It’s the early morning hours in a smoky hole-in-the-wall dive. Inside, a raw, barebones blues band digs into a deep, gutsy groove and pours the soul over clanking beer bottles and yelling patrons. A harp man with a furrowed brow wails and moans, bending metal in his harp while a guitarist, a study in concentration, bends and mangles the strings with a high-pitched bite. Old and young, black and white, give in and shake loose to the infectious rhythms.
This scene has been reenacted more and more lately in New Orleans and elsewhere in what some have called a Blues Renaissance. The blues have always been at the core of American music. Most every stateside musical development is deeply rooted in the blues, from the country-honk of Jimmy Reed to swing and jazz, from the classical blue notes of Gershwin to the birth of rock and roll. Even much of modern pop and rock music is thinly disguised blues.
The crossover appeal of blues-rooted acts like the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Bonnie Raitt and others has had a trickle-down effect, helping the lesser known blues acts land record deals. As a result, more and more independent labels catering to blues have arisen, not the least of which is New Orleans’ own Black Top Records, the company that bills itself as “paving the way to your soul.”
Under the guidance of brothers Hammond and Nauman Scott, the label has established itself as a major player in the blues field, a field that is increasingly competitive as more companies jump on the blues bandwagon and more artists are given the opportunity to record. With over 50 albums in its catalog, Black Top has become the most prolific New Orleans-based label of any genre, releasing consistently high-quality recordings.
The next few months will be busy ones for Black Top. The debut release from R&B vocalist Carol Fran (the first female artist signed to Black Top) will come out in January, to be followed by the third from guitar legend Snooks Eaglin in February, the sixth volume of the popular Blues-A-Rama series (featuring multi-band performances recorded at Tipitina’s) in March, and the label debut of zydeco artist Lynn August in April. The Scotts hope to have follow-up albums from Robert Ward and Earl King out by the middle of the year, amongst other projects, if time permits.
“As the roster grows larger, you have to make sure you repeat the acts that you’ve been building,” says Hammond, a man who will, if you let him, talk endlessly about the blues. “I don’t even know if we’ll have time to do all the records we want to do this year.”
The magic of the blues cast its spell on Hammond and Nauman Scott at an early age. Born in Alexandria and reared in Monroe, they grew up sneaking into local shows and listening to Nashville’s WLAC and other free-form stations that regularly programmed blues, R&B and other roots music. Nauman recalls John Lee Hooker and James Brown as being mainstays of his early radio diet.
Hammond began collecting blues records early on (his collection now numbers hundreds of 78s and 45s and thousands of LPs). After moving to New Orleans in 1973, he befriended several blues artists. He met Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown in 1974 while writing about him; Brown asked Scott to be his manager. He accepted and stayed on for four years. “He put me in the mind of putting a band together, learning what’s the right chemistry and the right set of songs to do,” Hammond says.
Though older brother Nauman played guitar a bit here and there, he never worked directly in any musical field before Black Top, although he “kept in closer contact with it than most people did,” he says.
After managing Gatemouth Brown, Hammond continued to write and book acts, and was a DJ for WWOZ. He eventually went to law school and worked in the district attorney’s office, while Nauman built a career in the oil business.
It was in 1981 that the two of them co-founded Black Top. The debut release was Anson Funderburgh’s Talk to You.
As Black Top grew, Scott was able to quit his job at the DA and make a go of it full time. Brother Nauman joined full-time in 1988 (“the oil business kind of went to hell, and this really gave me something to wake up in the morning for”). Nowadays, Nauman handles much of the business end, while Hammond concentrates on A&R and production.
By 1983, Massachusetts-based Rounder Records had taken over the chore of manufacturing and distributing the Black Top material, as the release schedule continued to escalate. Prior to 1988, the label had released 15 albums; now the total is over 50, and the goal is to release one a month for the next year. Two full-time employees, Kelly Keller and Heather West, assist in the Black Top office, located in Scott’s Uptown New Orleans apartment off Magazine Street. West has promoted concerts and booked the famous Austin blues club Antone’s. Keller booked tours and promoted bands, including Dash Rip Rock, before joining Black Top.
