Of the myriad songs of night, I do have a favorite. Dr. John’s “Such a Night” is a timeless, magical song I never get tired of. Maybe that’s because, aside from home, New Orleans is the place I’d most like to spend an evening.
It appeared on the 1973 album In the Right Place, which was produced by the great New Orleans music impresario Allen Toussaint. Toussaint also played keyboards, guitars, and percussion; sang and arranged vocals; and arranged and conducted the band. The song is deep, deep New Orleans, with the Bonnaroo Horns lazily answering Dr. John’s vocals, and Toussaint’s piano and The Meters rhythm section reinforcing the whole thing.
Dr. John’s previous album, Gumbo, is a New Orleans extravaganza I slightly prefer to this album, but “Right Place Wrong Time,” “Life,” and “Such a Night” are gems in the Dr. John (and Allen Toussaint) canon.
One night song is associated, by me and many others, with certain kinds of nights—those spent in the bars. Many a bar band has used the 1952 song “Night Train” as a break song. It’s a nice R&B workout to end a set and a good cue for the audience to do a little mingling, drink-ordering, and relief work. Most people know it as a James Brown song, but his version, with his recitation of cities on his tours, wasn’t issued until 1961.
It was Jimmy Forrest who first recorded “Night Train,” in ’52. He’s credited as the writer, but it goes back a decade. The Duke Ellington composition “Happy Go Lucky Local” was written in 1946 as part of Duke’s Deep South Suite. “Happy Go Lucky Local” was funked up and expanded upon by Forrest, who had been an Ellington sax player, but it’s recognizably the same song.
But the song goes back even farther than that, and involves another Duke sideman. In 1940, Saxophonist Johnny Hodges had recorded a song called “That’s the Blues, Old Man” with his offshoot band. Mentor Duke, as he was often wont to do, lifted the main riff of the Hodges tune for his own song. Jimmy Forrest, I guess, was saxophonist karma for Duke. Forrest himself got horned-in on by two lyric writers, who wound up with songwriter royalties. A complicated history for such a basic little song!
“Nights When I Am Lonely” is pretty straight and tame for a Boswell Sisters harmony number. It’s an A part repeated four times, and, although the girls go into some Boswellese vocal hijinks on verse three, it’s really just a cute ditty, not a great indicator of the sisterly genius to come. But it is a song of great importance, as one side of the very first Boswell Sisters record, cut in 1925 for the Victor Talking Machine Company. It was backed with “I’m Gonna Cry.” The sisters, all still in their teens, recorded five songs during their first session, all written by oldest sister Martha, but the other three were never issued.
As Vet’s granddaughter Kyla Titus notes in her book The Boswell Legacy, “I’m Gonna Cry” isn’t a typical Boswell Sisters record. They’re all three on it, but kept to special roles. Martha played piano, and evidently didn’t sing a note. Thirteen-year-old Vet did a horn break, using her voice, in the middle, and sister Connie sang the lead in her best Bessie Smith voice. Not typical Boswells, but pretty entertaining, with Connie, at seventeen, already showing strong pipes.
Connie, of course, later emerged as a solo recording artist (as Connee Boswell), thanks to her husband/ manager Harry Leedy, who never was as fond of the trio as the rest of the world was. Once Connie’s sisters got married, Connie and Harry took the opportunity to write them out of the picture, telling the world that Martha and Vet preferred domestic harmony to musical harmony. Martha and Vet privately said otherwise. Of course, it’s the Sisters who are music legends, as a group, all these years later, while solo Connee isn’t heard much at all.
Among my favorite doo-wop numbers is The Dells’ 1956 Vee-Jay recording of “Oh What a Nite.” It was an R&B hit, and Vee-Jay released it again three years later, but it took a re-recording of the song, as “Oh What a Night,” in 1969 to finally make the pop charts, at #10. It’s kind of a freak. It’s been embellished, with a spoken intro and more instrumentation, but it seems like a transplant from the previous decade. I prefer the simple, straight original, but I am impressed by the group’s persistence with this song, and I’m glad they finally had some success with it.
In addition to their unusual record three-peat, The Dells had another distinction. According to Jay Warner’s Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, they sang as a backup group on more than sixty records by other artists. On Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” Warner says, they could’ve received co-billing. “Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby”—yep, that’s The Dells.
Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: Another “Oh What a Night”—actually “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”—is on my least-favorite list. The Four Seasons had a late #1 pop hit with this disco stew that doesn’t evoke 1963, or the great Four Seasons of that year. Even people who like disco can’t think this is a good song. They should’ve at least gotten The Dells to sing the “doo-da-doo-doo-t-doo-doot-doo” part.
Dream Jukebox: A great candidate would be the Dells’ 1956 “Oh What a Nite.” And Dr. John’s “Such a Night” would have to be on hand for just such a night that calls for it.
Best Song Intro: When Lenny and Squiggy perform “Night After Night” on Happy Days, Squiggy introduces the song this way: “This song is called ‘Night After Night,’ and it’s about two nights in a row.”
Which songs of night are your favorites?