The Boston Phoenix
May 7 - 14, 1998

[Music Reviews]

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Session man

Rounder's Scott Billington

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Ruth Brown Think of New Orleans record producers and you think of high-profile personalities like Allen Toussaint, Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack, or Daniel Lanois. You probably don't think of somebody like Scott Billington, a Rounder Records staffer and Boston-area native whose musical career began during the mid-'60s Cambridge folk boom. Yet Billington has turned out more important New Orleans recordings over the past decade than anyone. He's produced more than a hundred albums for Rounder and other labels, at least half of which have been Louisiana-related. His first production gig, Alright Again by Texas bluesman Clarence Gatemouth Brown, won a Grammy in 1981. Since then he's had six more nominations. And he's still based in Newburyport, though he lives part-time in the Crescent City, where I reached him last week. He was producing an album for zydeco whiz kid Chris Ardoin between trips to the city's Jazz & Heritage Festival.

It's tempting to portray Billington as a music enthusiast who made good, but that would be selling his accomplishments short. It's no small feat, for instance, to get a venerable legend like singer Ruth Brown into the studio and make an album (last winter's R+B = Ruth Brown) that compares favorably with her work from 40 years earlier. Or to get a focused, song-oriented album out of the jam-heavy zydeco bands he's lately been working with. Or to employ sidemen over the years like Dizzy Gillespie, Van Morrison, and Dr. John without getting intimidated.

Billington has four albums due for release on Rounder later this year. At one extreme is a rap-influenced disc by the 17-year-old Ardoin. At the other is Johnny Adams's Man of My Word, the R&B great's first album since surviving a cancer battle last year. On the latter, Adams and Billington went for the dark and dramatic approach, much as Bob Dylan and Daniel Lanois did on Time Out of Mind. "It's an album full of sad songs," Billington reports. "We ended with 'Never Alone,' a hymn that he sings with an a cappella male quintet including Aaron Neville. I'm sure a lot of it was influenced by the things Johnny had on his mind."

One of the first staffers to join Rounder in 1976, Billington came in from the folk circuit. "I went to Melrose High School and played all the folk clubs with a guy named Mike Allen, a country-blues player from Austin. My ambition was to be a harmonica player, and Mike ran the hoots at the Catacombs every night -- that place was out by Berklee, where Jack's Drum Shop is. People like Loudon Wainwright III and Jonathan Richman came in to play. I remember Jonathan banging on a guitar when the J. Geils Band played, doing a song called `Ride the Subway.' It was one of the oddest things I heard back then."

Billington joined Rounder as a sales rep. He later worked as art director before getting a full-time producer's gig. And he was able to push a few projects through, starting with a locally recorded live album by bluesman Johnny Shines. "This was after George Thorogood's first success at Rounder, when there were starting to be resources for more ambitious projects."

He caught the New Orleans bug during this period, and his timing was perfect: there was a lot of high-quality music there that other labels weren't paying attention to. "At the time there was a glaring absence of recording in New Orleans. Nobody was doing it. Going to the Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1979 and 1980 I was just floored by the talent that was there: Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams, James Booker, Alvin 'Red' Tyler. I found that I could approach these people and they were glad to be able to make records again."

By that point, Billington had made albums with Gatemouth Brown and Bahamanian guitarist Joseph Spence, so he knew his way around the recording studio. But he had his trial by fire the first time he produced a New Orleans artist, the late James Booker. Remembered as one of the city's most brilliant pianists, and one of its most raving eccentrics, Booker had a nervous breakdown a week before his sessions with Billington were set to begin in 1982. Then he lost his false teeth while in the hospital. The recording nearly had to be canceled before a replacement set was found. Then things really got hairy.

"The greatest artists are the hardest to pin down, and Booker was like that," Billington recalls. "You can't work on arrangements, he was an absolutely spontaneous player and he just has to have the spirit. For the first few days he had us on a cat-and-mouse chase. I have hours of tapes of him starting a song, then doing something else when the musicians caught up. There were points where I tried everything I knew, from coddling him and encouraging him -- at one point he went to a corner and just sat there holding his head. [Saxophonist] Red Tyler had to pick him up and say, `Play the piano motherfucker, or you're not going to get paid.' None of it worked. And here I was spending money on studio time, ending up with nothing."

