It’s Like A Dance
Another secret to being a good producer: Wives have the coolest ideas and seldom ask for their name in the credits. My wife, Shelly, insists privately that she wrote a lot of my best lines and teases me that I give songwriting credits to everyone I collaborate with except for her. We’re working on her perception of collaboration. In this case it was Deborah Vidacovich, the wife of New Orleans drumming legend Johnny Vidacovich, who is responsible for this track being on the record.
Deb called to say she had been an active supporter of Nine Lives winning the grant by encouraging family members and Johnny’s fans to vote. She wanted me to know they were behind us and that Johnny was interested in being on the record. She mentioned that George Porter Jr. was interested as well.
This kind of thing happened throughout the sessions, folks who are true legends of the New Orleans music scene calling or stopping by to say they had heard about the project and would like to play. I used to live a few doors down from Johhny and his family back in the 90’s. We both lived on Bienville Street near the Odd Fellow’s Rest Cemetery. I lived near him for a while but I never really talked to him much. I was in a rock band at the time and we made a living off of a wild show but musically we were a garage band that made good. Johnny, on the other hand, had spent his career inventing grooves that no one had ever dreamed of, re-inventing them again and again throughout his life as he is probably doing somewhere right now.
I once worked for a tv station that had done a special of Johhny V. teaching children how to play percussion with things you might find in your pockets. He took out keys, spare change, a comb and proceeded to delight the children with a beautiful groove he conjured up from nowhere. I must have watched that special a dozen times on breaks. Johnny was and is a legend to me and I don’t think so highly of myself that I approach legends easily. I am grateful to Deb for calling me because I have another hero of mine on the record. I didn’t get to talk to him too much – a lifetime problem for me is meeting someone I’ve always wanted to meet and clamming up – but fortunately there was the song to talk about… and George Porter Jr.
I’ve recorded with and played with George a few times but I don’t flatter myself to think I could just pick up the phone and call George Porter Jr. to play on my record so I am again eternally grateful to Deborah Vidacovich for her sincerity, strength and support of Nine Lives. It was Deborah who called George for me or I would never have had the nerve. Funny thing is, when George does see me I always act like it’s the first time we’ve met and he always laughs at me and says, ” Paul, I know who you are”, but it’s George Porter Jr., man, and legends, living legends are not the easy to come by.
At this point in the recording process, our vision had outgrown the original budget. Caught up in the creative spirit and the incredible buzz of community that continued to grow with each session we surged on. Again Chris Joseph and our friend in DC, Scott Shalett, who had organized the Pepsi Refresh contest voting for us, both insisted they would find a way to raise the money and that I should just produce the best record I could.
A note of thanks (and he is free to give me an “I told you so” next time I see him) to Dave Pirner. Dave produced my first record after the flood, Exit To Mystery Street. Since I was paying for it myself, I was acting as my own label and approving expenses that Dave would not have approved. He explained to me that the producers job was not just to create and shape the music, it was also to keep and eye on the budget and not let creative desire run away with you. Thanks Dave, I get it now.
At any rate, we had George and Johnny so I thought we should ask another New Orleans legend who had not only inspired me musically, but had also given me ample opportunity to do some bump and grind dancing in my youthful bachelor days so I called Walter “Wolfman” Washington. I didn’t actually talk to Walter. I talked to his wife, Barbara Washington. Barb is a friend of Nettie Boutté and we have bumped into each other in Nettie or John’s backyard for years. I always tell her I love Walter and she always says we should work together but it hadn’t happened and this record seemed like a great time to make it so.
The scene is three older fellows giving advice on work, life and love to a younger fellow and for my younger fellow I hired Luke Winslow King, a guitarist, singer, songwriter who sort of looks like the Prince Charming of Frenchmen Street. I joke with Luke that I would hire him to back me on guitar but he is both young and good looking and I wouldn’t be able to get folks to focus on me – maybe only half-joking but which half? Colman and I had written some dialogue into the song but Luke had prepared it off the demo Alex McMurray had recorded for me and had it knocked before he walked through the doors of Piety. I called Alex to come play on the session because Walter had been on tour with Allen Toussaint, Johnny and George had been playing and Alex was the only one who had time to learn the song. I called and asked if he would come guide Johnny, George and Walter through the song. When he stopped laughing and asked me if I was serious, he hopped on his bike and came to the studio.
Rounding out the band is the one and only Washboard Chaz. No one else on this session that I know of has an entire music festival named after them, Chaz Fest, so, yes, you may call him a legend. Chaz had sung the whole song on the demo so handling one verse was easy enough and I thought it would be interesting to hear he and Johnny V. groove together.
George Porter Jr. is a very busy, very organized man and his was the tightest schedule. He could only be available at 10 in the morning on the day of the session. Johnny had to teach lessons but Deborah said they both knew how busy George was and she would rearrange Johnny’s schedule. Barabara asked at first if we could push because Walter had a gig the night before and neither of them were morning people so I told her to have him come in later to track.
Here I was, set to go with a session full of guys who inspired me, my safety net of Alex and Chaz who I play with often and Wes Fontenot at the board. I’ll talk more about Wes as the story goes on in the making of this album but for the moment I can tell you that without him, his quiet brilliance, his professionalism and his total lack of ego in the studio, this dream like experience would never have been possible.
