Lee Dorsey

TrackSingle / Album
Ya YaYa Ya
Ride Your PonyLee Dorsey
Get Out My Life WomanLee Dorsey
Working In A CoalmineThe New Lee Dorsey
Holy CowThe New Lee Dorsey
Why Wait Till Tomorrow45 Stateside 45 SS2017
Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky45 Bell BLL1074
Sneaking Sally Through The AlleyYes We Can
A Place Where We Can Be FreeYes We Can
Freedom For The Stallion45 Mojo 2093 009

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Contributor: Peter Viney

How much is this Toppermost “Lee Dorsey” and how much “the guy Allen Toussaint put on vocals on his songs”? If you take the CD compilation “The Masters” seventeen tracks out of twenty are written by Allen Toussaint, and two by “Neville”. You might think this was Art Neville or Aaron Neville, but the credits are to Naomi Neville, which was Allen Toussaint’s mother’s maiden name (no relation to the brothers), and an early pseudonym he used. He probably felt that written by, produced by and piano by was overloading the credits, though having seen him sing live it’s a surprise he didn’t sing them too. Toussaint had his reasons for using Dorsey on some of his best compositions:

He had such a unique voice that you could go to subjects and humour that you would never dare try with another type of vocalist or debonair personality … the voice always sounded like it had a smile in it, and he loved singing so much.

Dorsey was an ex-boxer, who had had a reasonable career in the ring as Kid Chocolate. Perhaps the ring work made him such an athletic dancer (see video clip). His first record was Lottie Mo (which he remade as Lottie Mo 68). Dorsey’s first hit, Ya Ya, was simply produced by Toussaint and was co-written by Dorsey and Bobby Robinson. Mobster Morris Levy gets on the credits, but that’s true of dozens of songs. It was a #1 R&B single, and heavily covered, with Petula Clark getting the European hit in French as Ya Ya Twist. Dorsey & Robinson got the idea from some kids sitting on a swing clapping and singing. It had a nursey rhyme feel, a trick he repeated with the hit follow-up Do-Re-Mi. That has a great lyric (Forget about the dough and think about me …) and would get in the Toppermost given another few selections. The Ya Ya album had Do-Re-Mi, and added Eenie Meeinie Minie Mo, Yum Yum, and Ixie Dixie Pixie Pie which was stretching the idea a tad too far. Dorsey’s career was stalled when Toussaint was drafted, leaving him bereft of a writer/producer from 1963 to early 1965. Three tracks from that period are on the CD Funky As I Can Be including Loneology (For Your Love). At this point, Dorsey is a first-rate but not unusual R&B singer. Then Toussaint returned from the army.

Ride Your Pony stands with the most influential dozen soul songs ever made (like Respect with it’s four to the floor drums, or Shaft with the funky choppy guitar or Love To Love You Baby with electronic beats). Actually a lot of the next 15 years gets prefaced in Ride Your Pony. Toussaint says it is also his only conscious attempt to write a “hit song.” Put it on, play it loud. Follow the drums, the Shaft-like guitar rhythms. The burping sax and chiming lead guitar solos are used so sparingly. Every time I hear it I marvel at that complex rhythm section. Dave Marsh describes the song in 1000 Greatest Singles Ever Made:

An ominous rumble with Dorsey’s raggedy shouts directing the dancers like traffic, baritone saxes grunting and complaining all the while that bass and guitar move along unhurriedly and the drums loiter, linger then explode all over the kit.

Levon Helm of The Band said that their earlier incarnation, Levon & The Hawks, were the only band who could play Lee Dorsey as well as Lee Dorsey. You can hear the massive influence in He Don’t Love You, their Atlantic / ATCO B-side (now on several compilations). Toussaint, who was to be associated with The Band later, had the same sense of space between instruments, the same micro-second dragging drums and melodic bass, the same sense of instruments coming in as colouration, and then going out rather than ploughing through the whole track. Levon & The Hawks were unusual in America in covering Lee Dorsey. In contrast, Lee Dorsey was the key sound of 1965 and 1966 soul for many British bands.

Lee Dorsey (known as Ride Your Pony on CD release), has “Ride Your Pony • Get Out My Life Woman” printed over the title in Britain with an incongruous cover photo of what appears to be a skiffle band with just one black guy holding a washboard in a New York street (see above). Toussaint wrote ten of the twelve tracks. The two track names above the title leads us to Get Out My Life Woman, another seminal track in finding the Toussaint sound. The piano weaves in and out, the horns are several rooms away. The beat is slow, dragging back, but right upfront.

