Renowned New Orleans R&B singer, composer, and key-board player, Willie Tee Turbinton, died in Baton Rouge on September 11, four weeks after being diagnosed with colon cancer. He was 63.

Wilson Turbinton was born on February 6, 1944 in New Orleans and everything regarding his formative years on Saratoga St in the Central City district was steeped in musical tradition. His father, Earl Turbinton, was a trombonist of note who passed on his musical heritage to his sons. His older brother Earl (who predeceased him by one month) also became an inspiration, taking up the saxophone at an early age and later becoming a figure to be reckoned with in the realm of jazz. Willie, himself, first began picking out chords on the household piano when only three. As a boy, it wasn’t difficult to find excuses to play music in the neighborhood, as home town heroes such as Professor Longhair lived just two blocks away and a famous blues joint, the Blue Eagle, which attracted luminaries such as B.B. King, Guitar Slim, and Lloyd Price, was just around the corner on Felicity. In 1952, the family relocated to the Calliope St housing projects, where Willie may have first heard the rhythmic music of Native Americans who comprised a good part of the population there.

Willie Tee’s gift for musicianship manifested itself even before his adolescence, as Solomon Spencer, band director for Walter L. Cohen High School, took him and his brother, along with the Nevilles, Art and Aaron, to perform in talent contests at the then segregated Lincoln Beach. The latter pair soon formed the Hawketts who scored in 1955 with the now perennial carnival time favorite, "Mardi Gras Mambo" (Chess #1591). Whereas Willie, Earl, Henry Mitchell, and Erving Charles, who was later to become a fixture as bass player in Fats Domino’s band, followed suit and christened themselves the Seminoles, although their first demo cut in a studio on Canal St and then proffered to famed session drummer, Earl Palmer, never got off the ground. Nonetheless, the Seminoles found their share of local gigs doing Eddie Bo and Tommy Ridgley material. A promoter of that era, Orel Brooks, took an interest in the group, and kept the boys busy both in the Big Easy and surrounding territory.

A significant step in Willie’s development occurred in junior high, wherein his music teacher was none other than Harold Battiste, who was then moonlighting as a producer and talent scout for Art Rupe’s independent Specialty label, a position which had become vacant when Bumps Blackwell took his protégé, Sam Cooke (who first recorded secular music for the label in New Orleans), and then formed Keen records in Los Angeles. Although at the time Willie was toying with the saxophone, it was Battiste who first recognized his genius on the piano and encouraged him in that direction.

In 1961, Battiste, himself, with a whole slew of New Orleans studio musicians, including baritone Red Tyler, drummer Johnny Boudreaux, guitarist Roy Montrell, bassist Chuck Badie, pianist Allen Toussaint, and cornettist Melvin Lastie, founded A.F.O. (All For One) records, the first black-owned independent label in that city. The new trademark began auspiciously with a local mega hit by Prince La La (Lawrence Nelson), "She Put the Hurt on Me" (#301), and then a national smash, "I Know" (#302), by Barbara George, which was picked by for greater distribution by Juggy Murray’s Sue records of New York.

In 1962, Lastie, who with his saxophonist brother, David, was a former member of drummer Jessie Hill’s ("Ooh Poo Pah Doo") 9th Ward band in the 50s, brought Willie Turbinton, then eighteen and still attending Booker T. Washington High School, over to A.F.O. and to a delighted Harold Battiste, who was more than willing to give his erstwhile star pupil a shot in the recording studio. A session was soon arranged at Cosimo Matassa’s facility at 525 Governor Nicholls St in the French Quarter and Willie Tee (a name conceived by Tyler) issued his first single, "Always Accused" (#307), which made a little noise on the area charts. It wasn’t a spectacular debut as the preceding A.F.O. artists, but for Willie, it was a start. Unfortunately, A.F.O. proved short-lived, since it couldn’t come up with another blockbuster to sustain the label, and subsequently folded, leaving all their artists, including Willie, in the lurch and his second single "Why Lie" (#311) in 1963 was left to, more or less, wither on the vine.

Not dismayed, Battiste took Willie Tee over to Ed Smith’s Cinderella records at 2019 St. Charles St where they attempted a split single, not an uncommon practice back then when flip sides were often played by disk jockeys. But Battiste’s "These Are The Things I Love" bw Tee’s "Foolish Girl" (#1202) both failed to generate any attention.

