releases with Willie, so once again it was time to look for another outlet for his recorded music.

GREATEST LOVE

After his move to New Orleans in 1963, Willie had gigs with many artists and bands in that area, including Edgar Blanchard (1924-72), who in the 1950s used to work with Roy Brown, Joe Turner and Ray Charles, and together with his band, the Gondoliers, not only played numerous clubs and cut some single sides, but in the 1960s worked with such pros as Johnny Adams, too. Interestingly, his band cut its first record for Don Robey’s Peacock Records called Creole Gal Blues as early as in 1949.

Deacon John Moore (b. in 1941) is a musician, bandleader and an actor, and we can hear his guitar on many hits coming out of New Orleans in the 1960s, such as Barefootin’, Ruler of My Heart, Tell It Like It Is and Working in the Coal Mine. In the early 1960s Willie worked with him and his band the Ivories, too. “I did some gigs with Deacon through the same agent we had, Percy Stovall. I wasn’t a regular in the Ivories band, but I was a regular member of  Electric Soul Train.” Willie was a regular in Oliver and the Rockettes, and they played all around the city. In fact, when he first joined that band, it was called Simon and the Rockettes because at that time Oliver’s brother named it after himself.

Allen Toussaint (1938-2015; www.allentoussaint.com) is a giant in New Orleans music and a renowned producer, arranger, songwriter and musician in pop/black music on the whole. His biggest hits in the 1960s were the fruits from collaborations with Chris Kenner, Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey and Art & Aaron Neville. Later we can add to the list the Meters, Dr. John, Labelle, the Pointer Sisters and numerous pop, country and blues artists.

Together with an A&R gun called Marshall E. Sehorn (1934-2006), Allen founded Sansu Enterprises in 1965, and one of its subsidiaries was named Deesu Records. Among recording artists on Deesu between 1966 and 1970 we can list Wilbert Harrison, Maurice Williams, the Zodiacs, Warren Lee, Joe Haywood and Eldridge Holmes.

“Allen and Marshall hooked me up and they recorded me. I did a bunch of things with Allen. I did Greatest Love, which was a song that Lee Dorsey had recorded. Allen took me to New York and we overdubbed my voice and took Lee’s out. Then I did Hello Mama.” Produced by Marshall and Allen for Tou-Sea Productions and written by Allen, Greatest Love is a simple and haunting soul ballad, which indeed Lee Dorsey cut originally in 1965. Allegedly the musicians at this session were Allen on piano, June Gardner on drums, Walter Peyton on bass, Roy Montrell and Justin Adams on guitar, Carl Blouin on baritone sax, Nat Perilliat on tenor sax, Wendell Eugene on trombone and Fred Trepanier on trumpet.

Z.Z. Hill’s version of the song was released on Kent in 1967. “Z.Z. covered it after me. When mine was getting some good airplay, then Z.Z. Hill covered it and knocked mine out of the box. They started playing his, because he was a bigger artist than I was, and he was selling more records.”

Also the B-side, a mid-tempo routine dancer named Hello Mama, originally appeared on the same Lee Dorsey album as Greatest Love. That LP was titled Ride Your Pony – Get out of My Life Woman (AMY 8010) and it was released in early 1966. “Allen and Marshall, these are great guys. Allen was a wonderful, sweet guy. They did the best they could for me during that period. Allen Toussaint produced a lot of the music. Sehorn was more like a promoter of the company. They owned the company and they owned the publishing of most of Toussaint’s songs.”

DID YOU HAVE FUN... AGAIN

Willie’s second Deesu single presents a familiar song, Did You Have Fun, which Willie released already as his second RusTone single in 1960. Produced by Allen and Marshall and arranged by Allen, this time the credited writers are not only W. West and D. Lee but also somebody called L. Delcambre. “I did that song over. I wrote that song. They put that Delcambre name on it, but he had nothing to do with it. That’s what people were doing back in the day.” In copyright entries for this song one Lee J. Delcambre (1919-77) is actually listed, but no other connection between Lee and music was found and it seems to be Lee’s only entry at BMI, a music rights management company.

