Issue #187: Night People by Lee Dorsey
November 25, 2019
Released In 1978
Released By ABC Records
Vignettes For Night People
Vignette One: Dorsey’s Garage, New Orleans, Spring 1978: Lee Dorsey wasn’t just tired, he was bone tired. Plus, it seemed like he’d been under this Buick since Abraham spared Isaac, trying without success to loosen the bolts on a defective oil pan. Another couple of minutes and it would be the hammer instead of the wrench. Just as he was gearing up for one last try, the goddamned phone rang from across the garage. Without knowing quite why — maybe just for an opportunity to get out from under — Dorsey scooted from beneath the car, dusting off his wiry frame as he stood and walked to the phone. He wiped his hands on a rag before lifting the devilish thing to his ear. “Yeah?” he said in a monotone, “Dorsey’s Garage.” He would have known the velvety voice that answered him anywhere, though it had been a while. And, unless it was to discuss more royalties on “Ya Ya” or “Coal Mine,” Allen Toussaint was the last man he wanted to hear from on this benighted Saturday. But this fool wanted him to record another album!
“Uh, hey, Lee,” Toussaint began almost in a whisper, like you would with a skittish horse, “I heard you on that record with Southside Johnny and you sounded great, man! I thought we should get together and put down some songs, see where it goes.” Dorsey paused before speaking. Let the man twist in the wind for a second. “That was two years ago, Allen. And it’s been eight since you called me. Why now?” It turned out to be about the money. It was always about the money. Toussaint had gone to the folks at ABC Records and gotten them a deal to make an album. “Put some of that cash up front and I’m your man,” Dorsey said, “but not until I finished with this godforsaken Buick!” He hung up.
Vignette Two: Brixton, West London, New Year’s Eve 1987: The year was ending on a high note. Soul II Soul and the Wild Bunch were the two finest sound systems in the land and tonight they would clash, trying to top each other in the sweaty confines of St. Barnabas’ Crypt. Beats, rhymes, and vocals traded back and forth, driving the packed club into a frenzy. But when the chiming guitars of Darryl Johnson and Steve Hughes, accompanied by the rippling honk of Amadee Castanell’s tenor sax, emerged from the speakers and the rhythm of Lee Dorsey’s Night People dropped, the place exploded. No cuts needed. Daddy G. of the Wild Bunch just let it play, Dorsey’s voice taking the party to the next level, as it had since gracing “Lottie Mo” in 1961. Something about the way his singing interacted with the second-line rhythms was undeniable then as now, and would be forever. Daddy G. shook his head in wonder and danced his way into the sweaty crowd. Someone else could have the wheels of steel — he just wanted to move. 1988 was going to be a great year.
Vignette Three: Sea-Saint Recording Studios, New Orleans, Summer 1978: Allen Toussaint’s butt was falling asleep. He stood up from the desk in the cluttered office of Sea-Saint, and said it again: “It’s okay, I’ll hold. I’ve got all the time in the world.” In reality, he was ready to put the phone through the wall. The Dorsey sessions were starting in a week and the murderer’s row of musicians he was attempting to assemble was getting blocked by bean counters at RCA records. Rather than say “No,” it seemed they would prefer to keep the finest songwriter and producer in N’awlins on infinite hold. Finally, he got his answer and, after some wheeling and dealing that might have included the soul of someone’s first born, Toussaint got the the release from RCA to book the members of Chocolate Milk for his session. What really burned him was that he had brought Chocolate Milk to RCA in the first place! But his ace in the hole — even if he wasn’t sure he would show up — was James Booker, the Black Liberace himself. Toussaint wanted him in on organ and Booker, riding high after barnstorming the Montreux Jazz Festival and other European dates, had agreed. There was no label to negotiate with, just Booker’s ego, which was almost as big as his titanic talent, not to mention his need to party 24-7. He also called in a big favor and asked Irma Thomas, the legendary singer, to help with the backing vocals. What happened next was anyone’s guess.
Vignette Four: President’s Office, ABC Records, NYC, Fall 1978: Steve Diener had just come over from International to run the whole shebang and he looked a little frazzled. But he came around the desk and shook both Dorsey and Toussaint’s hands before waving them over to the sitting area in his massive office. His assistant seemed to come out of nowhere holding a copy of Night People, Dorsey’s sly smile on the cover the opposite of his tense expression as he took a seat on the leather sofa. The assistant pulled the LP out of the sleeve and put it on the turntable. The opening ballad seemed to have little effect on Diener, its mellow groove goosed along by the killer rhythm section, floating on a cloud of Booker’s heavenly organ. But by the time the backing singers came in with “Say it again, say it again,” he began nodding his head. He grinned widely when the gospel strains of “God Must Have Blessed America” burst out of the speakers, tapping his feet to the intricate horn arrangements. The verse was almost too funky for him. He couldn’t sit still but didn’t quite know what to do with himself, either. He raised his eyebrows at Toussaint when the lyrics started to hit home, as if to say, “Really?” Toussaint nodded back and gave a thumbs up. Dorsey smiled, too. After all, wasn’t he blessed to be here, in this swank office, listening to his new record?
