World famous jazz musicians “Cannonball” Adderley and Weather Report counted him as one of their favorites. The Geto Boys and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs sampled his songs. He’s Willie Tee, and when he passed away suddenly on September 12 of complications from colon cancer, New Orleans lost one of its most creative and talented musicians and cultural ambassadors.
Born Wilson Turbinton on February 6, 1944 in New Orleans, Tee’s jazz-inflected piano style and breezy, laid-back vocal approach crystallized on the 1965 R&B hit “Teasin’ You,” while his role as musical director for the Wild Magnolias melded Mardi Gras Indian culture with jazz and funk for the first time, a combination that has since become the soundtrack of the city.
Influenced by his older brother and lifelong musical partner, saxophonist and flutist Earl Turbinton, Tee took up the piano before kindergarten. When his family moved to the Calliope Projects in 1950, the street chants and unique polyrhythms of the Indians swept into the brothers’ lives, and in tribute they christened their first band the Seminoles.
Harold Battiste was a junior high school music teacher when he first encountered Tee. “Willie was in my class, and I found out that he could sing,” remembers Battiste. “He sounded so good that I got in touch with his mama and asked her if I could take him on a gig with me. That was either ’55 or ’56, and he was not only singing and playing piano, he was also fooling with the saxophone at that time.”
When Battiste established AFO (All for One) Records in the early 1960s, Tee’s burgeoning interest in jazz was fuelled by the wide musical swath cut by the AFO Studio Executives, the house band Battiste had assembled from the cream of the Crescent City’s session players.
Tee’s debut single, “All for One,” which coincidentally used the company’s name for its title, was a haunting, minor-keyed ballad performed with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. After one more single for AFO, Tee waxed “Teasin’ You” for the newly-minted NOLA imprint. Composed by Earl King, it was a perfect fit for Tee, who easily fell into character as a self-assured boyfriend watching his lover get hit on by a hopeless rival. Picked up by Atlantic, it hit number 12 on the R&B charts and became a timeless classic on the still-vibrant beach music scene of the Carolinas. Atlantic’s follow-up, “Thank You, John,” failed to hit nationally but, like its predecessor, found an endless life of its own in the Southeast.
Tee stayed grounded in his home city, waxing eight more sides for NOLA and an LP for Capitol before striking out on his own with the fierce psychedelic funk outfit the Gaturs, often featuring brother Earl. A 1970 Tulane Jazz Festival appearance found them jamming with the Wild Magnolias, which resulted in the singles and legendary LPs that brought Indian music to the masses. The Wild Magnolias and They Call Us Wild are widely regarded as masterpieces; not just the first, but the best, of their kind. Always extremely close, the Turbinton brothers continued to collaborate off and on until Earl’s recent death on August 3.
After losing everything in Katrina, Tee became an artist-in-residence at Princeton University where he taught music and lectured, to the delight of his old instructor Battiste. “He represented what I thought was very important, particularly for young jazz students, in that he listened and played by ear. In jazz, a lot of people who can’t read are treated like second class citizens. But what you do is for the ear, it’s not to be read. And he was a good example of that because he wrote beautiful stuff.”
Tee’s last performance was at a Ponderosa Stomp satellite show in Brooklyn this past July with AFO labelmate Tami Lynn.
“Willie and I were teenagers on the same record label together so we’ve always been like brother and sister,” explains Lynn. “His whole thing was always, ‘Don’t worry Tami, we’re gonna go out there and mess ’em up!’ And in Brooklyn it was the same thing. It didn’t matter who went on first, ’cause he just knew we were gonna tear the roof off the place. Sometimes when you’re singing, those spirits overtake you and with Willie, no matter where I went he’d be right there with me. I like to think of it this way: A jet can’t take off unless it has a runway and Willie was my runway. In fact, Willie was the greatest runway in the world.”