"I think soul and blues music is introspective, it helps you examine your thoughts and situation, make decisions based and your thoughts and hopefully come out the better for it. It helps you put things in perspective."
Willie West: Soul Survivor, R&B Warrior
Willie West (Millard Leon West) was born a little way out in the country from New Orleans in 1941 and started his singing career with the newly formed Rustone label in nearby Houma, LA in 1959. After 58 years in the music, one of the great unsung figures of New Orleans R&B, singer Willie West, is finally getting the chance to perform solo in New York. Since Katrina, West has been living and performing in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a town of about 65,000 that is 65 miles from Minneapolis/St. Paul. Before leaving New Orleans, West had worked with the who’s who of New Orleans R&B, from arranger Wardell Quezergue to bandleader Deacon John and producer Allen Toussaint, and even had a short stint singing in the Meters during the band’s last days. West came up in Raceland in the late-1950s under the tutelage of Guitar Slim and his cohort “Thunderbird” Davis. After releasing several locally-distributed singles and moving to New Orleans to gig, Toussaint took on the project of producing tracks for West, often using the Meters as the backing band.
Willie West songs such as “Hello Mama,” “Fairchild” and “Said to Myself” are neglected gems of the Toussaint catalog, and in 1974 West even sang on the sessions for Toussaint’s soundtrack recordings for an obscure blaxploitation film, Black Samson. When the Meters began to break up in 1977, West filled in as lead singer when Art and Cyril Neville first left the band. By 1980, though, the Meters had called it quits, with West staying in New Orleans to play assorted gigs until leaving the city post-K. He had recorded an album’s worth of studio material with the Meters during his tenure, but the sessions have never been made public. After a long hiatus from record store shelves following his final single with Toussaint in 1975, West released several CDs of blues and soul in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
In the past years, Finland-based retro funk & soul label Timmion Records has released two singles by West, backed by the label’s Finnish houseband. LOST SOUL (Fall 2014), is the fresh release from the underappreciated New Orleans legend Willie West redefines the emotive and artistic quality of contemporary soul music. It takes the music far away from formulaic modes of the genre, and crafts its own swampy, dark, and poetic space, which leans more towards the work by independent songwriters of the 1970's than their commercial counterparts.
What do you learn about yourself from the soul blues music and what does New Orleans culture mean to you?
Thank you for the opportunity to express my opinions in this interview. These reflections are based on my 58 years in the music business, as I started singing when I was about 14 years old.
New Orleans culture, to me, is first the people, the friendly, down to earth faces that you see walking in any parrish in the city. It's the food, the atmosphere, the smells, the attitude. It's the strong musical community that even Katrina couldn't erase. All of my brothers and sisters in the musical community keep in touch. We know who is doing well, who is sick and who has passed. We may be more scattered now, but we keep in touch. People talk about the soul of a city, and New Orleans has a big, happy, tight soul. We are part of history.
I think soul and blues music is introspective, it helps you examine your thoughts and situation, make decisions based and your thoughts and hopefully come out the better for it. It helps you put things in perspective.
How do you describe Willie West sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?
My sound has been described as a fusion of soul, blues, R&B and gospel, with some funk tossed in, all the music I grew up with and loved. I embody the music because it is so ingrained in me and was such a big part of my life since I can remember. So I carry it with me wherever I go. I am an emotional singer, so I don't do gospel, but it is still inside me.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to R&B and Gospel music?
Blues is about the struggle of ordinary people living their everyday lives, having heartache and loss.
Soul is beautiful, smooth, emotional melodies that tell stories and connect to your gut and heart. Historically it is African-American music.
In my opinion, soul grew from gospel and branched off into blues and later R&B music. Then R&B grew to encompass many different styles, as time moved on.
Music is ever-evolving.
Why did you think that the Soul, R&B and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?
Soul, Blues and R&B music will always generate new fans because it is geared to true emotion and is easy to understand.- it is good feeling music. The stories are about hardship and loss, love lost and found. Anyone can relate to it. Everyone has had those experiences. Sharing your burdens, if you will.
"I think soul and blues music is introspective, it helps you examine your thoughts and situation, make decisions based and your thoughts and hopefully come out the better for it. It helps you put things in perspective." Photo: The Music Factory band on Paris Ave, 1972
What are your hopes and fears for the future of music? Do you believe in the existence of real Soul nowadays?
