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Back in the ’60s, hanging around outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in Midtown, Jimi Hendrix took off the pink bandana he was wearing and presented it to Willie West, a soul singer from New Orleans. West was in town recording with the composer and producer Allen Toussaint, and briefly bonded with Hendrix over their flamboyant fashion sense. While others were still stuck in the slick-suit era, West says he and Hendrix were at the vanguard of “dressing freaky.”
But despite his dapper demeanor, West never quite cracked the mainstream. A short spell signed to Warner Bros. proved commercially unproductive, but he’s nevertheless ventured a colorful musical path since, spending time playing with the legendary funk unit the Meters, working on the soundtrack to perhaps the only blaxploitation flick to feature a scene with a lion lounging freely in a bar, and cutting a series of vinyl 45s that can still incite bidding frenzies when they appear on eBay. One of those singles, “Fairchild,” is the singer’s crowning glory, a low-slung, sultry song that mythology suggests features members of the Meters playing backup and, to the long-standing puzzlement of funk scholars, exists in two differently mixed forms. Now West is back in town for his first solo New York show at Southpaw Saturday night; although he refuses to guarantee the presence of wild jungle cats in the venue, we still had plenty to talk about.
Can you remember the first time you came to New York City as a musician?
It was like in the late ’60s, we came to New York with Lee Dorsey and my band. He played at the Apollo, and he was using my band. I didn’t sing. I was just there with him — I traveled with my band, and they did the gig at the Apollo. This was in ’63, somewhere around that area.
But you didn’t perform?
I was just on the sidelines. Lee was booked, and they only had a certain schedule for the artists that was on the show, and he had his spot, and he went on for, I think, 45 minutes. We were there for about a week. At that time, they used to book groups for four days, three days a week, and he was there for a week doing two or three shows a day.
How did not getting to perform with your band make you feel?
Well, I didn’t mind, because I was getting paid anyway! But Lee was on the bill with some other people, maybe the Mad Lads, and I’d sit in the dressing room, and when he came out I’d help to dress him, you know, and he’d come out and do his show. But on the same tour we also did the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. with Tina Turner. I sang that time with Ike and Tina Turner, the Mad Lads, and Lee Dorsey. What happened was, when it was time for Tina Turner to go on, they were late from the hotel — I don’t know what was going on with them [Ike and Tina] at the time — so Lee had done his set, and he asked me, “Willie, go out and sing, they want to fill in that little spot.” So I went out and really threw down!
What was Tina Turner like then?
She was very nice at that point. Plus, I’d seen Tina and them before in Louisiana, at a very small club. We used to play there, and the Ike and Tina Turner Show used to play all those little small venues, so I met her there, too. That was the late ’60s, going into the ’70s. They’d travel around the country playing all the little holes in the walls. But so much for them — what else?!
You mentioned you’d help out Lee Dorsey with his outfits. Were you into fashion then?
Yeah, I used to tell him he had some nice outfits, but he couldn’t coordinate them. But myself, I always tried to dress ahead of time. I was a little further out than most artists dressed in that period. I was dressing like, say, Hendrix was dressing — it was a few of us dressing wild like that. But most guys were just stuck in the old suit era, wearing the suits and the hats, when I was dressing more crazy and stuff.
Which artists did you think dressed well back then?
Well during the suit era, guys I thought were really well dressed were like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke . . . of course I was in that era, too, but I kinda got out of it because a lot of them guys did, and started dressing freaky in the late ’60s.
Did you spend a lot of money on clothes?
Ha ha, too much! I remember that time wearing the mohair silk suits. I had about four, five of those, in different colors — blue, green, black, grey. And I used to get them tailor-made. I remember those days clearly: We used to dress like that, mohair suits and shark-skin, as they’d call them too.
How much would a mohair suit cost back then?
A mohair suit would cost you at least about $150. Now a $150 suit in the ’60s was a very expensive suit, trust me. We’d buy by the yard, buy the material at a little shop in New Orleans called Harry Hyman’s, and they’d make them up for us.
Coming up from New Orleans, was the fashion different in New York?
Actually, one of the strangest things I saw in New York was when I was there with Allen Toussaint recording. I was down by the Ed Sullivan Theater, and I saw Jimi Hendrix. Matter of fact, he gave me a scarf and a guitar pick. I remember I thought he was really weird. But I’m weird, we were both looking weird, and that’s when I realized who he was.
What was the scarf like?
It was a pink bandana, a pink bandana made of silk. And the guitar pick, I think I may still have that somewhere. But I lost a lot of my memorabilia during the storm.
Who was dressed better, you or Jimi Hendrix?
Well, you know, Jimi 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.
