Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Lee Dorsey

  • Yes We Can [Polydor, 1970] A-
  • Night People [ABC, 1978] A-
  • Holy Cow! The Best of Lee Dorsey [Arista, 1985] A
  • Wheelin' and Dealin': The Definitive Collection [Arista, 1996] A
  • The Very Best of Lee Dorsey: Working in a Coal Mine [Music Club, 2001] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Yes We Can [Polydor, 1970]
On what is supposed to be a (if not the) classic New Orleans rock and roll album, Allen Toussaint's .500 songwriting is a little disappointing--two of the twelve cuts are self-proclaimed filler, another is Joe South's "Games People Play," another a reprise. It's really only Ziggy Modeliste's drumming that keeps side two going. But Dorsey's congenial, liquid soul-crooning style defines such great Toussaint inventions as "Riverboat," "Occapella," "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley," and "O Me-O, My-O." Near-classic, say. A-

Night People [ABC, 1978]
This record has been growing on me so slowly for so long that I wonder whether my old Allen Toussaint fixation is acting up. Then again, why shouldn't it? Dorsey's subtle, small-scale rock and roll genre statement defines songwriter-producer Toussaint better than Toussaint the performer ever has. Every cut on this astonishingly listenable album is a minor pleasure; I'm delighted by even its silliest ("God Must Have Blessed America") and simpiest ("Can I Be the One") moments. Major credit goes to Dorsey's soft, snaky, infinitely good-humored and long-suffering vocal work, but Toussaint's touch is sublime throughout. A-

Holy Cow! The Best of Lee Dorsey [Arista, 1985]
Except maybe for Fats Domino himself, Dorsey stands as the drollest and most durable of the New Orleans rock and roll singers. His lean, lilting, unflappably jaunty high baritone carries subtle emotional weight; exploiting flexibility rather than power, it counter-punches expertly against Allen Toussaint's elliptical comping and Ziggy Modeliste's rat-a-tat-tat (a-tat-tat). Dorsey never made a bad album (you should hear "Mexico" on his 1966 Amy hits-plus-filler entry), and Charly's UK compilation turns up many memorable obscurities. But I know damn well that this is the Dorsey record I'll be playing now. From "Ya-Ya" and "Do-Re-Mi" for Fury in 1961 to "Yes We Can" and "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley" for Polydor in 1970, with eight Amy singles in between, it picks out all the obvious stuff and makes you love it. Why resist? A

Wheelin' and Dealin': The Definitive Collection [Arista, 1996]
Dorsey's innate musicality runs so deep that, as with prime doowop, it gradually subsumes the popcraft of his work. So Allen Toussaint isn't the only auteur here. Sure you'll still hum "Working in the Coal Mine" and "Get Out of My Life Woman," obscurities like "Can You Hear Me" and "Gotta Find a Job" too. But Dorsey's slippery pitch and lackadaisical phrasing add different-flavor funk and whimsy to concoctions that aim for both. And when the Meters come on, backing the very obscure "Lottie Mo '68" after Dorsey's best-remembered days at Amy are over, the singer again adds his own dynamics--counterpunching like Kid Chocolate, he's as much a percussion instrument as JB, only funnier. Next chapter: the classic '70s Toussaint-Dorsey-Meters collaborations MCA and PolyGram each control half of. Somebody broker a deal. A

The Very Best of Lee Dorsey: Working in a Coal Mine [Music Club, 2001]
Supplanting Arista's "definitive" Wheelin' and Dealin', this duplicates "Ya Ya," "Do-Re-Mi," "Holy Cow," "Ride Your Pony," "Get Out of My Life Woman," and "Working in a Coal Mine" natch, all essential, plus the slightly less essential "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)." Unlike the Arista it also has the essential "Yes We Can" and the slightly less essential "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley." And it's cheaper. But further comparison of its 16 tracks to the Arista's 20 establishes that it's not the "very best." Since Dorsey's lifework was grounding a handful of stone classics in a loamy swamp of beguiling oddities, there'll never be a very best. But don't you hanker for some ya ya, not to mention some do-re-mi? A

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