Benny Spellman

TrackSingle
Life Is Too ShortMinit 606
Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)Minit 644
Fortune TellerMinit 644
Stickin' Whicha' BabyMinit 659
You Got To Get ItMinit 659
Talk About LoveMinit 664
Walk On Don't CryWatch 6332
Must Be LoveAlon 9027
Sinner GirlSansu 462
If You Love HerSansu 462

Benny Spellman photo 1

Benny Spellman

 

 

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Benny Spellman playlist

 

 

DAVE STEPHENS’ NEW ORLEANS SCENES #5 – BENNY SPELLMAN

Allen Toussaint is widely, and correctly, regarded as a major figure in the popular music of New Orleans from the 1950s onwards. But his forte, if such a word can be used for someone with such a wide range of skills, wasn’t in performing, it was in song writing, piano accompaniment, arranging and record production (with a bit of label founding and management thrown in). Somewhere around 1965, I purchased a compilation LP entitled We Sing The Blues on the (British) Liberty label. Contrary to the impression given by the title, this wasn’t a blues album, it was R&B or, to be more precise, New Orleans R&B. The artists included were Chris Kenner (I Like It Like That), Irma Thomas (It’s Raining), Willie Harper, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe (A Certain Girl), Benny Spellman, The Showmen, Eskew Reeder and Jessie Hill. There was no mention of Allen Toussaint on the sleeve but if you took out the record and looked at the credits, you would have seen Toussaint listed as composer on two of the songs. Not much you might say but if you looked more closely you would also have seen “Neville” credited against six of the numbers and, research these days via a source like 45cat would tell you, that the expanded credit would read Naomi Neville: this was the maiden name of Toussaint’s mother and one he used on many of his compositions.

We Sing The Blues photo

Allen Toussaint spanned the first wave of New Orleans R&B cum rock and roll from the mid/late forties through the fifties with Fats Domino riding the crest but with other artists like Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis and Huey “Piano” Smith not too far behind, to what I’m terming the second wave from those artists I’ve listed above plus others. The thing that those particular artists had in common was that they recorded for Minit Records, a New Orleans based label founded by Joe Banashak in 1959 and sold to the bigger L.A. based indie, Imperial Records, in 1963. Toussaint was house producer for the label from 1960 up until 1963 when he was drafted into the US Army, which probably not coincidentally was when the stream of hits dried up. The LP I’d bought was a kind of ‘greatest hits’ comp, released by Minit in the US in 1962, then released in the UK by London in 1963 and then Liberty reissued it in 1965. The last named label, which was part of the EMI empire, might have been prompted into the release by the fact that the Yardbirds covered A Certain Girl on the flip side of their debut single in May ’64 (date courtesy of 45cat).

The Yardbirds weren’t the only UK group to have picked up on the London ’63 release of We Sing The Blues and relished the opportunity to use it as an excellent source of material. Benny Spellman’s song Fortune Teller from the set was covered by the Merseybeats in ’63 and the Rolling Stones in ’64 – the Stones’ cut was included in a compilation LP entitled Saturday Club in celebration of the radio show – other participants included Dave Berry, Brian Poole & the Tremeloes and the Vernons Girls.

All of which brings me to the B-side of Benny Spellman’s third single for Minit: Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette) c/w Fortune Teller. Both sides were written by Allen Toussaint (using the Naomi Neville name) and who, you won’t by now be surprised to hear, was also responsible for the arrangement and production. Both tracks are classics from that second wave I was talking about; I’d love to add “and the record was a smash hit” (which would have been deserved) but all I can say is that #80 in the Hot 100 and #28 in the nation’s R&B Chart was the highest it achieved. Still the reputation of the record has endured – they’re not unaware of it in places like Wigan.

The anonymous sleeve note writer on that LP provided a few words on each track. Below you’ll find his contribution for Fortune Teller:

“A humorous touch is inserted by Benny Spellman, who tells (sic) about going to a “Fortune Teller” and being told he’ll soon fall in love with a special girl – then finding out that special girl is the fortune teller herself. So he marries her and is happy because now he can get his fortune told free.”

Facile? Yes, but hey this was/is pop music. Just whip back and replay the clip – the latin rhythm, insidious descending sequence that lodges itself in the brain, claves, Toussaint’s piano initially carrying the beat but dropping back, clever usage of backing singers, rare but highly delicious horn interjections – “And now I get my fortune told for free” (in near Mr Bassman voice).

