Track 1: I’m A Believer
Track 2: Rhythm
Leo Morris was born on November 13, 1939 in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father was a banjo player (his family originated from Nigeria), and his mother was French, and he had three brothers and a sister that played drums, so it was inevitable that he would follow the same path. Leo remembers his first day at school and the moment his teacher gave him a drum instantly when she had learnt this kid was another “Morris”. And he can also recall his mother’s reaction when he walked in with yet another drum for the house.
Leo knew at a young age that music was going to be his life. One Mardi Gras day, some Dixieland guys came by seeking a drummer, and asked his mother if he could play on the back of this truck with these old musicians. Some how they convinced her to let the 9 year old go with them. They had a big bass drum and one snare drum and a symbol, and they built up some beer cases for a seat for him. “This kid can play” acknowledged one of the musicians, and after about six hours of touring through the streets of New Orleans, they started passing out money and gave the surprised kid two $5 bills.
In his early teens Leo was snatched up by Arthur Neville who had band The Hawkettes, and believes he was only chosen because all his other brothers were already working at that time. That was the launching of his professional playing career…playing rhythm and blues. They would back up all of the important artists that would come to New Orleans, including Big Joe Turner and Muddy Waters, and would go on the road with people like Fats Domino, Eddie Bo, Earl King, and Lloyd Price. Thanks to Joe Jones recommendation (who had the hit You Talk Too Much) he scored his first trip to New York as Sam Cooke’s personal drummer, and that was certainly an eye opener!
For a time Leo became Jerry Butler’s musical director, along with Curtis Mayfield (who was the guitarist) and was recording a lot of music in Chicago. Curtis put The Impressions back together (between 1958 and 1960 they performed as Jerry Butler & The Impressions) and made Leo an offer he couldn’t refuse, so he joined up. After about three and a half years, deciding that the Chicago winters were too cold, and the fact that his wife, who was the lead singer with The Crystals, was living in New York, he moved back to the big city. Working the Apollo Theatre at nights, Leo would cross over afterwards to the jazz clubs like Birdland, “just to hear something else”. This music was jazz, and he was experiencing it by watching Miles Davis and Coltrane, Cannonball and the likes. In an interview with allaboutjazz.com, he says…”I’d just be hanging around, listenin’ at what they were sayin.’ I was too young to have a drink in Birdland. They had a space in the club they called the Peanut Gallery. That’s where all the young people used to go and have a Coca Cola and listen to the music”.
One night he wandered over to the Five Spot to hear a guy that all the members in the band were talking about, who played three horns at one time…a cat called Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Completely amazed, Leo asked the drummer if he could step in and play one tune with Kirk. After the song had finished, Kirk turned around and said, “Who’s that on them drums? Keep that beat! Keep that beat!” Leo ended up playing the whole set. Night after night, he kept on attracting he right attention. American jazz trumpeter, singer, and composer Kenny Dorham spotted him and asked if he could do concert with him. After a couple rehearsals, he played the concert at Town Hall with Dorham’s band. Also on he bill on the same night were Freddie Hubbard’s band and Lee Morgan’s band who also wanted to know who this new young New Orleans “jazz” drummer was and how do we get him? “I had this rhythm no one else could play”.
Never playing jazz before, he was now “the” drummer to have. After playing in Betty Carter’s band with (George Coleman, John Hicks and Paul Chambers) he joined up with Lou Donaldson in 1967, who started as a sideman in more or less straight ahead jazz settings, but now had begun experimenting with more bluesy beat-heavy styles, and recorded a string of influential albums on the Blue Note label. The first LP (recorded April 7, 1967 and released August 1967 ) was Alligator Boogaloo, a classic jazz masterpiece that also included Lonnie Smith on organ George Benson on guitar. Leo record a dozen or so LP’s with Donaldson and Blue note in the sixties, and would continue to work with a barrage of other Jazz “gods” at this time. His collaboration with jazz saxophonist Rusty Bryant is standout for me (by this time Leo Morris had changed his name to Idris Muhammad upon his conversion to Islam). In 1971 he recorded on the Fire Eater LP for the Prestige label, releasing that killer 7″ edited version of Fire Eater which includes that furious break, and is always sort by collectors. He also recorded on the Soul Liberation and Wild Fire LP’s.
In 1971 Prestige released Black Rhythm Revolution!, Muhammad’s debut album in the driver’s seat, and would be accompanied by a double funk 7″ which include two strong covers, Charles Wright’s Express Yourself and James Brown’s Super Bad! Although perhaps considered less intense than the title might lead one to believe, the LP is the opportunity for Muhammad to express and reveal just what this man is capable of, a taste test of what is to come. Peace and Rhythm was released later that same year, and this one comes with far more praise from the enthusiasts. A dynamic LP with more of everything and everyone, it includes his regular line up of greats (Melvin Sparks, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, Jimmy Lewis and others) but also in came with the new addition of his wife Sakinah Muhammad.
