“It’s the home of the blues. This place here is the home, the foundation of jazz and blues.” It’s rather hard to contradict the 80-year-old dean of New Orleans blues, Champion Jack Dupree, when he reiterates a popular nickname for New Orleans that even James Brown recited in his classic “Night Train.” However, the association of blues with Mississippi and Chicago is so strong that few would accept New Orleans, a place where even funerals mean parties, as the “home of the blues.”
“New Orleans always had a little more of the happy-go-lucky, even some novelty, to the music,” asserts blues record man Hammond Scott. ”The blues was more of a hard type of sound that never prevailed here as much.” New Orleans does have several unique blues traditions, though, that have recently been making the city, for the first time in a long, long time, a hotbed of blues activity.
The longest-lived and most cherished New Orleans blues tradition is also its most unique. Piano players have been playing blues here from around the turn of the century. Never-recorded names such as Drive ‘Em Down and Stormy Weather conjure up images of barrelhouse dives and sweaty bordellos. The New Orleans blues tradition is strong in lurid songs of drugs, violence, sex and death like “The Junker’s Blues” and “Stack-a-Lee” and their many variations.
The earliest New Orleans piano “professor” to achieve success, Champion Jack Dupree, is today the only survivor from the early school that included such greats as Tuts Washington, Archibald, Cousin Joe and the magically unorthodox Professor Longhair. Many others—Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint, James Booker, Dr. John, Henry Butler and Jon Cleary—have featured varying amounts of blues in their playing. Albums that exemplify the New Orleans blues tradition in all its glory include Professor Longhair’s The Mercury New Orleans Sessions 1950, Tuts Washington’s New Orleans Piano Professor, James Booker’s New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! and Dr. John’s Gumbo.
Champion Jack deserves special mention, as his first visit to New Orleans in 36 years from his home in Germany for this year’s Jazz Festival was the blues event of the year. His album recorded during that historic visit for the new Rounder Records blues label Bullseye Blues, Back Home in New Orleans, is due out in November. “The New Orleans style was barrelhouse style,” says Jack. “We played blues and that was all. That’s what we lived for—blues. We played our life. We didn’t know nothin’ about no opry.”
In the late ’40s and early ’50s jump blues shouters ruled, and New Orleans did well with one of the greatest, Roy Brown, whose gospel wailing on “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in 1947 turned “race” music into rockin’ R&B. Others included Larry Darnell, Bobby Mitchell, Little Sonny Jones, Smiley Lewis, Dave Bartholomew, Joe “Mr. Google Eyes” August and Tommy Ridgley, the latter three of whom still perform locally on occasion. The mammoth “Big” Joe Turner considered New Orleans his adopted home and recorded one of his greatest classics, “Honey Hush,” here in 1953. If you can find them, just about any album by Smiley Lewis or Roy Brown exemplifies the New Orleans blues shouting tradition at its finest. The tradition was enlarged upon in the ’80s by the growling soulful tones of Mighty Sam McClain.
The West Coast style of cool blues has not been especially strong in New Orleans, though a few performers have excelled, notably New Orleans’ earliest R&B hit-makers, Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie, the vocal group the Spiders and, recently, Johnny Adams. The Spiders’ lead vocalist Chuck Carbo put out an excellent album last year called The Voice of New Orleans. Adams, who moved from gospel into R&B and soul, is a vocal stylist who has found a niche with two superb albums, Room with a View of the Blues and Walking on a Tightrope, a tribute to Percy Mayfield. “All of a sudden I’ve become a blues singer” says Johnny. “If the money I had was for reviews I’d be a millionaire now.”
Female blues singers were popular in the late ’40s with Annie Laurie and shouters like Chubbie Newsome, Jewel King, Alma Lollypop, Miss Lavell and others. Irma Thomas pays tribute to Newsome with her version of “Hip Shakin’ Mama,” but no female singer with blues aspirations in New Orleans can get through a show without performing a version of Ms. Thomas’ “(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don’t Mess With My Man.” Barbara George and Wanda Rouzan are two veteran performers who put on excellent blues shows. Perhaps the most exciting new blues singer in New Orleans is Marva Wright, who entered the blues just four years ago and who just released the first solo album on the Tipitina’s label, Heartbreakin’ Woman. Her mighty voice hits deep when she sings gospel. “Just like you get a good feelin’ from R&B, you get a good feeling from gospel, too,” says Marva.
FROM GUITAR SLIM TO THE KING
Incredibly, considering its proximity to Mississippi, few country delta blues players made a name in New Orleans. The city’s most legendary blues guitarist, Guitar Slim, came from Greenville, Mississippi, though his style was basically a potent Louisiana/Texas mixture. Slim, who lived incredibly fast and died in 1959, has a legend that still hangs mightily over the city. His song “The Things That I Used to Do,” is one of the most recorded blues songs ever.
Slim has had many disciples over the years, including his guitar proteges Eddie Lang and Earl King, his warm-up vocalist James “Thunderbird” Davis, his son Guitar Slim, Jr. and Tex-Mex great Doug Sahm, who is tentatively scheduled to hold the second annual “Tribute to Guitar Slim” in December at Tipitina’s. Guitar Slim, Jr.’s album The Story of My Life, including seven faithful remakes of his father’s songs, was nominated for a Grammy last year. Thunderbird’s superbly soulful Check Out Time on Black Top was featured on just about everybody’s top ten blues list at the end of last year.