George had stressed that he would be pressed for time so I arrived at Piety at 9:30 to make sure we were set. Wes was, of course, completely set up and waiting. Luke arrived first and Wes set he and his slide guitar up in the isolation booth. Alex arrived in typical Alex-in-the-morning fashion – tuft of hair pointing straight up off his head, slightly puffy eyes that all Irish have in the morning and clothes that look like he slid into them from the bed to the floor. Chaz arrived with a smile as always, chuckling at Alex as always and ready to work. Johnny V. was right on time and reminded me that Deborah had changed his schedule but he still had to teach later. I told him it wouldn’t be a problem because George wanted an early session and would be there soon.
Wes set everyone up and we waited. At ten there was no George. At ten-fifteen Johnny wandered out of the booth having tuned his drums again and said he was going to Frady’s for some water and “Where ‘da fuck is George?” I was getting nervous but was not going to call and rush one of my heroes so I stood in front of the studio anxiously waiting. Alex wandered up blinking. He didn’t ask about George. He just said softly, “Ah, hey man, you ah, woke me up to ah, be here…” and he wandered off. Chaz , who I think of as having a constant smile, walked up and unsmilingly peered over his glasses at me to ask slowly as if talking to a slow student, “Did anyone think of calling George?” This wasn’t the way I thought a dream session full of my heroes was supposed to go. Fortunately Luke just wandered around looking at the guys he was about to play music with and grinning like a cat. Johnny wandered back across the street from Frady’s with his water in his hand and when he got to where we were all standing he squatted down on his haunches on the sidewalk drinking water and eating a snack. After a beat he looked up, water in one hand and absentmindedly scratching his balls with his other hand, and barked, “Where ‘da fuck is George?!” I said I didn’t know. He shook his head, whipped out his cell phone, dialed a number and barked again, “George! Where ‘da fuck are you!!?” Johnny’s voice soften and he said, “Oh man. sorry ta’ hear ‘dat. When the fuck you gonna get here? Alright, see you.” He hung up and told me George’s computer had crashed that morning and George had forgotten about the session because he wanted to be at the Mac store when they opened. Everyone standing there went “Of course” almost simultaneously and we weren’t kidding. You don’t have to know George well, if you follow him on Facebook, to know that besides music, George loves his computer and we all knew he could not have enjoyed the session until he got his fixed.
It was fifteen minutes later when George arrived and he was set to go within minutes, again thanks to Wes. Alex took them all through the song and I left them alone to work out an arrangement. It was a simple enough song and I could have told them what I wanted but I would be cheating myself as producer to have assembled that much talent in one room and not allow them to form their own way to communicate the song to each other. Johnny and George discussed groove, George, Alex and Chaz discussed start stops and we were ready. They did a pass and Johnny V. came out of the booth to talk to George about a few hits and, as we were about to roll, George called out to me, “Which groove do you prefer, the one-two bass line or the walking bass line?” I answered, “When one of the greatest bass players alive asks me how I want the groove played, I respond, ‘However you would like to play it.'” He smiled at this, saying he would mix it up and use them both.
It’s such a swinging track. Colman had gone back to Los Angeles at this point in the sessions but he wrote immediately upon hearing it that all that was missing were the crackles on the record. It was a quick hit and the fellows all left the session in less than an hour once we got to playing.
At this point I hadn’t actually spoken to Wolfman but he was supposed to be there so Wes set up and we waited. When he was fifteen minutes late I looked at Wes and laughed, saying it was that kind of day. I called and Barbara answered. She paused and said she didn’t know if they would make it. I could hear them whispering to each other off the phone and finally I heard Barbara say, “Waltuh! Fa’ Gawd’s sake talk to ‘da man!” Walter got on the phone and said, “Hey, hey! ah… what is it you want me to do on this song?” I explained what I had already explained to Barbara, that we wanted him to sing a verse, chorus and play some lead guitar on a blues shuffle. I heard more whispering and again heard Barbara say, “Waltuh! Talk to ‘da man!” but she got back on the phone and said they were just a few minutes away and would be there soon. I didn’t know what to think but it was certainly a different session today.
They arrived and Walter went straight to the isolation booth, saying hello almost shyly. Wes followed to set him up. I had begun to think he didn’t want to play when Barbara tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Honey, if ya’ jus’ get ‘im a beer he’ll loosen up.” I hustled across the street to Frady’s and got a beer for all of us and two sips later Walter smiled, his face relaxed and he said, “Now talk me through this. What you want me to do?”
I told him it was a scene in the book where a young uptown white kid in 1969 gets a job cleaning dumpsters in the 9th Ward and is listening to a conversation by three older men, trading stories about working on the docks and chasing girls. He listened to the track and his smile got bigger, he looked at me grinning now and said, “I see where you going with this and I like it.” He asked what I wanted him to do on guitar since Alex had the groove covered and I told him just to hit the fills where he felt them. He smiled again and said, “That’s what I figure. I’m already feeling ’em.” One take – exactly one take was all it took for him to lay down the voice, groove, notes and attitude that has kept me staring in awe at shows for over twenty years. I thanked them both and they were gone less than a half hour after arriving.
The wonderful surprise on the session was Luke Winslow King who showed up just happy to be there and stood toe to toe with the greats of New Orleans both playing and singing. He left the studio almost floating the man was so happy. Great job, Luke.
It was a wonderfully eccentric roller coaster ride of a session and that is precisely what makes us New Orleans. Life in New Orleans is Like A Dance.
~ Paul Sanchez – April 9, 2011