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Lipstick Traces

June 7, 2011

Benny Spellman, the New Orleans R&B singer whose lent his bass vocals to Ernie K-Doe’s famous song “Mother-in-Law,” died last Friday at the age of 79.

Spellman was probably best known for the song “Lipstick Traces” (click on the video above). We’ve heard songwriter and arranger Allen Toussaint tell this story about the origins of “Lipstick Traces” and its connection to “Mother-in-Law.” The tale is recounted here by blogger DetroitBob:

The session wasn’t coming together. Ernie K-Doe was an artist desperate for a hit and Allen Toussaint was a writer/producer/arranger who was missing one crucial piece to his arrangement for what was to be K-Doe’s third single on the Minit label. The song was almost certainly a bonafide hit (even if K-Doe had supposedly rescued it from Toussaint’s refuse bin) but it was missing something. Present in the studio but not participating was another of Minit’s minor artists who, like K-Doe, hung around making extra money as a backing vocalist. Toussaint called the baritone singer down, and with Benny Spellman’s bellowing of the song title peppered throughout, “Mother-In-Law” skyrocketed to the top of the charts.

Ernie K-Doe would forever be linked to his big hit, vaulted into prominence around the city. Spellman was understandably annoyed with his role in the creation of that hit. For months, he implored Toussaint to write him a song with an equal amount of hit potential. Toussaint acquiesced in a major way as 1962 dawned, giving Spellman a pair of songs destined for longevity, “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)” and “Fortune Teller”. The two songs would make up Minit 644, Spellman’s third single for the label.

The A-side, certainly one of the greatest pleas for a lover to return and never leave again, was deliberately written in a similar structure to “Mother-In-Law”. The dynamite harmonies of Irma Thomas and Willie Harper were as important as the swaying Toussaint arrangement in making the song an instant classic. The B-side, considered an afterthought by its writer, was a straightforward tale of a man told by a fortune teller that he’s in love and though he doesn’t yet realize it, he’ll realize it soon enough. Replete with irresistable piano, bass and percussion, it quickly became the side that disc jockeys started plugging. In spite of its obvious greatness, the single failed to set the charts on fire, peaking at #28 on the R&B chart, #80 on the Hot 100. Ultimately, though, both songs became standards, covered by a plethora of artists. Rarely would such an influential 45 come out of New Orleans for even if the name Benny Spellman is unfamiliar, his songs “Fortune Teller” and “Lipstick Traces” aren’t.

If you want to hear the more-than-passing resemblance between Mother-in-Law and Lipstick Traces, you can listen to the former below.

Special thanks to Dave Tilley for reminding us of this story during his tribute to Spellman tonight on WXDU in Durham, N.C.

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