The legend of Earl King is too lengthy to even scrape here, but suffice it to say that Earl has gone from being the foremost Guitar Slim imitator in 1954-55 to today being revered as one of the city’s greatest R&B writers. Earl’s renaissance from a long dormant period was sparked by his late 1986 album Glazed, which was deservedly nominated for a Grammy. This year’s release, Sexual Telepathy, the kind of album that could be a career capstone, deservedly should win one. “Earl’s been touring 80% of the weekends since that record came out,” says Nauman Scott of Black Top Records. “It’s gotten fabulous reviews everywhere. Earl got a chuckle out of one that said he had been sitting on his veranda collecting royalties for the last ten years.”
GUITARS FROM THE DELTA TO MARS
Other blues guitarists are varied in their influences and repertoire.
Boogie Bill Webb, a Mississippi native and who grew up in New Orleans, passed away earlier this year after finally releasing an album, Drinkin’ and Stinkin’. “He had a version of ‘Hey Now Baby’, Professor Longhair’s tune, that he played in Tommy Johnson Delta style,” recalls John Mooney. “It was wild!”
Originally from New York, John Mooney has a blue-chip pedigree in that he received lessons from the legendary Son House, who had also helped teach blues icon Robert “Crossroads” Johnson. His new album Late Last Night is due out in November on Bullseye Blues. “It’s not your regular blues album,” says Mooney. “Rhythmically, it’s a little different because it uses a little funkier kind of drum, New Orleans second line stuff.”
Native Coloradan Spencer Bohren is a superbly talented acoustic blues guitarist and vocalist, who stays on the road most of the year with his family in his ‘55 Chevy and his Airstream trailer. His Born in a Biscayne album with Dr. John doing a hilarious rap is highly recommended.
John Rankin plays folk blues among a mind-boggling repertoire ranging from classical and ragtime to pop. He and John Mooney alternate in a Sunday night gig at Madigan’s on Carrollton Avenue that has seen the likes of Eric Burdon and Bonnie Raitt “sittin’ in.”
Perhaps the city’s most noted guitarist, Snooks Eaglin practices the wildest, mystic blitz of guitar slinging this side of Mars. “He has the capacity to play almost anything,” notes John Mooney. “I mean, playing a funky flamenco tune? That takes a special kind of genius.” Mistakenly labeled a folk-blues guitarist on a handful of albums in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Snooks shows much more of his R&B roots on his two fine Black Top albums.
Walter “Wolfman” Washington is also unorthodox, combining soul, funk and blues with a growling howl that he gets his fangs into in person and on his two Rounder albums.
HARP PLAYERS FROM HELL
Also from Mississippi was Polka Dot Slim, one of the earliest of the city’s small cadre of blues harmonica players, including Percy Randolph, J.D. Hill, and the blues howler J. Monque’D, who still performs regularly at Mid-City Lanes and clubs around town.
Many other blues acts perform regularly around New Orleans, notably the Bourbon Street bands Bryan Lee & the Jump Street Five, Janet Lynne & the Bluesslingers, the New Orleans Blues Department and Blue Sister, an all-girl band that plays Mondays at the Maple Leaf. The Backsliders, who play clubs and tour, have a sound they describe as “jump blues, western swing and a swamp groove,” etched in plastic on their album The Blues Are Back.
BLACK TOP RECORDS
No discussion of New Orleans blues would be complete without mention of Black Top Records. Started in 1981 by blues fanatic and former “Gatemouth” Brown manager Hammond Scott with the help of his brother Nauman, Black Top has slowly edged its way to near the top of the blues market. “There’s a tremendous blues and R&B revival,” says Hammond. “We’ve doubled our sales in one year’s time when we had almost tripled ’em the year before that.”
Black Top has featured an eclectic group of hard driving, funky blues artists from different parts of the country that Scott has often rescued from obscurity.
In recent years, Black Top has been recording primarily in New Orleans, often with local musicians like George Porter and Snooks Eaglin. “We’re their biggest customer over at Ultrasonic [Studios], and that includes major labels,” notes Scott. Hammond Scott has assembled an impressive stable of fiery, often wild, guitarists, including his most popular artist Anson Funderburgh, Ronnie Earl, Howlin’ Wolf firebrand Hubert Sumlin, Joe “Guitar” Hughes, new sensation Bobby Radcliff, Snooks Eaglin, Earl King and the lastest re-discovery, Robert Ward. Scott has also shown a penchant for hard-blowin’ sax players like Grady Gaines and the Tri-Saxual Soul Champs (Kaz Kazanoff, Fats Jackson, Sit Austin). Especially recommended releases other than those mentioned above include Bobby Radcliff’s electrifying debut Dresses Too Short, Hubert Sumlin’s masterful Healing Feeling, and the budget-priced Black Top sampler, which gives 73 joyous minutes by 18 different artists, including a great unreleased Earl King track.
Two new Blues-A-Rama albums featuring material recorded live at Tipitina’s with Ronnie, Snooks, Earl, Anson and Grady are due out in November.
Your best bet for hearing the blues is on WWOZ, 90.7 FM, which features blues and R&B shows in the mid-afternoon and at night. WTUL, 91.5 FM, also has a show on Thursday nights from 8 to 11.
As is noted elsewhere in this magazine, there are some not-to-be-missed blues shows this month. The Po-Boy Blues Festival on the 3rd and 4th includes Irma Thomas, Marva Wright and the Backsliders, as well as legends Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King and Junior Wells. November 10th will see the New Orleans Guitar Showcase at Tipitina’s with Earl King, Snooks Eaglin and John Mooney.