He was born 11th December 1931 in Pensacola, Florida and, showing enthusiasm for sport from an early age, managed to get himself a football scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Whilst at Baton Rouge he found time (and opportunity) to indulge another interest – singing. He worked with several jazz and R&B groups, reportedly (according to the biography at BlackCat Rockabilly Europe, sitting in with a jazz ensemble put together by Alvin Batiste – see Footnotes). After graduation Benny did his stint in the US Army and, on completion, returned to Pensacola in 1959.

By pure chance, in Pensacola he ran into Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns (from New Orleans) who had crashed their truck on the way to a gig. In a somewhat extreme bout of generosity Benny drove them all the way home to the Big Easy. Rather than returning, Benny stuck around and found his love of music returning. For a spell he worked as one of Huey’s Clowns. He also bumped into a contact he’d made whilst in Baton Rouge, guitarist Edgar Blanchard whose band, the Gondoliers, was at that time the house band at the famous Dew Drop Inn. Benny sat in with them and was rewarded with a residency. In 1960, he auditioned for the new Minit label and passed. (The sources for some of the information in the last two paragraphs were the BlackCat Rockabilly feature already mentioned and the fine OffBeat Magazine Spellman obituary written by Jeff Hannusch.)

Single #1 for Minit, a minor key ballad entitled Life Is Too Short, possibly wasn’t brash enough to make the charts but it showcased Benny’s voice well which could be what Minit were after. This was only single #5 from the label and I’m not sure whether Toussaint was fully on board yet in terms of arrangement and production though he was co-composer, with Benny, and I’d be surprised if that wasn’t him on the gently rippling piano. What the number didn’t have were those Crescent City touches which we associate with Allen. No matter, the voice certainly does come across superbly with some dramatic upwards note bending occurring from the second verse on; nothing is overdone and the team opt for a quiet departure rather than power ballad wham bang stuff. This was Benny Spellman, undiscovered soul ballad king.

The follow-up Darling, No Matter Where was an attempt to come up with something similar but for me it didn’t come off. I wouldn’t fault the Spellman vocal; it’s the arrangement which manages to make the overall creation sound rather MOR. In terms of flips from the first couple of discs, both were more up tempo but neither really caught that sonic gumbo that was New Orleans, indeed the feeling was that they were ignoring it.

Prior to the appearance of Lipstick Traces/Fortune Teller, Benny was involved in two other records. In late 1960, possibly October 20th (that’s if a comment from contributor Mickey Rat in 45cat can be believed), another Minit artist, Ernie K-Doe, was in the studio with Allen Toussaint recording Mother-In-Law, a record that would become one of Minit’s biggest hits and certainly Ernie’s biggest, something he never let anyone forget. Before all that happened though and that’s part of another story, they still had a record to finish. Allen called in Benny to supply via his best baritone register, a key part of the call & response pattern that he, Allen, had decided to use. This he did and it’s his voice you hear first before Ernie kicks into verse #1.

The other record, That’s All I Ask Of You c/w Roll On Big Wheel, credited to Benny (Mother-In-Law) Spellman saw release on the Ace label. Ace operated out of Jackson, Mississippi (and was ‘home’ to several artists who were largely New Orleans based like Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns). According, once again, to 45cat, both sides were produced by Mac Rebennack (before he’d adopted his Dr. John persona), in which case that’s likely to be him on piano. Benny certainly takes the lead on the A-side – those warm tones should be recognisable by now – but on the flip he duets with Roland Stone, an even more obscure NOLA figure and what’s of particular interest is that the arrangement features good old Ben with bass phrasing not unlike that on Mother-In-Law. While I have no idea how or why this record was released – BS was still on a contract with Minit I assume – and I’ve seen no account that addresses this point, what to me is of greater interest is that Benny again copes extremely well with a more upbeat and New Orleans oriented style of music. And, it could be just that which was behind the total change of approach by Minit/Toussaint which resulted in Minit record #3 – “Lipstick Traces” for anyone who hasn’t been counting.

There was a degree of inevitability about the next Spellman record down the line after the mini hit; Every Now And Then sounded like a mash-up of that record with a smidgeon of Mother-In-Law and, like many a soundalike before and after, it failed to chart. The record does have its attractions but when I ask myself “would it have charted if it had come prior to Lipstick Traces”, the answer comes back as “probably not”.