“I decided to record that song with Allen Toussaint. He did a different arrangement on it. There’s a group that recorded that song saying that they wrote it. I know in my heart that I sat on the porch with my cousin with his guitar, and we put that song together, Did You Have Fun. I have corrected the records now. That song has been in several movies like Rings (in 2017). It’s one of those scary movies. And it was in Lethal Weapon; not the motion pictures one but the one for TV” (2016-19). Indeed Willie’s new version is more soulful and stronger, with a bigger orchestration. Willie’s song Keep You Mine on the flip is a smooth and plain soul ballad.

Written and co-produced by Allen Richard Toussaint, Willie’s third Deesu single in 1967 was titled Baby, Baby I Love you, and it was an emotive soul ballad. “That song is in the movie Joy (2015) with Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. It came out so beautiful. The B-side has the Otis Redding style.” Named Face the Music, the song is extremely slow and slightly bluesy.

Ironically, again after only three single releases the label Willie recorded for folded. “Those singles didn’t get any airplay. They wouldn’t play them.” In 2014 Fuel Records released a 2-CD set with 36 tracks on it called Deesu Records Story, and naturally Willie’s sides are included.

Willie hooked up again with Deacon John Moore and his band at that point, the Electric Soul Train. “I worked with them for a few years in the late 60s. This was the hippie era. I even went to Woodstock. I wasn’t on it, but I wanted to check it out.” Incidentally, Willie & West on Stang Records and on Turbo in the late 1960s and early 1970s is a soul singing duo and has nothing to do with our Willie.

FAIRCHILD

Josie is Jerry Blaine’s label out of New York and it existed between the years 1954 and ’71. One of Allen’s, Marshall’s and Willie’s late 60s collaborations called Fairchild was leased to Josie and released in March 1970. There are both promo and stock pressings with added horns available, and in 2006 the song was re-released on Rhino. Backed by the Meters – Art Neville on keys, George Porter Jr. on bass, Leo Nocentelli on guitar and Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste on drums – Willie struts through Allen’s soft funk song in a fine manner. On the flip, there’s the slow and desolate I Sleep with the Blues.

Among the many songs that Willie recorded but weren’t released those days there was Teddy Royal’s funky Chasing Rainbows, which is best remembered by Johnny Adams on Hep’ Me Records in 1977. “I did that, but it never came out that I know of.”  In 1974 Allen Toussaint composed the music for a blaxploitation movie called Black Samson, and Willie West performed the theme song and also the end theme, Just like the Old Days. On a 2018 compilation called Funky Funky New Orleans, Vol.6 on the Funky Delicacies label (DEL0088LP) you can find this theme song called What’s His Name: Black Samson. Backed by the Meters, Willie doesn’t sing much but more or less stretches a few notes in noisy club surroundings. “Allen did the soundtrack for the movie, and he asked me to sing the Black Samson tune.” Apparently the original soundtrack was never officially released.

In March 1975 came out Willie’s last official single in the 20th century. Both sides - It’s Been So Long and Said to Myself – were mid-tempo and quite melodic funky numbers and Willie is backed by the Meters again. “I was still with Allen and that was leased out to Warner Brothers. They didn’t really promote it. I wrote both of those songs. Teddy Royal was the writer of Chasing Rainbows, and I needed somebody to put it down, because I didn’t play guitar, so I gave him the writer’s part on that song.”


ONE OF THE METERS

After that single release Willie went solo and for a while sang with the Renegades. Aaron and Charles Neville were also members of this group at one point.

When Art and Cyril Neville left the Meters in 1977, Zig Modeliste and Leo Nocentelli asked Willie to join the group. “They hired me to become their lead vocalist, and I worked with them for several years in the late 70s.” They were even close to completing an album with Willie handling the vocals and that would have marked the first album in his career. “We never finished it. I think the Meters were with Warner Brothers at that time, but they broke up after that. We did about six-seven songs and right now they don’t even know where the songs are.”

Those days Willie also worked with Bobby Love a.k.a. Robert McLaughlin and his funk group called the Uptown Rulers. Besides Willie, Aaron Neville also sang lead in this group. Bobby plays keyboard and flute, he’s an arranger, a bandleader and the owner of Uptown Rulers D.T. Records... and is related to Louis Armstrong through his mother, Doris Armstrong. “Bobby Love and I have been affiliated for a long time, right after I left the Rockettes. Actually he and I produced one of my albums called From West with Love.”

Prior to the album, Willie occasionally still performed in New Orleans through the 1980s and ‘90s. “I worked on and off. I kinda got hung up down there with the rest of the musicians working Bourbon Street, and it was beautiful get off of it. It was just a lot of hard work - with little pay.”


