“My instructions were to go to the airport to pick him up, and whatever Son House told me to do, I did. The first thing we did was he said to hit the liquor store.” The setting was Los Angeles, 1971, and Johnny Palazzotto was 23 years-old, just embarking on a lifelong career of taking care of artists— producing their music, protecting their legacies, ensuring they were not forgotten. This particular scene involves a session in which Spencer Davis wanted to record an album with famous blues artists. The young Louisiana boy escorted the blues titan to Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, where Sonny and Cher recorded “I Got You, Babe” and in which Harold Battiste recorded Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.”
“Son went in the studio and sat down in a chair, and I sat down on the floor right in front of him with the whiskey bottle right there. He and I drank out of the same whiskey bottle.”
Johnny Palazzotto has great work stories. They usually involve him working somewhere in the background with a big name, making or facilitating a personal connection with those artists and industry people. He pulls in all the details, the little things that you might otherwise never know or even think about, and ultimately, those stories focus on making something happen, because that’s what Johnny Palazzotto does— make things happen.
Sherri McConnell, Director of Entertainment for Louisiana Economic Development, and one of the co-founders with Palazzotto of the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation, sums up what he does. “He’s an advocate for musicians in addition to being a producer and manager. This is his life, he lives and breathes it.” McConnell calls Palazzotto “an amazing resource of information. He knows who produced, who wrote it, who played on it, who they were married to at the time.”
Johnny Palazzotto is one of those rare individuals that understand the details of how to navigate through those channels. He came back to Louisiana for family when then-Senator Tommy Hudson gave him a call. “He knew I was in the music business and called me wanting some input on creating the Louisiana Music Commission,” Palazzotto says. He got another call to come see Lil’ Queenie and the Percolators at the Kingfish in Baton Rouge. “I was just blown away,” Palazzotto says. “Leigh was like a miniature Janis Joplin.” He ended up signing them to Irving-Almo music, run by Alan Freed’s son, Lance Freed.
Palazzotto had known Leigh from working on Ron Cuccia and the Jazz Poetry Group’s “My Darlin’ New Orleans”, recorded at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1979 with Cosimo Matassa as the engineer. “Here we are 30 years later, with Lil’ Queenie and the Percolators covering the song on the Treme soundtrack, which is nominated for a Grammy.”
Another of one of those work stories involves his trying to get on the lot of A&M Records with a tape of Cold Gritz and Blackeyed Peas, a “salt-and-pepper band” from back home featuring Duke Bardwell and Luther Kent, when he worked the door at Baton Rouge clubs in the late ’60s. He went to Los Angeles at the urging of Mae Mercer who Palazzotto met working as an extra on the set of the Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled. “The guard wouldn’t let me in. In Studio A on the A&M lot was Joe Cocker and Mad Dogs and Englishmen; in Studio B was Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The bass player for the Burrito Brothers, Chris Etheridge, was from Meridian, Mississippi and used to play at the Time Out on Nicholson Drive.” Etheridge happened across Palazzotto and not only took him past the guard but up to office of Lou Adler of Ode Records where he presented the tape. “It’s the epitome of not just what you know but who you know and being in the right place at the right time,” says Palazzotto. “And Lou Adler signed them.”
The roster of people Johnny Palazzotto has worked with could fill this entire article—everyone from Ray Charles to Loggins & Messina to Dinosaur Jr. came up in our conversation—and he remains as deeply enmeshed in the music business after 40 years. Through his work in the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation, with Baton Rouge Mayor-President Melvin “Kip” Holden’s support, resurrected the Baton Rouge Blues Festival, connecting the dots between Jazz Fest and the Festival International in Lafayette, offering another facet of the unique musical character of Louisiana.