But by 1965, Willie had made another important connection in the person of Wardell Quezergue, who was just beginning his illustrious role in the grand legacy of New Orleans music, having had a hand in arranging some of the greatest selling records of all time, including "Barefootin’" by tenor sax man Robert Parker, "Mr. Big Stuff" by Jean Knight, and "Groove Me" by King Floyd. NOLA (short for New Orleans, Louisiana) records, his brainchild (although run by Julius "Ulis" Gaines and Clinton Scott), which was destined to be distributed by Cosimo Matassa’s Dover label, was created specifically to showcase and promote Crescent City talent and Quezerque, quick to acknowledge Willie Tee’s potential, invited him to become a charter member of this organization.

Late in this same year, Wardell, who worked closely with Earl King, brought Willie one of the latter’s compositions, "Teasin’ You," a mid-tempo, mellow soul number. Although the catchy tune seemed a natural hit, Willie at first was reluctant to tackle it, preferring instead to remain in a jazz bag along the lines of personal idols---Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner, or Horace Silver. After much persuasion, Willie finally cut the record (NOLA, #708) at Cosimo’s and admitted that even he was astonished by the outcome.

In short, it created a sensation; so much so, that "Teasin’ You" was leased to Atlantic records (# 2273) after which it continued to climb the R&B charts to the #12 position. A subsequent release on Atlantic in the same groove, "Thank You John" (#2287), fared almost as well as the first. And the success of these two tunes prompted a tour (arranged by the Queen Booking Agency of New York) on the celebrated "Chitlin’ Circuit," in which Willie’s group (including brother Earl) served as the house band for acts such as Little Anthony & the Imperials, Gene Chandler, Patty LaBelle, the Ronettes, Joe Tex, and Fontella Bass making the rounds at venues such as Washington D.C.’s Howard Theatre, Baltimore’s Royal, Chicago’s Regal, and, of course, the Apollo on 125th St in New York’s Harlem.

By 1966, the hits had run their course and Atlantic, which released three separate singles, refused to pick up his last effort on NOLA, the extremely rare "Please Don’t Go" (#737) as well as the equally scarce "Close Your Eyes" on Hot Line (#910), a Nola subsidiary.

Off the road and back in New Orleans, he was now playing as Willie Tee and the Souls, a typically grueling five day a week schedule at the Ivanhoe on Bourbon St and in addition with his brother, Earl, conducted clinics such as the Jazz Workshop. During one gig at the Ivanhoe, jazz great Cannonball Adderley came over to the club from Al Hirt’s place after his set. Deeply impressed by his musicianship, the heavy set alto player, who had a production deal with his own label, Capitol, approached his supervisors at the major about signing Willie Tee to a contract and they quickly concurred with Adderley’s initial assessment of his talent. Under the supervision of arranger H.B. Barnum, who also oversaw most of Irma Thomas’s Imperial sessions, the first séance included not only a thirty-two piece string section but also the cream of Los Angeles sidemen, including Earl Palmer, Joe Sample, and Jerome Richardson. From this 1969 vocal LP (#199) came a single and title cut, "I’m Only A Man" (#2369), and nearly all the tracks were Turbinton originals. The song proved only a modest seller but it warranted a follow-up, "Love Of A Married Man"/ "Reach Out For Me" (#2892), from the same album, which hardly make an impact. In keeping with the rather schizophrenic nature of his career, vacillating between jazz and R&B, Willie, during his three year tenure with Capitol, recorded two other albums worth of instrumentals with his own band featuring both his brother and guitarist/bassist George Davis, who penned Aaron Neville’s phenomenal breakthrough, "Tell It Like It Is," in 1966. From these later sessions, also came a couple of 45 rpm disks which made the nether reaches of the R&B hit parade, although the projected LP’s from which they were extracted were never released intact.