Allen Toussaint who was younger than many of the artists he produced, disappeared off for his US Army stint in 1963 and the flow of hits for the label dried up. Joe Banashak sold Minit to Imperial that same year, and then Imperial itself got picked up by Liberty. Prior to these events, there were two more singles released from Benny. Both of the A-sides had all the usual Toussaint attributes – snorty horns, intelligent usage of backing singers and, more importantly Professor Longhair inspired piano from the man himself – but neither got a sniff of success. With its fast rhumba rhythm, Talk About Love might have had a little similarity to Fortune Teller. But its slightly slower predecessor, Stickin’ Whicha’ Baby (which had Benny declaring his eternal love in a somewhat basic manner), owed nothing to anything other than that big ole Mississippi rolling on down through New Orleans, and yes, the usual attributes were there but it stood on its own two feet:

There was even more of a Big Easy raunchy sound on the B-side, You Got To Get It: basically an urgent-but-lazy 12 bar blues with the brass, particularly the trombone man, providing even more fruit than usual but with a novel effect added via the extension of the verse portion as the song progressed.

Imperial/Liberty didn’t keep Benny on and 1964 found him at another small New Orleans-based indie, Watch Records, where he cut two singles both under the watchful eye of Wardell Quezergue, who was another major musical ‘backroom boy’ at the time, displaying not dissimilar talents to Toussaint and Rebennack (though his productions tended not to major on piano unlike either of that pair). It was presumably Quezergue’s decision to put the spotlight once again on Benny’s soul balladeering abilities, quite possibly in light of the fact that Messrs. Charles and Burke had had hits along such lines and the Stax lot in Memphis were starting to kick up something of a storm. Whatever, both Slow Down Baby (Don’t Drive Too Fast) and Walk On Don’t Cry were handkerchief-style slowies. The former boasted a fast cross rhythm in addition to the much slower metre which was in line with Benny’s vocal, possibly in a rather audacious attempt to illustrate the full title line (though it might have been a tad too complex for the average record buyer). In comparison, Walk On Don’t Cry was more conventional and might have been an attempt to emulate the sort of ballad that Chuck Jackson was delivering in NYC with songs from Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Melodically, the track didn’t contain those little touches that have differentiated Bacharach numbers and arrangements over the years but the production was crisp and Benny was fine. Rebennack was a co-writer on the song – these guys used to get around!

Come 1965 and Benny was back with Allen again on another new label set up by Joe Banashak, Alon Records (NOLA in reverse for anyone curious). Ben stuck with them until some time in ’66 and four singles ensued. The numbers that probably elicited most attention (but didn’t shift many copies) were his take on Ernie K-Doe’s – yes him again – Tain’t It The Truth, a pleasingly rearranged soul ballad, and The Word Game, an up tempo affair which wouldn’t have come into existence without the release of Shirley Ellis’s The Name Game some months earlier. Encouraged by local sales, Atlantic picked up distribution rights but to no avail as far as the national charts were concerned. My vote from the Alon records goes to Must Be Love, a restrained ballad penned by Mr Toussaint as usual. Listen out for the twiddly bit from the backing singers.

Oh, what is this?
Strange feelings whenever you’re near
Could this be love?

1967 found Benny on the move again. His new home was Sansu Records set up by Allen Toussaint with Marshall E. Sehorn, located in – you guessed – New Orleans. Only one record emerged from a very brief stay, Sinner Girl c/w If You Love Her and it was good, very good. Take a listen:

I don’t know what categories to put either of that pair in. Sinner Girl is some form of soul with an appreciation of funk but that doesn’t do it justice. The flip might be even more difficult; it’s certainly not the sort of R&B we’ve got used to from these guys. Maybe just pop as a default? None of this matters of course. All that’s important is do you want to listen to them again?

Is this two sider as good as Lipstick Traces/Fortune Teller? You need to hear Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette) to answer:

Your pretty brown eyes
Your wavy hair
I won’t go home no more
‘Cause you’re not there

(and I still think that a song with a title like that should have come from writers like Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran):

The O’Jays made a fine version of this number (which could well be why the Northern Soul fans started showing interest in Spellman) but I’m sticking with the original; that piano intro grabs me every time.

There was to be one more single from Benny before he decided to call it a day. The A-side, Foolish Man, isn’t on YT or Spotify but the very informative Home of the Groove site calls it a “fine, effective soul-pop ballad” and rates it highly. The same site puts the flip, Don’t Give Up Love, in the “And Now For Something Completely Different” category (their words) and we’re in luck this time, because the track complete with artificial applause and a revived bass vocal touch on the last word of the title line, is on YouTube. An attempt to convey some of the atmosphere of a Spellman live performance perhaps, because we’re reliably informed – via words from Irma Thomas no less – that Benny used to give an audience one of the best gigs ever seen in the Dewdrop Inn or anywhere else in the Crescent City, but its manufactured retro style doesn’t really float my cabin cruiser. For completeness I should add that Benny wrote the songs on both sides of this record, that the label was Mor Soul, about which little is known, and that the producer was the label’s A&R Man and founder, Traci Borges.

