They say there are a million stories in the Naked City. Come to think of it, there have probably been a million
made in the Naked City (New York City, for our purposes), but none with such an unlikely genesis as Jimmy Norman's
Little Pieces. A gorgeously soulful CD by a lifelong songwriter with amazing credits but little recognition, its recording is the tale of how a dedicated team of New York City engineers and musicians helped rescue a precious set of songs from the trash bin — literally — and turn them into jewels in a jewel case.
Jimmy Norman (left) at the first recording session of Little Pieces with producer Kerryn Tolhurst. The first recordings were made in Norman’s Upper West Side apartment in New York City in the summer of 2002.
photo: Frank Beacham ©2002
It all began when Brooklyn-based producer and guitarist/dobro player Kerryn Tolhurst started taking part in regular, high-level Monday night jam sessions at an Upper West Side restaurant called Penang. One of the singers who began showing up to put his wise R&B voice on the mic seemed to be from another era, and indeed he was: It was Jimmy Norman (www.jimmynorman.net), whose musical resume had grown quite long since he first appeared on the planet in 1937. His past songwriting collaborators included no less than Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Lloyd Price, Lou Rawls and Johnny Nash. While performing in venues from the chitlin' circuit to the Apollo Theatre and Carnegie Hall, Norman shared the stage with Jerry Lee Lewis, Solomon Burke, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Ben E. King and Ike & Tina Turner. On top of that, he sang lead for Carl Gardner's well-known group, The Coasters. Upping the ante, Norman wrote lyrics for “Time Is on My Side” during Irma Thomas' 1964 recording session, later to become a Rolling Stones classic hit. He was also the featured vocalist on Eddie Palmieri's 1971 Latin funk breakthrough, Harlem River Drive.
It is an astounding career, but not one that had netted Norman any kind of monetary windfall for his retirement years. Fortunately for him, the Jazz Foundation of America (www.jazzfoundation.org) was tuned in with financial and medical assistance from its emergency fund. It was 2002, and what happened next was an amazing three-year sequence of events that would allow Little Pieces to come to life. “Two Jazz Foundation volunteers named Lily Morton and Jeni Lausch were doing some cleanup in his apartment,” Tolhurst recalls, “and they came across notebooks in a trash bag that were going to be thrown out. They found out these were notebooks of songs written by Jimmy in the 1960s but never recorded. News of this came to me and my ears perked up.”
Tolhurst went to Norman's apartment around the corner from Penang, started going through the songs and was astonished to realize that Norman remembered the melody to each tune, scratch piano part included. “Jimmy had a heart attack in the mid-1990s after he joined The Coasters and couldn't travel or tour anymore,” Tolhurst explains. “He got very excited again with the prospect of being able to record this stuff. So the next question came, how to do it? It was in fragments. Given Jimmy's health, I figured we had to get the vocals done first. He also has emphysema so he had great difficulty singing; I could only get him for short periods of time. To get him into a studio wouldn't be cost-effective, so I figured I had to get the vocals before we went any further.”
Unafraid to set up a basic field recording situation, Tolhurst started showing up at Norman's place with a MiniDisc recorder to put down roughs of songs that would work together for an album. Next, Tolhurst took the roughs home, laid guitar down to a click track and mapped out arrangements for Norman to cut his sweetly gruff vocals back at his apartment, as Tolhurst recorded him through an Audio-Technica 4050 mic and Joe Meek preamp into his trusty Alesis ADAT 8-track. “I was looking for songs that would work as a cohesive unit, that fit the period but would speak now,” says Tolhurst. “I love the Memphis R&B crossover, and that's kind of where I wanted to go with it. Jimmy was born in Nashville, so he has those roots.
“For recording, the room in Jimmy's apartment was pretty well padded. You could barely move in there and it was remarkably quiet. Jimmy enjoyed it; he'd always been at a formal studio with the clock ticking.”
Vocal tracks in hand, Tolhurst headed to New York City's Studio 900 and dumped the ADAT recordings to 16-track 2-inch tape. Next, he brought in the pro musicians who made up the core of the Penang jam band to provide Norman with virtual backup, including bassist Paul Ossola, drummer Tony Beard, and keyboardists Jonny Rosch and Tony Shanahan. A laundry list of top New York City musicians would continue to come onboard to contribute Hammond organ, Wurlitzer, horns, backing vocals and more to the project. The list of contributing musicians grew to global proportions when Tolhurst went back to his native Australia and came away with another guest star, ex-Procol Harum organist Chris Copping. A half-dozen overdubs came in from across the world as Pro Tools files and ADATs (from anyone Tolhurst could find working on the format).
Along the way, Tolhurst was constantly planning ahead to prevent a logistical multimedia mess from forming. “I try to be organized,” he says. “When I record, I don't overindulge myself. I tend to think before I put something to tape, and I like to know where it's going to go. I hear the stereo mix, and if there's a place to fill, it's going to go there. I'm not the kind to pile a lot of stuff on and figure it out later, so tracks that go down have a purpose.”
Kerryn Tolhurst at a Little Pieces overdub session at Unique Studios
photo: Frank Beacham ©2004
It was moving in fits and starts, but Little Pieces was coming together. “All this was over the course of a couple of years. I was just grabbing time when I could and everyone was pretty much doing this pro bono,” Tolhurst notes. “Then we hit a stalemate because we ran out of money. Fortunately, a friend who was getting into the music business, Sam Nole, put up some money to get the record finished. When it finally came time to mix, things were pretty much in place.”
Next stop was producer Joe Blaney's downtown studio, Joe Music, where the 2-inch tape and Pro Tools files came together to make 11 songs a rich reality. With mixer Dave McNair moving the faders, song after song emerged as its own chapter in an album that may someday be regarded as an instant classic. The graceful title track balances Norman's voice and lyrics with melodica and gentle rhythms, hair-raising in their musical subtlety. For true music aficionados, however, the capper will be Norman's soul-stirring rendition of “Time Is on My Side,” a naturally awesome rebirth for a timeless song, performed by a man who took part in its creation.
After being mastered by Rick Rowe of Rick Rowe Mastering, another New York City — based music legend, Judy Collins, stepped up to release and distribute the record on her Wildflower Records label. Four decades in the making from concept to completion, Jimmy Norman's 21st-century solo album proved to be worth the effort for everybody who had thrown their heart and soul into it — maybe Norman most of all.
“Jimmy was knocked out, having seen it go from the humble beginnings to the final mix we got in the end,” Tolhurst says. “Jimmy had been a producer in his time, but he hadn't done that much recording in 10 years or so and a lot had changed in that period. It was a whole new world for him. The album is called Little Pieces because it's one of the songs, but it made sense: It was made up of little pieces of stuff in his apartment — little pieces of his life.”
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