Could Have Been Worse
This song was special, seductive even, for Colman and I from the moment we decided to write it.
It is a scene in Nine Lives where Wilbert Rawlins Sr. has been injured at work and, in part to teach his son Wilbert Rawlins Jr. a lesson about responsibility, still makes his gig as drummer for Irma Thomas, the legendary Soul Queen of New Orleans.
Colman lives in Los Angeles but has been coming to Jazz Fest for 20 years. He loves New Orleans and he loves the singing of Irma Thomas. For me, growing up in New Orleans, this was too good to pass up. I was so excited to write an Irma Thomas song, we half hoped she might sing it herself some day but that seemed like a crazy dream two years ago.
The thing about writing an Irma Thomas song is that her songs, those recordings, that style of arranging, all are at the very roots of rock n’ roll as I know it. Allen Toussaint is the name that appears on many of the New Orleans records as a songwriter, a musician, an arranger, a producer or all of these on the same record. I am a song writer from New Orleans and, for me, the songs of Allen Toussaint are the measuring stick by which other songwriters from New Orleans will be judged. I wanted the inviting lyrics of the New Orleans of my youth, something Irma could sing with tenderness but Mick Jagger might make sexual like Time Is On My Side. I wanted the musical nuance and emotional longing of It’s Raining; I can still see the 45rpm single of that song on my sisters’ turntable back on First Street in the Irish Channel.
In New Orleans she only needs one name. You say that Irma is singing and folks know who you mean. As a lifelong fan, the idea of writing a song with these high standards was thrilling. I learned how to slow dance to Irma’s songs when I was a boy. I listened to her voice on long, soul searching drives around town in my 20’s. There has never been a time in my life when Irma Thomas was anything but a legend in New Orleans.
All of this said if I hadn’t taken two years of guitar lessons from John Rankin leading up to this moment, Colman and I would have been in big trouble. Many of our sessions were just John and I talking about music, its course through history and New Orleans and these talks came back to me time and again as I tried to write songs that sounded right for the decade they took place in but remained tied to the same thread.
In an interview, Louis Armstrong was asked what he thought “about this rock n’ roll craze sweeping the country.” Pops replied, “Well, it’s just the same old gut-bucket blues we used to play back in New Orleans when I was coming up. Only now, they play real loud and nobody listens for the beautiful parts.” The nuances of chord progressions that I hadn’t learned in over a decade of being in a rock band were needed for the goals I had set for this song musically and I squeezed every bit of what John Rankin taught me into making the changes slide, slight/sleight and slip into place. I just had to listen for the beautiful parts.
Colman wanted a dreamy feel with the words and music because he wanted the scene to end with Irma singing young Wilbert to sleep. We went online and watched You Tube videos of Irma through the years to discuss what style of song to use I listened for what keys she was singing in to make sure the song was recorded in a key that was in her vocal sweet spot so she would be both comfortable and her voice at its most full.
Two years later we had a grant from the Pepsi Refresh contest and were on the sidewalk, (banquette I would have said as a boy), waiting for the arrival of Irma Thomas like two nervous school boys, freshly scrubbed, well dressed and pacing between the sidewalk and the console. Irma arrived alone – no entourage, no assistant, no attitude and totally prepared to work. When asked if taking a picture was alright, she joking replied that if someone wanted a picture of her looking like a grandmother that was fine because that’s who she is and she’s proud of it but she wasn’t getting fixed up for photos. She said it laughing, while posing for the picture and we all melted at how gracious a pro she was.
Matt had really done a wonderful arrangement. He was taking very seriously that this was Irma Thomas and he wanted the arrangement to be something that she would dig and something her heart would respond to as well.
Herman Roscoe Ernest III was on this session. Herman had actually played gigs with Irma many times over the years, even sitting in for Wilbert Rawlins Sr. on gigs when he fell ill later in life. He remembered Wil Sr. playing gigs with his hand wrapped for a while after that accident. It felt good that Herman liked the tune and could hear Irma singing it since he had played with her many times.
Musically, Matt Perrine has an overall picture of what his arrangements should sound like right down to his selection of bass, electric, acoustic upright or sousaphone. The choice is never casual. He has thought it out and debated endlessly with himself the reasons for the choice musically, sonically and artistically. Matt entered the big room at Piety carrying his electric bass for the track and Herman asked casually if he was playing electric bass on this track. Matt started to explain in detail the progression of songs, passing of time in the book and how he was building toward electric instruments thematically for the overall piece. Herman said, “That’s cool baby. It’s just, you know, if you think about it, back in those days this track would have an upright bass on it.” Matt stopped walking instantly, like a light bulb had just gone off and said, of course, Herman was absolutely correct and why didn’t he think of that. As prepared as he was for this arrangement and that instrumentation he changed on the spot because it was right for the song. It was one of many moments that I was glad to have Matt on the sessions.
Matt’s arrangement included a wonderful backing vocal that Colman and I kept referring to as The Irma-ettes, as if it were really the name of her backing group. Debbie Davis, Arsénne Delay and Tara Brewer were the Irma-ettes and as I heard the arrangement take life in the backing sessions, I grew more excited about hearing Irma’s voice on the track.
The backing singers had begun to develop a wonderful chemistry that has since turned into wonderful friendships and it continued to nurture a vibe of community on the record. In part because Matt’s arrangements were such work that they bonded by helping each other learn them but also we had lucked into hiring a group of very sweet, very funny and very talented singers who worked when they had to and laughed when they needed to release some tension.