By 1971, Willie Tee had become dissatisfied with his handling by Capitol and decided instead to pursue some ideas on the home front, but without breaching his agreement with the West Coast giant. He found an opportunity to create his own label, Gatur, with the help of a relative, Julius Gaines, the former co-proprietor of NOLA. Gatur, a combination of the last names of Gaines and Turbinton, actually became an ongoing affair through the decade of the 90s, although the bulk of the releases had been during the 70s. Gatur’s inaugural offering, "Cold Bear" (after a popular cheap wine) made quite a stir in the Big Easy and again was picked up by Atlantic records (Atco # 6870) for distribution. Now billed as the Gaturs, with Ford "Snooks" Eaglin handling the guitar chores, they were simply the band in demand in New Orleans. And overseas, particularly in England, their recordings on Gatur precipitated a fanatical cult following; so much so, that no less than three of the disks as collectors’ items today command more than $1000 apiece - "Teasing You Again" (#512), "I Peeped Your Hole Card" (#557), and "Concentrate" (#8001); whereas "First Taste Of Hurt" (#509) fetches merely $400 according to John Manship’s USA Rare Soul 45RPM price guide, published in the UK.

During one of the Gaturs first concerts at Tulane University in 1971, opening for the Wild Magnolias, an Indian group, they were overheard by Quint Davis. Davis at the time was involved in student government at the school and also headed a small publishing company, Cosmic Q. Demonstrating early on that he had a keen ear for music, this future impresario of JazzFest suggested that Willie’s ensemble temporarily join forces with the Mardi Gras outfit and cut a record. What transpired was a fruitful collaboration which would eventually yield a carnival classic, "Handa Wanda" (Crescent City #25). Produced by Davis (pseudonym Cosmic Q), the artist appears as Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolia Mardi Gras Indian Band.

Intrigued by the enthusiastic reception of this platter, French talent scout, Philippe Rault of Barclay, commissioned Willie Tee to personally direct an album intended for European audiences. This LP, Wild Magnolias, since reissued on CD, was hugely accepted abroad. In fact, Willie’s combo was invited to promote the album in such exotic and well-heeled arenas as Monte Carlo, Cannes, Antibes, and Montreux. After such an unexpected commercial bonanza overseas, Polydor saw fit to release the project domestically, as well as another Willie Tee composition, "Smoke My Peace Pipe" (PD 14242), as a single. Another album followed close on the heels of the first, They Call Us Wild, also reissued on CD, and from that collection of songs came yet another Mardi Gras standard, "New Suit," penned by Willie Tee and later covered by the Bone Daddies and Mink DeVille. This prototype of dancing, chanting Indians backed by a heavy funky beat was subsequently appropriated by groups such as the Wild Tchoupitoulas and Willie Tee could take much of the credit for inventing this particular hybrid genre of music indigenous to New Orleans.

By 1976, Willie, himself, had written enough new songs to complete an album and, through his connections to Jerry Schoenbaum of Polydor and his associate, Clyde Fox, of United Artists, he was able to secure a much deserved recording contract from the latter. Entitled Anticipation (#655), the undertaking contained the oft-played "Liberty Bell," which was in keeping with the nation’s bicentennial celebration.  Nonetheless, the single culled from these selections "I’d Give It To You" (UA 910) proved a commercial flop.  Although Willie long considered this endeavor his masterpiece, he soon learned that critical acclaim did not necessarily translate into sales. By this time, the tastes of his audience already had changed, as disco music now was the rage, preempting his forte of soulful ballads. Willie survived its onslaught into the 80s as a one-man band, playing either a synthesizer or a monster Hammond B-3 in fashionable New Orleans hotels.

Although this activity did not particularly foster his artistic growth, at least by playing these solitary gigs as a lounge pianist he was able to maintain his competitive edge as a musician. Moreover, another positive side of this experience was that it allowed him freedom during the day to hone his formidable songwriting skills. During the 70s, Willie had already written songs (particularly the enduring and memorable "One More Chance") for New Orleans chanteuse Margie Joseph, a Stax/Volt artist, which eventually led to his first appearance at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival. Through his former association with Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, he became fast friends with his recently late pianist, Joe Zawinul, who penned the jazz classic, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." Zawinul, who (after leaving Adderley in 1970) with tenor Wayne Shorter formed  the avant-garde jazz fusion group, Weather Report, had Willie in 1980 write a song, "Can It Be Done," on the LP Domino Theory for his vocalist Carl Anderson. It proved to be another milestone in the career of Anderson, who had starred in the film, Jesus Christ Superstar, and later The Color Purple and by the 80s had become a household name in pop circles with his million seller "Friends and Lovers" with Gloria Loring.