“Soul Mine” kicked off next, a canny, slightly disco-fied update of “Working In A Coal Mine,” with a sweet guitar break by Eugene Synegal, that had all three men boogieing a little in their seats. The pure, hypnotic funk of “Keep On Doing It To Me” even had the assistant starting to groove. “Thank You” calmed things down a little, although Kim Joseph’s conga kept it moving. The assistant flipped the record and the title track insinuated itself into every corner of the room. It was all Dorsey could do not to get up and start working on his stage moves. Between the gutbucket rhythms and Robert Dabon’s swirling RMI synthesizer, there was no doubt about this song. Diener made his hands into pistols, aimed them in the air, and fired off an imaginary victory volley — bang-bang-bang-bang. Sounded like a hit.
“Can I Be The One?” was romantic in the extreme, Dorsey proving himself a surprisingly able balladeer. It had a timeless feel, too, with Toussaint’s piano and Booker’s organ joining forces nicely. “Babe” bounced along lightly, Dorsey clearly enjoying the call-and-response with Thomas and the other singers. The last track, “Draining,” felt a little disjointed to Diener, a sparkling guitar effect leading into another ballad that, while fine, never quite seemed to find it’s center. But he wasn’t going to argue about the last track and, when the needle lifted up, he held the room for a minute before saying anything. “All your songs, right, Allen?” “You bet,” said Toussaint. “Excellent work, gentleman,” Diener continued, “and I think you’ve got a hit on your hands with that title track.” He turned to Dorsey, “Congratulations, Lee — you’ve become one of the few to come out of the 1960s and make an album that is completely convincing in the 70s. Johnny Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Marvin, a couple others. Now it’s time for me to get back to work — and for you both to reap the whirlwind.”
Epilogue: While Night People wasn’t a huge hit, it did re-establish Dorsey’s career to the point where he hit the big stage at the New Orleans Rhythm and Heritage Festival in 1980. He toured with The Clash that same year and also opened for James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis in the early ’80s. While his victory lap didn’t last long — he died of emphysema in 1986 — it’s guaranteed that the floor will be filled at any party where you play “Night People,” which you can find on any number of funk compilations. Here’s hoping the rest of the album comes back into print and more people discover its New Orleans glories.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
A New Orleans musical treasure chasing his endearing sound into the limelight of his life.
There’s no bottom end. Many old records from the ’60s and ’70s seem to be recorded with mics only able to pick up the mid and high frequencies. Sometimes there’s bass audible but even it seems to have a flatter, more quaint sound. You see it exaggerated to great effect in movies trying to portray the sound of that era. This has never been an issue of quality. In fact, it’s one of those cases where if you hadn’t seen the riches, you could live with being poor. Were it not for the fact that the low-end frequencies played through modern subs at 60 Hz in modern pop music threaten the structural integrity of most passenger vehicles, it might be that you wouldn’t notice how shallow old music sounds by comparison. And yet, that’s always been part of its charm for me. At the time Night People was recorded in 1978, Lee Dorsey was already late in his career development as a professional musician. The title track “Night People” has an undeniable disco influence. It’s a simple idea — an ode to people partying, hanging out, not doing anything in particular other than maybe “looking at each other” and “waiting for something to happen.” I like the fact that it doesn’t have to rock the box or “drop the bass” to have a great groove. There’s something satisfying about light, funky R&B in its original form playing out over the course of these 11 tracks. The album’s opener “Say It Again” almost seems ahead of its time, showing off Dorsey’s R&B chops in a romantic song of praise. It’s beautifully backed up vocally with the chorus before he unleashes some falsetto notes that show the wide range of which he’s capable. “God Must Have Blessed America,” clearly not a recent track, follows, entering gospel territory with an angelic soul choir introducing the track before it slips into the familiar pop and funk territory. As I write this it’s raining outside, the wind is howling, my wife is reading in an armchair across the room, and I’ve rewound “Thank You” to play a second time. She doesn’t react to it, but I can see her foot gently tapping along. It’s a level of enjoyment that doesn’t need to be front and center, your sole focus, or so tactile that the wobbling woofers suck the air out of your lungs. It’s easy. It’s moments like these that I remind myself that no matter how music is captured and regardless of the technology of the recording, the real enjoyment comes from a simple idea, a groove and most importantly, the joy and engagement with which the performer plays it. You don’t need a low end, to sense Dorsey’s deep, deep charisma.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
