Chocolate Milk: The Other Funk Band

Chocolate Milk - New Orleans funk bandQuick: Name a New Orleans funk band that recorded for a major label in the ’70s, worked with Allen Toussaint, played backup on dozens of notable sessions, and left behind a stack of essential grooves.

Odds are that you named the Meters, who’ve become synonymous with golden-era New Orleans funk. But history’s paid less attention to the city’s other major funk band from that era, Chocolate Milk. In fact they’ve practically disappeared from history altogether despite their eight major-label albums, many national tours and 11 R&B chart hits (two of which also hit the lower regions of the pop charts). Only two of those eight albums have ever seen CD reissue, and those as imports: The US got only the Razor & Tie compilation Ice Cold Funk, now out of print. Yet the best of those singles—“Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” the Toussaint-penned “Girl Callin’,” the just-barely-air-playable “Comin’” and their cool breeze of an anthem, “Groove City”—remain songs that would bring any dance floor to life.

So how does a major New Orleans funk band fall through the cracks? Partly due to that major label deal. Never the world’s funkiest label, RCA couldn’t get Chocolate Milk an across-the-board hit and didn’t do much with the catalogue after their 1983 breakup; some of the band members don’t even own copies of their original albums. But it’s also that their sound was a long way from the slinky, stripped-down funk long associated with New Orleans. Chocolate Milk was an everything-at-once band with the horns, the dance steps, the busy percussion, the silky lead singer and the songs that alternately celebrated loving and partying. Their musical cousins and sometime-touring partners were the bands in the R&B mainstream at the time: The Bar-Kays, the Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire.

“That was the band era, and it was always ’My band vs. your band’,” recalls trumpet player Joe Smith, who went by Joseph Foxx III in the ’70s. “At that time, a band would need to have everything onstage. You traveled with the horns, the rhythm section, everything to make it more authentic. Some bands at that time were great in the studio, but it never sounded like that onstage—like the Ohio Players. Their records were great but they couldn’t go out there and recreate it. With Chocolate Milk, we were always proud that we could do everything live that we did on record. We put everything into our live show. There was even a time when we added a couple of psychedelic guys, just for some visual pizzazz. I swear there were times we had about 100 people onstage.

“We didn’t really embrace New Orleans like some bands did,” he says. “To me, the Neville Brothers are New Orleans. ‘Hey Pocky Way’ is New Orleans. We were just hoping that if there was anything New Orleans about us, it would come out naturally from us growing up here and being around the second line for years. But we didn’t go out of our way to sound like that. We were more of a hard funk band with the horns. That’s why I think we’ve been so overlooked. A band like the Meters crossed over more than we did; they had white fans and black fans. We were seen as strictly an R&B group.”

You won’t even find much about the band on the Internet, and some of what’s there is inaccurate: The most-reproduced bio states that Chocolate Milk was a Memphis band that moved to New Orleans. In fact, they were a New Orleans band from the start. The core members (Smith, singer Frank Richard, saxman Amadee Castenell, keyboardist Robert Dabon, bassist Ernest Dabon, guitarist Mario Tio and percussionist Ken “Afro” Williams) formed at St. Augustine’s High School, cutting their teeth playing for tourists on Bourbon Street and at Club 77 on Claiborne and Orleans. Like many a local band at the time, they got discovered by cutting tracks at Sea- Saint Studio in hopes that Toussaint or his late partner Marshall Sehorn would hear their demos.

The song that did the trick was “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” which became their first and biggest national hit. The stripped-down groove isn’t really typical Chocolate Milk as there are no evident horns (one of the keyboard-like sounds is actually Castenell playing sax through a wah-wah) and Richard never uses his falsetto. But it sounds a whole lot like the heavy, synth-driven funk that Prince (think Dirty Mind) and the Gap Band would come up with a half-dozen years later. “It’s hard to write a song like that,” Smith says. “We did it in our first batch and never really came back to it. It was more linear with just one line, not a lot of rhythm parts, a hard backbeat of two and four. The drum part was more a Meters kind of deal but the lines were more jazzy. All the horns were through different pickups. That was innovative for the time.”

Based on that track, Sehorn negotiated the RCA deal that lasted through their career; and this proved a mixed blessing. “RCA was a big label, and R&B was just part of what they did,” Smith says. “They did well with Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, but we were different. When we did ‘Girl Callin’,” that was a number one record on the West Coast, and it wasn’t even being played in the East. Then we came out with ‘Say Won’tcha’—number one on the East Coast, and it did nothing in the West. In New Orleans, we played all the clubs and everybody knew us there. So maybe it was bad management, or bad luck. We toured a lot, but we never made that step up.”

In addition to producing them, Toussaint made Chocolate Milk his regular studio band, beginning with Lee Dorsey’s Night People album. They were on the Aaron Neville sessions that yielded the epochal “Hercules” and the oft-reissued “Tell It Like It Is” remake. Williams and the horn players were in on the Venus & Mars sessions with Paul McCartney, and Smith and Castenell remain Toussaint regulars. Both were on his recent album and tour with Elvis Costello. Toussaint stayed with Chocolate Milk for five albums as producer and occasional songwriter. Along with “Girl Callin’,” he gave them one of his silkiest ballads, “That’s the Way She Loves,” a song that reached more ears when Aaron Neville did a near-identical version on Warm Your Heart.

The last single with Toussaint was the sweetest of all, and the most local-sounding. Written mainly by Frank Richard, 1979’s “Groove City” evokes New Orleans just as surely as “Hey Pocky Way” does, though here it’s a balmy evening rather than a Carnival morning. Smith fondly quotes the lyrics: “We know a place where people jam all night long. Yeah, that was the one ballad we had that was a hit at home, and it really became the R&B theme song of New Orleans. And that’s still what we hear whenever we do a show: We’re not gonna pay to hear you guys unless you’re going to do ‘Groove City’.”

Frustration with the career stalemate led to their breaking with Toussaint and moving their recording base, first to Los Angeles and finally to Memphis. The later records were still fun, but less distinctive. “Milky Way” copped a bit of the P-Funk outer space groove, and Blue Jeans was their Memphis album, complete with an Otis Redding cover and a title track that had been written for the Bar-Kays. And yes, since it was the late ’70s, a few disco tracks snuck in as well. “We did a couple—‘Move Your Body Baby,’ that’s pretty disco. A lot of the top groups were doing the same thing, blowing in a particular direction because that’s what was selling. And it probably wasn’t the right thing to do because somebody else had already done it.” A 1983 tour with Kool and the Gang was the last for the band. “I remember a show in Chicago, when all the kids were there with their hats on backwards. They didn’t want to hear the horns or the old-time singing. The band era was going out.”

Yet hip-hop also led to Chocolate Milk getting a small rediscovery. Eric B. and Rakim were the first to sample “Action Speaks Louder Than Words”; Stetsasonic and Juvenile followed suit. Galactic went deeper into the catalogue and covered “My Mind is Hazy” on their live album We Love ’em Tonight. Chocolate Milk’s reunion shows got more frequent over the years with six original members still aboard. This year they played Harrah’s and did the Zulu Ball. New recordings aren’t being planned, but aren’t out of the question either. “Especially after Katrina, people came to appreciate that we were a cultural part of New Orleans,” Joe Smith says. “It’s authentic funk, something you don’t really hear anymore. And the group really sounds good. We’ve been doing all these songs long enough that we really know how to play ’em.”