In 2011, African-American-owned record labels are not news. Motown is the best-known example, and New Orleans has had No Limit and Cash Money Records. In 1961, the notion of African-Americans owning a record label was a radical one, but it was Harold Battiste’s vision. AFO (All For One) Records was not only Black-owned but a collective—more unusual still—and it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
In person today, Battiste’s gentle temperament makes him seem like an unlikely radical. Health concerns have slowed him some, but his autobiography Unfinished Blues and interviews he has given throughout his career show him to be a humble man, self-effacing about his accomplishments. Reflecting on 50 years of AFO, he says, “I’m impressed now that it has existed for 50 years. I think that that is success for what we started out as, to last as long as we have in this environment. To look at it in retrospect, there were no black companies at all. The record companies that were around, like Minit and Instant, about four or five back then, they’re not here now.”
Battiste took the first step toward the creation of AFO in 1960 on a train from Los Angeles to New Orleans. He’d been working in both cities as an A&R man for Art Rupe’s Specialty Records, but had become frustrated with the music business. As he says in Unfinished Blues, “I had begun to formulate the concept of a musicians’ cooperative to start a record company. When the train stopped in El Paso, Texas, who should board but Earl King? He would become the first person to hear my idea.”
The idea had been germinating for several years. Battiste had produced such sessions as Art Neville’s “Cha Dooky Doo,” Jerry Byrne’s “Lights Out,” and Larry Williams “Bad Boy” for Specialty. He had been a producer and talent scout talent for $150/week and a quarter percent royalty on everything that was produced. He had also become a member of the Nation of Islam and was aware of how little money the Black musicians who played on records made, even when such records sold huge quantities. Battiste writes in Unfinished Blues, “I’d been listening to speeches from the eligible Elijah Muhammad, messages that often spoke to the need for our people to create wealth through ownership. It seemed that every ethnic group was identified with a product or service that they owned and controlled, and it seemed that the product generally attributed to us was music: jazz, blues, R&B, gospel.”
Once back in New Orleans, Batiste found several like-minded musicians to round out the collective. He approached trumpeter Melvin Lastie, who was the union rep for Local 496. They found drummer John Boudreaux, bassist Peter “Chuck” Badie, guitarist Roy Montrell, pianist Allen Toussaint, and tenor saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, who had been a part of the J&M Studio band that had played on the hits of Little Richard, Fats Domino, Shirley and Lee, and many more. Due to contractual obligations, Toussaint had to bow out, but the rest of the musicians became AFO Records Inc. in May 1961. The idea of a Black-owned record label was so new that the city licensing agencies kept thinking they were starting a retail record store.
After incorporating, things started to fall into place for AFO. Juggy Murray, owner of Sue Records in New York, had called up Battiste looking for an A&R man in New Orleans. When Murray found out what AFO was, he caught a plane to New Orleans and agreed to finance the production and distribution of AFO’s records nationally. Battiste was surprised to find out Murray was a black man when he met him, but that fit well into his overall philosophy.
Lastie and Battiste auditioned artists. Jessie Hill, Lastie’s nephew, brought a 19-year-old singer named Barbara George and a guitar player named Prince La La to audition. Prince La La, a.k.a. Lawrence Nelson, was the younger brother of Walter “Papoose” Nelson, a well-known guitarist who had played with Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. George couldn’t get the hang of the rhythm of Nelson’s “She Put the Hurt on Me,” so they let Nelson record that and combined lyrics she had written to the chords of the gospel tune “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and came up with “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More).”
“I Know” was a monster hit. It reached number one on the R&B charts and number three on the pop charts. Melvin Lastie’s cornet solo, written out by Battiste, became as famous as the song, and started
a new trend of trumpet or cornet solos. Chuck Badie says, “That solo that Harold wrote for Melvin? I was told that Miles Davis heard it and said, ‘Who the fuck is that?’”
When Barbara George traveled to New York to play at the Apollo, things started to unravel. George wanted to buy out her contract with AFO because she and Juggy Murray had started a relationship. Murray had bought her a Cadillac and a mink coat, “using her royalty money to do it,” said Battiste in an interview with Charles Gillet. Battiste and Lastie tried to convince her to stay with them, but to no avail. George left, and her first hit became her last. Murray was never able to get anything else going with her.
In his autobiography, Battiste writes, “I had entrusted my dream to a man who had a Black face on face value alone. That experience in no way dimmed my vision of my people nor the principles upon which my hopes were founded. It did, however, teach me the fallacy in judging a book by its cover.” AFO persevered and got back to making music. The people and songs that they recorded all had great appeal, but none of the songs had the legs nor distribution to become anything more than local hits. Such tracks as the AFO Executives’ “Olde Wyne,” Willie Tee’s “Always Accused,” Tami Lynn’s “Mojo Hannah,” and Johnny Adams’ “A Losing Battle” have become New Orleans classics, but were little heard beyond Louisiana.