Now this is in my wheelhouse. Oddly enough, because of my background as a DJ, producer and avid vinyl collector, I’ve been familiar with Lee Dorsey’s catalog for quite some time. You see, much of the art of crate digging — searching beyond the pale for the rarest, dustiest, funkiest most obscure samples on vinyl for the purpose of rocking the party or composing the nastiest beats — is based on the simple six degrees of separation principle. DJs and producers all over the world have gone into painstaking details to commit to memory the writers, producers, engineers, and studio musicians from all your favorite old records. While these names are easily forgotten by the masses, most likely never remembered in the first place, crate diggers utilize these names as treasure map to uncover the most coveted pieces of obscure vinyl. For instance, I know about Lee Dorsey for one reason — The Meters. The Meters were an incredible funk, blues, jazz fusion band comprised of New Orleans musical royalty, the Neville brothers. The Meters were widely known among even the earliest hip hop DJs for their knocking drums and omnipresent funk. Many times, their sparse tracks were ready-made for early rappers because the rhythms were enticing to the dance floor, but there was enough room for an emcee to operate around the melodies as well. Meters records are prized possessions among hip hop collectors to this day. Well, it just so happens that one of the early New Orleans artists that The Meters played backing music for was Lee Dorsey. While Night People is a bit outside of Dorsey’s normal reach, that classic Louisiana funk is still present on tracks like “Thank You” and “Babe.” The equipment, the recording technology, and the general aesthetic is all vastly different than in Dorsey’s prime, but the pain, joy, and love in his voice remains.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
After a lull in his career, Dorsey returned to the auto repair business before partnering up again with Allen Toussaint for this late career triumph.
What a gem. And what an excellent introduction to the world of Lee Dorsey, which I’ve unintentionally avoided until this week. That seems criminal, given my respect for the music of New Orleans. (A Mardis Gras mask with inlaid musical notation overlooks the section of my record collection devoted to the city.) Nevertheless, the name of the album made clear I’d be engaging with the genius of New Orleanian legend Allen Toussaint, and I’m glad to be finally on board with Dorsey’s work. I’ll always be attached to Toussaint’s version of the title track, having successfully restored a crusty Goodwill copy of Motion some years back, but the cheeky, responsive horns in this version of “Night People” are revelatory, exemplifying the very best of Toussaint’s gift for arranging. Speaking of musical connectedness, my wife and I were listening to this week’s album while cooking on Sunday night, and we got to talking about how much “God Must Have Blessed America” sounded like a Randy Newman tune — because of the texture of Dorsey’s voice, and because of the tone of the song’s lyrics, which are so layered the meaning might as well be latticed. Toussaint’s decorum and Newman’s irony suddenly seemed like two sides of the same coin, in the same way that sincerity and sarcasm couldn’t exist without one another. (Toussaint once said this about Newman: “What a great songwriter. Such an intellect and he makes complicated songs so simple — and who else would think about writing a jokey song about the young Stalin?”) As I write about Night People, I’m listening to American Tunes, the valedictory statement Allen Toussaint recorded just before his 2015 death. Upon its release in 2016, the album was recognized as a study of technique — a tasteful summary of the various styles Toussaint mastered throughout his career at the keys. But if you listen closely to this Dorsey album, you hear the same thing, and I’m not sure there’s tape of Toussaint playing piano where he’s not imparting vital musical wisdom. “Say It Again” and “Soul Mine” are typically generous in this sense, the latter illustrating just how highly Toussaint valued Professor Longhair’s own genius. That’s one thing that keeps me coming back to the music of New Orleans: The influences are laid bare like breadcrumbs, inviting you move your feet in the present or move closer to the past along a chronological line of inspiration — whichever floats your riverboat.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Night People was a frustrating album for me. Lemme explain. I enjoy(ed) the album very much. I have yet to come across anything from Allen Toussaint that I didn’t at least like. It’s just that I was having trouble coming up with a theme or idea to write about. Even after several spins, the only concept I had was the overall sunny demeanor, both musically and lyrically, of the record. I had that idea during the initial listen, but I thought little of it. It just seemed too broad and too simple. But then after a couple more spins, I realized maybe that was enough. As I’ve said before, the world can seem like a pretty dark place at times. As such, Night People can be a necessary ray of light breaking through the clouds. It becomes a matter of acceptance that not every aspect or moment of life is positive. To that end, Lee Dorsey throws out the album’s makeshift thesis early: America has everything — the good and the bad, and all the stuff in between those two extremes. (America, in this case, could be stand-in for life in general.) It’s a plain statement, but it really puts life into perspective. Sometimes you get that dream job, and sometimes you’re fired the same day your girlfriend breaks up with you. Life can be great, and life can be shitty. There’s just something about Dorsey’s smiling delivery throughout Night People that’s intoxicating. It makes you wanna be optimistic. It gives you hope. The groovy and brilliant production doesn’t hurt, either. Later in the album, Dorsey talks of love as being a way to paradise. Again, it’s a simple idea and not all that original. And yet, the simplest and most common ideas can be the most impactful.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Effortlessly charming, Dorsey’s voice soars through multiple styles & sounds here, putting the spotlight directly on his impressive talent.
