After Wardell Quezergue’s passing, OffBeat put together a six-hour playlist on Spotify of songs he recorded or produced, and people still told us about songs we missed. It would take an entire issue to write about all of his noteworthy tracks, but Dan Phillips from the blog Home of the Groove has selected some tracks that highlight facets of his work.
“Trick Bag”, Earl King (1962): Wardell and Earl King had their first of many simpatico collaborations on a series of singles King did for Imperial between 1960 and 1962. Many of King’s songs had a proto-funk feel built in, which Wardell’s cleverly syncopated arrangements enhanced. The secret ingredient on this cut, and most of those recordings, proved to be drummer Smokey Johnson, who instinctively brought polyrhythms from the New Orleans streets into his grooves. Smokey became Wardell’s go-to drummer throughout the 1960s.
“Big Chief, Parts 1 & 2”, Professor Longhair (1964): King wrote it and teamed with Wardell to produce the single for the small, local Watch label. Musically, everything worked off the intricate, undulating piano attack Fess came up with. For the well-prepared, meticulous Wardell, Fess’ unpredictability was a challenge. He wisely let Longhair demonstrate the demanding drum pattern directly to Smokey, who assimilated it and delivered a monster groove, bleeding from his hands in the process. This powerfully celebratory tune, augmented by the blasts of Wardell’s big horn section, marks a turning point, when the rhythmic dynamics of New Orleans popular music really began to shift.
“It Ain’t My Fault”, Smokey Johnson (1965): Those of you who appreciate a bit of subtlety should be especially drawn to “It Ain’t My Fault,” which does not have to hit anybody over the head with its beats to get them involved. Deftly arranged, it is a fascinating early example of Johnson and Quezergue incorporating second line syncopation into pop music.” Later, brass bands picked up on this infectious little groover and flattened out its subtlety in the streets.
“I Want Somebody (To Show Me the Way Back Home)”, Willie Tee (1965): A partner in the local Nola label, Wardell produced and arranged all of the output, including “I Want Somebody,” a rousing Tee original and performance. Atlantic had optioned three Tee singles from Nola starting with “Teasin’ You”, an understated, swinging pop gem that became a modest national hit. On this track from the final Atlantic 45, Wardell cooked up a big, Ray Charles-style R&B arrangement that had Johnson injecting kick drum and tom-tom syncopations, great charts for the full-blown horn section, and inspired guitar riffing by George Davis. This same configuration played on Robert Parker’s big hit for Nola, “Barefootin’”, a classic dance floor filler that had a very similar arrangement but a less complex drum pattern.
“Society Don’t Let Us Down”, The Barons (1969): With serious funk already popping on records by the Meters and Eddie Bo, this track is unusual in that it featured a popular local vocal group but leapfrogged hometown grooves to emulate the high-energy, funk-infused psychedelic soul of the Temptations on their massive hit “Cloud Nine.” Wardell’s work here was more derivative than innovative, but his technical mastery on this hard-driving, highly percussive production is too impressive to ignore.
“She’s Taken My Part”, Irma Thomas (1971): I can’t quit without something exceptional from Wardell’s time working out of Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi, where he literally trained the in-house band to play his increasingly intricate funk arrangements. Because recording facilities at home were unavailable, that’s where he recorded the hits “Groove Me” and “Mr. Big Stuff” with King Floyd and Jean Knight respectively. He also produced many well-crafted, rhythmically complex and soulful records there that didn’t hit paydirt, including this fine example of clockwork, multi-instrumental syncopation featuring Irma’s impressive vocal turn. Unfortunately for both of them, there was no second chance.