Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why the Record Business Is a Mess: Reason #467

The year is 1974. You're a hotshot executive with Chrysalis Records, and somebody's just handed you the finished mixes for "High Life," the upcoming second release by the soulful Scottish singer Frankie Miller. The singer's first album didn't make much of a splash, but this time around your label agreed to let New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint serve as Miller's producer. The new record features several of Toussaint's tunes, and the master's signature piano playing also graces the grooves.

You close your door, kick back in your office, and give the tapes a listen. You quickly decide the music lacks a certain sheen. You then make an executive decision to ship the tapes to a couple of guys in another part of the country and ask them to remix Toussaint's production.

And since you're a self-important record exec (who may or may not be able to carry a tune, write a lyric, or build a diminished chord), you don't bother to tell Toussaint or Miller that you're having their record remixed. In fact, the two of them don't find out about your decision until the album is in the stores.

Is it any wonder the record business self-destructed?

Sure, Miller was still a young gun in 1974 without a hit record to his name, but Toussaint was already a legend. He’d been writing, producing, and playing on hit songs for fifteen years. His credits included tunes like "A Certain Girl," "Mother-in-Law," "Working In The Coalmine," "Fortune Teller," "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)," and "Ruler of My Heart."

Even though he’d penned most of those tunes ten years earlier, Toussaint was hardly an oldies act in 1974. Just a few years earlier, The Band had asked him to arrange the horns for their live album, "Rock of Ages." And only a year before going into the studio with Miller, Toussaint had produced Dr. John’s album "In the Right Place," which featured the smash hit "Right Place, Wrong Time."

But that record exec knew better than the hit-making musical genius, so he ordered up a slicker remix of Miller’s "High Life," hoping to put a radio-friendly gloss on what was a gritty, soulful record.

The remixed "High Life" didn’t sell many copies, and Miller disowned the record after its release. Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and the whereabouts of the record executive are unknown.

In any event, thirty-seven years after the fact, you can finally hear the original mix of "High Life." It’s been released as part of "Frankie Miller . . . That's Who!" It's a bargain-priced, four-disc Frankie Miller anthology, and it’s well worth checking out.

Here's one of the original mixes from the "High Life" record, and it's a stone-cold version of a Toussaint classic.

Post-script: Ten years after Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I made what will always be considered my greatest contribution to popular music. I was seated about fifteen feet from Toussaint and his piano at the second of his February 2008 concerts at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. Toward the end of the show, with the band still playing, Toussaint got up from the piano and walked across the stage, handing Mardi Gras trinkets to the fans in front. As he headed back to the piano, Toussaint lost his footing and fell off the stage. I jumped from my seat and caught him over my right shoulder in a make-shift fireman’s carry.

The band kept playing. I asked Toussaint if he was okay. He thanked me and said he was fine. The master then walked up the side stairs and headed back to his piano to finish the concert. After the show, he stopped by my table to thank me again. He gave me a kitschy Mardi Gras trinket, which I've kept to this day.

The following week, he headlined during half-time of the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans.

Long live Allen Toussaint.

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