“I like the nobility of what they’re doing, resurrecting blues,” said Keller, “putting out good music and keeping up the struggle.”
Black Top has played a role in the blues “renaissance” by resurrecting the careers of veteran black artists and discovering younger white artists.
For many of the vets, Black Top has allowed them to rise from the ashes after blues fell from grace during the British Invasion of the ‘60s. Prior to the mid-‘80s, Hammond and Nauman had assumed that both Robert Ward and James “Thunderbird” Davis were probably dead. Davis had recorded several 45s up until 1963; he was keeping a low profile—but was very much alive—in Thibodeaux, Louisiana until rediscovered by Black Top. He would record a critically acclaimed comeback album in 1989.
Robert Ward hadn’t been heard on record for 20 years; even then, he had recorded only on obscure independent labels, and as a session man for Motown. A series of chance encounters brought him to Black Top.
Nauman, a vintage guitar collector, was in Dayton, Ohio, a few years ago to visit his friend Dave Hussong’s guitar shop. Nauman and Hussong got into a conversation about how Snooks Eaglin was the great undiscovered guitar talent of New Orleans, and Hussong mentioned a similar musician from the Dayton area—Ward. Nauman immediately expressed interest in recording Ward, but Hussong didn’t know how to contact him (Ward was living near Atlanta at the time). Two years later, Ward turned up in Hussong’s shop, and was told a couple of guys from New Orleans wanted to get in touch with him.
The result was Fear No Evil. Released in February of 1991, it scored phenomenal reviews in the likes of Rolling Stone and Esquire magazines. Ward’s unique style, built around a heavy reverb Magnatone amplifier a la Lonnie Mack, has made him Black Top’s great long lost find.
“I collect all these old records,” said Hammond. “You’d assume these guys would have an aura bigger than life. I’d want to meet them and be surprised that they’d be working in a mattress factory and don’t make music anymore. That would shatter some of the image until you hear them play. I’m very satisfied when I get to record some great unheard song and see them get the chance to be brought out and have wonderful things written about them in magazines all across the country.”
Many souls were resurrected by Black Top’s magic. Grady Gaines, who as Little Richard’s tenor sax man would hop up on the piano and honk like crazy, has recorded solo (backed by the Texas Upsetters) and has backed several other Black Top artists. Hubert Sumlin is back after 23 years with Howlin’ Wolf.
The Tri-Sax-Ual Soul Champs features Sil Austin, who played with Roy Eldridge and Cootie Williams in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and Grady “Fats” Jackson, who blew with Elmore James in the ‘50s (while this isn’t a regular touring band, Hammond describes this project as more of a “conceptual” undertaking, much like the Blues-a-Rama series and the solo album by Greg Piccolo of Roomful of Blues). Carol Fran, who many might remember from New Orleans’ Dew Drop Inn days, “knows any musician that’s been here for a long time,” says Hammond.
“The older guys, you bring them back and make them young all over again,” said Hammond. “Give them the chance to make music that’s as fresh and vital as it ever was, doing what’s right now while holding on to the tradition.”
New Orleans’ own Earl King and Snooks Eaglin are indebted to Black Top for recent career surges. King had stopped performing for seven or eight years before Hammond heard him sitting in with Roomful of Blues at Tipitina’s. Impressed at how loose King played with Roomful, he suggested to King that he record with them. After years of talking about it, King and Roomful went in the studio in 1987 to record Glazed. The record earned a Grammy nomination. In ’89 King recorded Sexual Telepathy, which received two Big Easy Awards, including “Album of the Year.”
Has he had extra work as a result? “I’ve got too much work,” says King. “Since May of ’89 I haven’t stopped.”
Eaglin has performed in New Orleans since the early ‘50s, when he played for Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters and later cut some sides backing up Imperial artists. After recording Baby, You Can Get Your Gun in ’86 and Out of Nowhere in ’89, Eaglin has been hailed as New Orleans’ best-kept secret.
“I’m getting more attention now than ever since recording,” he says. His next release, Teasin’ You, is due out in February.
