“Baby, mind doing me a favor?” asked the prettiest of the Soul Train dancers as she approached in a skimpy bikini.
“What do you need?”
“I want you to adjust my bottom for me.”
“So that my butt crack be right where you want it.”
Catching my breath, I pointed down the hall. “There’s a chaperone in that room over there.”
“But, honey, I’d much rather it be you.”
Fearing that I might some day hear her say, Judge, Your Honor, you won’t believe where that nasty man put his hands, I took a pass on the opportunity, then went to join my cinematographer near the pool, where he was setting up the next shot.
I was directing a music video for a song by a singer-songwriter named Jimmy Lewis, whose one request—which was echoed by the record company—was: Make it as ghetto as you can.
As with most events in my life, the music video—my first—was neither planned nor predictable. In fact, it ran counter to the conventional trajectory whereby directors begin their careers by making music videos or commercials, then graduate, if things go their way, to feature films. But then, my career, like my life, has always been topsy-turvy, if not completely idiosyncratic and weird.
Like me, Jimmy Lewis had taken a circuitous route professionally, breaking in during the last gasp of a movement called Southern Soul, then doing a stint as an in-house songwriter for Ray Charles. When a series of misunderstandings put an end their working relationship, Jimmy spent a couple of years driving a cab to pay the bills, never relinquishing his dream of success in the music business.
His break came thanks to a novelty item he wrote late one night. In it a woman who fears that her husband is cheating with another woman discovers that she’s half right. Her man, sure enough, is two-timing her, but not with a woman—with a guy named Bob.
Having scraped together enough cash to rent an off-the-beaten-track studio, Jimmy found a vocalist who’d had some modest success several years before. Coaxing her to take a brief leave from the mortuary she was helping to run, Jimmy self-produced the song, which he simply called Bill.
Released by a small label in Louisiana, Bill languished in obscurity until it was discovered totally by chance by a DJ at a louche club in the wrong part of New Orleans. Almost miraculously, the record became a cultural phenomenon, going from local curiosity to cult favorite, then in the weeks and months that followed, to featured song at Gay Pride parades across the nation. To the surprise of everyone in the music biz, and above all Jimmy, what began out of desperation blossomed into an out-of-left-field hit.
Stunned by the ever-increasing sales, a major label quickly approached Jimmy with what’s known as an overall deal. But instead of instantly putting pen to paper and taking the cash advance that was offered, Jimmy, at his wife’s urging, reached out to me.
The two of us had gotten to know each other through what I call the RC Network, which means people who worked for or with Ray Charles. In those circles, for good or for not-so-good, I had become somewhat of the go-to guy for folks seeking professional advice.
Over gumbo at a Creole place we often frequented, Jimmy showed me the paperwork for the deal he was offered, then asked for my thoughts.
“It’s flattering,” I said after taking a look. “You get a signing bonus, plus bragging rights for being on a big label.”
“How do you know there’s a but?”
“Because of your tone of voice.”
“There’s a what if,” I said.
“What if what?”
“What if George and Pete don’t turn out to be as successful as Bill?”
“Give me that in English.”
“If the follow-ups don’t sell, there’s a clause that lets them cut you right off.”
“Then what happens?”
“You probably go back to driving a cab.”
Jimmy’s decision to remain loyal to Mardi Gras Records was rewarded not just with surprisingly honest bookkeeping, but also with a kind of continuity and support that allowed him to write for and produce additional artists. Best of all, it allowed him the opportunity to rekindle his own singing career.
As for me, the gratitude he claimed he owed was more than re-paid when, during production of a low-budget thriller I directed the next year, the funds for what’s called needle drop—music heard on-screen from sources such as car radios and iPods—suddenly disappeared. When in desperation I asked if he had a couple of tracks I might use, Jimmy instantly came to the rescue.
Thanks to those songs, an unexpected door opened for me. Seeing the way his music was used in the film, Jimmy, unbeknownst to me, flew to Louisiana to pester the label for money to shoot a music video of his forthcoming release. Armed with a DVD of my thriller, he persuaded them I was the one to make it.
