Interview with Ernie Vincent of Ernie & The Top Notes

There are few 45’s that have appeared on so many ‘wants lists’ as the New Orleans masterpiece ‘Dap Walk’ courtesy of Ernie & The Top Notes. One of the first in the ‘new wave’ of sought after rare funk gems, it was brought to the wider public’s attention through it’s inclusion on Keb Darge’s Legendary Deep Funk Vol. 1. In late December 2000 The Witch’s Brew was lucky enough to hook up with writer, producer and all around top man Ernie Vincent for an informative and privileged interview.

Born in New Orleans in 1943, Ernie was raised and schooled around the Thibadoux and New Orleans area. He recalls that in his later years he discovered there were three guitar players in his family although his earliest musical influences came from his neighbour, a blues guitarist called Curly who would encourage Ernie to play. Ernie also recalls that his father always played “A little harmonica and guitar”, but it wasn’t until his late teens that Ernie was able to get hold of his own guitar. In 1972, aged 28 Ernie with his band The Top Notes cut two sides for Albion Ford’s New Orleans Fordom label and the rest, as they say, is history

INTERVIEW – DECEMBER 2000

WB. How did you form the Top Notes. Did they already exist as a band…?
EV. No, they never existed…I came up with the name. What happened was, we were spot-gigging at the time and I had another band that I had earlier…it was called Ernie & The Alpines, that broke up and what happened was, I went looking for some people to do a gig in Kenner and a guy named Walter Scott was the organ player and we hooked up with him. And from then we started to have a couple of meetings and decided to put a band together.
WB. Was Walter Scott ever part of the Top Notes?
EV. No he never was part of the Top Notes.
WB. Can you recall any of the original members of the Top Notes?
EV. Yeah John Peters which is ‘Dap’, which is where we named the song from…’Dap Walk’, he was the Bass player. Sylvester played guitar…I forget his second name. A guy named Peter Rooster played drums…he was a Mardi Gras Indian in New Orleans and he played timbales, congas and trap Drums so he was used to a lot of the rhythms and stuff, y’know. Lawrence Bowie was on trumpet and Freddie Green was the second trumpet and Daniel Goinis was on the alto saxophone.
WB. And obviously you were the vocalist.
EV. Yeah I did vocals and guitar player.
WB. How did the track come about?
EV. Actually, I always knew we had to record and we started developing material to record and the first person who was interested in that record was Malaco Records at one time.
WB. Really, Malaco records?
EV. Yeah, because actually Jean Knight was just taking off in the early 70’s and King Floyd and we knew all of them, and we did gigs with them during that particular period at different places. And Elijah Walker who was the producer and manager for Jean Knight and King Floyd said “Ernie we want to take you up to Malaco”, so I went up with him and Jean Knight one day and they listened to this song…and they was interested in it, but I came back, and my band were very new, and Jean Knight took off and I just had to wait my time because they was gonna put me out as Ernie & The Explosions. But at the same time I was waiting until that came around and then what happened , my band said “Man we need to do something”, and I agreed and what happened was I asked Elijah, because I was under contract at the time with Elijah Walker for that track, and I asked him to tear the contract up and I was gonna look elsewhere to try to get recorded. And then I ran into Albion Ford and I asked him if he would be interested in helping me to produce a song. He had the label and that’s where the Fordom label came from.
WB. Can you recall anything else he put out at that time?
EV. Not at that time…he put one out with our band, with a guy called James Winnfield. That was ‘Things Could Be Better’, on the flip side of it they had a song called ‘Tweetie Pie’.
WB. ‘Things Could Be Better’, is that a version of ‘Things Are Better’?
EV. It’s a different song. They got another vocalist on it. James Winnfield is the vocalist on that one but The Top Notes is playing on it. They did the backing track.
WB. You mentioned the Explosions. EV. Ok. That was something they was gonna put together for me before I met with Malaco.
WB. Was that the same group who recorded for Eddie Bo’- ‘Hip Drop’ and those things?
EV. Oh no, no it was a different group altogether. In fact I never knew about Eddie Bo’s Explosions!
WB. But obviously you knew Mr. Bo!
EV. Definitely – good friend of mine.
WB. What about guys like Chuck Carbo and David Robinson. Did you know them?
EV. Oh yes, indeed. The Top Notes have played behind all those guys at one point in time, all down through the past. Chuck Carbo, Eddie Bo, Ernie K Doe, Jean Knight, King Floyd…Alaba Morgan – ‘who Shot The La La’,…we opened for Doctor John at the House of Blues about two years ago…we have been on shows with Jerry Lee Lewis, we’ve been on shows with Percy Sledge…
WB. You kept yourself busy then…! Can I ask you when the track ‘Dap walk’ 45 was recorded.
EV. In 1972. WB. ’72! It sounds earlier!
EV. It does because actually, we was basically…well I was playing in ’69 so it was the same sound as when we did it…we generated our own particular type sound y’know.
WB. How did the record compete with some of the more polished tracks of the time? How did it do locally?
EV. It went to number three! It wasn’t ‘Dap Walk’, it was the other side…
WB. ‘Things Are Better’!?
EV. Yeah. WB. That’s surprising because we always think of that record as ‘Dap Walk’, which is a dance record…
