Clef Notes: At the Pleasure of the Queen

by David Egan

When Irma Thomas calls from the studio, you get your ass over there and let the magic happen.

When Irma Thomas calls from the studio, you get your ass over there and let the magic happen.

Out of the cold, gray December dusk came a phone call from Scott Billington, record producer for Rounder Records. Scott was no stranger to Louisiana music and had been a great champion for my songs. He had hooked me up with various records in need of material, including the Sing It album by Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson. There was also the Johnny Adams record, Man of My Word, sadly his last, and other fine solo releases by Michelle Wilson and Tracy Nelson.

I can't recall what particular funk I was in at the time of Scott's call, probably the childcare blues, but it didn't seem to fully register that he was out at Dockside Studio with Irma Thomas and that "Irma would really like to say hello." Fine, I thought. I'll try to make it out there in the next couple of days, maybe, probably not tonight. (Oh, the opportunities I must have overlooked in this lifetime.) When my wife arrived home and heard my nonchalance in recalling the phone call, she insisted that if I didn't grab a shower, pull it together and get myself out there, she would be going herself.

I arrived at the Maurice studio, in the dark of night, cleaned and coffee'd up and ready to do a little public relations hang. I knew that Scott and Irma had a handful of my songs for consideration. I had also sent Kevin Gordon's brilliant "Flowers" to Scott, thinking it might be a good fit. I learned that I was in for a late night, and quite a bit more than PR. A stellar band had been assembled. Stanton Moore was on drums, James Singleton on upright bass, with Dave Torkanowsky holding down the keys. Three of New Orleans' finest, augmented by the special gifts of Sonny Landreth and Dirk Powell. Corey Harris was also playing guitar on a few tracks.

After greetings and salutations all the way around, Irma wanted to focus on my song, "Stone Survivor," one of many I had written in the Filé van headed for Virginia or somewhere. The demo was not in her key, and Scott asked if I would step over to the piano with Ms. Irma and find the right key for her. The other players gathered around, and when we had it, Tork jumped on the Hammond B-3 organ while all the players took their places. I remained at the piano and before I knew it, we were cutting the song.

Next, Irma wanted to explore "If You Knew How Much," the song I had written back at North Texas State when I was in the NTSU Jazz Singers. Again, we congregated at the Baldwin Grand in order to find the suitable key. Again, I remained at the piano while all took their places, Tork again at the B-3.

This time, Irma didn't quite have a comfortable feel for the song. We convened in the control room for a listen, and she asked me, "David, would you tell me what this song is really all about?"

I told her, "Irma, it's about when you've really fallen for somebody, but you know they haven't fallen for you. At least you get to hang out and be in the presence of that person. But it's tricky, because if you were to let him or her know your feelings, they wouldn't hang out with you anymore. They wouldn't want to lead you on, or give you any false hopes. So there you are, same ol' trick bag."
Irma got a steely look in her eyes, and said, "Let's cut it."

It only took one take after that, and an awesome performance it was. When the Soul Queen emerged from the vocal booth, she told me, with tears streaming down her cheeks, "David, now I know where you're coming from."

At the end of the night, after we had listened on the state-of-the-art speakers and celebrated the magic we had captured, there was one more item of business. Irma had begun a song and needed a little help in getting it up to form. I tried to listen with an open mind while she read the notes, written in her hand. It was a sort of stream-of-consciousness lament on the frustration of constantly hearing, "honey do this, honey do that, where's my this and that and so on" It was pretty disjointed, the bare essence of what a song could be about, but with only an occasional rhyme and no discernible form. I agreed to give it a ponder, but I initially thought it sounded too country - Honey do this, Honey do that - I wasn't quite buying it. And besides, I was still tripping on the marvels we had only just created that night.

I decompressed for a couple of days, not giving the Honey-do idea much thought. I was back to taking care of our 3-year-old and moping around the house. But on this day, our boy was at day care when Scott rang me up again.

"David, I don't know if you've given any more thought to that song Irma started, but if nothing happens with it tonight, nothing's ever going to happen."

Reluctantly, and with a feeling that I might be lying, I told him I would give it some more thought. I sat down with the notes I had copied from Irma's notebook and began to focus. I only had an hour and change to get it written before I would have to pick up the kid and head to Dockside. Somehow, I exorcised the redneck male country voice that had so mocked Irma's muse. I shifted into that mode of doing what Buddy Flett had taught me to do by example, which was to step inside of a woman's soul, try to feel her concerns, her aches and pains and write the song from there.

Out came "These Honey-Do's" in a brainstorm. Using Irma's notes, I spilled the verses onto paper. I quickly struck up a groove at the piano, recorded a very rough demo into my little cassette boom box and at the last minute, with boom box and notebook, headed for Miss Pat's Daycare off Kaliste Saloom.

The Christmas traffic was unforgiving. With my boy strapped in, I was set to make the left turn from Camellia onto Johnston, but the traffic light was busted and a thousand angry shoppers were locked into a grid. I finally had to hook a bold "U-wee," double back and take Kaliste Saloom out to Ambassador Caffery in order to get to Johnston and down to Maurice.

It was dark when I pulled into Dockside. My little munchkin had fallen asleep and wet his pants, along with every surface of the toddler seat. My nerves were near the end of their arc. With my soaked, drowsy kid, boom box and notebook in arms, I burst into the control room a moving, mangled yellow cloud of pee.
To be continued:

I will have to leave it there, in the mangled yellow cloud for now. This is a two-parter. Have some fun and catch the Lil' Band O' Gold Christmas Pageant at the AcA Dec. 6 and 7. Thanks for reading the column, for stopping me and telling me you enjoy it. And thanks to all the folks at the IND, and to all of you. Have a rockin' little Christmas and peace be with you for a happy New Year.

David Egan is a Lafayette musician, songwriter and very fine fellow whose songs have been recorded and performed by the above-mentioned Irma Thomas along with Etta James, Solomon Burke, David Egan, Joe Cocker and many others. David currently plays keyboard and sings with Li'l Band O' Gold, and as a solo artist with his backing band, 20 Years of Trouble. Learn more about David and his music at DavidEgan.net.