On the final day he had booked, Billington went to the studio to see whether he could salvage an album from the tapes he had. "Booker was waiting outside the door, and he said, 'Scott, I want to play now.' We went in and did all the solo tracks that morning, then we did the band tracks when the musicians showed up. About three in the afternoon, Booker asked if he could be paid, then he asked what time the bank closed. Someone said, '3:30,' he put the piano lid down, and that was it." Thus was born one of the great New Orleans piano albums: Classified (Rounder), all recorded that day between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., was one of only two studio albums Booker ever released.

One would suppose that Billington's later gigs were a cinch by comparison. But what do you do with someone like Ruth Brown, who's still got a mighty voice but hadn't been in the studio in years, and hadn't been stockpiling material for new recordings? "With someone like that, you've got to put together a very impressive band -- people like Delfeayo Marsalis and [New Orleans keyboardist] David Torkanowsky. I have a pretty good network of songwriters I can tap into at this point -- people like Dan Penn, who just wrote a song for Ruth's next record. Once you've got a great voice, it's just a matter of framing it. That little experience I have from being a musician, that comes into play every minute in the studio. For her album, we had all the arrangements written out in advance. But until I heard Ruth sing with the band, the anxiety of `Is this going to work or not?' always comes into play. But she heard the band and, boy, was there a big smile on her face. We cut it live in the studio, with all 10 pieces."

Of course, you can't be too much of a traditionalist working with the current crop of zydeco bands, who are as much influenced by hip-hop as by the old stuff. Billington's just wrapped up a new album by zydeco superstar Beau Jocque, with heavy use of sampling on a few tracks. "The trick with Beau Jocque is to get him as fired up in the studio as he gets in a club -- you just have to keep pushing and pushing. There's one song we did as a zydeco version and a house version. In East Texas and South Louisiana, the same kids listen to zydeco and rap. To them it's all cool. My aim is to bring zydeco a little closer to mainstream dance music."

Also just wrapped up: To the Country (Rounder), by a young Cajun-influenced band, the Bluerunners -- probably the closest to alternative rock Billington's ever gotten. Did he ever encounter resistance from the New Orleans folks when a Yankee came in to produce them? "I suppose at first there was a little bit of that. And it was a little difficult for me at first, with someone like Gatemouth Brown -- to me that was a name on those old Peacock 45s that I'd bought from Skippy White as a teenager, so being in charge of him was a little intimidating at first. But I like working with musicians, and I've been able to make personal connections with a lot of people. At some point, that Northerner/Southerner gap ceases to be an issue."

At heart Billington is a throwback to the '50s and '60s record men, the guys who let the band set up in the studio, found them the songs, and waited for the magic. "I feel there's a spiritual element when musicians do the playing all together; you can't replicate that by putting things together on tape. You start with good musicians and good songs; then the spirit has to come into the studio and visit us." That kind of Zen attitude helps explain why he's so at home in New Orleans.


Tonight (Thursday) the Heavy Metal Horns celebrate a CD release at the Paradise, former Miracle Legion leader Mark Mulcahy plays solo at T.T. the Bear's Place, and the Rumble continues at the Middle East with the Wicked Farleys, Star Ghost Dog, the Racketeers, and Pistola . . . Friday the Allstonians are at T.T.'s, and the Rumble features the American Measles, Full Powered Halo, the Shyness Clinic, and Max . . . On Saturday, guitar hero Ronnie Earl hits the House of Blues . . . Sunday afternoon brings lesbian punk trailblazers Tribe 8 to the Middle East; Victory at Sea are there that night. Also Sunday night, the incredibly casual Chandler Travis brings his Philharmonic to Mama Kin . . . And Wednesday it's pop heaven at T.T.'s with Tommy Keene and the Bristols.
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