By 1968, the year he cut that last single, local gigs were becoming harder to find and Benny took a day job working for the local Miller beer distributor. He didn’t totally put an end to live performances though, appearing annually at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

He suffered a stroke in 1996 and died in 2011. Prior to his death he had the honour of being elected to the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.

And those words from Irma Thomas? Below is the relevant paragraph as recorded by Jeff Hannusch in his obituary on Benny:

“Benny was a great entertainer,” confirms Irma Thomas, who recorded at Minit Records with Spellman and performed at several of the same venues with him. “Outgoing, gregarious, always upbeat – that was Benny. He was constantly in motion – he wasn’t the kind of guy to stand still on stage.”

And in that same obituary, the late Joe Banashak is quoted as saying in 1984:

“Benny was by far the most popular rhythm and blues artist in New Orleans [at the time].”

 

FOOTNOTES

1. I’m not including a mini-biography of Allen Toussaint. If you want to know more about the man then check out the extensive Wikipedia entry. What I will do though is include (below) a brief paragraph from that article:

The Daily Telegraph described Toussaint as “a master of New Orleans soul and R&B, and one of America’s most successful songwriters and producers”, adding that “self-effacing Toussaint played a crucial role in countless classic songs popularised by other artists”. He had written so many songs, over more than five decades, that he admitted to forgetting quite a few.”

2. My theory about the first UK release of We Sing The Blues being a source of material for Brit groups may or may not hold water. What is known is that London, the UK label with the rights to Minit records at the time, did release both A Certain Girl and Fortune Teller in single format and that there were UK buyers, John Lennon being one, who bought every London single as it came out.

According to Wikipedia my theory was correct. After effectively “putting this Toppermost to bed” and starting on another which featured Ernie K-Doe, I had occasion to look up the Wiki entry on the song A Certain Girl. This was what it said in reference to the Yardbirds version of the song:

“They (referring to the Yardbirds) had heard Doe’s song on a London Records compilation album featuring Minit Records R&B artists titled We Sing The Blues (1963).”

3. There have been plenty more versions of Fortune Teller over the years. One that readers might be aware of is contained on the 2007 album, Raising Sand, from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. A version that the average reader is less likely to have come across is the one from the Iguanas in 1993 which conjures up Dr. John in Gris Gris mode. The group are New Orleans based and, according to Jeff Hannusch in the Offbeat obituary of Benny, he would occasionally sit in with them during the nineties.

4. New Orleans born Alvin Batiste was an avant-garde jazz clarinettist and educator who taught at the jazz institute he had set up at Southern University, Baton Rouge.

5. Huey “Piano” Smith was an influential R&B pianist and band leader who began working the clubs of New Orleans from 1949 onwards. He picked up his first record contract in 1952 and, in ’55 and the years following, he worked as pianist on Little Richard sessions for Imperial and also worked on several sessions for ‘name’ New Orleans artists like Smiley Lewis and Lloyd Price. In ’57 he formed the band, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns and recorded several national hits for the Ace label in Jackson, Mississippi. The hits included Don’t You Just Know It, High Blood Pressure and Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu.

6. Guitarist and band leader Edgar Blanchard was born in Grosse Tête, Louisiana in 1924 but for much of his life worked in New Orleans, barring a spell recording for Don Robey’s Peacock Records in Houston. From the early fifties through to the sixties he was a regular session man behind names like Ray Charles, Lloyd Price, Little Richard, Clarence “Frogman” Henry and more.

7. Roland Stone (original name, Roland LeBlanc) was a white guy who epitomised the ‘not known outside New Orleans’ thing – see also below. He made a handful of records for the Ace label between 1960 and 1962 plus a few others over a wider time scale, often with Mac Rebennack present in a production/arrangement role. He worked with Rebennack in a group called the Skyliners. One of his more successful records in the New Orleans area was his cover of Sunny and the Sunglows’ Just A Moment. A compilation of Roland’s Ace recordings including outtakes was issued in the UK in 1999.

8. According to 45cat, Watch Records released 20 singles. Other than Professor Longhair, Johnny Adams and Benny himself, all of its artists fit in that ‘not known outside New Orleans’ category. It did have a modicum of local success however.

