Classic Songs of Louisiana: “Carnival Time”

“The Green Room is smokin’ and the Plaza’s burnin’ down,
Throw my baby out the window, let those joints burn down,
All because it’s Carnival time,
It’s Carnival time,
Oh well it’s Carnival time,
Everybody’s havin’ fun.”

—Al Johnson and Joe Ruffino

Even in the heavy company of seasonal favorites like Professor Longhair’s “Go To The Mardi Gras,” Sugar Boy Crawford’s “Jock-A-Mo” and the Hawkettes’ “Mardi Gras Mambo,” Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” stands alone in the annals of Crescent City R&B. Rocketing forth with a relentless, staccato horn line three saxes strong, its joyful lyrics celebrate just what it means to experience the unbridled blast that comes but once a year, only in New Orleans.

Johnson knew he had a hit on his hands when he wrote it, which might explain why he refused to make any concessions from conception to completion. Not that he wasn’t asked to. The backing musicians claimed his timing was off, the label owner complained that the session was taking too long, and on top of it all, he was asked to dilute the New Orleans-centric lyrics. Johnson firmly stood his ground at every turn and then, when the song took off like wildfire and became a perennial classic, he had to fight for 40 years to finally begin earning the royalties that he should have been getting all along. But like the song that gave him his name, Johnson remains positive, splitting his time between New Orleans and Houston, where he moved after Hurricane Katrina ratcheted his lower Ninth Ward home from its foundation.

Born Alvin Lee Johnson at Flint-Goodridge Hospital in New Orleans on June 20, 1939, but he spent his formative years in Houston. “I went to Houston in my mother’s arms when I was a little baby,” he says, “Then we left there in ’48 and got back to New Orleans in ’49, I’ll never forget that. We must have left December 31 in ’48 at night—one night—because we got here in ’49. We were on the Sunset Limited, that’s the train daddy worked on; he was a lounge car porter.”

“We stayed with my aunt in the lower Ninth Ward on Lemanche Street, and then we moved to 1925 Flood Street. My interest in music started in Houston. Daddy bought me a trumpet; he wanted me to be like Satchmo. He bought my brother a trombone and he bought my sisters a piano when we got on Flood Street. I started picking up little one-four-five changes in different keys and started like that on the piano.”

Johnson’s return to the city coincided with the release of Fats Domino’s debut record, “The Fat Man,” and he soon fell under the spell of Smiley Lewis and his personal favorite, Sugar Boy Crawford.

“All the talent shows I went to, I did Sugar Boy’s ‘I Cried’ and I was sure to win that five dollars,” he remembers. “I used to go to the Caffin Theater, they used to have a talent show down there every week. And I used to go down there and win that five dollars. Then they had one at the Lincoln—that was on Washington Avenue a few blocks from Shakespeare Park—and they had one at the Carver on Orleans. And I used to go down there and win that five dollars, too.”

In 1956, Johnson cut two sides for Aladdin Records, “Old Time Talkin’” and “I Done Wrong,” though to his knowledge the songs were never released. “Fat Man Matthews wrote those tunes up for me. I think Matthews had something to do with Dave Bartholomew; he was a talent scout, something along that order, and we just bumped heads some kind of way. I was playing around town a little bit, so I was meeting people. Edgar Blanchard was the one that got me hooked up with Joe Ruffino, who owned Ric and Ron Records. He said Ruffino was looking for some people to record and I brought him four songs; ‘Lena,’ ‘You Done Me Wrong,’ ‘Good Lookin’’ and ‘Carnival Time.’”

All four tunes were strong slices of New Orleans R&B, but “Carnival Time”—which coupled Johnson’s glimpses of the city’s wild nightlife with an unforgettable line that he’d heard from mentor Frankie Miller—was truly unique. “Uncle Frank, we used to call him. He was much older than me and he always said that he wanted me to make a record. I remember he said something about throwing his baby out the window and that stuck with me. As I grew up, I remembered that. So I hooked it in there because I used to go to the Green Room and the Plaza, which were clubs. They were right off of Claiborne,” Johnson says of the infamous clubs, “coming down on Orleans Street by that firehouse on Basin. The Green Room was on one corner and the Plaza was on the next corner.”

