In the 1950s, the New Orleans recording industry was dominated by out-of-town companies like Imperial, Aladdin, Specialty and Chess. However, with the success of home-grown companies like Minit, Ric, Instant and AFO, by the early 1960’s, the out-of-towners monopoly ended.
In their wake were more than. a dozen small New Orleans labels hoping to get rich quick with the next “Mother-In-Law: “I Like It Like That” or “I Know.” One of those labels was Frisco Records, a company owned by the energetic and entrepreneurial Connie LaRocca and disc jockey Hal Atkins.
“I was born in San Francisco, ” recalled LaRocca, sitting in her kitchen recently. “That’s how I named the company.
The label had a picture of the Golden Gate bridge on it.
“I came to New Orleans in 1947. I met my husband, Pete, at the Mardi Gras and got married in December. I didn’t really like New Orleans at first. I had a good job working as a teletypist for Standard Oil. I didn’t like roaches, hot weather and I’d never experienced segregation before. I’d always have to go home every summer. My first job here was as a dress buyer for D.H. Holmes for $25 a week. That was considered good money here then; in California, that was nothing”.
LaRocca’s husband ran Jim’s Fried Chicken on South Carrollton Avenue. A family business open 24 hours a day, Connie eventually joined her. husband at the popular restaurant.
“I was a cook, a waitress, a cashier, a dish washer, whatever was needed,” explained laRocca. “It was a pretty stressful job. People yelled at you and you had to run around with a smile on your face all day. To unwind, I’d go listen to music a couple nights a week. I’d put the kids to bed (three boys) and leave them with my husband and I’d go out with my girlfriend from Ireland. We’d go to the Safari on Chef Highway. We loved rock and roll and rhythm and blues. To me, that was really exciting music.
“I always told my husband where I was going and we never had had any problems because we trusted each other. My girlfriend, who was single, would dance but I never would. I didn’t want people talking about me. Besides, I just enjoyed sitting and listening to the music. I’d stay out until midnight but, I’d be back at the restaurant the next day at 7 a.m”.
From frequenting the Safari and clubs like the Sabu and the Court of the Two Sisters, LaRocca got to know Tommy Ridgley, Clarence Henry, Danny White and Irma Thomas. She wanted to get into the music business in some way and Ridgley encouraged her to start a booking agency so he could more readily be hired to play the more lucrative white dances. She rented an office at 1140 North Claiborne and started booking Ridgley and other local bands in the afternoon after she left work at the restaurant.
“I called my office Park Avenue because back then Claiborne had oak trees on the neutral ground,” said LaRocca. “The place became a popular hang out for musicians and bands started rehearsing there.”
Through the booking agency, LaRocca became acquainted with WYLD deejay Harold Atkins. Atkins was also a performer and was very well-connected in the entertainment business. He helped LaRocca book out of town acts like Solomon Burke and Big Al Sears into the Auditorium. Atkins also had aspirations of becoming a recording artist as well. LaRocca liked his voice, so together they started a label in June 1962. Atkins took care of the promotion and A&R duties, LaRocca ran the business.
“It was a man’s world back then and a lot of people resented a woman being in the record business,”said laRocca. “There were a lot of doors closed to me that would have been open if I were a man. But Harold helped me because he knew everybody in the business. When we went to New York on business, he knew all the key disc jockeys to see and a lot of the stars-people like Della Reese and Nancy Wilson.”
Frisco got its start by leasing two masters from Rip Roberts‘ Rip label-“Stubborn Old Me/Big Ben”by Atkins (issued under the alias Al Adams as not to jeopardize his position at WYLD), and Deacon John’s “Preacher Man/When I’m With You.” The Adams master was issued on Frisco, but not the Deacon John tracks. “Stubborn Old Me,” penned by Earl King, did well locally so LaRocca and Atkins decided to cut their own the follow up.
“Going to Cosimo’s Studio and watching the sessions was really exciting;” said LaRocca. “Everything was done really professionally. I didn’t pick the musicians, Harold did that. He’d get Porgy Jones or Wardell Quezergue to arrange the sessions. We always use the best musicians when we did our records.”
Clearly Frisco did use fine musicians, as the likes of Art Neville, Clarence Ford, Curtis Mitchell, Smokey Johnson, Mac Rebennack and Nat Perrillat played on their sessions.
Adams’ second release didn’t show much promise, nor did a Porgy Jones instrumental coupling. However, Frisco’s fourth release, Danny White’s “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” provided the label with its first hit.
“I got to know Danny at the Safari,” said LaRocca. “He was a fabulous entertainer. He was probably the most popular entertainer in town but he didn’t have a record out. I approached him about making a record and one day he came by Park Avenue to listen to material. Al Reed wrote ‘Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye’ which Danny liked and we recorded it”.
Atkins played the demo on WYLD and the exceptional ballad “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” was an immediate hit in New Orleans. It would go on to sell 100,000 singles.
“All South Records was our distributor here,” said LaRocca. “The record got so big we couldn’t keep up with their orders. Finally I leased it to Arlen Records out of Philadelphia. They promised to do big things with it, but I don’t think they promoted it very much. Everybody thought we made big money on that record, but when we paid all the bills, in the end we just barely broken even.
”’Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye’ could have sold more if the Beatles hadn’t come along just them. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Beatles were killing the labels like mine that made rhythm and blues and rock and roll records.”
The next batch of releases by Willie West, the Rouzan Sisters and White boasted fine production but their popularity was limited to New Orleans. They wouldn’t reach the bright lights again until White’s unforgettable fourth single, “Loan Me Your Handkerchief,” an Earl King composition came out in the summer of 1963.
“That record got real big too, so Hal and I went up to New York to talk to the people at ABC Paramount,” said LaRocca. “They painted a nice picture and we leased them ‘Loan Me Your Handkerchief.’ We made a deal where we’d produce Danny’s records and they’d put them out Like Arlen though, I don’t think they did much in the way bf promotion.”
In 1964, Atkins left New Orleans and took a job at WDIA in Memphis. At that point, White’s sessions were moved to the Stax Studio where he was produced by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. White cut some great records in Memphis but he never had a hit.
Frisco’s last hurrah was provided by the Rouzan Sisters whose timely “Man of War” was number one on WNOE for three weeks in 1965. However, a year later LaRocca decided to pull the plug on Frisco. At the time; the label was being distributed by Cosimo Matassa’s Dover Records which got financially over-extended and collapsed. On top of that, Atkins died and LaRocca didn’t have the desire to continue in the business.
LaRocca stored all of her files and master tapes in a closet where they remained for over three decades. She went back to work at . Jim’s and only occasionally thought about the record business. In the early 1970s, she persuaded Earl King to see if he could lease the’ masters to another label but he had no luck. By the mid-1990s, she started getting inquiries about reissuing the Frisco tapes, and last year, the first volume–The Frisco Records Story was issued on the British Ace label.
“I really feel bad that the CD came out after Danny died (in January 1996) because he begged me to get somebody to put the stuff out,” said LaRocca. “I was approached by some people, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing business with them. Finally, John Broven at Ace talked ‘to me. I’d known John since 1973 because he was a friend of my son, James. We worked out a deal.
“I was pleased with the it (The Frisco Records Story). But, you know, the sound of it is so …clean. It’s not like a record. I used to love the way those old records sounded.”
Deacon John won’t be recording for Aim as previously reported because neither side could come to terms. Tommy Ridgley is negotiating with Sound of New Orleans on an upcoming CD. Malaco Records six-CD anthology will appropriately include several New Orleans artists including C. P. Love, Bonnie and Sheila Joe Wilson, Jean Knight, King Floyd and The Unemployed.