9. Some of my words on Alon Records were unintentionally incorrect. Benny did get back with Allen Toussaint but not immediately since he, Allen, didn’t start with the label immediately – this information comes from the Home of the Groove site. It was Joe Banashak who put together the Tain’t It The Truth single but Allen was behind the production console for Benny’s second outing on Alon, The Word Game. The writer also prompted me to revisit the flip of that single, I Feel Good which does warrant a listen (and I believe it achieved some success in later days on the Northern Soul circuit).

10. Mor Soul Records (sometimes spelt as Mor. Soul) must have been the most obscure label that Benny ever got associated with. It was set up by Traci Borges, owner of Knight Recording Studio in Metairie, which is part of the New Orleans metropolitan area. According to both 45cat and Discogs it released 4 singles, one of which was In Memory Of Martin Luther King from a James Chapmen (and that’s the spelling that’s on the record label). It’s been stated that Borges was a prolific recording artist but 45cat only lists one single to that name, Heaven Leader c/w There’s A Ghost In My Attic. This is the flip.

11. If this Toppermost turned out to be little more than a run through of a number of singles that’s because Benny never recorded an album. Nor was a compilation made available that did real justice to his singles career until 2012 with the appearance of Fortune Teller: A Singles Collection 1960-67 (and that’s not on Spotify, nor is the CD cheap). However if you want to pick up some of the Minit outtakes you’ll have to fork out again for Fortune Teller released by Charly in 1988 which contains several. A further outtake, this time from his very brief Ace phase, can be found on the Westside album Soul Stirrings which was issued in 1999 and contained tracks recorded for that label from Joe Tex, Lee Dorsey, Benny Spellman and Chuck Carbo. The Spellman number is entitled Everybody Needs Somebody; I’ve sampled it and it’s not the Solomon Burke/Blues Brothers number.

12. And now for something completely different and those are my words this time – see earlier – plus a note of thanks to whoever runs the 45cat site which has provided loads of good input this time around:

In my research on Roland Stone I found discussion from 45cat’s contributors on Something Special, one of Roland’s records. They informed me that, in the book “Million Selling Records From The 1900s To The 1980s” written by Joseph Murrells and published in 1984, that record is listed with the comment “The First Million Seller from Roland Stone was written by Mac Rebennack”. They’re absolutely correct. I found the book and performed a search using Google Books and that’s what I found. I wonder if Roland or Mac knew that?

 

 

Benny Spellman poster

 

Benny Spellman (1931–2011)

 

Benny Spellman Discography at 45cat

Louisiana Music Hall of Fame: Benny Spellman

The Official Website of Allen Toussaint (1938–2015)

Ernie K-Doe (Wikipedia)

Benny Spellman biography (Apple Music)

Dave Stephens’ New Orleans scenes
#1 Fats Domino, #2 Chris Kenner, #3 Jessie Hill, #4 Barbara Lynn, #5 Benny Spellman, #6 Ernie K-Doe, #7 Irma Thomas, #8 Barbara George, #9 Earl King, #10 Smiley Lewis

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, Jessie Hill, Chris Kenner, Little Richard, Yardbirds

TopperPost #835

2 Comments

  1. Cal Taylor
    Feb 1, 2020

    Another great, informative Toppermost about another interesting artist who worked mainly out of the New Orleans area. Good work, Dave.
    I bought Benny Spellman’s ‘Lipstick Taces’/‘Fortune Teller’ in 1962. At that time the Soul and R&B booms had not really been categorised although, looking back, they were under way. To me, at 15 years old, at the time, Benny Spellman was pop – but what a fantastic double sider I thought (and still do, nearly 60 years later).
    The next time I came across Benny was when ‘Sinner Girl’ was released on the unbelievably good ‘Bell’s Cellar Of Soul’ LP in 1968. Before relatively recent reissues, as far as I know, the three tracks mentioned were the only ones issued in the UK. However, there was more to Benny, as Dave has highlighted – and he was a highly respected performer.
    I’ve found nobody to agree with me yet but when New Order’s 1983 big hit ‘Blue Monday’ came out, I said that in part (particularly when the vocal starts) that it sounds a bit like ‘Fortune Teller’. Does anyone hear what I hear?

  2. Andrew Shields
    Feb 2, 2020

    Dave, have to admit I had never really heard of Benny Spellman before reading this fine piece. Will now rectify this gap in my knowledge and anyone who can rhyme ‘feller’ with ‘teller’ is alright with me.
    And, Cal, I do a hear a vague hint of ‘Blue Monday’ there.
    Might also be worth noting that Joy Division did attempt a version of Nolan Porter’s 1971 Northern Soul hit Keep On Keepin’ On in 1978. Sometimes claimed the riff from it formed the basis of “Interzone’- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L03jwJOcbGI

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