Following in the footsteps of the black veterans is a slew of new-generation white artists. “Some of these younger white bands have been around for 10, 15, 20 years and aren’t getting their just due,” said Hammond. “I get satisfaction out of exposing people to these talents and being the first to record them.”
Black Top released Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets’ first record. Seven albums later, the slick guitar player from Texas is Black Top’s best-selling artist, due in part to his collaboration with black veteran singer-harp man Sam Myers. The band took home four trophies from the 1988 W.C. Handy Blues Awards for the album Sins.
No small part of the artists’ acclaim is due to the great care put into the production of each album; Black Top has a reputation for quality recordings. Hammond produced all 50-odd of Black Top’s albums by himself, many of them at New Orleans’ Ultrasonic Studios. He takes special care with each artist. “My job is to become close to them to understand and know them well, to know what to surround them with and how to get the best performance,” he says.
Earl King compared Hammond’s dedication and skill as a producer to that of Dave Bartholomew, who, as Fats Domino’s producer, is one of R&B’s greatest success stories. “[Hammond] understands the needs of musicians and what they stand for,” says King. “He doesn’t worry about making a fast buck. He loves the music.”
“I try to get the best out of the artist by getting the best musicians to back him up,” Hammond explains. “I have engineers that are comfortable in the studio and use studio musicians who I know work fast, and I know what they can do. Then when we’ve eliminated all the variables, we just have the artist himself and focus on getting the best out of him. ”
With his knowledge of the label’s musicians, he is able to put together an appropriate lineup for any frontman. Regulars include sax men Kaz Kazanoff and Grady Gaines, Keith Winking on trumpet, and New Orleans’ Sammy Berfect on organ.
Even with all the variables taken care of, Hammond compares recording to fishing. “You don’t know if it’s a good fishing day, or if the moon’s in a funny position for them. If some guy’s wife cussed him out the day before, in some cases it’ll make them play real mean. Some will be in a slump and feel sorry for themselves.”
Hammond often finds himself playing psychologist to make the artists comfortable. “Snooks is very consistent,” he said, “but on the first day of his latest session something happened that you don’t see very much—he had an off day. We tried several things, then just let him go home early. The next day we adjusted his headphone mix, put the amp on a different setting, tried different guitars with necks that felt different, did all that before we sat down to play again. He cut 16 tunes in one day. People are human and on some days feel more of what they’re doing than on other days.”
Feeling is the most important ingredient in blues, and for that reason, Hammond tries to capture the spontaneity of a live performance while recording, with few overdubs. “It’s important to get that live feel,” he said, “or you turn it into a dry, academic affair.
“Some people work best live, so if you need to redo something you have to get them to do it right away. Sometimes with a guitar still in hand you say ‘nobody move’ and do another take.”
At the same time, Hammond tries to outdo live performances. “A record is an opportunity to do more. It allows the artist to be everything he can be that certain limitations—say, the economics of a live performance—wouldn’t allow. You don’t want people who have seen a person live to buy the record and be disappointed.
“What makes it magic, besides a good song and a good performer, is imagining that this was a real performance that took place at a certain time on a certain day somewhere under these circumstances. A lot of records now take the magic away if you did the rhythm tracks in L.A. one day and send the tapes out to add keyboards in Boston, then two weeks later add the singer who has never met anyone on the set.”
Despite Black Top’s growth, the product quality, and a good stable of talent, not only do fans have trouble finding blues music, but the folks at Black Top have to make an extra effort to reach their audience. Commercial radio is completely closed to them. The black audience tends to be older and doesn’t go to record stores. The only record stores that carry them are specialty shops in major cities and college towns; mall stores only carry the hits. “You’re not going to go to the K-Mart in DeRidder, Louisiana, and find a Black Top Record,” says Hammond.
“It’s a real hard business,” says Nauman. “If you’ve been around 20 years, things start to even out. It’s taken us this long just to learn how it is. Dealing on an international level can be tough—Europe is different from Australia which is different from Japan.
