Moment of Truth
- Willie Tee
Wardell Quezergue, Willie Tee and Chief Danny Montana
We will always associate Willie Tee with staying out too late over Jazzfest. Dr. John brought froglegs and blue catfish roe back from the bayou, and Jaeger’s cooked it all up in a feast of Roman proportions. In fact, we're in trouble with Wardell Quezergue for mentioning how many froglegs he put away in one sitting. To clear that up, he’s no glutton, just a man who loves seafood very, very much.
After dinner we told Wardell there was a Mardi Gras Indian summit at Rosie’s Jazz Hall. I was already fading, but he asked to come and you don’t keep Wardell from the Indians. We got to the show and there was Willie Tee to the left of the stage, the musical architect of The Wild Magnolias and producer of “They Call Us Wild,” which Peter Watrous of The New York Times called “one of the funkiest albums ever.” He wrote “Smoke My Peace Pipe”, so that sounds about right. Willie Tee has passed away at 63, and his memorial is Saturday.
That night at Rosie’s, Wardell and Willie Tee sat at the side of the stage for an hour, catching up and greeting Mardi Gras Indians including Danny Montana, Big Chief Tootie’s son. Wardell produced one of Willie Tee’s first singles, the top 20 hit “Teasin You.” He describes the sessions. “Willie Tee was a a professional in all respects. A nice fellow to work with - very cooperative even at that young age. No problems at all on the set.” Willie was a teenager at the time.
I asked who played on the session and Wardell said it was Smokey Johnson on drums, George Davis on guitar, George French bass, Willie Tee on piano and a local horn section with Carl Blouin baritone sax. “All younger than me. It was cut at Cosimo’s (Matassa) studio.”
That’s the beautiful thing about New Orleans music. You can pick up the phone and call a living encyclopedia.
Whether or not you’ve heard of their songs, New Orleans musicians are perpetually too cool for school. Alex Chilton ended up here, and got an A- from Robert Christgau for his cover of Willie Tee’s “Thank You John.” Wilson Turbinton (Willie Tee) songs have been sampled by rappers like P Diddy, for decades.
He released his first full album with the production company of Cannonball Adderly and his brother. A creator of early funk, Willie Tee influenced Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, and wrote “Can It Be Done” for the band. Joe died last week on the same day as Willie Tee. Weather Report’s fretless bass pioneer Jaco Pastorius passed decades before, and the band is known for the funk classic, ”Heavy Weather.” That album influenced my husband to pop the frets off his bass as a kid playing on Bourbon Street with Fats Domino’s sons.
Willie Tee also recorded “Brothers for Life,” with his brother Earl Turbinton who passed last month. Earl was known as the African Cowboy, a force of nature on the saxophone. Both grew up in the Calliope projects, near the Neville brothers. All of them found a way out with music.
New Orleans music is a family affair. Willie Tee had 39 years of marriage to his credit and a gifted musician as his daughter. He had a long-term gig at Sweet Lorraine’s but after 8/29/5, ended up an artist in residence at Princeton, performing and directing two bands. He also worked on “Sing Me Back Home” with the wonderful Leo Sacks. In November of 05, Willie Tee was inducted into the Carolina Beach Music Awards Hall of Fame and sang Teasing You for the crowd, along with his other hits.
He has also been recognized by the Governor of Louisiana for his contribution to Mardi Gras Indian music, and any entity who recognized these legends while they are still with us is thinking right. In 2002 he played for hours for London’s Music Café. Europe is still showing love to our legends and it’s impossible to estimate what that does for their spirit.
In 2004, Willie Tee was a featured guest on Dr. John's grammy-winning, N’Awlinz: Dis Dat or d’Udder. Wardell was also part of that project, and Dr. John replaced Wardell’s Grammy certificate lost to the levee break with his own at the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund benefit for Wardell the following year. That’s about as full circle as it gets, except for the fact that Willie Tee and his brother are gone. And Willie Tee never made it home from Baton rouge.
With each musical loss, the world is in for some heavy weather.
“There is a chance that one day this world will be at peace. I truly hope that you and I will be around. There are so many beautiful places that are just waiting to be found. And if our kids are ever to learn to love, I sincerely wish that we will be the ones to turn all the hatred off. This world of ours is put here for every man to please, but selfish motivations have caused a lot of misery. So I hope that I can in some way touch and help someone in need. And cause a chain reaction. Freedom love and peace is all we’ll ever need.
- “Moment of Truth”