You mentioned being in New York with Allen Toussaint. One of the songs he produced for you was “Fairchild.” Do the Meters play on that?
I think they did. I did some things with them while I was on the label [Josie], like “Said to Myself,” and they were on that session. So I said to myself the Meters were also on that session. And as things moved on through the years, Allen implored me to do the lead vocals on the motion-picture soundtrack for Black Samson. The Meters definitely did backup on that one.
There are two versions of “Fairchild,” one which includes horns in the mix. What’s the story behind that?
You know what? I don’t recall hearing the one with the horns; I haven’t heard it. Maybe they put the horns on later, but when I did it, it was just me and the band. That’s what they used at that point.
With the Black Samson soundtrack, did you get to see the movie before recording your vocals?
No, I didn’t see it — I waited until it came out in the movies. I took my wife and my kids and went to a movie theater on Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans. I mainly went to see it to see if they would have my name on it as the lead vocal in the Meters, but all it said was, “Produced by Allen Toussaint.” At that point I was a little discouraged — I still just say maybe he [Toussaint] wasn’t thinking that this could probably give us a new shot if the movie could do something. But at least he threw it my way! We had to go in the papers mentioning who was singing the title track.
What was Black Samson like?
It was one of those movies from the Superfly era, a Fred Williamson kinda movie. It was an exploitation kinda movie, with the black actors and stuff like that.
Was it any good?
Eh, it was okay. It couldn’t have been that great, ’cause apparently it didn’t go anywhere!
There’s a trailer for the movie which includes a scene with a lion in a bar. How much of an exaggeration of the times were the blaxploitation films?
Very much. Some of the drug scenes was very exaggerated, but that’s movies, they’re always part fiction. It’s like the TV show that used to come on in New Orleans after the hurricane about the gangs and the cops — it wasn’t that bad with the gangs in the Ninth Ward. New Orleans is not as bad as people assume it is. It has its problems, but it’s not as bad as people assume if you look at the TV and the movies.
Were there any blaxploitation films that you liked?
I really liked Superfly, I liked the movie Across 110th Street — I think that was Fred Williamson if I’m not mistaken — but that was ’cause Bobby Womack sang the song! I was saying when I get to New York, get off the plane, I’ll start singing that song! That was back in the day. I remember when I was in New York that time, I went down to Small’s Paradise, down in Harlem, and that was where I met James Brown. I had just seen him in New Orleans that Easter Sunday, ’cause I was working with a group at the Municipal Auditorium, and we had opened for James Brown, and I had seen him but not met him. But the next week I was in Harlem, recording with Allen, and I went down to Harlem to see him. He was cool, really cool.
Had James Brown heard of your music?
Oh, no, he didn’t know anything about me!
There’s a story that when you first joined the Meters, you performed on Saturday Night Live. Is that true?
No, I didn’t. What happened is, when the Meters did the Saturday Night Live thing, I was working with another group at the time, and they couldn’t reach me, so they just went on with another guy. When they did that, that’s the time when the Neville brothers [Art and Cyril] were supposed to have backed out on them at the last minute, purposely I would assume from what I was told. So they had to scramble to get somebody, but they couldn’t reach me because I was doing some other things.
Why do you say they purposely backed out at the last minute?
I don’t know the full story with it, but the Meters were going through some of their changes, so those guys backed out. But later, Art came back to the group. I worked with the Meters for a good period in the ’70s.
Did you detect internal problems with the Meters while you played with them?
Yeah, but I was also excluded from that — I was just trying to make a gig and be helpful. They were all swell guys, I love them all, but it was mainly two guys really who welcomed me to the group — the guitarist [Leo Nocentelli] and the drummer [Zigaboo Modeliste]. The bass player [George Porter] — he could care less! I don’t think he really wanted me.
Why was that?
Actually, me being the caliber of singer I was, I would entertain the audience, and so being the focal point of a group that was really an instrumental group, it appeared on stage that they were playing behind me. I came across as a professional singer that knew how to deal with the audience and talk to them and that made it look like they were my band, you know what I’m saying? Plus my style of dressing put me into the category of a front singer, a real hardcore front singer, ’cause when I decided to get the high boots and the knickerbocker pants, I was looking totally different to these guys and the audience saw that. People would come to me first for autographs! This was The Meters, but all the girls would come running to me first, as I was being like the front singer. I think it kinda rubbed them the wrong way. I know for sure he may not want to admit it, but I know the bass player resented it. I’m not bragging on myself — that’s just the way I was, dancing, running across stage like Mick Jagger!
Did you have any input into the Meters’ stage show?
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.
What sort of response did you get when you performed with The Meters?
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.