If I’m being honest, I’ve had a pretty upsetting day. Not going to go into details, but it just hasn’t been one of the best and I’ve been listening to music that will most likely make me cry while lying in bed feeling sorry for myself and basically just wanting to world to go away for a while. When I pressed play on this record though, I knew it was exactly what I needed to stop torturing myself. Music from this era has always been able to lighten my mood and just calm me down and bring me to a place of peace. And that’s exactly what this album has done. The tracks “Can I Be The One?” and “Say It Again” are definitely ones that stuck out to me (probably also because of the mood I’m in, I’m drawn to the slower ones) just because of the vibe of the music. It’s laid back, chill, the use of the horns and the organ (maybe it’s a keyboard) just bring everything together so nicely — just happy music. It is a great album, and I am in a better place because of it.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
Aging soul singer tries out a new twist on his old style with the help of a famed producer for one last career spark. It’s a story you’ve probably heard before, and one many who followed R&B in the ’70s and ’80s were well-versed in. Hell, Eddie Murphy basically won an Oscar out of that sentence in Dreamgirls. And it’s pretty much the case here too, but there’s also much more to find within Night People, the record that ended Lee Dorsey’s eight-year drought (save three non-LP singles that didn’t amount to anything chart-wise), and so much of it really excited me. Like really excited me. Don’t get me wrong — I was sold on this record from typing that opening sentence. There’s countless records from the ’70s and ’80s that fit that description (one of which we covered back in Issue #102) and they’re all fantastic in their own right — a great find for anyone crate digging or getting lost in YouTube recommendations. But there was more within this record than I was expecting. Some of it came from Allen Toussaint’s production. Music critics have gushed endlessly about the New Orleans legend (and we did too back in Issue #152, and probably elsewhere) so I don’t really need to go on and on about him, but let’s just say that Toussaint’s production is especially inspired here, adding subtle textural beauty that bolsters Lee Dorsey’s voice and makes this record a true forgotten treasure. And Toussaint’s work alone would be enough to raise my eyebrow, but what really drew me in to loving this record was how… referential it was. I love thinking of musician’s work as one big piece. Sure, some songs or records might fall out of the piece, but in the whole, it’s all connected and it’s up to the musician to define how thick or scant that thread is. The Beatles did it back in their hey-day, injecting “She Loves You” into “All You Need Is Love” for one example and then “Glass Onion” throwing out several mentions. Red Hot Chili Peppers also did it tracking Dani over three consecutive albums where she was “a teenage bride with a baby inside” in “Californication,” providing background music in “By The Way,” and then ultimately taking the spotlight “Dani California.” Even Carbon Leaf, a band we covered back in Issue #114 did it, and if you’ve noticed, that’s the third time I’ve drawn from Off Your Radar’s own “canon” which shows you how big a fan of self-referencing I am. Dorsey does it throughout the record here, most prominently on “Soul Mine” when he blatantly references his hit “Working In The Coal Mine.” More subtly, “Thank You” seems to be geared more as a coda to his career while “Draining” closing the record seems to sum up his thoughts on the music industry that put him through the emotional wringer in the ’70s. Both songs feature moments, lyrically and vocally, that seem lifted from his slower tracks around 1970, and you can find some horn sections and bass parts throughout that also point to his past work, but this is all subtle color I’m describing in a vibrant record so I may just seeing my own interpreted patterns here again. Then again, Toussaint loved doing call-backs to his work and he worked with Dorsey on the vast, vast majority of his albums and songs so… yeah, I’m pretty solid this record serves as much more than just “aging soul singer tries on a new style for one last hit.” It’s also “aging soul singer looks back on his career, dropping references and hints along the way, while also delivering some of the most inspired music of his career.” Yeah, I like that one a lot. And if I’m wrong, I’ll just throw out one more of my own self-reference to make up the difference: Dorsey does a really interesting cover of “Games People Play,” the title track to Joe South’s 1969 album that we covered back in Issue #53.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Galactic Empire by Galactic Empire
Chosen By Steve Lampiris