S.J. Montalbano, better known as Sam Montel the record man and much more, died of heart failure in his Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hometown on February 10, at the age of 84. Born February 8, 1937, he was an important driver in South Louisiana music with Montel Records, also Montel Michelle. His labels should be better known, but for too many years the catalogues remained unissued on LP or CD, unlike fellow local imprints Goldband and Jin-Swallow or the J.D. Miller archive. Even today there are many hidden gems on Montel that are waiting to be heard.
Montalbano launched Montel Records in 1958 and had a sensational rockin' start with Lester Robertson and the Upsetters' double-sider My Girl Across Town/Take It Home To Grandma and John Fred and the Playboys' Shirley - a modest No. 82 Billboard pop hit years before the blockbuster Judy In Disguise. These Montel singles were recorded at Cosimo Matassa's famous New Orleans studios.
Both artists participated in the weekly Catholic Youth Organization dances that Montalbano co-promoted. Other featured acts included Baton Rouge's Slim Harpo and Johnny Rivers. Another CYO regular was local 'Just A Dream' hitmaker, Jimmy Clanton, who Montalbano admitted 'jump-started my career' when he became the teen idol's road manager for a couple of years.
After the promising start with Montel, Montalbano set up a small recording studio in the 'tomato room' in the family fruit exchange building. He did well regionally with Buck Rogers' Crazy Baby and Sugar Boy Crawford's 'Danny Boy'. But the record man hit paydirt in 1963 when I'm Leaving It Up To You, the 1957 Don and Dewey R&B song, became a No. 1 pop hit of the by Dale (Houston) and Grace (sister of Van Broussard, see NDT 455). Recorded at Carol Rachou's La Louisianne studios in Lafayette, with violins 'in the wrong key' overdubbed at Bill Holford's ACA studios in Houston, the record was distributed nationally by Jamie Records of Philadelphia, with Huey Meaux as intermediary. Years later, Montalbano still marvelled at having a No. 1 record in the nation. The equally charming swamp-poppish follow-up, Stop And Think It Over, made the top 10.
Montalbano ventured into garage music with the Greek Fountains including drummer Cyril Vetter, and blue-eyed soul with popular college-circuit band, the Boogie Kings. With the independent record scene changing ("I was used to Otis Redding, not the long-haired stuff"), Montalbano ceased operations in 1967 to spend more time with his successful family produce business. He also wound down the CYO dance promotions but not before he presented concerts by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Who. Montalbano continued in music by launching Deep South Recording Studio in Baton Rouge with his brother Mickey. Years later, in the new millennium, Sam broadcast the 'Jukebox Legends' show on Radio WBRH with Mickey (who died in 2018). Never resting, Montalbano co-wrote with Sam Muffoletto his memoir, I'm Leaving It Up to Me, which highlighted his storytelling abilities, followed by a two-CD collection of his productions, You're Never Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: The Sam Montel Collection.
On a personal note, I was privileged to take part on panels with Montalbano in New Orleans at the Ponderosa Stomp (twice) and the Jazz Fest, where he always had a ready smile as he talked fondly and engagingly of his days as a record man and dance promoter. He was of great help with my recent second edition of South to Louisiana.
"Sam was the poster boy for the 1960s music lifestyle", said Cyril Vetter, Montel artist and later Baton Rouge record man. "He loved the music and the people - and the outsize influence both had on the culture. I never saw him mad or upset. And he authored one of the all-time great quotes, reflective of the mood and the era, which distills S.J.'s colourful persona. It was the greatest pickup line of the '60s: 'Hey baby, you wanna be on an album cover?'"
Originally published Now Dig This magazine (U.K.), March 2021- John Broven
Photo: Dale and Grace with Sam Montel at Cosimo Recording Studio, New Orleans. (Courtesy Johnnie Allan Collection at ULL)