New Orleans’ adopted son, Benny Spellman dies at the age of 79
14th June 2011 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
The Louisiana Weekly
Benny Spellman, who gained national attention with his New Orleans classics from the double-sided 45 r.p.m. “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)” and “Fortune Teller,” died on Friday, June 3, following a long illness. He was 79.
“He was put in the right place at the right time, I must say,” avers legendary producer and musician Allen Toussaint who wrote those tunes and others for Spellman. “I’m so glad that he was here with us because as a lead vocalist as well as a cooperative group vocalist, he was a good man to have.”
Spellman was born in Pensacola, Florida and attended Southern University of Baton Rouge on a football scholarship. While there, he also sang with a jazz group headed by clarinetist Alvin Batiste. His arrival in New Orleans in 1959, however, was strictly by happenstance. The great Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns’ vehicle broke down in Florida and Spellman offered them a ride back to New Orleans. He spent a bit of time with Smith and soon became immersed in the city’s thriving rhythm and blues scene. Spellman became a regular at the famous R&B haven the Dew Drop Inn.
Another feather in Spellman’s cap was his contribution to Ernie K-Doe’s smash hit, “Mother-in-Law.” It is the vocalist’s deep baritone that injects the memorable title refrain “Mother-In-Law” on the 1962 single that was also written by Toussaint who accompanies on piano.
“He did a wonderful job on that,” Toussaint declares of the line that was an original part of his arrangement. “He was quite proud of that and I’m glad he was because he sang it with that kind of pride. Sometimes he would say that his part was the most important part of the whole record and he may have been right.”
The first release Spellman and Toussaint worked on together was “Life Is Too Short,” a haunting melody that is atmospherically reminiscent of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ tune “I Put a Spell on You” that was later wonderfully covered by Nina Simone. The single was released in 1960 on the Minit label but, unfortunately, didn’t cause much of a stir.
“He was easy to write for and quite a balladeer — he had a wonderful baritone voice — but he liked to rock as well,” says Toussaint.
Apparently, Spellman, a handsome guy with deep dimples, sometimes removed his shirt during a performance. It was a part of his act much enjoyed by the women in the audience.
“He was very manly — he was quite well-built because he worked out — so I wrote manly songs for him. He wasn’t one to pursue every skirt that passed — he wasn’t a womanizer. It’s just that the girls did like him.”
Core to Spellman, says Toussaint, was his total engagement with singing and his love of the whole entertainment industry.
His association with Toussaint produced a number of fine releases though they didn’t make noise on the charts. (Check out some of these on YouTube.) His last record, the uptempo “The Word Game,” which was released on the local ALON label and picked up by Atlantic, was released in 1965.
“He was on the journey that he wanted to be on and he was enjoying it very much,” says Toussaint of Spellman’s active participation in the music and recording business. “He got the most out of whatever he was doing. He was very glad to be in that number.”
Following the “British Invasion” that, in part, caused the end of the heyday of New Orleans R&B era, Spellman semi-retired from the music industry and worked in the beer distributorship business. In the late 1980s he a suffered a debilitating stroke.
Spellman’s musical legacy will forever be a part of New Orleans musical history. It will live on through his original recordings as well by those who covered his hits. The Rolling Stones, The Who and the New Orleans band, the Iguanas, all recorded “Fortune Teller.” The O’Jays and Ringo Starr did versions of “Lipstick Traces.”
Spellman’s daughter, New Orleans R&B vocalist Judy Spellman, remembers her father during her performances. “The music that he gave to me through our DNA would connect to people,” she says adding that she wants to share it so the world will know him. “I carry it on for you, me and him.”
Allen Toussaint also keeps the Benny Spellman flame alive by performing his hits much to the delight of audiences who often sing along with every word.
“I heard him sing songs of the day,” Toussaint remembers, “but I actually preferred him singing the songs I wrote for him. When I heard him sing those, it was always just right.”
A celebration of the life of Benny Spellman was held June 10, 2011 in Pensacola, Florida.
This article originally published in the June 13, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.