Goodbye To the Glitter Queen and Bunchy
New Orleans lost two more greats this past week with the passing of consummate drummer Bernard 'Bunchy' Johnson and singer extraordinaire Marva Wright. Those links will take you to Keith Spera's fine obituaries on nola.com, have you not yet seen them.
Having long been a fan of both artists, I thought I would take what passes around here for a brief break from our pursuit of vintage vinyl grooves and feature songs that offer at least a taste of what each had to offer. I don't plan to have Marva's up for long before I move it to the playlist for the HOTG webcast - so take note. The track that Bunchy played on will be around longer, as it is still an ongoing part of one of my feature posts...but more about that later. If you have not been familiar with either artist up until now, I hope these songs will entice you to seek out more from them.
"The Glitter Queen" (Marva Wright)
Marva Wright, from Born With The Blues, Sky Ranch, 1993
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Until her late 30s, Marva Wright seemed content singing gospel music in her New Orleans church and raising her family. Her only early foray into the world of commercial music had been doing some background singing at Allen Toussaint's Sea-Saint Studios in the 1970s. As she became more able to work outside the home, Marva took to heart the encouragement she got to sing professionally and decided to direct her talents toward the blues. One of her early gigs was at Tipitina's, opening for Koko Taylor in 1987; and she quickly starting making a name for herself around town with her built-in stage presence and tremendous vocal chops. In 1989, she got another break that allowed more people (including me) to find out about her, when a song recorded at one of her sets was included on the CD, Tipitina's In Person, a compilation on the club's own label of live performances by various up and coming artists. Not long thereafter, Marva was tapped to release her first solo CD, Heartbreakin' Woman, on the new but short-lived Tipitina's Records (re-issued by Mardi Gras in 1998 - but with a different photo!), which helped to increase her following.
Her next studio project, Born With the Blues, recorded in New Orleans and released in Europe in 1993, was set up by Philippe Le Bras for the French Sky Ranch label. Executive producer Le Bras and session producer Carlo Ditta of Orleans Records went all out to give Marva the high quality musical backing and recording expertise that her marvelous, powerful vocal instrument deserved. To that end, the sessions featured remarkable ensemble work by a host of the best local players, and an excellent mix of material ranging from reworked classics (like her off the chain take on "Hound Dog") to well-crafted, more recent tunes by local writers. As the producers and Marva herself wisely realized, limiting the repertoire to just blues would have been a disservice to her massive interpretive gifts. Thus, the album featured the fusion of blues, soul, funk and gospel influences that could be found at Wright's live shows; and the lead-off track, "The Glitter Queen", a Wright original, is an exuberant example.
This cookin' cut speaks for itself - an undeniable, in-your-face opening statement. Wilbert 'Junkyard Dog' Arnold was the drummer of record on this number; and his broken-field, state of the art New Orleans punchy funk established a killer groove-fest straight from jump. Simply letting the other fine players here intuitively find their spots and get down to business must have been a producer's dream. Benny Turner was on bass, Marc Adams on piano, Sammy Berfect (Marva's brother) on B-3 organ, and Anthony Brown on guitar, with an outstandingly wicked horn section arranged by trumpeter Tracy Griffin. Last and by no means least, the great James Rivers sat in and smoked his tenor sax solo. The lyrics might not have done much more than establish with certainty where Marva was proudly from and what her ostensible genre niche was, but her forceful delivery alone let you know in no uncertain terms that you were dealing with a serious contender for divahood.
Had Born With The Blues also been released and promoted in the US at the time, I think Marva might have enjoyed much more recognition around the country. As it was, her credentials grew in Europe and certainly at home as a result of the CD; but, even when it was re-packaged and finally released domestically in 1996 by Point Blank/Virgin, the album did not get an adequate PR push and fell by the commercial wayside. In 2006, it reappeared, again as an import, on Shout with a new (and better) package and title, Do Right Woman: The Soul of New Orleans. It seems that most of the tracks are also available as online downloads. So, however you can get it, grab one, because, in retrospect, I think it really was Wright's career-best album.
Still, she went far thereafter, with at least seven more CD releases to her credit and many years of popularity performing in her hometown and on the road. Even when her health was not the best, Marva could still deliver the goods onstage, as evidenced by a YouTube video of her doing this song live at the French Quarter Festival in 2009. She always had a great band backing her, with some of the best players in town passing through it; and, she definitely did establish herself as one of the city's beloved, truly soulful divas over the course of her late-blooming career.
Bunchy In The Pocket
"Josiah" (Teddy Royal)
Teddy Royal, from Morning Groove, Sunshine Productions, 1994
Wish I had the luxury of time enough to go through my archives and find the many examples of Bunchy Johnson's engaging grooves I know are in there. Off the top 'o my head, I recall he played behind Jon Cleary early on, appearing on his first album, which I did a brief post about way back in the first days of HOTG (the song I posted, "C'mon Second Line", remains in rotation on the HOTG webcast); and I know Bunchy was also one of the drummers Allen Toussaint used on his fine 1996 NYNO CD, Connected. But on short notice and not to step on any legal toes, I am going with something I have on hand and know I can use, a track from guitarist Teddy Royal's first CD, Morning Groove. This particular cut is also available to hear in the second part of my big feature on Teddy's career from back in 2007, as some of you may recall. I am pulling it out again, because I find the tune and Bunchy's playing on it impressive. It's a musically sophisticated composition that still has grit and can fill a dancefloor. Throughout its multiple parts, it swings with an overall Latin-influence that Bunchy captured perfectly while still breaking up his drumming enough to bring the poly-rhythmic thrust back home to New Orleans. And his skill made it sound easy to do.
As I pointed out in that earlier post, Wardell Quezergue arranged "Josiah" for Teddy's session; and Bunchy worked with Quezergue elsewhere too over the years. I've had an example of that in rotation on HOTG Radio for a good while now. It's a tune that Johnson wrote and plays on called "Pass It On", his tribute to the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians, that appears on the 2000 CD, Maestropiece: Wardell and his slammin' Big Band, which is sadly out of print. That album also had another of Bunchy's compositions on it called "Crazy Mary", which allowed him to display a his spoken word chops, as well.
Keith Spera mentioned that Bunchy played in the Deacons in his high school days, a youthful jazz/funk outfit that contained some members who went on to form Chocolate Milk. My friend and drummer for CM, Dwight Richards, had told be about being in the Deacons himself, and playing on their only 45 (which I have and intend to post in due time). So, I checked back in with Dwight the other day; and he told me that he knew Bunchy from going to high school with him and being his drum section leader there; but he did not recall Bunchy playing in the Deacons, unless be joined sometime after Dwight left the group, which is possible.
Anyway, as you can tell by the other information in his obituary, Bunchy had a long and active career and was well-respected and appreciated by many of his peers on the local music scene, though his name never became well-known to most music lovers, who just move to the grooves and don't bother to ask who is making them happen. Sure, the funky and versatile New Orleans drum line lives on in many other fine players; but it's hard when we lose one like Bunchy Johnson, as each has such a unique mode of expression that can't be re-created; and it's doubly difficult to take when we know that someone of his stature could have had many more years of productive groovin' left to give. Our loss is the cosmic rhythm section's immortal gain.
Here's an groovy example of Bunchy playing live with Jeremy Davenport more recently at the Louisiana Music Factory.