Sakinah Muhammad was a former member of The Crystals and back then was known as Dolores “LaLa” Brooks (she also converted to Islam with Idris). Brooks was the second youngest of 11 children, and first displayed her talent by singing gospel music in church. At age seven, she took part in her siblings’ gospel group called the Little Gospel Tears, where they sang in Brooklyn. She was discovered in an after-school program by Crystals member Dolores “Dee Dee” Kenniebrew and her mother, who invited her to join the girl group as a replacement for a departing member. The youngest member of the group, she joined when she was just 13 years old and only after 2 years she became the lead singer. Coupling La La’s strong voice with Phil Spector’s (pictured) Wall of Sound, the Crystals would become one of the defining girl groups of the 1960s. Her first hit as lead singer was Da Doo Ron Ron, a top 5 hit in both the United States and United Kingdom, and then was soon followed by Then He Kissed Me. The 7″ to track down in my opinion is the post Spector uptempo R&B killer I Got A Man, released in 1966 on United (flipped to Are You Trying To Get Rid Of Me Baby). There are a handful of versions of this song and all great, and I’m guessing the Sugar N Spice version as it has a 1964 release, is the original (although song credits differ on each release). There is a rare issue by Barbara Harris of The Toys released in 1965, which I’m almost certain is the same version officially released by The Toys the next year. Again, all nifty versions worth tracking down.
So back to the featured track I’m A Believer, in which I question, is even possible to find a more spiritually uplifting song ever? You have to realise when listening to this, the strength and bond Idris and Sakinah must have shared together. The chemistry between every band member is exhilarating. Idris’ complex rhythms somehow come across with such nimbleness and feels so unconfined. Melvin Sparks on guitar and Jimmy Lewis on bass, together collaborate as the backbone that allows Sakinah to express her beautiful vocal lines and melodies. As in many cases, the 7″ has a cut down version and only runs at just over 2.30 mins, where as the longer LP version is where the horn sections of Virgil Jones and Clarence Thomas have the opportunity to fly gracefully between the song’s blissful arrangements. It’s a song about belief in the Lord, but I also think it’s a song about having faith and hope when your life is falling into pieces, and maybe that strength will come through friends or family or perhaps something else. The very contrasting flip side to this moving soulful masterpiece, is Rhythm, a fiery Latin dance floor jumper, and a rowdy neighbour to I’m A Believer, but a welcomed partner that you like to visit on many occasions.
Sakinah would also contribute as lead on Brother You Know You’re Doing Wrong, a more uptempo song, again about standing up and dusting yourself off, when you’ve fallen down that wrong path. I’m almost certain this would be the last time she would appear on any Idris Muhammad solo recording, and I believe this is because of her decision to devote more time to their family around that time (she was also touring and recording for various artists such as the Neville Brothers, Bobby Womack and Isaac Hayes, and guest starred on movies and soundtracks including the 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem).
In 1974 Idris released the respected Power of Soul LP. In a Modern Drummer 1996 issue, he himself called it his greatest record. “It’s only four tracks,” he said, “but the intensity of the rhythms I’m playing and how settled, and how swinging, and how hard it grooves is what makes it.” The Beastie Boys album “Paul’s Boutique” opens with a lengthy sample of Loran’s Dance, from that LP. Asked in an interview how he felt about other people using his music, he told Wax Poetics magazine, “It don’t really belong to me, man,” adding: “The gift the Creator has given me, I can’t be selfish with. If I keep it in my pocket, it’s not going to go anyplace.”
Idris Muhammad would ease nicely and successfully into the disco and boogie genres with following LP releases. As far a 7″s go, Turn This Mutha Out, taken from the 1977 LP of the same title, is a nice disco 45 to have, and can be found either as a flip to the great Could Heaven Ever Be Like This, or as a two sided Part A and B solo track. Beyond that, a few more releases into the early 80’s, but personally, not the era I really move in to.
I’m A Believer is a very treasured single, and I’m incredibly thankful that Sakinah and Idris joined together in a studio, to produce this jewel. When Sakinah sings a song about faith, love and worship, it is a true genuine piece of artistry that only this true believer could deliver. And regardless of your beliefs, you have to agree that with this kind of strong faith in music history, we have been gifted with some of the most beautiful and purest songs that soul music has to offer. I for one am very grateful for that, and I feel very honoured to have this much revered record in my collection.
Idris and Sakinah Muhammad had had two sons and two daughters together, and lived in London and Vienna before their marriage ended in 1999. Idris Muhammad died on July 29 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2014, at the age of 74. His cause of death was not immediately known, but Muhammad had been receiving dialysis since retiring to his native New Orleans in 2011. La La Brooks (as she now goes by publicly) also moved back to the United States and resides in the East Village and is a grandmother of seven. She released an album containing 14 new original songs in 2013, titled All Or Nothing and continues to perform across the world.
Referencing, researching and recommendations…