“The situation is, you’ve got six major companies, and they’ve pretty much got the whole thing wrapped up. We’re fighting for a very small space.
“What we can’t afford to do is a bad record. We’re not going to advertise our way into selling records. The bigger companies sometimes hype their way into selling records that might not be that good. [We] have to make each record pay for itself.”
“Our lifeblood is recording,” said Hammond. “We always have to have a new record out. Most sales are in the first year, in the first two or three months. We get a new record every month and push advertising. After a few months we’re already de-emphasizing it, otherwise we’re advertising eight or nine records at a time, and then you’re still diluting the message.”
The label has been fortunate that at least one release a year has stood out from the pack, generating extra press coverage and drawing attention to the label as a whole. Back in 1983, it was the Buckwheat Zydeco debut. In ’84, Black Top released Nevillization, a live recording of the Neville Brothers, which ended up in Time magazine’s list of the Top 10 albums of the year (and, some say, it renewed interest in the Nevilles, eventually leading to their deal with A&M). James “Thunderbird” Davis caused a sensation in ’89, as did Bobby Radcliff in 1990 (he was described in Billboard as the best thing in blues guitar since Stevie Ray Vaughan). And Robert Ward’s Fear No Evil was the high-profile release of 1991.
Blues music as a whole is also getting extra publicity from television and movies. “[Levi’s] 501 Jeans or someone will have a blues song,” said Hammond. “It might not be good, it might be very much ersatz blues, the most hackneyed cliche representation. But it still puts the blues in people’s minds; it serves a good purpose.”
The movie The Big Easy featured Black Top material from the Neville Brothers and Buckwheat Zydeco, who also had a song on the television show Northern Exposure. Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets make an appearance in the upcoming Kevin Costner movie China Moon.
With the boom in blues, the competition is tightening. But with ten years in the business, Black Top has seen a lot of record companies come and go. “We’re in the trenches trying to win audiences,” said Hammond. “It’s hard won, but I can see progress.”
Black Top has prospered along with the blues renaissance and the blues has profited from the dedication of this small but growing independent label. What the future trends in music and the blues will be remains unclear; all the new players and all the attention will undoubtedly alter the playing field more. Black Top’s hope is that all the new love won’t suffocate the blues.
“Even major labels are starting blues divisions,” says Hammond. “There’s such a tide of new releases, and reissues and boxed sets. The audience is spread too thin. And no one will volunteer to put out less records. I don’t know what will happen. I guess the strong will survive.”
The following letter from Hammond Scott was published in the subsequent February 1992 issue of OffBeat:
Just wanted to express great appreciation for the kind and generous article on Black Top Records in the January issue of OffBeat. That sort of home-town support always bolsters our determination. However, due to my usual verbosity I likely talked so much in the interview that some important names were left out in the editing process.
First, I would like to say that it takes teamwork with many great people to make good records; the person who has been of great help to me on a number of recent projects is New Orleans’ own George Porter, Jr. His input on some sessions has been important enough that he is credited as an associate producer; he is truly one of the most important New Orleans musicians.
Also very important to our records have been the talents of engineer David Farrell and our assistant engineer Steve Reynolds, both of Ultrasonic Studios. They make it possible to concentrate on the studio performances without worrying about how the sound is going down to tape.
In another department, I should say that outside of our home office in New Orleans, three people who should not escape mention are our publicity director Kat Stratton in Atlanta, our marketing director Mindy Giles in Chicago and our representative at Rounder Records, Paul Knutson.
As for Earl King, I would like to point out that his second Black Top release, Sexual Telepathy, was also nominated for a Grammy in 1990. Also, I would like to clarify that I did not meet Earl King at a Roomful of Blues show in 1987, as Earl and I have been close friends since 1973. However, the idea to record him with Roomful came on the night mentioned at Tipitina’s (which actually was in 1984 and the record was recorded in 1986).
One other small correction is that Nauman and I were actually raised in Alexandria, LA, not only born there.
Your article made a very nice beginning to 1992 for Black Top Records. Thank you once again for the generous coverage and the well-written article.
Black Top Records