AFO also recorded several jazz sessions that were some of the first non-traditional jazz recordings in New Orleans and some of the only New Orleans non-traditional jazz recordings from the 1960s. These include the American Jazz Quintet’s In the Beginning, the AFO Executives with Tami Lynn’s Compendium, and Ellis Marsalis Quartet’s Monkey Puzzle. All of these recordings have a New Orleans flavor, but they also are of the time in the same way that records released by more famous jazz labels such as Blue Note, Impulse, and Prestige were. Of these, only Monkey Puzzle and Compendium were released then. Battiste recalls, “I wanted to record some of the cats who were playing jazz, who would never be widely known and might lose that thing they had…I didn’t care if those records sold, but they should be recorded for posterity.”
AFO continued in New Orleans until the summer of 1963. Battiste thought that moving to a major metropolis would help the company, so he and the other AFO members returned to Los Angeles in hope of finding success as a label and a band. Once there, Battiste renewed his association with Sam Cooke. Battiste had worked with Cooke several years before, providing additional lyrics and the arrangement for Cooke’s first crossover hit, “You Send Me.” Cooke helped fund the creation of a small rehearsal studio called Soul Station No. 1 where artists on Cooke’s SAR label could prepare for sessions and AFO could audition talent. However, Cooke’s untimely death in 1964 put the brakes on Soul Station No. 1. It was also difficult for the musicians to find work due to the Los Angeles Musicians Union restrictions that mandated that new members could not accept steady gigs during the first six months that they joined the union. Chuck Badie remembers, “I got taken off a bandstand. I was playing with Erskine Hawkins and a short, white fellow walked in. He said, ‘Who’s the bass player? He sounds good, but he’s got to come down from there.’ I put the cover on my bass and came down. The band couldn’t hang around for the six months to end.”
Badie, Lastie, Lynn, and Tyler left soon after, but Battiste stayed in Los Angeles and started working with Sonny and Cher. He arranged their hit “I Got You Babe,” and that led to other arranging, producing and movie scoring. Battiste went on to conceptualize Dr. John with Mac Rebennack and produce his first two albums, as well as being Sonny and Cher’s music director. Lastie worked with Aretha Franklin and Willie Bobo in New York. Badie went on the road with various jazz bands, including Lionel Hampton. Tyler became a liquor salesman by day and tenor player by night. Drummer John Boudreaux stayed in Los Angeles doing sessions and touring with Dr. John. Lynn did sessions for Dr. John and the Rolling Stones and had a hit in Britain with “I’m Gonna Run Away.”
With all that activity, AFO Records took an extended hiatus. In the next decades, Battiste put out records in the AFO vein, including a duo record with Melvin Lastie and the jazz recordings of the American Jazz Quintet, Ellis Marsalis Quintet, and the AFO Executives with Tami Lynn in 1976. Other gigs and sessions followed, including work with the Fifth Dimension, concerts with New Orleans expatriate musicians in Los Angeles’ Club Lingerie in 1984, and occasional trips back to New Orleans. When UNO decided to start a jazz studies program in 1989 with Ellis Marsalis at the head, Battiste came back to New Orleans permanently.
AFO never left his thoughts, and in 1991, he found the time ripe for restarting it. As he says in his autobiography, “I believed now more than ever a record company with a commitment to and concern for music and musicians was needed in New Orleans.” With the help of writer and producer Kalamu Ya Salaam, Battiste reissued Monkey Puzzle and leased much of the AFO catalog to Ace Records in the United Kingdom, who put them out as Gumbo Stew, More Gumbo Stew, and Still Spicy Gumbo Stew. Then he released new recordings of Germaine Bazzle, Philip Manuel, and David Morgan. In an effort to record younger New Orleans jazz musicians and some of the great compositions of Alvin Battiste, Ellis Marsalis, James Black, and others, he released two CDs of “Harold Battiste presents the Next Generation,” which have featured such great musicians as John Ellis, Nicholas Payton, Brice Winston, Derek Douget and Jesse McBride.
AFO Records has a substantial legacy. “I Know” is still played and sung across the planet, and several of the other AFO R&B singles have become favorites of Northern Soul and Deep Soul fans. Jazz compositions such as “Nevermore,” and “Nigeria,” James Black’s tunes “Magnolia Triangle,” “Monkey Puzzle,” “Dee Wee,” and Ellis Marsalis’ “Swinging at the Haven” and “12’s It” have become New Orleans’ jazz standards.
AFO’s latest release is a compilation of Batiste’s performances over the years called The Sound of Harold’s Horn. It’s a sound we hear little these days because health issues limit Battiste’s playing. It presents his musical voice, just as Unfinished Blues tells the story of a sensitive, hard-working musician who is responsible for several careers that were established at expense of his own.
“I read a proof of the book and said, ‘Damn, I didn’t realize that I had done all this stuff,’ Battiste says.”But I didn’t go looking for it. It all found me.”