Early in the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, keyboardist Wilson "Willie Tee" Turbinton died of colon cancer at age 63. His death came barely more than a month after his brother, Earl Turbinton, died after a long illness in early August, striking the New Orleans music community with a one-two punch. Both brothers had spent more than four decades as architects of the New Orleans music scene, impacting the sound of the Crescent City from free jazz to R&B.
Earl and Willie grew up together in the Calliope housing project in the '50s, where both brothers began playing music at precocious ages -- it's reported that Willie started on piano at just 3 years old. His musical style was shaped by both sides of the New Orleans spectrum. At school, he studied jazz under the master Harold Batiste, and at home, he often heard local Mardi Gras Indian tribes chanting and banging their tambourines in the unmistakable street rhythm of the city. Willie Tee played briefly with Batiste's All For One jazz band, and wound up debuting as a recording artist in the early '60s on Batiste's legendary AFO label. In 1965, he recorded the song he's most famous for -- the lazy, ambling piano R&B number "Teasin' You" -- for Wardell Quezergue's NOLA Records, giving the label its first local hit. Somehow, all the way out in Los Angeles, the Righteous Brothers got wind of "Teasin' You," and performed the song on the popular Shindig! dance party program. Atlantic Records licensed the song for national distribution, and it finished on the national R&B charts at No. 12. Willie Tee's warm, expressive voice and jazz-influenced blues piano playing can be heard on a series of local hits made for NOLA throughout the late '60s, but national success never quite reached him. In 1968, NOLA Records closed its doors.
The '70s, however, showed the innovative artist switching gears for a second -- and maybe even third -- phase of his career that many consider just as influential, if not more so, than his work during the golden era of New Orleans R&B. He formed the Gaturs, a rough-edged funk combo with a heavy Mardi Gras Indian influence, and his own label (Gatur Records), on which the band released now-classics like "Gatur Bait," "Hunk of Funk" and "Cold Bear." Contemporaries of the Meters, the Gaturs never reached the popularity of that group, and until the release of a CD compilation, Wasted (1994), its records were rare and much-prized artifacts sought out by collectors. (In 1997, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs sampled the Gaturs' "Concentrate.")
Also during the '60s, Willie Tee took a brief detour back into the jazz world, where his brother was a major proponent of avant-garde sounds. Playing piano with Earl in the Jazz Workshop caught the attention of sax player Cannonball Adderley, who got Willie Tee a contract with Capitol Records, where he released his first LP, I'm Only a Man. That deal was short-lived, though, and he returned to Gatur, releasing the cult hit "I'm Only A Man."
In 1973, he was approached by Quint Davis, producer of the then-fledgling New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, to assemble a backing band that would record an unprecedented project: a full album of New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indian songs. He assembled a crew comprised of Gaturs drummer Larry Panna, Earl on sax and clarinet, Alfred "Uganda" Roberts on congas and Snooks Eaglin on guitar. The combo laid down the now-legendary The Wild Magnolias -- a landmark in New Orleans music that still sounds revolutionary today, and that introduced the unique sounds of the Indian community to the world.
Willie Tee's influence on New Orleans music was profound and broad, and the last years of his life were active and full ones for him as an artist. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina completely wiped out his home, he was invited to stay at Princeton University as a guest lecturer and performer in its Jazz Studies department. He has also been a mainstay on the Ponderosa Stomp bill, and has traveled to Austin, Memphis and New York City to headline shows promoting the underground legends of rock, soul and R&B. His last show for that group was playing to a crowd of almost 4,000 New Yorkers at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, where he won over a whole new crowd, people who probably had never heard of him before, but were glad they did.
- Jacob Blickenstaff
- Willie Tee plays a Ponderosa Stomp event in New York City.