French Quarter Fest Focus: King James and the Special Men

King James and the Special Men. Photo by Golden Richard III.

King James and the Special Men. Photo by Golden Richard III.

Jimmy Horn did not reconvene New Orleans downtown R&B cover group the Special Men two years ago to preserve a tradition. “We were playing far-out jazz with a great saxophonist, Rashid Akbar, who’d played with Sun Ra and Kidd Jordan,” he says. “That made us wish we had a band where we just did Fats Domino songs and drank beer.”

Now every Monday night at BJ’s in the Bywater, the dance floor is packed as the horn-and piano-driven Special Men kick out nearly forgotten New Orleans R&B “hits” including “Boogie at Midnight” by Roy Brown and “Ice Man” by Big Joe.

“We owe everything to Dave Bartholomew, and everything they did at Cosimo Matassa’s studio,” Horn says. “All that shit from the late ‘40s. We play ‘Great Big Eyes’ by Archibald and Dave, ‘In the Night,’ by Professor Longhair. A lot of these New Orleans R&B cats who invented this shit are gone or they’re sick and can’t come out, so a lot of kids haven’t heard this shit.”

The original Special Men convened Mondays at the Mother-In-Law Lounge starting in 1999 with Miss Antoinette K-Doe and her red beans as its nucleus. Horn paused in 2001 to travel around the South, then Miss Antoinette passed away. “If we were ever going to do Special Men again, it had to be the right place and the right night,” says Horn. “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I didn’t want to play this music on Frenchmen Street. I wanted it to be at this bar with its connection to Little Freddie King. Because the best place to hear this music is in this neighborhood.”

Now that the band has returned as King James and the Special Men, red beans are back too, cooked by Horn himself. “I make them in Miss Antoinette’s name,” he says. “She never showed me how, but there were weeks we played and that was all the pay we made: a baggie of red beans to take home. But I watched; I paid attention. If I don’t get them exactly like hers, my goal was to get them to taste as good as hers did.”