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The Wild Magnolias and a Magic Handa Wanda

Wild Magnolias Perform Handa Wanda at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 1975. Photo by Syndey Byrd.

The Wild Magnolias at Jazz Fest 1975. Photo by Syndey Byrd.

New Orleans is one of the musical catalysts of the planet. In the almost three centuries that history has recorded at this crescent in the Mississippi River, events have occurred that have changed the sound of music in our world. Louis Moreau Gottschalk took Cuban and Congo Square rhythms and melodies and adapted them to classical music in the mid-1800s. Buddy Bolden blew his cornet and synthesized spirituals and syncopations with improvisations and started what we know now as jazz. Louis Armstrong learned that here and took it to Chicago and later New York and became a virtuoso soloist and set the standard that all wouldfollow. Andtheninthe1950s Fats Domino and Little Richard (with their secret weapon studio band that included heroes drummer Earl Palmer and saxmen Lee Allen, Alvin “Red” Tyler, and Herbert Hardesty) blew the minds of teens and adults everywhere with their over-the-top singles that became the template for rock ‘n’ roll. There have been other game-changing musical events in New Orleans including one that went unmarked last November, the 40th anniversary of “Handa Wanda,” the first single from the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian band.

Given the plethora of Indian recordings currently available, it’s hard to believe that this was the first time that authentic, masking and sewing Mardi Gras Indians had combined their unique chants and percussion with a funk/R&B band. Mardi Gras Indians and their music had been waxed before. Jelly Roll Morton did piano versions of Indian songs on his Library of Congress interviews. Danny Barker recorded versions of four Indian songs in the mid 1940s, and Samuel Charters recorded members of the 2nd Ward Hunters and 3rd Ward Terrors for Smithsonian Folkways in 1956. But until Quint Davis—now executive producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—took the combined gangs of the Wild Magnolias and Golden Eagles into a Baton Rouge studio on November 1, 1970, that was about it.

Davis had been hanging out at Sunday Indian practices for several years and had brought his reel-to-reel tape recorder to record the practices. In the conference room of Festival Productions in the CBD wearing his Wild Magnolias jean jacket complete with a patch sewn by Big Chief Bo Dollis, Davis remembers, “I went home and listened and heard one voice that soared over the place, and that was Bo Dollis. And what occurred to me was that when you’re at Indian practice and you’re in the bar, the jukebox is playing. You go unplug the jukebox and the Mardi Gras Indians make their music and then, when they’re done, somebody plugs in the jukebox. I said, ‘How can we bridge that gap and get Mardi Gras Indian music on the jukebox?’”

Monk Boudreaux, Big Chief of the Golden Eagles and singer for the Wild Magnolias Band for a quarter century, remembers as he sews his 2011 suit in his uptown home: “Jules Cahn had brought Quint to Indian practice and he started coming by every week. One day he comes by and said, ‘Y’all know you’re making music like no one else makes anywhere in the world?’ Well, we knew that. Then he said, ‘How would y’all like to make a record? Cause y’all are good.’ We said, ‘Sure.’”

When Davis approached Bo Dollis, he encouraged him to write a new Indian song. Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias and lead singer for the band, remembers, “Quint said, ‘Go home and try to think of a number.’ I do my best thinking in the bathtub, so I kept on singing ‘Handa Wanda’ and humming it and there it came. They had these old cars, Hondas. Honda sounded like something that an Indian would say, and I found something that had rhymed with it. ‘Handa’ and ‘Wanda,’ they go together.”

Davis had also been hanging out at the Jazz Workshop on Decatur Street with keyboardist and singer Willie Tee and his brother, jazz saxophonist Earl Turbinton. Davis produced a festival at Tulane where Willie’s band played with the Mardi Gras Indians. “It was probably the first time that Mardi Gras Indian music had been done outside the culture,” says Davis, “And Willie created the whole thing right there. He got up on piano and started playing with them and he went in and out and way in and way out, and it just happened. I had the reel to reel running and listened to that and went, ‘Holy fucking shit!’”

Davis put together the band of Willie Tee on keyboards, George French on bass, and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on drums and then took that band, Dollis, Boudreaux, and six of their percussion-wielding tribe members to Baton Rouge to record. Dollis recalls that the other Indians had never heard the song before they got to the studio. “Nobody did anything but play what they felt. We went into the studio and they started playing.”

Davis remembers, “We did it in more or less one take. Willie was really involved in the mix and getting it to be acoustic and traditional and then getting the instruments to come in. Willie’s a genius in putting it together.” Even 40 years later, Davis’ enthusiasm and pride in this recording is palpable as he says, “I mean, it’s awesome. It’s great. You got to go back and listen to it. It’s a motherfucker!”