FROM WEST... WITH LOVE

In 1999 Willie’s first-ever album was finally released, forty years after his first recording session! Produced by Willie and Bobby Love, From West with Love came out on Uptown Rulers. “That was Bobby’s label. I thought the CD was great.”

One big plus is that only real musicians are featured, including Bobby Love, Carl Marshall (keys, bass, guitar), Don Thomas (bass), Michael Travis (drums) and nine more, plus six on horns. Willie and Bobby wrote six out of the eight songs on display, and the repertoire consists of two funky numbers and two blues songs. One of them is Willie Dixon’s I Ain’t Superstitious, which Howlin’ Wolf cut in 1961. The rest of the four are gentle and melodic ballads – This Time Around, Minute by Minute, I Want You to Know and Willie’s third take on Did You Have Fun, this time arranged by Carl Marshall.


WHEN LOVE AIN’T THERE...

Willie’s sophomore album, When Love Ain’t There, was released a year later, and this time it was produced by Carl Marshall and cut at his Giftt Studios in New Orleans. The biggest difference with the debut album is that this time the real instruments are reduced down to minimum – only some saxophone and harmonica by Jason Hemmens and guitar, bass, keys and drums by Carl Marshall.

Among the ten songs there are three familiar ones from the past. Don’t Be Ashamed to Cry is a remake of Willie’s third Frisco single in the mid-60s and both Earl King’s Loan Me Your Handkerchief and Al Reed’s Kiss Tomorrow Good-bye were ballads first recorded by Danny White for Frisco in the early 1960s. Among the rest of the tracks there’s some funk, a bigger dose of blues, one plaintive soul ballad – Come Back Home – and one Tyrone Davis type of an easy dancer, When Love Ain’t There, and they were all penned by Carl and Willie. Special mention goes to the concluding track, Cherokee Summer, which Willie whistles through without singing a note.

The CD was released on Giftt Records. “Me and Carl Marshall worked on that one, and Senator Jones was supposed to promote it. Senator was an okay guy, but he ended up repressing it without permission. He thought he knew everything, but in reality he didn’t. I gave him the whole finished product, When Love Ain’t There, well produced for that kind of stuff they were doing, that southern soul kind of music, and he had nothing to do with it but put it out... and he couldn’t do that. He didn’t put any effort behind it.”


WHEN YOU TIE THE KNOT

Interestingly, now it took only two years before the third album came out. It was titled When You Tie the Knot. “I did that with my good friend, Paul Boudreaux, a bass player. He produced that one, and Power Tyme was his label.” Paul was born in New Orleans in 1945 and grew up not far from a famous local club called the Dew Drop Inn, where he had a chance to hear many nationally renowned artists. He started playing bass guitar in the army in Germany in 1965 and since then he has played with the Bobby Williams Group, Uptown Rulers, the Las Vegas Connection and the Blues Krewe, and has also released solo records.

On this set, Paul is the main “instrumentalist”, Carl Marshall helps a bit on guitar and Stephen Allen on sax. Horns are programmed. “A bunch of beautiful songs, it’s that southern soul kind of stuff... not with the whole band, but also digital. Paul played keyboard and bass on it; wasn’t real drums, just a drum machine. There were beautiful songs on there. That's what you do when you are trying to record and put music out there by yourself with no label to foot the bills.”

There certainly were some beautiful songs. If we start from up-tempo dancers, Hot Lover is the funkiest one, and When Love Ain’t There was already the title song of the previous CD. Real Thing is a gently rolling mid-pacer, whereas When You Tie the Knot is a smooth beat-ballad. On You Hold the Key Willie gets a bit bluesy.

There are four fine ballads – the laid-back I’m Hooked on Your Love, the positive and romantic Happy Anniversary, the very slow and simple This Time around and the cream cut, the plaintive I Can’t Go on Mrs. Jones, which Cicero Blake also released later in 2010. “I wrote Hot Lover, I’m Hooked on Your Love, When Love Ain’t There, You Hold the Key and This Time around, and Paul wrote Real Thing, I Can’t Go on Mrs. Jones, When You Tie the Knot and Happy Anniversary.

