Tony Owens - I Got Soul (Soul Sound 145)
I Got Soul
When Grapevine released their wonderful overview of Tony Owens' work in April of 2005, it seemed that he was finally going to get some of the recognition he deserved as one of the most unsung heroes of Crescent City Soul. After Katrina hit that August, however, all bets were off, and the future of New Orleans music (indeed of the city itself) was up in the air. Nobody knew what was going to happen.
When I went down there myself in April of 2006, it was still, for the most part, a ghost town. Traffic lights didn't work, gas stations, stores and restaurants remained closed. Most of the population was still out there in exile, and unsure if they'd ever be able to return. The Ponderosa Stomp was held in Memphis... dark days, my friends. According to Jeff Hannusch's excellent article in The Soul Of New Orleans, Tony Owens operated his own 'mule & trap' in the French Quarter. I went down to Jackson Square and asked the other drivers if he was around. They told me that as far as they knew, Tony hadn't come home yet, and they weren't sure where he was...
Owens had sung with a vocal group called The Emeralds in junior high, and won some local voice competitions. He pushed to attend Walter Louis Cohen high school, as it was the most music oriented in the city, and put on a well-attended 'talent show' that showcased their students. It was at one of those that he met Isaac Bolden. Bolden loved his voice and, with backing from one of his father's business partners, started up his own label to record him when Tony was just eighteen. This amazing record we have here today was written, produced, 'arranged & conducted' by Isaac, and gives you an idea of the raw soul and ability these guys had. It's got this this whole big fat atmospheric thang goin' on that puts me in mind of the the stuff Toussaint was producing on Sansu around the same time. I love it. Although it made some local noise, that was about it, and Bolden's partner, Sam Whitfield, pulled out.
Undaunted, Bolden renamed his label Soulin', and kept on cutting great records on Owens. The B sides of his next two releases, Wishing, Waiting, Hoping and I Need, I Need Your Love were again local hits, but Bolden was having trouble breaking into the national market. Soulin' (like so many other small regional labels) was being distributed by Cosimo Matassa's Dover Records, and they were in trouble. Word is that Matassa didn't want to 'play the game', and wouldn't come across with as many free 'promo' copies as the other guys, a practice which had come to take the place of 'payola'. The dee-jays knew that if they pushed a record, the 500 or so copies they had would become worth something, and so, they would hype it. Cosimo didn't care. I've been told that when certain radio guys saw 'Distributed by Dover Records' on the label, they 'threw the record in the garbage'. A situation which I'm sure contributed to Matassa's enforced bankruptcy, and the seizure of his assets in 1968.
Bolden forged ahead and, after taking on Virgil Engeran as a partner, he released the great Confessin' A Feelin' in August of 1970. Tony's romantic vocals over Isaac's great big production made it a huge local hit, and it was all over the radio that summer. Larry Mckinley, the influential WYLD dee-jay who had been a partner in Minit Records way back in 1960, thought it had the potential to break nationally, and started making some calls.
One of the calls he made was to Henry Allen, who was heading up Atlantic's Cotillion subsidiary at the time. He liked the record, and put it out in early 1971. With the big company behind it, it spent a month on the R&B charts, breaking into the top 40. The B side of both singles, Got'a Get My Baby Back Home, just cranks and things were looking good for Tony. He went out on tour in support of the record, and was packing them in at his regular Bourbon Street gig every night.
For whatever reason, Cotillion passed on Tony's follow-up record, and when it was released on Soulin', it didn't do much. His next single didn't come out until 1973, on a local label named Listening Post. Needless to say, any momentum they might have had from the Cotillion hit had evaporated by then and, after WYLD changed it's format that year, any airplay they might have gotten dried up as well. Bolden was now recording at Sea-Saint, and the quality of the work he was doing convinced Marshall Sehorn to go to bat for him. He was able to place I Don't Want Nobody But My Baby with Buddha in 1975, but just as it was breaking big in some southern markets, the company went bankrupt. The Letter That Broke My Heart was leased to Island the following year, but it too failed to dent the charts.
By 1978, Sehorn had re-activated his Sansu label, and Bolden was put in charge of production. Disco-oriented records on both Tony (including a remake of Confessin' a Feeling) and Lee Bates (including covers of songs originally cut by Owens like Wishing, Waiting, Hoping and All That Matters) died on the vine. Tony got on with his life and he and Isaac went their separate ways at this point. Bolden would go on to produce records on local talent like Bates and Jean Knight on his own re-activated Soulin' and Soul Sound imprints well into the eighties.
Tony had begun writing his own material, and Charles Brimmer would cover one of his songs on Chelsea in the late seventies. In 1984, 'Tiger' Owens started up his own label, Melody World, and produced a record on himself that didn't sell, but kept his name out there in the public eye. In 1990, he brought in his friend the late, great Willie Tee as his arranger, and released one last single on the label (which featured yet another remake of Confessin' A Feeling on the flip). He still performed from time to time, and even opened his own club just across from Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme, but closed it down sometime in the late nineties...
Well, Tony's back.
Thanks in large part to the good ol' Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau, Owens is now the featured vocalist with the Wardell Quezergue Rhythm & Blues Revue, and began singing with them at the French Quarter Fest last year. His positively killer performance at the Stomp last April just stopped everybody in their tracks. He was awesome, man.
So awesome that I went to see the revue the following night at Preservation Hall, where he was able to expand his set a little bit. I sat down with him for a couple of minutes after the show, and we talked for a while about his music. A warm and gracious guy, it's great to see him out there singing like this once more.
He'll be at the Ponderosa Stomp again this year, on April 29th. So will I. Can't wait!