Obscure funk from Liz Damon's Orient Express

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As with most artists whose careers spanned more than a decade, Liz Damon's Orient Express left behind a handful of unexpected obscurities in their catalog — most notably, "Woota" or "Feelin Good", a bright yellow-labeled 45 of original funk on Doncey Records, penned by the band's bassist Dennis Osurman and drummer/arranger Randy Isaki.

For those unfamiliar, Liz Damon’s Orient Express was the de riguer pop music group in Hawaii, from 1969 to the mid-1980s.

Visitors to Hawaii in the early 1970s fell in love with Liz Damon’s Orient Express for its enchanting renditions and captivating stage presence — and, of course, an attractive lead singer. Liz and her backing band (dubbed “Orient Express” for its all-Asian lineup of musicians) gained an ever-growing fanbase in the early 1970s as the house band at one of Waikiki’s most popular venues: the Garden Bar at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

The group signed to Makaha Records to release its first single, “1900 Yesterday” and soon released its eponymous debut in 1970, an LP of tasteful arrangements of the day’s pop tunes, including The Beatles and Burt Bacharach.

Liz Damon’s Orient Express released a handful of albums and singles during its career, mostly on Liz’s own imprints, Delilah and Doncey. Their busy tour schedule found them traveling the mainland US and internationally. Eventually, the band relocated to Las Vegas in the mid-1970s to better accommodate the demands of being an in-demand touring band.

When I first started trying to track down a license to reissue this record, I reached out to Randy Isaki, who is not only the composer but listed as the producer. It took several years, failed attempts and voicemails to finally get in touch with Randy. After leaving another hopeful voicemail some time in early 2018, Randy returned my call while I was digging at Idea's Music & Books. I drifted to a corner of the record shop to take the call, pulling out my notebook to write down anything Randy had to share.

Randy recalled the music, but mentioned that it wasn't much of a tune. Maybe because of its simplicity in arrangement and progression (at least compared to the rest of the group's catalog). He brushed the song off as less-than-memorable. He did, however, recall that radio and nightclub disc jockeys in Chicago were hip to the record, even if “Woota” was a few stomps slower than 120BPM.

Nonetheless, here I was, a fan of "Woota" amidst stacks of used CDs, tapes and vinyl records in Kaka'ako, Honolulu, asking the song's original composer and producer if he'd be open to letting Aloha Got Soul re-release this gem-of-a-tune to the world today.

Except Randy wasn't the producer, even though the label says so. Surprised, he couldn't recall ever seeing that on the label. No matter — the band did so much in its day, from constantly touring the US and internationally, to recording and performing hundreds of songs during its career. Randy requested I reach out to Liz Damon directly. So I did. Well, kind of.

I found myself at the Liz Damon's Orient Express Facebook page, followed by some 500 fans but completely absent of the presence of or moderation from Liz herself. Turns out, Liz is a private person, especially when it comes to interviews and (social) media. That's gotta be why there's so little information about Liz and her group on the internet.

Thanks to the help of one of the Facebook group's moderators, I got in touch with Liz Damon. She was pleasantly surprised, and had practically forgotten the song altogether. “Woota?” she asked. "Oh, Feelin Good!" The song's alternative name probably rang a bell since there aren't many lyrics in the song to begin with, only vocalizing of a few words.

"Woota" was a one-off recording session that went down at Hollywood’s Annex Studios during a US tour in the late 1970s. And while both Randy Isaki and Liz Damon almost quite couldn't recall the song, they were happy to hear people like myself and Vinyl Don are interested in keeping their music alive today.

Here's to “Woota” finding its way onto playlists of off-the-beaten-path grooves and into crates of almost-forgotten funk in this, the 21st century. Thanks for listening.

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