During the '60s, Lee Dorsey had three big crossover singles -- "Ya Ya," "Ride Your Pony," and "Working in a Coalmine" -- all featuring the piano of songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint, who also wrote the latter two along with the majority of Dorsey's '60s work. Toussaint was one of the linchpins in New Orleans R&B, writing hits for Ernie K-Doe and Chris Kenner among others, but his songs arguably sounded the best in the hands of Dorsey, whose smooth yet earthy growl is more nuanced and versatile than it initially appears, capable of capturing both the sly humor and elegance of Toussaint's compositions. That much was clear on his '60s singles, but his LPs from that decade, such as the fine New Lee Dorsey and Ride Your Pony, illustrated his true versatility as a vocalist, while showcasing Toussaint's range as a writer, arranger, and bandleader. For all but the most dedicated record collector, those terrific sides for Amy are all that they know about Dorsey and Toussaint's collaboration. Those were the recordings that were the hits, those were the recordings that were played on oldies radio, and those were the recordings that were reissued on CD, while the two albums Dorsey and Toussaint made in the '70s seemed lost, never reissued and rarely mentioned in either's discography or biography. That's not to say that the first of their '70s efforts, 1970's Yes We Can, didn't have an impact. Several of the cuts were covered by major artists throughout the decade -- the Pointer Sisters had a hit with the title track, Robert Palmer covered "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley" for the title track of his 1974 debut, Ringo Starr cut "Occapella," and the Meters' loose-limbed, eclectic groove set the pace for a lot of rock and funk for the '70s (most notably Little Feat, who did a faithful cover of Dorsey's 1971 non-LP single "On Your Way Down"). So while it was possible to hear the reverberations of this album, it was impossible to easily hear this music until it finally saw the light of day on Raven's 2005 two-fer Yes We Can/Night People (which also included "On Your Way Down" and another non-LP single, "When Can I Come Home?," as bonus tracks).
Simply put, this is an essential reissue for anybody who loves soul, funk, and R&B. Musically, this is closer to Toussaint's solo LPs for Warner -- collected on Rhino Handmade's excellent 2003 two-disc set The Complete Warner Recordings -- than Dorsey's '60s sides. It's alternately silky smooth and gritty, shifting from funky workouts to graceful ballads to sophisticated vamps. While the 1978 album Night People is a shade too slick, with hints of disco and a couple of rare mawkish misfires by Toussaint, it nevertheless is pleasingly laid-back and Dorsey sounds surprisingly assured in these smooth surroundings and that assurance maks the LP more than just a curio, since it demonstrates what a strong singer he was. Still, Night People winds up as a nice bonus on this CD, since the main attraction is Yes We Can, the best overall album Dorsey ever made and one of the greatest soul albums of the '70s. Here, Dorsey, Toussaint, and the estimable supporting band of the Meters are at an absolute peak. Song for song, this is Toussaint's strongest writing and it's given lively, imaginative interpretations from the Meters. Hardly just a routine collection of New Orleans funk, Yes We Can dips into rampaging Stax-Volt soul on "When the Bill's Paid," diamond-hard funk on "Gator Tail," stylish updates of Dorsey's Amy sound on "O Me-O, My-O" and "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley," smoky nighttime grooves on "Riverboat," and utterly modern protest soul on "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" while ending on the hilarious standup comedy riff of "Would You?" Not only is there a great variety of styles, sounds, and moods here, but Dorsey, Toussaint, and the Meters all make it sound easy, when it really was the most sophisticated funk and soul of its time. Maybe that sly sophistication is why the album sank commercially in 1970, maybe it's because the music was at once too earthy and elegant to compete with the sound of either Hi or Philadelphia International, maybe it just didn't get the right promotion, but the years have been nothing but kind to Yes We Can, which stands as one of the great soul albums.