For Roger Branch, original founder of The Tempests, New Orleans had an attractive pull for studio engineering and production work. Like any musician, he had a deep appreciation for the vibrancy of the city’s musical culture. In addition, he had already forged professional links with key industry figures there like Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, from his early days at Reflection Sound back in Charlotte.
Toussaint and Sehorn had already been working closely together some ten years before Roger had first connected with them in the early 1970s. Toussaint’s musicianship helped define the Nola R&B sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a consequence of him feverishly absorbing the milieu of country music, blues, Creole rhythms and of course the honky-tonk piano which had initially put New Orleans on the musical map. As a musician, song writer arranger and producer, Allen Toussaint was the driving force behind many hits of the day, during the same time that The Tempests were doing their thing on the east coast. Indeed, his career and influence has continued through popular music over the last five decades.
Toussaint came from a poor but very musical background, heavily influenced by his parents, neighbours and other musicians who visited his family home. As a young adult he developed his keyboard and producing skills and played with most of the major artists of the time in New Orleans until an RCA talent scout picked up on his potential. Toussaint’s first true foray into the commercial world was as Joe Banashak’s producer and A&R man in 1960, giving Banashak’s Minit and Instant labels a string of hits which now typify the 1960s New Orleans R&B sound typified by the songs like Benny Spellman’s Fortune Teller, Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law or Lee Dorsey’s Working In The Coalmine.
Toussaint met Sehorn after returning from a two-year draft in the US army. Sehorn was a Carolinian who played guitar in various bands at college before securing a promotions position with the A&R team at Fire and Fury Records in New York. Their first professional collaboration was when Sehorn paired up Toussaint for some Lee Dorsey recordings. When both labels closed the pair moved to New Orleans to form Sansu Enterprises, setting up Sansu Records, Tou-Sea, Deesu and other imprints. With Toussaint as songwriter, pianist, and producer, and Sehorn’s industry knowledge, Lee Dorsey was brought back into the studio. Local musicians Art Neville, George Porter, Leo Nocentelli and Zigaboo Modeliste made up the ‘house’ band for Sansu Enterprises (despite no permanent residence at this point) and featured on the Dorsey 45s. Licencing to the Bell subsidiary Amy meant that Ride Your Pony, Working In The Coalmine and Holy Cow benefitted from national exposure and distribution. Money and recognition started to roll in. The band even started to make their own recordings and become a force in their own right as The Meters.
Toussaint and Sehorn were in danger of becoming victims of their own success. The list of hits was growing, yet to this point they were having to use other recording studios around the city such as that of Cosimo Matassa’s and facilities outside of Louisiana. The necessity to own and operate their own studio for convenience and to facilitate fuller control of production processes was clear.
Toussaint and Sehorn would continue to work across state. By 1973, a contract with Warner Bros. for composition, production and recording work by Toussaint and The Meters enabled them to finance and build Sea-Saint studios at 3809 Clematis Street in the Gentilly area, on the east side of the city. Structurally it was an inconspicuous concrete affair, previously an Exxon oil change / service station. Work poured in, from local sources but also from national labels wanting to use the then contemporary facilities. The major labels were the ones that would keep Sea-Saint afloat financially however, and the studio targeted its services towards them. Sea-Saint rapidly became associated with numerous national hits across soul, pop and country music charts. The 1970s saw in Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, two albums by Paul McCartney and Wings, and Billboard smashes by Glen Campbell, Paul Simon and Joe Cocker. Sea-Saint joined forces with Cosimo Matassa when he closed one of his studios in 1978. Sea-Saint’s services could now be offered to a wealth of other R&B producers resulting in further seminal recordings by Bobby Powell, Lee Bates and Tony Owens.
The 1970s may have been the peak of Sea-Saint’s success, but it continued to be very active through 1980s and beyond. Whether pop, rock or R&B, Sea-Saint was the New Orleans go-to for anyone after quality recording facilities, engineering and production. Roger Branch’s connection with Toussaint and Sehorn started when Sansu Enterprises first started using Reflection Sound for production and engineering duties as early as 1971, through Marshall Sehorn’s Carolina connections whilst waiting for Sea-Saint studios to be built. Roger even recorded a couple Toussaint compositions under his own name for Sansu Enterprises, appearing on the Stax subsidiary Enterprise, and Brown Sugar labels. The Backyard Heavies material was also linked. Reflection Sound allowed Roger to develop his studio skills as well as bring in a wage. He would maintain personal and professional links with Toussaint and Sehorn, spending the next decade or so working between North Carolina and Louisiana.