Johnson’s first Ric session, which produced “Lena” and “You Done Me Wrong,” took place two days after he graduated from high school in 1958. The record did well locally, but Ruffino squawked when it came to royalties. “He didn’t pay me anything for ‘Lena,’” Johnson says. “I think he told me I owed him 11 dollars. But because I’d brought all four songs at the same time, he already had ‘Carnival Time,’ and that’s why I went ahead and did it. I thought that if I didn’t record it, then somebody else would have. I’m glad I did because they wouldn’t have done it like me. That would have been terrible; I would have missed it myself!”

If some of the session musicians had had their way, Johnson wouldn’t have done it his way, either. It took two grueling sessions at Cosimo Matassa’s studio to produce the desired result.

“They always told me I had to do something different,” Johnson says. “And there was a little part—“Right now it’s Carnival time”—they couldn’t catch onto that for nothing.” The phrase leads into the chorus, but with Johnson stretching it out, its more than one bar but not quite two. It doesn’t fit neatly, which threw the musicians off.

“They said that I was supposed to wait,” Johnson says. “They said music is just not done like that, that it was out of the scope of music. They talked about me pretty bad, I heard afterwards, saying my timing was off. But we stuck with it because I thought it was perfect. We recorded it over and over and over again, kept on going back and trying to get it right. Joe Ruffino, he was disgusted. He said, ‘Well, I guess it must not be any good if they can’t get the timing right!’

“I don’t know what Cos thought about that, but I would really like to know how he felt because everybody was complaining. The musicians almost had me feeling like I was doing something wrong. It wasn’t that the timing was off; it was just that it was different, and nobody could understand that but me. But I remember Placide Adams, the bass player, was on my side. He said, ‘Give it to him like he wants it. If he wants it there, let’s give it to him there!’ He stuck with me. Then Joe Ruffino wanted me to take ‘Claiborne Street’ out and put ‘Bourbon Street’ in, say, ‘Bourbon Street is rockin’ from one side to the other.’ And I had to battle again for that. Claiborne was all I knew.”

The finished product—which featured Adams on bass, Edgar Blanchard on guitar, Mac Rebennack on piano, James Rivers, Lee Allen and Robert Parker on saxophones, and Walter Lastie on drums—was well worth the wait. It hit the streets in December 1959 but was unceremoniously buried by Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” during the 1960 Carnival season.

“Jessie messed me up,” says Johnson, laughing. “Then I went into the service. The whole time I was in the service, my sister was telling me that everybody liked the tune and that they were playing it. Then Joe Ruffino died and I came back in ’64.”

By that time, “Carnival Time” had been blasting out of nearly every jukebox in the city since 1961 and Johnson hadn’t seen a dime. “I guess I was finished with music before then because I knew I wasn’t getting paid for anything. But when I got back, I did start interceding about rights. Several times I’d asked Joe Ruffino for a contract but he didn’t worry about it. He said he was going to give me one but he never did.”

Thus began Johnson’s final battle with “Carnival Time,” the one that proved the most difficult. He was driving a cab to make ends meet while many were putting out bootleg versions of the single. “I went to everybody for help. But everybody was putting it out,” he says. Finally, the late Joe Jones threw his clout behind him, procuring Johnson’s masters, mothers and stampers—the three ingredients from which records are pressed—then turned around and sued him for ownership of the song.

“He called the pressing plant and had them send me my masters and I thought that was positive,” Johnson says. But then he went to Mrs. Ruffino and got her to sell him the rights to the whole catalog for a dollar. So then he said he could sue me and everybody else that put his record out! And he sued us all. He had about 10 or 11 of us—anybody that did anything with ‘Carnival Time.’ That was amazing.”

The ridiculousness of Jones’ claim actually helped throw a spotlight on Johnson’s case and after a long, slow legal battle he was awarded full rights to the song in 1999. Tracing back royalties, however, has been difficult and he feels sure that he has only received a fraction of the money owed to him.

Understandably, his masters, mothers and stampers—severely damaged in the flood—were the first things that Johnson salvaged from his severely damaged lower Ninth Ward home following Hurricane Katrina. “My house was off the foundation and falling down,” he recalls of his first return to the city, “but it hadn’t fallen yet, so I went up in there and found them. I’m just lucky I got them out of there. I’m going to see what I can do with them.”

Despite all the trials and tribulation, Johnson remains positive, dedicating his time since the storm to polishing his solo piano skills. He’s never regretted recording the instantly recognizable classic. “I do that song and that’s the show,” he concludes. “Everybody’s right there with me and everybody loves it. That really makes me happy.”