When Bob French starts talking, who knows where he’ll go or what he’ll say. Over the course of an hour-and-a-half, the New Orleans drummer and WWOZ radio personality told two or three stories that could get OffBeat in trouble, and shared opinions about the Jazz Fest lineup (“I don’t want to see Rod Stewart. And I don’t think you want to see him either”) and President Bush, Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin (“You got a trio of nothings”) among other things. All in a conversation supposedly about Marsalis Music Honors Bob French, his new album on Branford Marsalis’ label. It’s an album of New Orleans music, revisiting the canon of classics: “Bourbon Street Parade,” “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” as well as an eccentric, country-tinged version of “You Are My Sunshine,” which shows off French’s yodeling talents. In addition to a lineup of New Orleans talent, the album features guests Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. Like his radio show, the album flies the flag for “New Orleans music,” whatever that means, and it does so with the spirit of someone still in love with the city, the music and the scene for all its beauty and its faults.
How did the new record come about?
My idea. One morning I was lying in bed at 5:30 in the morning, and that is when I get my best thoughts. I thought I should do a new CD, and let me call Harry [Connick, Jr.] to see if he wants to play on this one because I’ve known him all my life. So I called him, and told him I wanted to do a CD and I want you to play on it. He said it sounded like a winner. I called Ann Marie [Wilkins, Connick’s manager] and she asked what I wanted to do. I gave her the premise of the CD, who I wanted to use, and blah blah. She said, “What about Branford [Marsalis]?” I got no problem with Branford. Branford is family. His mother and I went to college together. Ellis and I grew up in the same neighborhood. Ellis played in my band for six years.
When Branford got hooked up, I found out Marsalis Music was going to do it. I hadn’t even thought to ask them about a record label. I was just going to say let’s do it. We went into the studio and did half a session on a Thursday, and on Friday we did the other half. The thing is, I didn’t realize Harry was sick. Harry had hurt his back in a play. He was in bad shape. When he came into the studio, I told him to go home. He looked at me and said he was doing it. And he was really hurting. Your back can mess up your whole body.
Harry asked what we were doing, and I said, “Here is a list.” He didn’t add any tunes or delete any tunes; he let me do whatever I wanted to do. We started out playing the first tune, got it on tape and then we did the next tune. The next tune, we did it and that’s it. Finally I said, “Wait a minute; we’re not going to listen to any of it?” They said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s okay Bob.”
The next day we came in and finished it up. I said, “What about listening to it?” and Mr. Marsalis told me, “Don’t worry about it, Bob.” He sent me a raw once he got back home to North Carolina. Sure enough, I’m satisfied.
One thing that impressed me is how they join the group sound, and that there aren’t moments that jump out as obvious Harry or Branford moments.
It was collaboration. There was nobody trying to be a star.
I don’t know where you were when the storm hit. Were you still here?
I was in New York City working on a story.
Oh, you were lucky. Here is the deal—George Bush isn’t worried about us. He belongs to the rich people. The governor is an idiot and the mayor is a double idiot. George Bush isn’t that bright either. What’d they fix up? Now the streets are as bad as they’ve ever been.
Here’s what y’all ought to write an article about. What is happening with the music in the city? Why Bourbon Street and the hotels don’t have any real music in them. Count the hotels that have a band of five or six people in them. There are none.
Marva Wright had five at the Ritz-Carlton recently.
Really? The 528 or whatever it is, they also have more than five. You’re telling me that a major hotel can’t afford a band with five or six pieces?
Is there any live music on Bourbon Street anymore?
There is a lot of noise out there. I used to have people come up to me and ask where they can find music on Bourbon Street. I said, “Frankly speaking, you are never going to find any music on Bourbon Street. The only music they have on Bourbon Street is at Fritzel’s. When I first worked the street many years ago, there were not only good musicians on the street, but there were good bands on the street. Sugar Boy [Crawford] would work the street, Frogman Henry would work the street, Eddie Bo would work the street. The Dukes of Dixieland had a place, Pete Fountain had a place, and there was oodles and oodles of music.
If someone doesn’t do something about it soon, about the music, there are going to be a lot of musicians who never come back. They are working where they are. Clarence Johnson was working with my band. When I came back, I thought things were going to get better and called him up because I had a little string of gigs. He said, “Bob, I am not coming home. I got a job teaching plus I got have a hook-up for gigs.” This is what we’re missing. When the good musicians stay away, it makes it bad for everybody.
When did you come back from Washington, D.C. [where French stayed during the evacuation]?
I came back about four and a half months after the storm. We left there at six o’clock and 12 hours later, we were in the city of New Orleans. The only thing we stopped for was for gas and when we stopped for gas, we got food. The next day was my son’s birthday and he wanted to be home for his birthday.