Although the 80s, as far as Willie Tee was concerned, were an extension of the 70s - extended lounge gigs punctuated by public concert appearances - there were many highlights. He became a regular invitee at all the JazzFests and his immersion in New Orleans music was such that he was appointed by Mayor Sidney Barthelemy to be director of the Music and Entertainment Commission which promoted tourism, a post which he held well into the 90s. The decade was capped off with a jubilant return to the recording studio resulting in the release (with Earl) of an LP, Brothers For Life on Rounder in 1987, a mostly jazz undertaking.

In 1990, Willie Tee resumed touring as part of an all-star New Orleans cast of Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Earl King, Eddie Bo, Johnny Adams, and Irma Thomas, making stops in the Utrecht and Amsterdam in Holland. This was merely the first of several overseas junkets for the pianist, many in conjunction with his new found fame as an exemplar of Northern Soul music, still very popular abroad. In fact, there have been many reissues overseas of his early soul material under this category of Northern Soul.

During this decade, he also collaborated with Mike Post (of Magnum P.I., Rockford Files, and Hill Street Blues fame) in producing the CD, Past Due, of fellow R&B figure of New Orleans, Luther Kent, and later scored the soundtrack of a film, Desperate Avenues, which was scheduled for release in 1992 but for some reason was withdrawn from circulation. In addition, he became deeply involved in packaging for TV syndication a series of 26 installments, performances of New Orleans music legends like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Marva Wright, and Pete Fountain which would then be used as a promotion for Chez Helene restaurant. At the time, the upscale eatery had a chef, Austin Leslie, who rivaled another local, Paul Prudhomme, in popularity.

Although Willie Tee had always been an icon of Northern Soul music, relatively recently he had also served as an influential source for several rap artists, since they now had access to his former body of work through the reissues of Tuff City Records of New York. Sean Combs, then Puff Daddy in 1997, appropriated much of Willie Tee’s "Concentrate" (Gatur 8001) as the foundation for his album No Way Out, much in the same way that Houston’s Geto Boys borrowed from his "Smoke My Peace Pipe." Finally, fellow New Orleans artist, Lil’ Wayne, sampled the groove from "Moment of Truth," a track from Willie Tee’s Anticipation, as the basis for his "Tha Mobb" from Tha Carter Vol. 2 in 2005.
2004 was a significant year for Willie Tee. Not only was he still performing at local clubs such as Snug Harbor (a regular for years) but also, as usual, JazzFest. Along with some of the greatest names in the history of New Orleans music-Wardell Quezergue, Earl Palmer, Smokey Johnson, Dave Bartholomew, Eddie Bo, and Snooks Eaglin - Willie Tee aided Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) in the completion of what was billed as his "homeboy album, a tribute to his city and its players," Nawlinz: Dis Dat D’Udda. Finally, he capped it off by appearing in the cinematic release, Ray, the biopic of Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx.


When hurricane Katrina breached the levees in New Orleans the next year, Willie Tee’s elegant, in fact palatial, ranch style house in the Gentilly section was inundated and he was forced to abandon the city. Not long after, Princeton University, in recognition of his many accomplishments as a musician, generously offered him a teaching position as a visiting lecturer in the music department for the first half of the academic year 2005-2006, after which he returned to Louisiana and settled in Baton Rouge. During his tenure at Princeton, many friends reached out to him, including Joe Zawinul, who sponsored a charity event -
"For the Lost Children of New Orleans” - on November 11, 2005 at his club, the Birdland in Vienna, Austria and invited Willie Tee to perform. Without hesitation, he accepted.

Having met the ever gracious Willie Tee many times during my frequent trips to New Orleans, I was struck particularly hard by his death. Shunning the spotlight and keeping a low profile, he worked quietly and diligently behind the scenes, actively involved in all aspects of preserving and promoting the music he loved, be it jazz, blues, or R&B. As far as music was concerned, he couldn’t be compartmentalized. In this regard, he was a true Renaissance man, a musician’s musician. And the literal definition of a true pillar of the musical community, if there were one. I suppose the term that comes to the mind of most people, even the natives, when asked about Willie Tee is "obscure," despite the fact that his recorded output speaks volumes, assuring him a place in the pantheon of Crescent City legends. But for me, the word that best described him in both life and death will always be "underappreciated."

----- Larry Benicewicz, B.B.S.

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