Welcome to what may be the most ambitious project we’ve ever undertaken here at OffBeat. As promised last month, in honor of the 300th birthday of New Orleans, we’re going to compile the ultimate (for now, anyway) playlist of the city’s 300 essential songs. In months to come, we plan to cover everything, from the Congo Square creations that were the very birth of American music, to the most recent highlights of funk, bounce, rock ’n’ roll and everything in between. We expect that all the time-honored local touchstones will be represented, but we also hope to open your ears to a few handfuls of gems that were overlooked or forgotten over the years. There aren’t a whole lot of cities where you’d have to wonder if a 300-song history is even enough.
Feel free to join the celebration by sending us your suggestions, pulling out your vinyl, or getting hold of the songs you’ve missed. For our first installment one of our resident local historians, Jeff Hannusch, tells the backstories of some of the most iconic Mardi Gras songs.
Carnival Time—Al Johnson
Al Johnson was just looking to write a tune that was little bit different when he came up with “Carnival Time.” “I had a friend named Frank Miller,” said Johnson in 1985. “He told me he’d help me write a song. He gave me the line about the Plaza and the Green Room. The lyrics let them (the North Claiborne Avenue clubs) smoke and burn down, but the places weren’t really on fire—I just meant the people were having a good time. “We tried to get the song out earlier, but the band couldn’t get it together. I was told that to be good, you had to be different. Well ‘Carnival Time’ was so different the musicians (Mac Rebennack plays piano on it) had a hard time playing it. I still don’t think they got it 100% right.”
Recorded on the Ric label, the single was on the streets of New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras of 1960. “Carnival Time” proved to be a sleeper and didn’t catch on until a few years after it was originally released. Today it’s a Carnival standard.
Go to the Mardi Gras—Professor Longhair
A major source of Mardi Gras music was the late Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair. Justifiably, “Go to the Mardi Gras,” was his signature. Longhair recorded “Go to the Mardi Gras” on several occasions—and as early as 1949 (as Roy “Baldhead” Byrd). However, the definitive version was recorded in 1959 for the Ron label. It’s driven by Longhair’s unique rhumba piano, blaring horns and a socking John Boudreaux, second line drum beat. Longhair delivers perhaps the ultimate Mardi Gras Day travelogue. Arguably, it’s probably the most popular Carnival record ever made. Check out Fats Domino’s 1956 version for a slice of déjà vu.
Second Line—Bill Sinigal and the Skyliners
While “Second Line” has become a brass and marching band favorite, the song has rhythm and blues roots. The late Bill Sinigal was a popular R&B New Orleans bandleader and bass player for a quarter of a century. His trumpet player, Milton Batiste, jumped back and forth over the boundary between Dixieland and rhythm and blues.
“’Second Line’ is actually a combination of two songs,” said Batiste in 1998. “Picou’s Blues’ and ‘Whuppin’ Blues.’”
Sinigal added that the catchy intro came from Dave Bartholomew.
“He’d play that little riff at the end of the break when he wanted the guys in the band to get back on the bandstand to play.”
Recorded on Cosimo Matassa’s White Cliffs label in 1963, the single initially did well during Carnival season. When White Cliffs folded in the late 1960s, the original master for “Second Line” disappeared and no more 45s were pressed. (Rumor has it the IRS wound up with the master tape after a bankruptcy auction and it was sold for scrap.) However, local record shops still had requests for the song. In 1974, the entrepreneurial Senator Jones, who ran several locals including JBs, convinced the Baton Rouge group Stop, Inc. to cover the Sinigal version. Their version, which is very close to the original, is the one most commonly heard and is very much part of the Mardi Gras soundtrack today.
Mardi Gras Mambo—The Hawketts
The Hawketts were a popular high school R&B band led by trombonist Carroll Joseph. Although several great musicians “apprenticed” in the Hawketts and they remained popular in the mid-1950s, they recorded only one single, “Mardi Gras Mambo.” The session was produced by well-known New Orleans disc jockey Ken Elliot—a.k.a. Jack the Cat—and recorded at radio station WWEZ. That’s Art Neville on piano and vocals, and the great Moe Bachemin delivers the unique sax into. The Hawketts version was a cover of a string band record by Jody Levins—who hailed from the West Bank—and originally appeared on the Sapphire label. It immediately became a local Carnival standard via its release on the mighty Chess label. Two decades later it was re-recorded again by the Meters—a group led by none other than Art Neville.
Meet De Boys On the Battlefront—Wild Tchoupitoulas
The Wild Tchoupitoulas was a spirited 13th Ward tribe/gang led by Big Chief Jolly, a.k.a. George Landry. Besides his tribal duties, Landry played a ribald blues piano and served as an inspiration to his nephews—the Neville Brothers. In 1976, Art Neville thought recording their uncle performing many traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs with his group the Meters, and his brothers Cyril, Aaron and Charles, might turn into an interesting project. Turns out it was a musical milestone. With Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn producing, collectively they recorded the highly acclaimed Wild Tchoupitoulas album, which contained some of the most spirited music ever recorded in New Orleans. “Meet De Boys On the Battlefront” served as the album’s centerpiece.