There is true soul music today, but you have to look for it. True soul has been muddied by visual effects, with less emphasis on soulful vocalization and music. If you don't sound that great but can shake your booty, you can still be a star because they can doctor up your voice in the studio and you can lip-synch to it onstage. It's a lot of studio wizardry, and people can't reproduce their sound on stage. The labels want you to change your music to gain popularity and sell records. Just singing pretty is not the norm anymore; you have to do complicated dance steps and look good while you're lip-synching.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
That is what I would change about the music business. There are too many talented people that paid their dues and have never been recognized. This instant fame and fortune with TV shows like Idol demeans real musicians that have been struggling all their lives to make a living. I hope that changes in the future.
Which is the most interesting period in your life?
The early 60's was a really interesting period in my life- they have all been interesting, but this stands out as a really musically- oriented time when I got to interact with my heroes of music. The New Orleans scene was hopping and happening, and we were like a big family. Everyone would sit in on each other's gigs. It as the era of the Dew Drop Inn and meeting all the big stars that came through there like Jackie Wilson and Big Joe Turner.
"The chiltlin' circuit was not all fun and games. Looking back, there were lots of good times, smoky bars that smelled of beer and sweat. But there were some serious moments, and you came face to face with prejudice on a daily basis."
Are there any memories from the Meters which you’d like to share with us?
Well, I played a club called Warehouse in New Orleans, and I was entertaining the audience and getting them to sing along, and some idiot that writes said I had too much - how do you call it? - stage gab! Like I'm supposed to just stand up there and sing and look mean and play music and not entertain people! I could not do that. I felt like how can he judge me on those basis 'cause I'm entertaining people, and people are into it. But he said I had too much stage gab! I thought that was really stupid. I guess the Meters was his favorite group, but I wasn't his favorite singer.
Also, I remember playing with them in Washington D.C. at an outdoor concert, and we were on the show with a couple of the other other groups who were jamming and really getting down. The Meters had several hits with "Cissy Strut" and other stuff, and they wanted to just stick to playing their music. I don't blame nobody for doing that, but when you come on stage and another group has fired the stage up and the people are not paying you no mind -- that can look pretty bad. So I told them, "We can do some other peoples' stuff just to get the crowd into it." I told them to do "It's Your Thing" and some other songs by the Isley Brothers. We performed "It's Your Thing," and the people got up and started dancing. I don't want to look bad on stage. You stunk 'cause you didn't play something that would get the people into what you're doing. That's advice I always try to reiterate to a lot of groups.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
I would like to go back to relive Woodstock, the whole thing. I would have gotten there earlier and not missed a day! That was a simpler time, joyful, peace and love and all that it stood for. I was a part of something bigger than myself, a part of history. My favorite part was seeing Jimi Hendrix perform, so if I had to pick one day, it would be that last one.
Which memory from Guitar Slim, Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Jimi Hendrix and Jackie Wilson makes you smile?
Big Joe Turner: He loved scotch and telling jokes and talking nonstop about the days of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. This musical history was fascinating to me, and I spent hours listening to him while we travelled. He came down from Kansas City and had played all over in NYC including the Cotton Club. It was amazing to hear all his stories. He used to give me advice: "Yeah I like to drink my scotch, but I ain't telling you to overdo it." He used to take a sip and then say, "Honey Hush!". He was a talker. And then after he talked and drank he would fall asleep and snore so loud! It was like thunder in the car.
Guitar Slim I met in Thibodoux, Louisiana at the SugarBowl, a club where I would front the house band in a few years. I was too young to come in and see him play, so we would stand on milk crates and peep in the windows to see him. The SugarBowl was on the Chitlin Circuit and would host many stars like Ray Charles, Chuck Willis, Ike and Tina, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Bobby Blue Bland, Fats and many more. Slim used to wear a different color suit for every show, and dye his hair to match the suit. I f his suit was green, he's have green hair, and if it was red, he'd dye his hair red. He had a room in back of the club, so us kids would gather around to get a glimpse of him. After he dyed his hair, he'd sit outside while it dried and he would play his guitar and sing. We would get all excited about that, like a private concert. He drank black port wine, but wasn't much of a talker. His shows were electric, though. He used to hang by his knes from the rafters of the club and play upside down.