If anything, Davis is making an understatement. You can hear it six times a day on Mardi Gras, and “Handa Wanda” will still jump out of the speakers with a raw, visceral power. It starts with Dollis calling to the gang and the gang responding enthusiastically before the band jumps in and the tambourines start ringing with polyrhythms. Tee’s keyboard part mixes jazz fusion and New Orleans funk as it darts and dances under the vocals and complements George French’s melodic bass playing. The beat is relentless and the vocals are fierce. Even with the perspective of 40 years and many Mardi Gras Indian recordings that have been made since then with which to compare, it still has a unique energy and sound. While thinking about the recording, Dollis says, “I always wanted to sing. I wanted to be James Brown. I wanted it to happen,” and in his raspy voice that cuts above and through all the instruments and percussion, you can hear a vocalist full of ambition who’s finally got a chance to be heard and is going for it with every thing he’s got. When it came out in 1970, it didn’t sound like anything else on the jukebox. There has been nothing like it before and very little has come close since.

 

It’s sometime in the late 1990s. One of my close associates and I have headed up to Second and Dryades—ground zero of New Orleans Uptown street culture—to see what is happening and have a cocktail at the Sportsman’s Corner. We had been coming around the neighborhood for a few months, so we were a little familiar with the milieu. As we sat on the stools talking about this and that, a short, dapper-looking man with glasses, fedora, and a goatee came up, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hey, how are you doing? I’m Lawrence ‘Crip’ Adams.” My associate and I stared at this man, at each other, and then back at this man. Finally I spoke.

“You’re the Lawrence ‘Crip’ Adams? You played cowbell on the Wild Magnolia records? We know who you are! It’s an honor to meet you.” We conversed for a few minutes before “Crip” excused himself to talk to someone else.

We were familiar with Crip Adams because, as record geeks, we had scoured the credits and liner notes of many of the classic New Orleans recordings, and the Wild Magnolias recordings were some of the ones that occupied our thoughts. We’d look at the gorgeous suits that these musicians wore and wondered how they did this and why. Then we’d see the back cover with the musician credits and see that these men who played percussion had names like “Gate,” “Gator June,” “Bubba,” “Crip,” and “Quarter Moon.” To people like us, these characters were legendary and mysterious. When “Crip” introduced himself to us, we finally got to meet one of these seminal figures.

I still wonder who these people were. Of the Indians in the original Wild Magnolias Indian band, only Bo, Monk, and Crip are still around. Leonard “Gate” Johnson, James Smothers, Johnny “Quarter Moon” Tobias, James “Gator June” Johnson, Jr., and Washington “Bubba” Scott are gone now but Quint Davis, Dollis, and Boudreaux remember them. Monk points out that the band that came together in the studio was a combination of the Wild Magnolias gang, of which Bo is the Big Chief, and the Golden Eagles gang with Monk as the chief. They were all “good people and good Indians,” Boudreaux says. Dollis confirms that “we got the baddest guys on Second and Dryades that could beat the tambourine. Gator June, he was a drummer. Big ole hands! And he could beat that tambourine! He’d beat it, but never bust it. As for Gate, he was my wild man.” Davis laughs when he remembers Gator June and Quarter Moon. “Gator June was kind of quiet,” says Davis, “He was very strong and did sheet rock and he had long fingernails. He would whop the hell out of that tambourine. He was the loudest; he hit it really hard and he was unflamboyant, as opposed to Quarter Moon, who was a total character. Gold teeth. Fancy car. Wore fringe on his suit and was a total character, and played amazing lead tambourine. Fast stuff. Intricate stuff. He was a completely different personality. Crip is a helluva cowbell player, and you can see even back then that Monk was holding it together.” Dollis agrees. “Monk used to beat the bass drum and congas,” he says. “And tambourine. He could do anything. Bubba Scott was a good singer.” Bubba Scott is the first singer heard on the recording that Davis made of that first time the Indians and Willie Tee played together at Tulane, which sometimes is played on the radio.

 

Looking back with 40 years perspective, Davis can see how the Mardi Gras Indian culture has changed and how maybe this recording had an influence. “In the 1960s, the Mardi Gras Indians were just coming from the point of the battlefield and axes,” he says. “Frankly, they’d come down the streets and people would get their kids and go inside. It was still a little dangerous. The turning around of making that culture respected and exalted and celebrated—well, this whole Wild Magnolia thing we started, we can’t take credit for it per se because it was evolving that way anyway with more competition with dance and dress, but having it make that leap as legitimate music right alongside with Marvin Gaye and having the Wild Magnolias start to travel the world not only started an awareness of the Mardi Gras Indian community outside the community, but it elevated the perception of it within the community.”

And 40 years later, even after hearing it countless times, “Handa Wanda” still moves Bo Dollis. “I still get excited when I hear it,” he says, smiling. “It’s a thing. Every Mardi Gras I hear it. I love it.”