Jock-A-Mo—Sugar Boy Crawford and the Cane Cutters
One of the most popular Carnival songs has a split personality. Originally recorded by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in 1954, it turned into an international pop hit a decade later by the Dixie Cups as “Iko Iko.”
“’Jock-A-Mo’ came from two songs that I used to hear the Mardi Gras Indians sing,” said Crawford in 1983. “When I was growing up I lived near the battlefield [Simon Bolivar and Melpomene Streets] where the Indians paraded on Mardi Gras Day. In those days they masked Indian, but they used to fight each other with real guns and hatchets. When the tribes ran up on each other they shouted ‘Jock-a-mo fee na na’ and ‘Iko Iko.’” I didn’t have in mind to do a Carnival record—just wanted to record a good song. Me and the other musicians [Snooks Eaglin is on guitar and David Lastie sax] put the arrangement together and cut it at Cosimo’s [actually J&M].”
Crawford later added that the song’s title should really have been “Chock-A-Mo” as that is what he is actually singing on the record.
Released prior to 1954’s Mardi Gras, the song’s references to Indians and “having fun on Mardi Gras Day” boosted sales around Carnival. Roughly translated, “Jock-A-Mo” means “kiss my ass,” a phrase that has universal meaning and part of most people’s vocabulary.
Bourbon Street Parade
—Frank Assunto and the Dukes of Dixieland
Trumpeter Frank Assunto was founder and leader of the world famous Dukes of Dixieland. During the 1950s and 1960s they were a regular attraction at the Famous Door on Bourbon Street and became the first Dixieland band to sell over one million records. Their biggest hit, “Bourbon Street Parade,” written by Paul Barbarin, earned them an invitation to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and secured them lucrative employment at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas. The song has since become a Dixieland/marching band standard. Assunto, who died prematurely at the age of 42 in 1974, was the first white musician afforded a jazz funeral in New Orleans.
Little Liza Jane—The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
“Little Liza Jane” has been played by bands of various ilk for over a century. The Dirty Dozen’s version stands out, however, because the group was responsible for moving brass band music in a new direction during the 1980s. By employing a tuba in the same way as a funky electric bass, replacing the clarinet with a baritone saxophone and incorporating some contemporary jazz ideas, they helped create a new and exciting New Orleans music. Their version of “Little Liza Jane” embodied that new trend.
It Ain’t My Fault—Smokey Johnson/Rebirth Brass Band
“Smokey came in the office one day and said, ‘I got a song I want to record,’” said arranger Wardell Quezergue in 1994. “I said, ‘How does it go?’ Smokey started rapping the drum part out with his knuckles on my desk. I said, ‘That’s great Smokey, but how does the melody go?’ Smokey says, ‘Quez, I ain’t got one, you gotta come up with that.’ Well, I wound up writing a melody on piano that complimented the beat and giving it a title. The title was just something we pulled out of the blue.”
Smokey and Wardell captured the mid-1960s New Orleans street beat on their popular New Orleans single. Obviously the song had legs as two decades later, Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band covered it. The song again became a huge street hit and a popular Mardi Gras tune.
“I thought ‘It Ain’t My Fault’ was a great tune for brass bands,” confirmed Quezergue. “It’s got that great second line beat people love to hear at parades.”
They All Asked For You—The Meters
The founding fathers of New Orleans funk, the Meters, recorded this in 1975 on the landmark Fire on the Bayou LP. Like “Little Liza Jane,” “They All Asked For You” came from a century-old ribald nursery rhyme long heard on the streets of New Orleans (a.k.a. “They All Assed For You”). It was originally recorded by bandleader Paul Gayten in 1952 for the Okeh label “They All Asked (Down At the Zoo).” The Meters borrowed the old lyrics and created a few new ones. They added a funky second line beat and a memorable classic was created.
Big Chief—Professor Longhair
The composer, vocalist and chief whistler on “Big Chief,” Earl King summed up the history behind the song in 1983: “I had wrote this song ‘Big Chief’ (King’s mother’s nickname) in school. So when we went to work on this project with Professor Longhair I got to thinkin’ about the Mardi Gras and went back to my book. I had the idea to record Fess with a lot of bass so me and Wardell [Quezergue] got together and we wrote a chart for 15 pieces.
“Meantime, me, Fess and Smokey [Johnson] got together and rehearsed it. When we got to the studio, Fess thought there was only gonna be four pieces, but there were musicians hanging out all around the studio. Fess turns to me and says, ‘Earl, what are all these musicians doing here? I guess they’re waiting for another session.’”
“I said, ‘Probably so.’ So Fess gets behind the piano and plays the little intro, Smokey starts playing and then all of a sudden a big crash of horns come in. ‘Bam!’ Fess stops playing and says ‘What is that?!?!’
“I said, ‘That’s the rest of the guys that are gonna be on the session.’ So we took a 15-minute break for Fess to get his head around it. After he got his head together he was alright.”
Released on Watch Records, the record was distributed nationally by London Records, who were totally unaware “Big Chief” was a Mardi Gras record. As a result the single initially flopped, but over the years the song became increasingly popular during Carnival season. “Big Chief” became one of Fess’ calling cards and Earl King’s most valuable copyright.