More excited than I’d ever seen him, Jimmy played me the song, which turned out to be an outrageous fantasy about a guy with the hots for his daughter’s babysitter. I listened, laughed, then proposed a concept. We would first shoot Jimmy in a studio, ostensibly recording the song. Then we would intercut the footage with shots of him dancing with the babysitter, plus others of him surrounded by her and her nubile friends in a backyard pool.
Unlike feature-length films, which require a lengthy shooting schedule, plus extensive post-production, making the video was a breeze. It was easy to budget and prep, quick to shoot, and, aside from the butt crack incident, free of hiccups and hitches.
The response, which came quickly, was better than either Jimmy or I would have dared to imagine. Thrilled with what they saw, they wanted us to produce a commercial which would air on late-night TV in the South.
Once more the directive from the record company was simple and clear: Make it really ghetto! With that in mind, I found a club with an Art Deco feel in a tough part of LA. Summoning memories from my youth, I had a smoke machine brought in, then lit the place as in a film noir. To create an aura of mystery and sex, we dressed the women in retro chic gowns, boas, and period hats, then put the men in the kind of fedoras and double-breasted suits I’d always loved in old photos from the Cotton Club.
The result was something not often seen on TV, especially in the middle of the night. While that made me a little apprehensive, Jimmy was convinced that the spirit and mood made it irresistible.
Thankfully, he was right. When he called me with the news, he was aglow. “The label ate it up!” he announced. “And know what they told me?”
“I give up.”
“The want us to be their guys.”
“Me and my Soul Brother are gonna shoot videos and commercials not just for my own stuff, but for all of my artists.”
“That’s what they’re calling you. Ain’t it nice to be appreciated?”
“But, my ass! And remember—”
“Their checks don’t bounce.”
Flattered, but also stunned, I decided it was time to know more about our new benefactors. Mardi Gras Records, I discovered, was, with the exception of its breakout hit Bill, very much a niche company. That’s a nice way of saying that they made records for one particular market—one to which I, like most people outside of the South, was completely oblivious.
For starters, their audience was almost entirely black. More to the point, the label paid little attention to what are known as primary markets, and not much more to those considered secondary. Their focus was on the kinds of places ignored by the big companies, what the trade calls the tertiary markets. In Louisiana, for instance, they covered New Orleans only casually, and cities like Baton Rouge and Shreveport just a wee bit more. Where they really made their presence felt—both with local DJ’s and on late-night TV—was in towns like New Iberia, Monroe, and Natchitochis.
For me, as it turned out, the world they focused on provided a kind of homecoming. Though I never logged extensive time in the South, much of my childhood was spent in largely black New Jersey cities, where many of the families hailed from, or had ties to, the towns where Mardi Gras was a force.
So unlike white musicologists, hipsters, or musicians who at a certain point choose to immerse themselves in black culture, for me it was the air I breathed growing up. I never discovered soul food, for instance. It was simply what was around me—the stuff I loved from the moment I tasted it as a kid. Nor did I search for or seek out the music that to this day means so much to me. It was what I heard—all I heard—not just at the soul food place where I spent my meager allowance, but everywhere, thanks to jukeboxes, radios, and what were then called hi-fi’s and record players.
In those days I had no way of knowing that, years later and 3,000 miles away, I’d spend much of my free time writing about many of the musicians I heard then—among them Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Ike Turner.
In those days I had no way of knowing that, years later and 3,000 miles away, I’d spend much of my free time writing about many of the musicians I heard then—among them Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Ike Turner—for a British magazine called “Blues & Rhythm.” Nor could I have guessed—or dared to wish—that some of those people, Ray and Solomon foremost among them, would become close friends.
So the truth is I didn’t just like working with Jimmy and the talented people he was producing. I loved every moment of it. But the joy was undermined when both Ray, whom I still saw when our schedules meshed, and Jimmy, with whom I spent tons of time, were diagnosed with cancer. In each case the prognosis was, as Jimmy put it, only fair to middling.
Fortunately, both men were fighters, determined to use every ounce of strength not to yield.