The lyrics of the song referenced a saxophone playing and Matt had written in a sax solo over a key change at the center of the song which Jason Mingledorff played beautifully. Shane Theriot, on guitar, is so at home in the studio that I didn’t think twice about how he would adapt his style of playing to the song. I just waited, watched and learned.
The lushly brilliant Tom McDermott played piano and again I just like watching Tom. I’m pleased that the project has given us a bridge across our eccentricities so we can communicate but for the longest time I have just watched him. In awe of his genius and mystified by the way he sits oddly on the edge of a scene and somehow right at the center of it. A mind so filled with music that conversations are left dangling but solos never are.
He seems like the kind of fellow I could sit and talk with for hours but he is a gentle fellow and I am not. There is an Irish Channel directness in me that sensitive folks can see coming a mile away. I try to keep that in mind hoping I don’t rock someone’s world. The end result is I often find myself in a corner of a room full of people I admire wishing I knew what to say. One thing I love about John Boutté is his gift of seeming like an instant friend, huggable and loveable. I do not see myself as either and find it easier to remain a fan and give folks their space.
John Gros came in to play Hammond B-3 organ on the track and I was happy to see him. John and I have bumped into each other for years when I was playing in a rock band and, while we have never played together before, he always has a big smile for me and makes it easy to feel comfortable around him. The track was so beautiful already and the B-3 just added the gorgeous icing on the cake of Could Have Been Worse … which brings us back to Irma.
She asked to listen to the track at the console and have me sing along with her to make sure she got the melody right. I could have fallen down I was so happy. I was standing side by side with a New Orleans legend, teaching her how to sing a song I had co-written just for her.
We sang together on the first pass. On the second pass she said she had the verse but wanted me to sing the bridge with her again. I started singing the bridge with her but she was singing a different melody than I had written and she was singing it in a different place, changing the phrasing so it became call and response with the backing vocal. I started to correct her, thinking she needed help, but she held up her hand to me – I’m still thrilled that Irma Thomas gave me “the hand” – letting me know she didn’t need the help. I realized that she was re-writing the bridge on the spot and it was brilliant. It is similar to when I write with John Boutté. There are songs we have written together that John will tell people he didn’t have much to do with but altering a melody, word or the phrasing of the song in such a way to make it better is instinctive in a great singer and if the changes are more than improv, it becomes “writing.“
After the session we talked about it, I explained to Colman how much she had altered the bridge and without hesitation he agreed to give Irma a song writing credit on the track. We both figured that if the song ever made money we would be sharing it with someone who more than deserved it and if it didn’t ever make money we would still have our names on a song with a legend. A win/win, karmically speaking. I was told later that we really didn’t have to share the credit and answered that was all the more reason to do it. I wondered aloud how many times in her career Irma may have altered a melody enough to make a song memorable and not gotten a credit for it.
As for her tracking the song, she had me at “Hello.”
I have produced many sessions and someone like Irma knows what she is capable of and is most often more demanding on themselves than any producer would be. I give a singer like Irma Thomas, John Boutté or Kevin Griffin a lot of space to tell me when they have arrived at the place where they know they have given the song what it wanted.
Singers that good just know.
I had made the mistake of inviting a journalist to the sessions, something I normally wouldn’t do but was so swept up with the community and vibe of the sessions that I thought a writer should be there to capture it. Unfortunately this writer thought he was there to do more than observe and began giving advice about how to produce Irma’s vocals, telling me I could be more demanding. I found myself in the awkward position of trying to explain to him off mic that I was allowing her to create a comfort zone, while encouraging her on mic to continue to do so by simply saying, “That was great for me. How do you feel?” knowing that when she had it she would tell me. A great singer has pride and won’t leave the studio without having left something that represents them well. A great singer also doesn’t dig being over worked or pushed past the point of things being productive because the producer is “looking for magic”.
Letting the press in was a mistake I would pay for again on Nine Lives but in this case Irma didn’t hear any of what was said and I let the fellow feel listened to because I like to make people feel good but also making a note not to ask him back to the sessions.
Irma was fine after her fourth take, announcing that was as good as she could sing it and if we wanted more we could hire a different Irma Thomas. Again she said all of this laughing and being very charming, obviously aware of how much we revered her.
We stood shoulder to shoulder listening to the play back, a memory I will cherish. She chuckled at her own improvs and remarked on favorite bits. Colman and I exchanged relieved looks of joy, again like two little boys just thrilled beyond words to have manifested the moment together.
Mark Bingham was on hand for the whole session and I was grateful. His ease at chatting with Irma helped early in the day. His love of New Orleans music was evident in his eyes as he looked on smiling but listening intensely while privately whispering to Wes about microphone choices and placement.
At the end of the session as Irma was leaving she said to make sure she got a copy of the song and the words because she wanted to put it in her act. Later, I asked Colman what he would do if he went to an Irma Thomas show and heard her sing our song. He said he would probably throw up on the guy in front of him.
Just a warning if you happen to be standing near Colman at an Irma show in the near future.
It was that awkward time where she had to go and we didn’t want to let go of this special moment, all saying for the umpteenth time how honored we were by her being on the record. Mark Bingham broke the formality by announcing to Irma that with all of these movies being filmed in town, someone should make a movie about her life and that Jennifer Lopez should star in it. Without missing a beat, like someone had tossed her a straight line on stage Irma, raised an eyebrow and shot back, “Well, she’s got the butt for it that’s for sure”.
With that remark, Irma Thomas, the legendary Soul Queen of New Orleans exited the Nine Lives sessions.
~ Paul Sanchez – May 16, 2011