The Blue Thumb record label of the late 1960s and early '70s, formed by ex-King and Buddah exec Bob Krasnow, operated in a seemingly random and unpredictable manner, judging by the records they left behind. Before being sold to corporate interests, Krasnow and his ex-A&M partners Tommy LiPuma and Don Graham released music from iconoclastic artists such as Captain Beefheart, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, Ike and Tina Turner, Love, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Ben Sidran, The Last Poets and many others.
New Orleans musicians are also often known for doing things their own way, consequences be damned. So it would seem like Blue Thumb would be a perfect home for a former Big Easy star to revive his career. The results of such a collaboration do exist, in the form of Jessie Hill's album Naturally. The laissez-faire aspect of the recording fits well with what one would expect from such a merger, and as is often the case with Blue Thumb discs, the results may be a bit messy but the heart is firmly and entertainingly in the right place.
Hill is probably best remembered these days as the original performer and songwriter of "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," a hit in the early '60s which also went on to be a live staple of the Ike and Tina Revue. Subsequent recordings by Hill sank quickly, and according to his All Music Guide biography, he left New Orleans for California to work as a songwriter. He often collaborated with other Louisiana expatriates like legendary arranger/producer Harold Battiste and Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John), and his name shows up in the fine print on numerous '60s rock and R&B records. During that time, he released sporadic singles on Downey, Wand, Chess and smaller labels, including a couple as a duo with Shirley Goodman, also a former hitmaker as part of Shirley and Lee.
Naturally was intended as a full-fledged comeback, and its obscurity today is a testament to the fact that Hill's luck as a performer hadn't changed in the intervening decade since his only hit. These days it's even somewhat impossible to tell just when it came out; 1971 and 1972 are both listed in various places as the year of release, and in typical Blue Thumb fashion there's no dates anywhere on the album, or specific credits as to who's performing along with Hill (including for a prominent female vocal spoil). Also typical for the label is the lavish packaging, a gatefold sleeve featuring a die-cut rear cover with a wheel to spin and reveal more images, a la Led Zeppelin III.
Musically, Naturally is a melange of Louisiana swamp boogie and sounds drawn directly from contemporary early '70s soul styles, but with Hill's unique voice not too much sounds exactly standard-issue. Goofy intro and outro tracks sound improvised, and really, a lot of this album sounds sort of like it could have been made up on the spot in the studio. But Hill's rough and tumble vocal style holds it all down with enough bottom-of-the-soul grit to cover up for any looseness.
The occasionally haphazard-sounding audio mix is part of what makes the album sound messier than it really is, which is likely at least partly the blame of producer Charles Greene. He was behind a number of hits (and interesting misses) with his partner Brian Stone in the '60s with their York-Pala Productions company, including Sonny and Cher, Buffalo Springfield and many others. It was likely through his connections to Sonny & Cher that Greene ended up working with Jessie Hill, as Harold Battiste worked on most of their records. Greene's work behind the boards had gotten better since the '60s, though, and is really more cluttered than muddy on Naturally. There's some surprises hiding in the mix for the diligent listener -- if there's another album that attempts to combine gospel choir backing vocals with steel drums, I sure haven't ever heard it.
The commercial indifference to Naturally and spiraling personal problems would help make it Hill's recording swan song. He returned to New Orleans in the late '70s, and died in 1996 after a couple decades of sporadic attempts by himself and others to rehabilitate his career and personal life. The Blue Thumb label eventually ended up in the hands of ABC Records, and most of its masters now languish in the corporate vaults of Universal Music Group; Naturally has never been available again since its initial release -- a sad fate for a unique album. (Blue Thumb, 1971)