A truly gifted singer, entertainer, and songwriter with a music career spanning over 50 years at this point and still going strong, Willie West has surely earned the right to be called a “soul survivor”. Although he never got the breaks he needed as a recording artist to gain wider recognition, his top of the line vocal abilities have always been evident; and many of his early 45’s are prized by music collectors today. Now, with his recent work with Timmion Records, Willie West gains an introduction to a new international audience and can connect with fans of his earlier work, as well. If you are not familiar with Willie West, or even if you are, perhaps an overview of his odyssey through the unpredictable, up and down world of the US music business can help shed some light on his background.
Before moving to Minnesota in the north-central US several years ago, Willie West spent most of his life and in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, deep in the steamy American South, a city and region whose music has profoundly influenced the world. Born and raised nearby, in the small country town of Raceland, he got an early start there as a performer, putting a band together as a teenager in the mid-1950’s, a time of ground-breaking musical and social change. With Willie singing lead, the group got work in local clubs around the area playing the hit songs of the day – blues, R&B, and the newly coined rock ‘n’ roll. Willie’s influences and inspiration came not only from the amazing music to be heard on radios and jukeboxes back then, but from encountering many of those artists when they came through to play at the famous Sugar Bowl club in Thibodaux, LA. Seeing and sometimes meeting greats such as Guitar Slim, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Bobby Bland had a profound affect on his sense of style and showmanship. After several years developing his talents in front of rowdy roadhouse crowds, Willie was offered his first recording opportunity in 1959 with a new Louisiana-based label, Rustone, which released three 45’s on him over the next few years. The most successful of those featured a soulful song he wrote, “Did You Have Fun”, that received strong radio play and sales in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and got the attention of Chicago’s Chess Records, which released the single nationally; but it did not have the same effect in the rest of the country that it had close to home.
Rustone soon went out of business. So Willie decided to move to New Orleans around 1961 and seek his fortune where the music scene was thriving. Not long after he began performing around town, he was recruited by trumpeter and bandleader Porgy Jones to record for a new local company, Frisco Records. The label released three singles on Willie between 1963 and 1964; but none of them fared well in the marketplace. Willie’s vocals were strong; but the material was relatively weak. Within a few years, Frisco too had closed its doors; but Willie continued gaining a reputation as a crowd-pleasing, high-energy entertainer on the local club scene. Then, a chance meeting and conversation he had with influential hit songwriter and record producer Allen Toussaint resulted in Willie being asked in 1966 to sign on with Deesu Records, which Toussaint and his partner, Marshall Sehorn, had just started.
Over the next two years, Deesu also issued three singles by West; but, despite better material, mostly penned by Toussaint, and Willie’s expressive delivery, the records failed to get the significant radio airplay needed to generate sales. For the rest of the decade, Willie continued his club work, singing on his own and with several local bands. In 1970, Toussaint gave him another chance to record, this time backed by the Meters on a single released by Josie Records. Unfortunately, the New York-based label folded soon after the record came out, sealing its fate and ensuring the obscurity of the featured song on that 45, “Fairchild”, until it was discovered by collectors and re-emerged almost 30 years later on several popular CD compilations of rare New Orleans funk and soul. After his setback with Josie, Willie did not have another commercial release until 1976, when he recorded a single for the much more stable, major US label, Warner Bros. With backing from most of the Meters and Toussaint’s production help again, Willie’s original songs, “It’s Been So Long”, a Southern rocker, and the classic soulful funk of “Said To Myself”, held great promise; but, for unknown reasons, WB provided little promotion for the record. Thus, it too died on the vine with very few people having heard it. “Said To Myself” was also picked up many years later by collectors and fans of obscure New Orleans grooves and is held in high regard.
In 1978, another seemingly great opportunity arose when Art Neville and his brother, Cyril, left the Meters; and Willie was asked by the remaining members to join the band as lead vocalist. He sang locally and on the road with the Meters for many months and even recorded material with them for a new album; but, before it could be released, pre-existing problems broke the band up for good. That letdown forced Willie back to his bread and butter club work; and he eventually began performing regularly on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, where he remained a popular attraction for nearly 20 years. Having retired from Bourbon Street, but not from performing, Willie relocated northward after the 2005 Katrina disaster; and he re-started his career there, putting together a new band and playing area clubs and events.
Without a doubt, Willie West remains poised to achieve bigger and better things as a performer and recording artist. His recent surprising new 45’s releases on Timmion Records with The High Society Brothers Band supplying the beat “The Devil Gives Me Everything Part 1 & 2″ Timmion Records, TR-019, “Lesson Of Love Part 1 & 2″ Timmion Records, TR-023 and “Cold In The Storm B/w She’s So Wise” Timmion Records, TR-028 has put him back on the scene again. Let’s hope his upcoming Timmion Records album “LOST SOUL” is the beginning of a new era of appreciation and popularity at home and abroad for this worthy, experienced, abundantly talented vocal contender.
Check out Complete Willie West biography at Dan Phillips “Home Of The Groove”