Willie Tee and Earl Turbinton, RIP

On the same day that Joe Zawinul passed away, Wilson Turbinton, the New Orleans keyboardist known as Willie Tee, died at age 63. Zawinul fans may know him as the composer of “Can It Be Done” on Weather Report’s Domino Theory album. His brother, saxophonist Earl Turbinton, died on August 3. He was 65. Earl is perhaps best known to Zawinul fans for having played on Joe’s 1971 eponymous album.

Joe got to know the Turbintons while he was a member of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “In the late 1960s, Willie Tee & the Souls performed everywhere from the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street. After hearing the band at the Ivanhoe in 1968, jazz musician Cannonball Adderley encouraged Mr. Turbinton to record an instrumental album. The album was never released, but the master tapes were recently rediscovered in the vaults of Capitol Records, [Leo] Sacks said.” It’s not far-fetched to assume that Tee’s funky style had some influence on Joe.

Earl’s playing on the Zawinul album was remembered years later by drummer Billy Hart in Brian Glasser’s book, In A Silent Way. “Earl Turbinton was chosen to play the ‘In A Silent Way’ theme, and the way he played it was so beautiful. Everyone was just stunned. That was the first time that the full version of ‘Silent Way’ had been played. Everyone left the studio knowing something special had happened. For years, we all talked about it, saying something spiritual had happened.”

Earl often told of being asked by Joe to become a founding member of Weather Report. It’s doubtful that Weather Report would have had two sax players, so it seems more likely that Joe and Earl discussed forming a band around the same time that Joe, Wayne and Miroslav got together. (If anyone has more details about Earl and Joe, I’d love to hear from you. You can send me email to the address on the About page). In any event, Earl opted to go out on the road with B.B. King.

Both Earl and Willie were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, eventually relocating to Baton Rouge from their native New Orleans. Joe didn’t forget his friends, and a few months after Katrina hit, he held a benefit concert called “Charity Event for the Lost Children of New Orleans” at Birdland and invited Willie to be his special guest. Earl, who suffered a stroke in 2002, was unable to attend. Photographs of the event can be found on Willie Tee’s web site.

For more about Willie Tee, see Jon Parales’ obituary in the New York Times. For more about Earl Turbinton, see Keith Spera’s obituary in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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