Once their treatments had progressed, I did some diplomacy in the hope of boosting their morale, setting up a meeting for the two erstwhile collaborators. Because of the years apart, the reunion was awkward at first, but ended with warm hugs, plus the promise to get together again soon.
Sadly, that never happened.
Whereas Jimmy acted like a man on a mission once his cancer seemed to go into remission, working round the clock despite his wife’s warnings about pushing so hard, Ray was never to resume the kind of life he wanted.
The new songs Jimmy came up with went far beyond his previous output not just in freedom of expression, but also in raunchiness. How much was an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to override inhibitions and push artistic boundaries, and how much a desire to attract attention and provide for his family, I’ll never know.
Jimmy started coming forth with songs so funny and out there—ditties like Beauty Shop Gossip and Who Knows Where The Nose Goes—that I didn’t dare listen to them while driving for fear I’d laugh so hard I’d crash.
Eager to capitalize on Jimmy’s sudden burst of creativity, we shot a video of the first song, then a commercial for an album designed to feature both, plus a host of Jimmy’s oldies.
As before, it took my co-conspirator almost no time to call with a reaction from the record label.
“You busy?” Jimmy asked after informing me that our work was again well-received.
“What do you need?”
“For you to get your butt to the airport. They want us to fly in and have a face-to-face.”
“Me and Soul Brother doing not just my stuff, but everything they do.”
“Only one problem.”
“Do they know what I look like?”
Silence reigned for a moment, then Jimmy chuckled. “I’ll fly in on my own,” he said.
Though Jimmy reported that the meeting with Mardi Gras went well, the plans showed no signs of materializing once he returned to California.
Indeed, Jimmy proved to be disturbingly elusive in the days, then weeks, that followed.
Whereas initially I thought that perhaps he was ducking me, what I came to recognize was that the man of boundless energy had slipped into a troubling sort of listlessness, which soon gave way to exhaustion.
I tried and tried to set up a rendezvous – if not to talk about work, then at least to hang out. But despite his assertions, on those occasions when I reached him by phone, that nothing was wrong, Jimmy simply wouldn’t—or couldn’t—be coaxed out of his house. Nor, despite our shared history, was he the least bit willing to have me come by.
It was only when both of us learned, a month later, that cancer had finally taken Ray Charles, that Jimmy reached out to me. Knowing that there would be a mob scene at the funeral—tight security plus a rigid guest list—he wanted my help so that he could attend.
I insisted that we go together, explaining that parking would be brutal.
But when I got to Jimmy’s house the morning of the funeral, one look made me fear that his funeral would be next. Gaunt and frail, his complexion a shade of yellow I’d never before seen, Jimmy looked as if he had aged twenty years.
“No need to get anxious,” Jimmy said, reading the expression on my face. “I’ll be around for a long time.”
A long time proved to be less than three weeks.
Jimmy’s cancer had not merely returned, but had metastasized beyond any chance of treatment.
No longer denying his fate, Jimmy took to joking about being headed for a place where he could write and produce for the best acts imaginable—not just his old colleague Ray, but also Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Nina Simone, and the legendary Buddy Bolden.
Even as he was fading, he smiled when I played favorite songs by Wynonie Harris, Irma Thomas, Benny Spellman, and his hero, Howlin’ Wolf.
Due to the number of those who had grown ill, moved away, or died, Jimmy’s funeral was sparsely attended by members of the LA music scene. Other than Little Richard, who wore stage make-up and distributed mini-Bibles, there were few people I knew, and even fewer that I recognized.
Embarrassed by the turn-out, I did my best to console Jimmy’s widow, who introduced me to someone whose name I never caught—but who gasped with recognition.
“It’s you?” asked the man with an accent that was unmistakably New Orleans.
“I beg your pardon—”
“You’re him!” the man said with look of incredulity.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
“You’re Soul Brother!” he exclaimed, stunned to see a white face.
“Not any more,” I replied, sensing that an era had ended not just for me, but likely for the record business, and probably the world.
Sadly, my thoughts proved to be true.