In August 2005, Katrina hit New Orleans. “A tree fell on the roof of my house and damaged it. We got it fixed up and we decided to get out of there, so we sold it and moved to Saint Cloud in Minnesota. My wife is from Minnesota. I met her in New Orleans. In Minnesota I worked at the Dakota Jazz Club, when I first came there. Aaron Neville worked there. They’d bring a lot of big acts to Dakota. Even Prince worked there.” Willie also did a lot of the festivals in Minnesota such as Bayfront Blues Festival, Famous Dave’s Blues Fest and the Minneapolis Jazz Fest. Other venues included the Minnesota State Fair and other local clubs.


TIMMION IN FINLAND

As if the move from New Orleans to Minnesota wasn’t enough, the central point of Willie’s next project was located still further up north, all the way in Finland. “The guys emailed me and said they wanted to record me, so they sent some tracks down.”

Timmion Records (https://timmion.com) is best known on an international level for its soul and jazz releases with such acts as Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators, Ernie Hawks, Carlton Jumel Smith and, of course, Willie West. Jukka Sarapää (the co-owner and drummer): “My friend is a record dealer and he was looking for Willie’s older 45s. He found Willie, but Willie did not have any of his old catalogue records. But I asked my friend if he could ask Willie, would he be interested in recording new material, and he was! We had one rhythm track recorded with the High Society Brothers band, and we sent it direct to Willie and he sent it back with his vocals in a few days. It became Devil Gives Me Everything.” The High Society Brothers is one of Timmion’s in-house band incarnations and includes also members of the Soul Investigators.

Willie: “My buddy, Leon Laudenbach, came up with a lot of lyrics and stuff, and we put it together. We put the vocal parts on the tracks and sent it to the guys in Helsinki, and they put the horn parts and all that.” Leon Laudenbach is a singer/songwriter/musician out of St. Cloud, Minnesota, who has released solo records, and his music could best be described as a mixture of country, folk and blues.

The Devil Gives Me Everything except What I Need is the first single by Willie West and the High Society Brothers on Timmion in 2009. This slow, laid-back jam was composed by Willie, Leon and the High Society Brothers, who are also credited as the producers, and on the flip they placed the instrumental track. Jukka: “We knew that Willie is at his best – at least we think so – in gloomy downtempo stuff. Devil was a smash hit in the west coast USA ‘lowrider’ scene.”

The follow-up on Timmion, a bit faster ballad called Lesson of Love, was released a year later and the third one, the similarly desolate Cold in the Storm backed by the funkier She’s So Wise, came out in 2012. It was produced by a Finnish DJ and musician called Didier Selin.



CAN’T HELP MYSELF

At home after a ten-year break Willie continued to work with Carl Marshall on their next joint project, Can’t Help Myself, which was released in 2012 on Aviara Music, a subsidiary of Dylann DeAnna’s CDS Records (www.soulbluesmusic.com). Delightfully they’ve used a live rhythm section and still three on horns and three on background vocals. You can read my review of the CD right after its release at https://www.soulexpress.net/deep3_2012.htm#williewest.

Willie: “I hooked up with CDS and Dylann through Carl Marshall. I went up to Carl and put down demo tracks with him on keyboard. He put the tracks down and brought them back to Minnesota, and I got top-notch musicians on this one. I put horns, backup singers, the whole band, and I recorded my vocal tracks over. That’s a great album!” Among the musicians you can spot Jimi Primetime Smith, John Wright and Carl Marshall on guitars, Nick Salisbury and John Wright on bass, Carl on keys, Donald Hyepockets Robertson on drums, Brian Zoot Simonds on sax, Jeff Carver on trumpet and Rand Evenson on trombone.

“I got a song over there called NOLA My Home. It’s about New Orleans, and it’s a beautiful song. I got it on there twice, once with acoustic guitar and harmonica. Paul Metsa is playing 12-string guitar and Sonny Earl is on harmonica. My best two albums are this one and Lafourche Crossing, because I had a lot of input in them.”



LOST SOUL

In parallel with performing and cutting albums in Minnesota, Willie continued to work with Timmion as well. In 2014 they released two singles, which contained actually only one new song, the slow and intimate Down on Lovers Road.

The very same year Timmion released a 9-track album titled Lost Soul, which had three non-single tracks on it: the haunting Slow and Easy, the soft and atmospheric I’m Aware of what you want and a rare up-tempo cut, Gettin’ Down. “They used a lot of old songs when putting the album together, but I’m Aware of what you want is one of my favourites.”

