Staff Top 10
Top Ten New Orleans Funk Jams

funk means shit without soul. Sure, bang about on the off-beats all you want, but if you’re not actually singing some of that sweet-loving over the top, or a voice that sounds like the littlest death of all, we really don’t care. This is why 70s funk musicians are always getting arrested for spousal abuse: not enough soul.

Not so the artists of New Orleans’ thriving funk scene during the 60s and early 70s, who took the sounds that filtered through the port town from the West Indies, Africa, Haiti and France and weaved them into an entrancing gumbo that’s excellent for dancing. Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, The Meters, Dr John, Betty Harris… none of this lot are going to beat the fuck out of their lover. Their lover might dog them, but they’ll carry on regardless, singing songs of heartbreak whilst they do the washing up. And when their lover comes back to them… it’s time to dance. The ten songs here all make us want to either cry, hit the dance floor, or, on more than one occasion, both.

Oh, and if you want to know why “Lady Marmalade”, the most famous New Orleans funk track, isn’t on here, we left it off because it’s fucking shite.

10. Bobby and the Heavyweights – “Soul Train”
Whatever arguments about who or what needed placing at numbers one to nine, only one track could come in at #10. Step forward Bobby and the Heavyweights. The entire song is production line, textbook New Orleans funk. A few dance instructions, off-beats, a nice shuffle drum beat… and then all of a sudden, Bobby goes Enola Gay on us, and drops the bomb. The chorus sees the drums speed up, Bobby inject neat emotion into his voice, and… the effect is equivalent to how early French cinemagoers must have felt seeing the train come towards them on the first demonstration of film. Petrifying, yet amazing. [DP]

9. Ernie & The Top Notes – “Dap Walk”
Sounding like a less hysterical James Brown, Ernie begins his sermon with the energetic assertion to his brothers, “hey get up, brothers! Don’t sit there with your head hanging down! Hey get up brothers, I know the ghetto’ve got you down” before a bassline that’s as slinky and dangerous as any bayou snake rolls into life, the brass hits in like some royal sennet and Ernie finishes by demanding that we “do any dance that’s groovy to you!” Like much of the funk and disco of a growingly-troubled Africa in the late 60s and early 70s (those funky drums owe more to Orchestra Super Mazembe than they do The Funk Brothers), not to mention the joyous-yet-resolute work of Curtis Mayfield (think “Move On Up”), “Dap Walk” is a call to solidarity, positivity and hope that is delivered in such an irresistible way you can’t help but take notice. [CB]

8. Inell Young – “The Next Ball Game”
An obscure choice, but a great one nonetheless. Only 128 Google results are returned for “Inell Young”, and one of them describes her as “wailing femme soul”. It’s a good description. Forget the so-called “divas of soul”, nine-times out of ten it’s just saccharine-sickly crap made for vodka bars and KFC adverts. Here, Inell hits notes like De La Hoya, voice fluttering all over the place, the horns so close to her vocals that it sounds like the entire band recorded inside a phone booth. The lyrics are nearly indecipherable. Something’s going to happen at the next ball game, apparently. If Inell’s there, it’s gotta be worth turning up. [DP]

7. Dr John – “Mama Roux”
A voodoo trance of a slo-funk jam from his masterwork Gris-Gris, Dr John weaves his tale of a Southern “queen of the little red, white and blue” and the medicine man with the creepiest, gloopiest organ you’ve ever heard. Mirroring the people beating their pots and pans to scare off spooks and “spy boys” he describes in his horizontal growl, the drums and percussion clang and rattle in the background like a restaurant trolley car going over Mardi Gras beads. Unfortunately for the Dr and his patients (and their patience) the voodoo power diminished quickly after Gris-Gris, leaving it and “Mama Roux” his outstanding creepy legacy. [CB]

6. Chuck Carbo – “Can I Be Your Squeeze”
This song is like a soul version of what happens to Looney Tunes characters when they see a hot chick. You know, eyes on stalks, tongue rolling out like red carpet, alarm-clock heart attacks and howling wolf noises. Following the scattershot groove of a funky drummer funkier than asafoetida cheese wrapped in gym socks, Carbo begins his 2:30minute come-on line with a demented “oooooooh-wee! Look what I see!” before his rolling band carry his feet across the street to pester what he sees, a “little sister” he plans to make his own. As if he wasn’t enough to frighten the poor girl into submission, along come five of his mates—and even another sister who, presumably, loves sisters—to sing it at her (not to her) as well. She’s probably in therapy these days – that is, if she survived the mother of all lovin’ sessions he opened up on her ass. [CB]

5. Aaron Neville – “Hercules”
Yeah, that Aaron Neville. No, I had no idea either. Nowadays, just another chocolate box soulster. For a few years in the mid 60s though… few could touch him. Coming across like his girl’s just left him, you can almost hear him kick the stones around off the floor as he doesn’t so much sing as mumble this song into his collar. This is basically the great lost Curtis Mayfield track. “If you’re not gonna help, just hurt/ Then pass me by”. And then he went and sang that one song with Linda Rondstadt. Well down Aaron. [DP]

4. The Meters – “Just Kissed My Baby”
There is just no competition. This is the funkiest song ever. Simultaneously wound tighter than a pressure-proof Rolex and yet remaining looser than Lincoln’s teeth, “Just Kissed My Baby” is a behemoth. It grows in stature and groove like some unstoppable force of funk. You… must… give… in…. [CB]

3. Ernie K Doe – “Here Come The Girls”
The intro is a military drumbeat, as if the girls are goose-stepping into town. Ernie doesn’t care though, he sounds as happy as a musician can possibly. “Anything better than the opposite sex, they must have kept it up above”, he sings, rubbing his thighs, spittle running down his chin. The horns are all over the place, the flair player of the song, whilst the engine is provided by that ever wonderful New Orleans bassline. And, really, you can’t front on a song that compares the greatness of women to the greatness of Philly cheese steaks. [DP]

2. Lee Dorsey – “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further”
The Beastie Boys weren’t wrong when they said “everything I do is funky, like Lee Dorsey”, since there’s probably no more accurate a barometer of funk and soul than the Louisiana ex-boxer, and it doesn’t get much better than the rattling bass and squealing guitars of this dissertation on the inward troubles of the outwardly vibrant and happy Southern black community. From the doddering, sex-crazed “old dude” to the John who’s “too cool to go to school” and who gets a job that “in two days he quits”, Dorsey insists that the only way these troubled souls will get out of the rut is to help “one another”. That syncopated breakdown and return to the chorus at 2:15 is just something else, and it only gets more brilliant when he asks his backing band “what happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about? Did it really ding dong?” and they reply, downbeat, “it didn’t ding long”. Like Ernie & The Top Notes, Dorsey knows that the best way to get the people to listen to your message is to make them dance so hard they forget they’re being preached to. As he says in the song, “it’s an old thing, and it’s a soul thing—but it’s a real thing”. It doesn’t come much realer than this. [CB]

1. Dixie Cups – “Iko Iko”
Ridiculously jacked by Lumidee for “Uh Oh”, but this doesn’t feature Busta Rhymes dribbling all over it. You know it as the “My grandma and your grandma sitting by the fire” song. You should know it as one of the finest tunes ever written. Based on a Native American nursery rhyme, sparser than a bombsite, not a single sound is wasted here. As close to perfection as I’ve ever heard in two minutes and three seconds. [DP]

By: Clem Bastow and Dom Passantino
Published on: 2004-04-21
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