EV. Well we did play it live in the club and people did jump up and dance to it a lot…!
WB. So the Radio Stations were pushing the flip side and it got to number three…do you know how any copies sold?
EV. To be honest with you, I really don’t know. I did all the production, did all the paperwork on everything…and Ford, he did the pressing.
WB. So it actually broke outside of New Orleans?
EV. Oh yes, indeed. In this area here it was very, very popular…in this region, this whole region and Up-State. It was in Detroit, it was in Michigan, it was in Ohio, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi: it was in a lot of places.
WB. It got to number three. Was that on the local Station?
EV. Yeah that was on this Station…WKOB, WYLB and a lot of other Soul Stations…it played on a lot of Soul stations…in those days you had a lot of Soul Stations, y’know!
WB. Can you remember any DJ’s that stick in the memory?
EV. Yeah sure. Shelly Poole, you had Tex Stevens…he was one of the first Black DJ’s here in New Orleans. Shelley Poole was the most popular one during my time ’cause he’d book a lot of shows and we played at most of the shows he booked.
WB. Do you remember any of your contemporaries that you felt should have made it but didn’t?
EV. Yeah, but in most cases a lot of them didn’t record. I been with Danny white, a guitar player who taught me a few things when I was coming up y’know-he was like a mentor…another guy named Slim…he was a guy ’round the house, he had guitar and I used to sit on the step with him and Curly and them and talk with them y’know. The guys that should have made it…there were quite a few of them, but you know how that goes. WB. Can you shed some light on the music business at the time…?
EV. No because at the time my concentration was on making the music and having fun…!
WB. Going back to the track ‘Dap Walk’, can you recall how you came up with it.
EV. We came up with it because actually we started playing around with the band and I came up with the idea for the rhythm part of it and I got the band to play it…we did it on the gigs a couple of times and it sounded pretty good then we started organising the horn parts for it and then we put some words to it.
WB. Did you come up with the words?
EV. Yes, I created basically the whole thing.
WB. Because that opening vocal line is one of the most famous…
EV. Well people have said to me how could I come up with “…don’t let the Ghetto get you down, hey get ’em brothers…”! The reason for that was you had songs out at that time like ‘In The Ghetto’, you had a whole lot of…Sly was doing stuff about the Ghetto and stuff all them days, that kind of 70’s, y’know.
WB. Did those message songs have a positive impact on the Black Community at the time?
EV. Actually that was the only people who was listening to the message songs. Because during those times the record shops were selling a lot of stuff in the Black Community with message songs…James Brown, all that was message songs.
WB. I was thinking about your influences…
EV. My influences was basically James Brown, Bobby Bland, Kool & The Gang…that was basically my influences. And my influence with Kool & The Gang was the rhythm, James Brown was the funk…Bobby Bland was for the blues. So I had a niche for each one. There’s a lot of Jimmy Smith type stuff, I used to rehearse a lot on Jimmy Smith, Howard Roberts stuff and Kenny Burrell type guitar playing.
WB. The bassline on ‘Dap Walk’ has a classic ‘Tighten Up’ feel to it…
EV. Everybody says that!
WB. Ok, so you had a good response from the public for your record then…
EV. We always had good response from the public with the record. I’ve got quite a few other songs in the catalogue y’know…I’ve got about eighty songs…
WB. So to earn a living you were also working with other people as you mentioned before, but did you record anything else of your own at the time of ‘Dap Walk’?
EV. Yeah, I produced and recorded a lot of things. I did a thing called ‘Start all Over Again’ with a young man named Lawrence Green.
WB. You told me in our first conversation that you had a production company at the moment…how many people do you have working…
EV. Well not working…I’ve got about ten CD’s that I’m trying to get distribution for…myself, a Mardi Gras Indian group and several artists. Soul artists…I got Thomas Singleton and myself and we do different types of material, y’know.
WB. You also know the French Brothers…Bob and George…
EV. Yeah, I know ’em well. Bob still plays, he’s still active doing Jazz, modern type stuff…
WB. Do you know anything about that record they did for Broadmoor?
EV. No, I don’t know anything about that.
WB. Ok. The reason I ask is because it seems to be generally accepted that a lot of these types of guys recorded perhaps one or two songs and then nothing…
EV. That happened to a lot of people. Made one record, doing the seven then no more. Happened to a lot of people. Now what happened to me doing Fordom, I don’t know what kind of deal he (Albion Ford) had at the time but he did come back and tell me “Ernie we want you to do an album”, and I was sort of disappointed due to the fact that this song was playing every day every hour on the Radio Stations all through our area – everywhere- and I didn’t make any money so I said “I’m not recording anymore”, and I stopped that…and that’s what I did at the time. And I decided a year or two later that I couldn’t do that and I put together my own operation and I started writing – I was writing all along – but I started putting stuff together and making sure I was protected. My production company is called Kolab.
WB. Going back to the deal you had with Fordom, was it just for that one record?
