Although James Winfield barely caused a blip on the radar screen as a recording artist, even in New Orleans, his lone late-1960s single proved to be a quite enjoyable, and his recent performances have proved that he is a worthy rhythm and blues entertainer. Not only that, Winfield has the rare distinction to have understudied the great Lee Dorsey—not as an entertainer—but rather as a skilled body and fender man.
“Everybody in New Orleans knew Lee from his hits, but a lot of people didn’t realize he was a legend around here as a body and fender man,” said Winfield, taking a break from banging out fenders. “He was one of the best in the business. People thought he drove new Cadillacs because he made a lot of money making records. But if you asked him how he could afford those cars, he’d point at his body and fender tools. Lee would go on the road behind his records, but when things slowed down, he’d be under a car working. Really, I think body and fender work was Lee’s first love.”
Like Dorsey, Winfield, 59, (born November 6, 1942) was raised in the Ninth Ward. “Times were tough in those days,” laughed Winfield. “Even today, I don’t care too much for red beans and rice because we ate them almost every day when I was growing up. I fooled some with drums as a kid, and people said I pretty good, but I didn’t follow them up. Then all of a sudden, I started having children and wound up with a wife and four daughters.”
Winfield worked a series of manual labor jobs to support his family, but he wasn’t satisfied with any of them. “I had met Lee Dorsey and Danny White when I moved to the Seventh Ward, and we became good friends,” recalled Winfield. “Lee had a shop near the corner of North Tonti and St. Anthony Street with another guy. He said I was big and strong, and I could do better for myself doing body and fender work. I started working and learning from Lee. He wasn’t tough to learn from, because he did things right and he wanted you to do things right. Remember, this was back when cars had fins and were all metal. That work was tough. Sometimes Lee would get on you about making mistakes and yell, but he only did that so you’d do better.”
Winfield accompanied Dorsey to many gigs, but he never sang on the same show with him. From hanging out at the Dew Drop, Winfield did sit in with John Williams and the Tic Tocs, as well as Danny White and the Cavaliers. Winfield even cut a few demos, including “One Little Lie,” which White recorded for Frisco Records. He also co-wrote “You’re Here to Stay,” which was recorded by the Barrons.
In the early 1960s, Winfield befriended the late Joe Broussard, who is probably best known as the co-writer of Jean Knight’s monster hit “Mr. Big Stuff.” Before hitting the big time with “Mr. Big Stuff,” Broussard had set up the Trend label, which was distributed by Cosimo Matassa’s Dover distribution company, and ran from his home at 1913 St. Bernard Avenue. “Joe and I met living in the St. Bernard Housing Project,” said Winfield. “He was paralyzed from the waist down. He lived on the third floor of one of the buildings and I’d carry him up and down steps, and take him to his car or wherever. Later on, I found out he was in the record business. I didn’t purposely follow him around, but I liked hanging around the music and we eventually got together. Fortunately, I got a chance to make a record with him.”
With Wardell Quezergue arranging the session, and drummer Smokey Johnson and guitarist Leo Nocentelli supplying effective support, Winfield cut the stellar ballad “What More Can I Do,” and the decidedly funky “I’m a Man In Love.” The single was recorded at Cosimo’s Studio on Governor Nicholls Street and issued on Trend 1006. Unfortunately, the single was released at time when Dover was on the verge of bankruptcy, and when they were having trouble getting records played, even in New Orleans. “I helped write those songs, but I told Joe, ‘I don’t need any credit—just put your name on there.’ I just felt lucky to have a record out. Joe might have pressed only 25 copies but I’m not sure. I had some when it came out, but I gave them all away. Today I don’t even have one. Shelly Pope played it [on WBOK] a few times, but after a few weeks, I didn’t hear it any more. Joe and Dover didn’t promote it—I guess Joe just thought he’d see what would happen when the record came out. [All of Trend’s half-dozen releases listed Broussard as a writer or co-writer, so despite some great releases—Charlie Simmons and Earl Daniels also had a good singles—the label seemed to be a showcase for Broussard’s writing skills.] After a couple of weeks, I went back to body and fender work. I never even made any gigs off the record.”
Winfield pretty much forgot about music until it was his 50th birthday, when he decided to give it another shot. “I went to pawn shop and bought an electric bass,” he said. “I took a lesson from Walter Payton, but I felt like I didn’t need to pay somebody $20 an hour to show me where the notes on the bass were. I felt like I could learn faster from listening to records and CDs. Even when I see Walter today, he says, ‘You’re the guy that only needed one lesson.’ I started practicing religiously—I couldn’t wait to come from work and practice. Some days I’d practice for two, three, four, five, six, hours. At the time, I was living next to Rod Hodges, who plays in the Iguanas. He encouraged me to start sitting in with other bands. Finally I got enough nerve to start doing that. I started sitting in with the Iguanas, Big Al Carson, and Eddie Bo.”
It was Big Al Carson who encouraged Winfield to start singing and occasionally handed him the microphone. Carson’s keyboardist Raymond Jones, a.k.a. Ray J., instructed Winfield to, ‘Forget about playing the bass, you need to concentrate on the singing.’ I was doing the blues because I like it and because if you’re just sitting in with a band, it’s the easiest thing for them to handle. Most bands just let me do just a song or two, but the Iguanas were great about me sitting in. They let me do three or four songs some nights. I was really surprised, people started making a lot of noise when I performed.”
Winfield says he’d like to put a band together, but he realizes that that might not be the easiest thing to do. “I’ve been around a long time and believe me, I know that to put a group together, you’ve got to deal with a lot of different personalities and attitudes. I don’t know if I can deal with that. I’d like to have a ‘walk in band,’ but I don’t know such a thing exists. I just want to sing—man, I’d pay a band to avoid those problems. I’d like to think I’ve got something to offer, because there’s not a lot guys around town still doing blues and R&B. I feel like there’s still a market for that. I’m also starting to write again and I’ve come up with a few songs.”
While Winfield patiently waits for a break, he’ll continue sitting in with as many bands as he can and continue as well as assume Lee Dorsey’s former role as a legendary New Orleans body and fender man.