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MEMORY TRACES

Benny Spellman’s romantic touch

“Benny was living at the Dew Drop Inn when he met Allen. ‘Mother- in-Law’ was constructed around the bass part for Benny. Allen tailor-made ‘Lipstick Traces’ on the same pattern. That don’t-leave-me-no-mo was just like the mutha-in-law refrain.”

Lipstick traces on a cigarette
Every memory of you lingers yet
I’m telling you now
Like I told you before
I’m so in love with you –
Don’t leave me no more!

Benny Spellman’s lush baritone on “Lipstick Traces” continues to roll through my field of thought: The big singer with the broad shoulders swayed on local bandstands as people danced to the moody lyrics that few of us in the 1960s associated with the pen of Allen Toussaint.

The flip side of the 45-rpm disc was a novelty hit, “Fortune Teller,” which the Rolling Stones later covered. The force of “Lipstick Traces” on so many compilation discs is like a won’t-stop battery in the soundtrack of Crescent City permanence. The song hit No. 80 in the March 1962 Billboard Hot 100 chart. Few other hits conveyed the magic of love and the mourning of love lost. The words as sung by Spellman mingled with the floating melody for sheer romance.

Your pretty brown eyes
Your wavy hair
I won’t go home no more
’Cause you’re not there

 There was irony in Benny Spellman’s brawny presence at those 1960s dances. The former Southern University football player charging the hearts and minds of white kids hungry for love as the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests charged the TV narrative of nightly news. Biographies tell us that his recording career had pretty much ended by the late 1960s. He went to work as a beer salesman with many years in St. Louis. But he kept his share of weekend gigs, in and out of New Orleans. He uncorked a version of “Lipstick Traces” the month before the moonshot, in the summer of ’69 at F&M Patio Bar where the air conditioning conked out but the swooning kept pace with those rivers of sweat. “Lipstick Traces” was one of the sexiest songs you could ever dance to, temperature notwithstanding.

I realize now that he was 38 that summer, moonlighting at what he loved in a town where his songs and the deep bottom of that voice had staying power for just about everyone who loved to dance.

Spellman got his break in one of those made-for-movie turning points that happen a lot in the music world. Huey Smith and the Clowns were on tour in Florida in 1959 and wrecked the truck. Spellman offered them a lift back. If you knew Huey, as I knew Huey in ’80 before he retired from music for religious reasons (a Jehovah Witness convert), Spellman’s story fits hand-to-glove with the spontaneous way the Clowns’ leader did business. (So, Benny, you know how to sing? Come sing with us.) Spellman did, and got his launch as a vocalist with the Clowns.

The trail led to J&M Record Shop on Rampart Street where Toussaint the budding studio maestro was crafting the sounds that would make him and others famous. Spellman’s deep-sweet pipes work wonders in the callback lines on Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother in Law.”

“It was that bass voice singing mutha-in-law background that got Allen interested in recording Benny,” bandmaster Deacon John explains. “Benny was living at the Dew Drop Inn when he met Allen. ‘Mother- in-Law’ was constructed around the bass part for Benny. Allen tailor-made ‘Lipstick Traces’ on the same pattern. That don’t-leave-me-no-mo was just like the mutha-in-law refrain. He sang that bass line on another song, ‘Get Out of My House.’ He built a stage act around ‘Fortune Teller” – it’s stuff people don’t forget.”

Long-term musical success eluded Spellman, as it did many singers with just one or a few hits. He spent years as a Budweiser salesman. “Being Benny Spellman was a definite boost to his business,” says his daughter Judy, a vocalist who for many years worked in medical sales.

Being Benny’s daughter was a boost to Judy Spellman, who made regular calls “on a group of doctors at East Jefferson Hospital. These were guys who had gone to that Catholic high school on Carrollton Avenue [Jesuit] and they remembered him. One of ’em asked if I was related. I sang ‘Lipstick Traces’ for him and that led to me singing at several parties and fundraisers for them.”

In August, when Spellman was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, Deacon John traveled to Pensacola to present him the award at the assisted living facility where he resides, still alert at age 79.

Judy Spellman and Company will perform April 24 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

“People say my daddy sang bass but he really was a baritone,” says his daughter. “I’m a contralto. That nice mellow way he sang inspired me.”
 

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