Still between 2015 and 2018 they released four singles. The first one, a slow and peaceful song, was titled I’m Still a Man (Lord Have Mercy). A Gold, Diamond & Mink Production, which stands for three Timmion musicians – Sami Kantelinen, Seppo Salmi and Jukka Sarapää –, who also co-wrote the song together with Willie and Leon Laudenbach. Jukka: “The album went a bit under radar, but I’m Still a Man is another high point. It was featured in the Jim Jarmusch movie Paterson and it’s streaming over 1M in Spotify.” The film was released in 2016 and in Cannes it won the Palm Dog Award.

The slow and plaintive After the Storm refers to Katrina, and Give It Back is a swinging and jazzier mid-tempo number. I Just Can’t Leave You Alone is a hypnotic beat-ballad with Jimi Tenor on flute. Willie: “I went to Finland twice. The first time I went with my wife and then I went back again for a festival and to work in the studio. It was two-three years ago.” Jukka: “We performed a few shows with him in Helsinki and Turku. We played original material from the album Lost Soul and his old original material. Recently we have talked with him and are working on a new material for him.”



LAFOURCHE CROSSING

Willie: “Lafourche crossing is a bridge between Thibodaux, Louisiana, and Raceland, my home town.” That bridge gave name to the other album that Willie is very proud of. Released in 2015 on Loud Folk Records out of Minnesota, again we can enjoy music by an authentic and partly familiar rhythm section from the Can’t Help Myself album (Jimi, John, Donald plus Scotty Miller on keys, Dan Neale on guitar, Toby Marshall on Hammond, Thad Zoot Simmons on sax, Jeff Carver on trumpet and Matthew Probst on electric cello).

“I produced this CD, and this was cut in Minnesota. I did a few cover songs on that album.” From Sam Cooke’s songbook there are Somebody Have Mercy, You Send Me and That’s Where It’s At. Elmore James recorded Dust My Broom, Little Willie John cut Joe Seneca’s Talk to Me, Talk to Me in 1958 and Blues in the Night was first recorded by William Gillespie in 1941.

Curtis Mayfield wrote People Get Ready, and here the song features YaDonna West. “That’s my daughter. She worked with Willy DeVille. She went out on tour with Neil Young, singing backup. But she is a lead singer in her own right. She has a beautiful voice and performs all over the world. She’s been to way more countries than I have!”

Willie himself wrote or co-wrote the rest four songs. Got to Cut You Loose and Got to Get You off My Mind are remakes from the From West with Love album, Said to Myself first appeared on the Warner Brothers single in 1975 and I Got the Blues is a song that Willie and Leo Nocentelli wrote for Albert King’s album New Orleans Heat in 1978. Otis Rush also covered it. On YouTube you can watch live performances of three of those songs – I Got the Blues, Said to myself and You Send Me.

Willie has performed at Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans twice, in 2010 and 2017, but - besides Finland – Porretta Soul Festival is his first concert visit to Europe.

Willie also co-wrote and recorded several songs with Erik West Millette for Erik’s West Trainz project, on Montreal’s L*Abe label. This got a nomination for the equivalent of a Grammy award in Canada.  He performed with Erik and the West Trainz group at the Montreal Jazz Fest several years ago.

“My future plan is to keep doing what I’m doing, live on and keep singing as long as I’m able to. My health is pretty good, thank God! I’m working on trying to do another album, mainly blues and some blues ballads, because at heart I’m really a blues singer.”

DISCOGRAPHY: Please find Willie’s detailed discography compiled by Pete Hoppula at

http://www.wangdangdula.com/williewest.htm

...................

Interview conducted on July the 19th in 2019. Acknowledgements to Willie West, Graziano Uliani, Jukka Sarapää and Pete Hoppula.

SOURCES:

-          Dan Phillips https://homeofthegroove.blogspot.com/2008/07/willie-west-genuine-soul-survivor.html

-          Bill Dahlhttp://blog.ponderosastomp.com/2017/10/willie-knows-how

-          Opal Louis Nations <– http://opalnations.com/files/Willie_West_Story_American_Music_Mag._118_Dec.2008.pdf

-          Jeff Hannusch - http://www.offbeat.com/articles/willie-west-pounds-blacktop/

-          Bob McGrath: The Soul Discography

© Heikki Suosalo

Willie West photos at Porretta Soul Festival by Marjo Parjanen





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