To Be Continued
“I’m in the right now trying to get to the not yet.”
A young man named Brandon Franklin said these words in a documentary film made in 2005 after the flood. Brandon, like the other children in his high school marching band, was simply trying to survive life in New Orleans post-Katrina. There were some without mothers, some without fathers, there were even children living on their own in FEMA trailers just trying to make it through high school, make it out. Brandon excelled in band, he more than survived the flood and he began to grow into manhood. He became Wilbert Rawlins’ assistant band director. The brass band, To Be Continued, he started with his other friends in high school began to make a name for themselves in New Orleans.
In 2010, Brandon Franklin was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting he had nothing to do with. Another violent act in a city that has seen too much death.
I told Colman that this song should begin with the words Brandon spoke in the documentary film, a scene which Dan Baum captured poignantly in his book Nine Lives. In fact most of the lyrics to the song are straight out of Dan’s book and the lives of the TBC.
Colman and I agreed that since the scene is about the band To Be Continued at the premier of the documentary film in which the band appears, we ought to make this song a song a brass band would play.
I had been quite enjoying researching the different decades and styles of New Orleans music. It was a wonderful way to retrace the steps of my own life and reclaim some things I had lost to the flood and time. I just couldn’t get the swing of the melody like I heard it in my head. Try as I might, and Colman gave me a couple of hours to try, I couldn’t get my mind around the way the melody should roll. I called John Boutté and explained where we were with the song. He said we could come over and he would help. John told me I had the song pretty close but that the melody needed more space so the music could dance. He started singing a melody with the words we had written and it was instantly a better song. Then again John Boutté could sing the phone book and it would sound like the angels in heaven. He started talking about brass band music, how it was music you dance to but also how it is related to gospel music as well. He smiled and said ” Baby, on the chorus, it’s good but you got to leave space for the ‘hallelujah.'” I asked, smiling back, what he meant. He sang the chorus we had written but paused between the first line of the chorus, “…but the music, was always there to help, (pause), I said the music, was always, there to help”. It sounded perfect and I told him so. He smiled even bigger and said, “Baby, that’s because you have to leave a space for the ‘hallelujah’. You don’t have to sing it but you got to leave a space for it or the groove just don’t, you know, feel right.” One of the things that makes John Boutté a great singer is he understands the importance of song structure and knows how to highlight that song structure with his singing. John helped write three songs on Nine Lives and they would not have been near as good without his help. Listen for that space on this song and you will see he is right.
Someone else I work with and have complete trust in artistically is Shamarr Allen. Shamarr is a great songwriter, arranger, musician and producer. There is a very short list of people that I would call and say, “I need two songs for a record, they have to be about this, send them to me when you are done.” I never ask to hear his work or songs up front because I know he delivers. Same with Matt Perrine and his arrangements. I never need to hear them before I go into the studio, though Matt always insists that I do, which is nice, but it’s not like I would change anything.
I called Shamarr and asked him to arrange the song for To Be Continued to play and to come to Piety that day to co-produce the session. I knew TBC would be more comfortable with Shamarr and I consider that one of the primary responsibilities of a producer: Make the performer comfortable so they relax and play well. I also knew that Shamarr, as producer, would have far better instincts about how to make this a brass band track than I would. As it happens, Mark Bingham has recorded countless brass band records so he and Shamarr traded stories. Mark’s stories had Shamarr falling down laughing and they talked about how this should be recorded, mic placement and doing the vocals separately.
The band came in. Shamarr played along and lead them through the song a few times in the big room at Piety. When Shamarr thought they were ready he called to the engineer, Wes Fontenot, to get it rolling. They got it in a couple of passes and set up to sing. I had let Shamarr do most of the talking all day, just letting them have their space since they are young and I didn’t want to make them nervous or mess with their band chemistry. But before they recorded the vocal, I went out to talk to the singers. I wanted to tell them how special this song was to me, that the lyrics to the song began with the words of their friend who had been killed earlier that year.
I asked, “Y’all knew Brandon Franklin?” They looked at each other, then me with a shrug like they couldn’t believe I had just asked such an obvious question and one of the band, I think it was Juicy, spoke up saying, “Of course we knew Brandon. He was our band mate.”
I started to speak, “Well, the lyrics to this song, they were…”, he cut me off, ” They were his words, we know.”
There are moments when art crosses over into life in heartbreakingly beautiful ways and I had just lived one. There was nothing left to do but go in and listen to the song spring to life exactly as we had imagined it.
The band had learned the song from a demo I made with me singing and playing it on acoustic guitar. On the first take, as they started singing, Shamarr stopped them and called out over the studio mic, “No-o-o! Stop singing it like Uncle Paul on the demo. Y’all making it sound like a country song!” He looked right at me, smiled and, still talking to the band, sang in a perfect imitation of me but in a slow exaggerated country style, “Ah’m in the raht no-ow try-een’ to get to ‘da note yet” He laughed. I laughed. The whole band laughed. That is the vibe that went on the next take and remains on Nine Lives for this track: Laugher, next to pain. next to joy.
As Shamarr lead them on, the To Be Continued Brass Band (Bernard Adams – tuba, Christopher Davis – trumpet, Darren Towns – bass drum, Devin Vance – trombone, Edward Jackson – trombone, Joseph Maize Jr. – trombone, Samuel Cyrus – snare drum, Sean Roberts – trumpet) swing and groove on this song Colman and I wrote just for them called, appropriately enough,
To Be Continued.
~ Paul Sanchez – September 15, 2011