Another good example is Benny Spellman. He was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida in 1931, but music wasn’t his first love, football was. His love for the game gained him a scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He began his singing career in Baton Rouge, hooking up with Alvin Battiste’s jazz group. But then the Army called, Spellman served, and when he got out he went back to Pensacola.
In 1959, fate intervened. Huey “Piano” Smith and his Clowns were on tour in Florida when they wrecked their truck. Spellman stepped up and offered to drive the band back to New Orleans. Once they were back in the Crescent City, Smith offered Spellman the opportunity to become one of the Clowns. Spellman took him up on the offer and became a New Orleans resident from that point on.
Fortunately for Spellman, he had arrived in town at a great time. The local R&B scene was flourishing and before long he had a deal with a new record label called Minit. His first recordings for the label didn’t get much attention and Spellman survived by working as a background singer on other people’s records.
Once again Spellman found himself in the right place at the right time. This time he happened to be in the studio when Allen Toussaint was producing the session that would result in Ernie K Doe’s massive hit, “Mother-In-Law.” Toussaint, who wrote the song, wasn’t very happy with the way the session was going and he called on Spellman to help out. Spellman sang the distinctive bass part that put the song over the top.
That was the start of a relationship that found Spellman recording a double-sided single featuring two Toussaint songs, “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette),” and “Fortune Teller.” The record turned out to be Spellman’s biggest hit, reaching #28 R&B chart and #80 on the Billboard Hot 100. The record spent six weeks on the chart.
“Well, ‘Lipstick Traces’… the guy, Benny Spellman, that sang the bass part on “Mother-In-Law” — he didn’t know what it was worth at the time we were doing it, but when ‘Mother-In-Law’ came out and sold, and went to number one, let’s say, Benny Spellman that sang the bass part made sure that everyone within the sound of his voice got to know that he sang that part,” Toussaint told Terry Gross of NPR.
“And then he would go around — he would gig — based on [the fact that] he sang the low part on “Mother-In-Law,” Toussaint added. “And he encouraged me … with much force, to write him a song that he could use that concept. And one result of that was the song ‘Lipstick Traces.'”
The Rolling Stones covered “Fortune Teller,” and the O’Jays released their version of “Lipstick Traces,” but Spellman never had another chart record. By 1968 he was done with the record business and he went home to Pensacola where he got a job as a Miller Beer salesman. He tried for a musical comeback in the 1980s but a stroke cut the effort short.
In 2009, Spellman, by the residing in an assisted living facility, was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Two years later he died at the age of 79.