I had to come home. I told my friend there, “I think I’m going home.” She said no and kept me there about half a month or so more than I wanted. She said, “Things aren’t right there, look at it on TV.” I said, “If I don’t go back now, I might never go back.” My friends even called me from Europe and said come over; we got some gigs for you. I told them I ain’t going to Europe at that time.
I’m glad I’m back, but I don’t like what I see. I don’t like the people who are leading us. They are leading us to the river.
Do you remember your first radio show, when you did it again?
Yeah, I went to Baton Rouge to do it. I flew back a couple of times. I’d fly here, rent a car, and drive to Baton Rouge. But sitting in that place in Baton Rouge was not like sitting in New Orleans. It was just a whole different feeling. There was no feeling to that building.
Your radio shows sounds like it is a gathering in your living room.
The thing about it, there was no one up there except the engineer, you, and maybe one other person. Louisiana Public Broadcasting [who housed WWOZ in the first months after Katrina], they were great. I made some great friends up there, but it just wasn’t like being in New Orleans. I’m used to be right there on the river where you could walk out of the broadcast booth, walk across the hall, you can see the boats going up and down the river.
I didn’t realize until recently that you played drums with Fats Domino.
I recorded with Fats in the ’50s before I went into the service. Dave Bartholomew and I are cousins. Earl Palmer was here—the lord was here—then Earl left and went to California. I was doing the Earl King session with Snooks [Eaglin] and whoever else. One day Fats’ drummer didn’t show up and Dave called me up and told me to come on out. Shit, I was dressed, in the studio and set up in twenty minutes.
What was the first song you played?
I don’t remember. Look, I recorded so many things with this band. I wish I could have some tapes from the studio. Fats would say, “Play it back to me.” Dave said, “That sounds good.” Fats said, “Take another one” We had to do 22 takes. I’ll never forget it, 22. We were on the clock. Everyone, “Play it back, play it back.” I’m sitting there and Clarence Ford winked at me and laughed and said, “This is your first time, man. Sit your ass down, you’re in for a surprise.” After the 22nd take, Dave said, “Play that first take again,” and Fats said, “Oh, that’s it.” (Laughing) We don’t care because once you get past three hours [on a session], the money goes zing!
After doing this first session, he hired me every time. After a while, he got pissed with his drummer, and he called me up and told me he wanted me to come out on the road with him. I said, “I’ll let you know.” I never make fast decisions. I called Dave up and said, “Antoine just called and offered me the gig, and he said, “Yeah, what did he offer you?” This was in the ’50s, “He offered me four bills a week.” “Nice money,” he said. “He’ll give you four bills a week and two thousand dollars’ worth of trouble a week, “Thank you Dave, that’s all I needed to know.” I called and said, “I can’t make it.”
What do you remember about playing with Earl King?
Earl King was one of the nicest human beings in the world. Funny man, but a genius. Earl could write such beautiful shit. Never had an argument with him, never was there confusion. At that time he was straight as an arrow; he wasn’t even drinking. And he was good to work with. Earl was a beautiful cat. If anyone tells you anything other than that, they are lying. He was a beautiful human being. He was his own biggest enemy in the latter part of his life.
You played on “Trick Bag”? How many takes would it be to do something like that with Earl?
Two. Because we rehearsed, and the thing about Earl, man—Earl would come up with tune after tune after tune. He would come up with ideas. In the studio, he’d be like, “Wait a minute, let’s try something else,” and he’d figure out something else he’d want to do and, we’d do it. He was a masterful cat. He just couldn’t stop drinking or he could still be living.
Have you been on Bourbon Street lately? Did you see how much a drink cost? Eight to nine dollars.
I had friends come visit years ago who wanted to go. We went to two or three places before I gave them cab money to find their own way home because I wasn’t having fun and realized I’d only rain on their parade.
Because you know what the deal is. They got drinks for eight or nine dollars and it costs less than a dollar to make them. Oh, here is a kick in the ass; I played at the Maison Bourbon in the ’80s, around ’89. The money that I was making in ’89 is the same amount bands are making today. Where is the union? There is nobody in it. I jumped out. When I found out it wasn’t going to help me to be in a union, I left. Why would I stay? Here is the good part about it—somebody calling me up and I quote a price for them and I make as much money being non-union as I would make being union. Can you believe that? People say I charge too much. I say, “Tell me I charge too much after I play for you.” You ain’t never going to get a shitty band and you’re never going to get shitty music. You don’t have to worry about nobody getting loaded on your gig or nobody coming late. So it’s worth it. You’re going to get good music.