The long-term connections with Allen Toussaint’s studio in New Orleans persuaded Roger Branch to eventually make the move there. A background in electronics served him well, as Sea-Saint studios needed an individual with technical know-how as well as musical ability. Besides, Branch’s work focus had diffused over the years towards New Orleans. This led to securing a position at Sea-Saint in 1990, initially as staff sound engineer to work on New Yorker Willy DeVille’s new album. The ex-Mink Deville lead singer had just moved into a new career phase. Now living on a farm just outside the city, DeVille was drawn to explore the latin, blues and soulful roots of old New Orleans. This culminated in Victory Mixture, a project initially started after a conversation about the possibility of covering old delta songs and a session playing old 45s together of Louisiana artists between DeVille and his friend Carlo Ditta. DeVille called in Earl King, Eddie Bo and Allen Toussaint for the project.
Sea-Saint would also be the location for a latter day professional reunion for Roger, and Tempests' bassist and drummer Van Coble and Nelson Lemmond:
“Since the West Trade Street Blues Association, Van, Nat and I have worked on projects every few years” Nelson comments. “Probably the most fun was doing a whole promotional album cassette for Camel cigarettes in the late 1990s. Through my point-of-sale advertising company I did a lot of work with R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco company who manufactured Camel cigarettes, with shop displays and billboard signs. I told them that I had a band in mind who sounded fantastic and we should record them. They said, “here’s a piece of money, now go do some samples - but shut up”. I got Van and Nat working on writing some material and called Roger Branch to get a few musicians together. We spent a month on that album at Sea-Saint Studios. We stayed at the Pontchartrain, one of the great old hotels in the centre of New Orleans. Up at around 11am for the recording sessions, go eat at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen first and over to the studio to work through until 2 or 3am. Then back to the hotel for some turtle soup and gumbo. Now that’s living! Initially we looked at the idea of using all-star New Orleans musicians including Fats Domino. Marshall Sehorn and I woke him out of bed at noon one day which he didn’t thank us for. In the end though we wanted the project to seem like it was featuring one band. A bar band was used that played on Bourbon Street. Luther Kent was the singer who played with Blood, Sweat and Tears when David Clayton Thomas left. Luther had a big blues band called Trick Bag - when B.B. King or Bobby Bland came to town they would back them. Allen Toussaint played on some of the songs to help us out. On the first day the rhythm section was having a problem with tempo. Very quietly Allen asked if he could sit in. His playing immediately straightened everything out. The guy was a genius.”
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it made global news, and instantly wiped out what was more than a century-old musical and cultural heritage. The storm surge and Mississippi levee failure had catastrophic effects. Fifty-three breaches occurred in what were often ill-designed and constructed flood protection barriers. Eighty percent of the city was flooded, and water levels remained high for weeks after the storm. The death toll attributed to the violent effects of the storm is still disputed but placed conservatively between 1000-1500 in New Orleans area alone. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless, forced to move from the area, and many were either unable or did not wish to return. Given that more than half of New Orleans residents prior to the storm were African-American, the impact on the black music industry was devastating. On 28th August 2005, Sea-Saint Studios was destroyed. Allen Toussaint found himself without a home, a business and most of his possessions. Like thousands of others in the immediate aftermath, he initially sought a place of safety at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, relocating in the longer term to New York before eventually returning to New Orleans.
The effects of Hurricane Katrina did not deter Toussaint from his own career. Within six months he could be found on TV, appearing on the David Letterman Late Show. A number of live performance opportunities around New York were also taken up before eventually returning to a rebuilt, smaller New Orleans. He recovered financially to an extent when approached by advertisers for use of his song Sweet Touch of Love in what would become an award-winning deodorant promotion. Toussaint would continue to be active in reviving the New Orleans music scene. He was already inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, but by 2013 Toussaint was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and even presented with a national arts award by U.S. President Obama.
Whilst Toussaint’s career ended on a positive note against all odds, Marshall Sehorn was on a financial downslide. Plagued by royalty-related law suits over the years, he was also forced to declare bankruptcy on losing a legal attempt to secure some rights to Chess Records recordings against MCA. Some of the proceedings from the receiver company handling his catalogue and estate eventually found its way back to some artists holding out for their dues.
Roger Branch continued to work in New Orleans. “Four feet of water flooded the ground floor and Katrina had damaged the Sea-Saint building beyond repair. But by a stroke of luck, I had a place - originally an office - on the other side of town. It was situated in an elevated position. Although only a few blocks away from the Mississippi River, it avoided damage by Katrina, other than some roof damage which we quickly repaired”.
Those office premises would become Oak Street Recording Studio. To this day, the studio continues to successfully record new and established artists. With engineer Lu Rojas on board, this small but busy facility is involved in traditional recording sessions plus peripheral activities such as song-writing seminars.
Excerpt from "The Tempests: A Carolina Soul Story" by E. Mark Windle. Available to order from the new book section.