BENNY SPELLMAN (By Dominic Turner)
Born 11 December 1931, Pensacola, Florida
Compared to the likes of Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey, Benny Spellman was very much a peripheral figure on the New Orleans R&B scene of the early '60s. Indeed, his main claim to fame concerns his supplying the baritone vocal on Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-In-Law" and Earl King's "Trick Bag". But Spellman nevertheless made his mark, and two of his own recordings, "Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)" and the flipside "Fortune Teller", became minor classics.
Football was the young man's first love, and following a relatively uneventful upbringing in Florida, he earned a football scholarship to Southern University at Baton Rouge. University life also provided an opportunity to sing with various local vocal groups (including a jazz ensemble formed by Alvin Battiste), and Spellman went on to win a talent competition. However, his musical tendencies were subsequently dampened by a stint in the army, after which he returned to his native Pensacola.
By sheer chance, Spellman happened to run into Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns at a Florida show in 1959. The band had serious transport problems, having crashed their truck on the way to the gig, but Spellman offered to drive them all the way back to New Orleans! They duly became firm friends, and Spellman stayed on in New Orleans where he became a member of the Clowns. The Crescent City also provided the opportunity to renew acquaintances with guitarist Edgar Blanchard, whom Spellman knew from his Baton Rouge days. Blanchard now led the house band at the celebrated Dew Drop Inn, and was delighted to invite Spellman up on stage. Clubowner Frank Painia was stuck by Spellman's smooth vocal stylings, and gave him a residency at the club.
The New Orleans R&B scene was thriving at the turn of the decade, and Spellman was shortly signed to the Minit label. His initial releases passed unobserved, but he managed to earn some extra cash by working as a backing vocalist for the company, and he was in the studio when labelmate Ernie K-Doe cut his classic "Mother-In-Law". Producer Allen Toussaint was not fully satisfied with how things were proceeding, and decided to call in Spellman to provide the deep bass voice on the chorus. This proved to be the turning point, and K-Doe was rewarded with a number one record on both the pop and R&B charts. Spellman was a little peeved at his own contribution being overlooked, and rumour has it that the two came to blows in the studio!
But success was just around the corner for Spellman too, in the shape of his excellent two-sided hit "Lipstick Traces/Fortune Teller" (1962). Both were Toussaint compositions: the former a catchy mid-tempo tune that was later revived by the O'Jays, and the latter a pounding "story" number, with Spellman singing the witty lyric over a catchy piano/percussion backing. "Fortune Teller" was later covered by non other than the Rolling Stones, and there were numerous other versions by British beat/R&B outfits, such as the Merseybeats, the Who and the Downliners Sect.
Nevertheless Spellman still felt he was being exploited at Minit, and he left in late 1963 to try his luck with other local labels. The hits were not forthcoming, and after a series of 45s for the likes of Ace, Watch, Alon, Bandy, Mor Soul and Sansu, he turned his back on the music scene in 1968. Spellman carved out a living as a beer salesman for Miller Beer, although he did make a brief return to the local New Orleans circuit in the late '80s. This was cut short by a stroke, and today he lives a peaceful existence in this home town of Pensacola.
"Fortune Teller" [Collectables, ] - 16-track CD of Spellman's releases for Minit, Alon and Bandy
"Soul Stirrings" [Westside, 1999] - curious collection of 1958-62 Ace material, featuring recordings by Joe Tex, Chuck Carbo, Lee Dorsey, and Spellman (just 3 tracks)
"Fortune Teller" and "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)" can both be found on numerous compilations.
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