EV. It was for the two tracks because ‘Things Are Better’ was a song we had to create at the last minute to put on the back of ‘Dap Walk’.
WB. It’s a bit ironic then that the flip side had the chart success, Which track do you prefer?
EV. It depends on your market. In those days they didn’t categorise the music as much as they do now…but today it depends on the categorisation of the whole deal, y’know…there’re a lot of Radio Stations now that categorise every little bit of music and today it depends on who wants to listen to this and who wants to listen to that.
WB. So how, if indeed they did, would ‘Dap Walk’ have been categorised…would it have been considered a soul record or a funk record?
EV. At first it was considered a soul record and then gradually people started to listen to it and people were saying “Man that sure is funky”, y’know, but at that time my mind wasn’t into thinking about the funk but about getting something that people could dance to!
WB. There seems to be so much of the obscure stuff, especially from the late 60’s, that isn’t obviously ‘funky’ in the way the average person who isn’t always listening to this stuff would think a funk record should sound. Half of those records sound like hard R & B records – I’m thinking The Sad Chicken’, ‘Who Knows’, ‘You Lost Your Thing’, stuff like that.
EV. Well during that era with James Brown and his type of rhythms and things people was considering that funk at the time. When that came out that was what we was dealing with.
WB. You considered James Brown a bit of a hero…
EV. Yeah he was a great idol…kept the music simple, kept dominant beat, he made it easy for his bands to play his music which made it even better.
WB. Did you ever see him perform live?
EV. Oh yeah, I saw him twice. I saw him one time in the seventies… he was at the IMA Hall and that’s the time he used to play on the bandstand, on the organ with a cape and he always had his back turned until “Ladies and Gentlemen,…Mr. James Brown” and then he’d turn ’round and he’d get up on the organ and another guy would get up on the organ. And I’d watch his show because his show was very inspirational for me dealing with the discipline…and I believe in that discipline in the music and in the band…that’s one of my trademarks I think.
WB. Sure. The playing on ‘Dap Walk’ is pretty tight for a band of six months…
EV. Yes. And the reason why…before the band was getting restless and I didn’t have to motivate them, they was saying “man, we need to do something, we gotta record”, and then Jean Knight took off big time and I was the only one under contract with them and I was trying to keep the band together so I told them “tear the contract up and I’ll find somewhere else”, so that’s how I got into playing with Ford, with the label. And actually he came listen, listen one time and said “Okay, we gotta do it”, man, so he paid for the pressing of the thing and I put the music together and went into the studio.
WB. So were you disappointed about the Malaco deal?
EV. Well, at the time yes and no because actually they was gonna change the Top Notes into The Explosions…we had created a packed house place, we used to pack between two and sometimes I would say maybe three hundred people a night at a club when we was playing, actually in the club. And we had created a namesake and we had created a heck of a following.
WB. What were the clubs like back then?
EV. Oh it was nice. I mean everybody was just coming there to have fun, jam and have a good time. We used to keep up with a lot of the latest stuff at that time…we used to rehearse every week and make sure we stayed on top and stayed totally disciplined with everything.
WB. Did you perform covers in your sets?
EV. Yeah we did a lot of covers. We did a lot of the stuff that was out at the time…we did Kool & The Gang stuff, James Brown stuff…we did a whole bunch of different things.
WB. What was the set up like in the clubs…was it basically a big dancefloor and a stage?
EV. Oh yeah, they had a stage and they had a nice hot dancefloor
WB. Did you play to mixed crowds?
EV. We played…when I first started playing I always played for a mixed crowd…night clubs all up and down the Bayou. Now that was before The Top Notes.
WB. Again, getting back to the ‘Dap Walk’ session was that recorded on the same session as the flip side?
EV. Yeah, same day. We did about three takes on the ‘Dap Walk’, it was a done deal and we did about two or three takes on ‘Things Are Better’ and that was a done deal.
WB. What was that, a five hour session or something?
EV. Yeah, well actually less than that because we was playing the song on the gigs y’know ’cause we was playing at least three nights a week and we’d play those songs at least two or three times a night…honing them…and making sure everything was in order. So everybody just went into the studio and popped it, y’know. We was all in one room, in the studio, playing together like you would playing live. At this point I’d like to mention my new bass player, Don Williams, and my drummer…his name is Keith…he plays some funky drums. Don is a schoolteacher here and he used to go all over the world with me. Don is about 47 and Keith is, gotta be about 36.
WB. And Ernie, if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?
EV. Ok. I’m 57.
WB. You sound younger!! EV. Well y’know, I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t use any barbituates!! I drink a little bit now and again…but so far The Lord’s been fortunate with me because I took care of myself down the line.

What a brilliant guy! Huge thanks to Ernie for giving his time so generously to this interview and thanks also for remembering so much!