It’s a typical album of the era, each side leading with the single hit, but it’s not just comprised of filler. Work Work Work, closing side one is another track I considered. It was an American R&B hit. Can You Hear Me is in the Hi Heel Sneakers / Can I Get A Witness vein, though a perfect example, and of course has the added horns.

In 1966, Lee Dorsey had four British chart hits: Get Out My Life Woman, Confusion, Working In The Coalmine and Holy Cow. The New Lee Dorsey album took the hits from the earlier album and added that 1966 run. Working in The Coalmine borrowed the hammer effect from Big Bad John, while Holy Cow has that relaxed Sam Cooke / Marvin Gaye vibe. It was covered by The Band on Moondog Matinee and while Rick Danko’s vocal on that version is magnificent, it did prove that they didn’t QUITE play Lee Dorsey as well as Lee Dorsey. Or rather as well as Toussaint’s house band, who backed most of those productions from 1965 on. The Meters are often credited with all of them, but when I saw Toussaint with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he told us that their bass player, Walton Payton, had played bass on Get Out My Life Woman. According to Wiki, he also played bass on Working In The Coal Mine … this isn’t trivia. The bass part is central to both.

The B-side to Working In The Coalmine is Mexico, and is a semi-narrated novelty, well worth hearing for the bass, weirdly accented drums and wild brass. It’s a tempting inclusion, but those three selected 1966 hits are so definitive it would be perverse to replace one.

Rain Rain Go Away, GoGo Girl and My Old Car followed, the latter veering into mild novelty. He had a few semi-novelty songs owing a debt to The Coasters, Gotta Find A Job was another. I prefer the B-side of My Old Car, Why Wait Until Tomorrow. There are several Lee Dorsey compilation CDs, and each of them misses at least one key track. They all miss this one.

Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky is a 1969 single, a delightful slice of classic Dorsey with Hammond organ. This is definitely The Meters, who by then had the monopoly on Toussaint tracks. Bassist George Porter recalls hours in the studio doing backing tracks (in Motown fashion) that would then be tried with several vocalists. He reckoned Lee Dorsey versions exist in the vaults of many of the things they did which were actually released by other artists.

The Yes We Can album in 1970 provided the title track, a US hit, though it was eclipsed by The Pointer Sisters version. Yes We Can became Barack Obama’s campaign song, and hence one of Dorsey’s best known tracks, the lyrics being somewhat obvious. I’ll take another from the same album, the first version of Sneaking Sally Through The Alley which is not an appropriate song for any politician, as it reinforces what most tabloid journalists suspect. The bass leads the song. Lee Dorsey is more conversational, laid back than Robert Palmer or Robert Parker on the same song. A Place Where We Can Be Free is another standout, with burbling bass, soothing choir and it’s also a better song than Yes We Can … I don’t really like Yes We Can, and I’m only just realizing it.

In 1971, Lee Dorsey did the first version of Toussaint’s Freedom For The Stallion. It’s a better message song than Yes We Can too. It became the title track of The Hues Corporation album in 1973, and was covered by Boz Scaggs. Toussaint did it with Elvis Costello on River in Reverse in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. When I saw Toussaint live he announced it as one of his most important songs. Dorsey’s version is on several compilations and is a bonus track on Yes We Can CDs.

Night People in 1978 was Lee Dorsey’s last US hits. It’s 70s funk, i.e. not as melodically interesting as earlier stuff. In 1980 he did a major tour supporting The Clash, who had requested him (a tribute to their taste and to the British mods’ affection for Dorsey). Between bouts of activity in 1970 and 1978 and 1980, he returned to his auto repair business. Dorsey died in 1986.

The compilations steadfastly skip one hit each. Mexico and Why Wait Until Tomorrow are missing from most. A budget disc, Funky As I Can Be has later rejected versions of R&B standards, My Babe and What Am I Living For, as well as live takes on Working In The Coalmine, Lottie Mo and Ride Your Pony, all sung from a wheelchair after he broke both legs.

Lee Dorsey biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #185

2 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Feb 2, 2014

    Of course, Working in a Coalmine was covered, very successfully by Devo. Great artist!

  2. Rob Millis
    Feb 6, 2014

    Bravo, Peter. It doesn’t actually matter if he was just the “tonsils” of Allen Toussaint, a great singer and a great song is never beaten as a format!

    I’d have Wonder Woman on mine, purely because it was the first outside of Ride Your Pony/Coal Mine/Holy Cow that I heard, via Brinsley Schwarz who covered it.

    I’ve got priority seat tickets for Allen T at Ronnie’s in April. Saw him at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm a few years back and he ran through all his Lee Dorsey hits with that effortless manner and easy voice. A great man.

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