Ray Charles I met at the same club, and shook his hand. He didn't say much, but was being bombarded by people who wanted to meet him.
Jackie Wilson was playing the Crash Landing bar in Jefferson Parish and I met him there. He would never have remembered me, too much commotion surrounding him, but I remember him. He was a hero of mine.
Well, you know, Jimi Hendrix was much weirder than I was! I remember I was wearing a big black hat and he was wearing one, too, but he had a stovepipe kinda hat, a high top, and I had a low top, and I had a black scarf around mine, but he had little buttons all around his -- that gave me the idea that I should get some of those when I came back to New York. At that time people in New York would look at you like, "Who are these strange looking people?" 'Cause with the lace shirts and the leather vests, they wasn't dressing that way yet.
"The early 60's was a really interesting period in my life- they have all been interesting, but this stands out as a really musically- oriented time when I got to interact with my heroes of music." Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?
Allen Toussaint was my producer and he is still a good friend of mine. I toured with him as a back-up singer. He is really soft-spoken and serious minded... a thinker and a gifted creator. He stayed busy writing and performing, and is still working hard. You could be talking to him and all of a sudden he would jump up and play a riff on the piano that just came into his head. He is one sweet guy.
The best advice I received was to follow my dreams and stay true to them. More than one person has told me that, and I'm not sorry that I took that to heart. It has not been an easy road, but when the rewards come, that tides you over the bad times.
Are there any memories from Allen Tousaint which you’d like to share with us?
My memories of Allen were all about his professionalism and work ethic. He was always working on something, a top notch producer and arranger. You could be laid back, laughing and talking, and he'd get an idea and jump up to try it on the piano. He's a really soft-spoken, brilliant man.
Which was the best and worst moment of your career?
The best moment in my career was when I heard myself on a wax record the first time. I was 17, and that was thrilling. Of course there have been many other memorable points, but this came to my mind first.
The worst period of my career was when disco came in and took all the jobs away from the soul and blues musicians. I remember worrying about how I would feed my family and took day jobs like delivering bathtubs and prescriptions.
"My sound has been described as a fusion of soul, blues, R&B and gospel, with some funk tossed in, all the music I grew up with and loved. I embody the music because it is so ingrained in me and was such a big part of my life since I can remember." Photo: Willie West and the Black Hawks, 1966
What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?
All things have poetry in them, life is intertwined with poetry, and so is music, and love and even bad things that happen are poetic. That's what I believe. All musicians are poets, whether they write lyrics or not.
What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the chitlin' circuits?
I'll tell you what made me laugh lately: getting stuck with three others in the elevator at the Iceland Airport. Although it was much funnier when we finally got out and didn't miss our plane. Life is a belly laugh, mostly.
The chiltlin' circuit was not all fun and games. Looking back, there were lots of good times, smoky bars that smelled of beer and sweat. But there were some serious moments, and you came face to face with prejudice on a daily basis. Those were the days that when some fool got mad, they'd shoot up the place and occasionally the band had to run for cover. One had to be vigilant!
What was touching was the way people responded to and loved the music we made. People would dance back then! It was almost like acrobatics, women getting flipped over and thrown in the air. They had shake dancers, too. Scantily clad strip teasers that would dance on the band's breaks. Everyone was having fun, and there was something for everyone. The joints would be packed.
Which memory from "Lost Soul" studio sessions makes you smile?
What made me smile was actually getting into the studio with the guys to rehearse for our Finnish gigs.
The album was made partly in Finland and partly in Minnesota, so we were never together before September 2nd when we started to rehearse. They sent me melodies, and Leon Laudenbach and I wrote the lyrics. Then I sang over the music tracks and sent it back. It was so good to meet Jukka and Sammi and the rest of the High Society Brothers in person. What a bunch of great people and smoking musicians! We took to each other immediately, and I hope to be doing more with them in the future.
This was my first trip to Europe, so for what it's worth....
From the musical point of view what are the differences between US and European scene?
The general attitude toward music is more wide open in Europe. I think people here are very open minded and accept you for your talent at face value.
In the US, it's a little different in that you have to be able to do all the choreographed dancing while you are singing. They don't care if you are lip-synching, or if you have you so much electronic help in the studio that you can't reproduce your sound on stage. It's harder to get your music out there in the US.
But both the US and Finnish audiences are warm and they love their soul and blues! I felt very welcomed in Finland!
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