December 12, 1928
April 23, 1995
Commencing his musical career in 1955 as a guitarist wtih Clifton Chenier’s Zodico Ramblers, Cornelius Green a.k.a. Lonesome Sundown is remembered as one of Louisiana’s most versatile axemen and a true architect of “the sound of the swamp.”
Legendary producer J. D. Miller described Lonesome Sundown’s music best when he referred to it as “the sound of the swamp.” Like many great blues artists, Lonesome Sundown possessed a style that was instantly recognizable. Along with Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester and Silas Hogan, Lonesome Sundown was one of the blues champions bred at J. D. Miller’s stable between 1956 and 1966. Without a doubt, Lonesome Sundown cut some of the toughest blues sides to come out of the historic Crowley, Louisiana studio. However, unlike some of the one-dimensional artists Miller recorded, Sundown could adapt to several musical styles, including country blues, urban soul, pop, ballads, country and rock ‘n’ roll.
Lonesome Sundown’s given name was Cornelius Green. He was born December 12, 1928, in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, a once thriving railway and shipping hub that served as a Southern mafia outpost during Sundown’s childhood. As a child, he began singing to make time pass faster at school, a practice he continued when he started working in the sugar cane fields.
In 1946, the lure of the city overcame Sundown and he moved to New Orleans with an uncle’s cheap guitar, taking a job as a porter at the New Southport Club, a gambling casino in Jefferson Parish. Two years later, he was back in Donaldsonville, laboring in the fields by day, but in the evenings, taking guitar lessons from a cousin. By his own admission, Sundown recalled, “I could play it pretty good by 1952.”
The following year, Sundown moved again, staying briefly in Jeanerette, Louisiana, before moving to Beaumont, Texas, where he worked at the Gulf Oil Refinery. Music remained a passion, and he continued playing guitar and going to see live music in his spare time. One of Sundown’s favorite artists was Clifton Chenier, who invited him to sit in one evening at the Blue Moon Club.
The year was 1955, and Chenier was hot with his first Specialty release, “Ay-Tete-Fee.” Chenier was looking to put a band together to go on the road. Chenier offered Sundown the job of second guitarist (Philip Walker served as first guitarist), which he promptly accepted. While with Chenier’s band (the Zodico Ramblers), Sundown played dates along the Gulf Coast and traveled as far as Chicago and Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles, Sundown recorded with Chenier—most notably, “The Cat’s Dreaming,” a title inspired by Sundown falling asleep during the session. Sundown also auditioned for producer Bumps Blackwell, but without success.
Late in 1955, Sundown left the Zodico Ramblers, got married and moved with his bride to Opelousas, Louisiana. Sundown began playing with Lloyd Reynauld’s trio as a singer and guitarist. He also began composing his own songs. Sundown heard about J. D. Miller’s studio in Crowley and decided to check him out. With two original songs cut on a demo tape, Sundown made the 40-mile trek to Crowley
A NEW NAME
Miller was immediately impressed with Sundown’s creativity as an artist and a songwriter. He invited him to return with his band for a recording session. Sundown wasn’t in the least bit impressed by Miller’s operation: “It looked like a record store, radio repair shop and a studio combined. You couldn’t tell which was which.”
Sundown did return, cutting “Lost Without Love” and “Leave My Money Alone.” Miller was pleased with the results, but before he sent the tapes to Excello Records in Nashville (Miller had recently signed a production and distribution deal with the label), he came up with the romantic nom-de-disque of “Lonesome Sundown” for his new artist.
Sundown’s debut was nothing less than magnificent. The gloomy “Lost Without Love” (“The sound of the swamp”) introduced Sundown’s signature guitar riff, a riff that graced several of his later recordings. On the shuffling “Leave My Money Alone,” Sundown tells his woman in no uncertain terms, “You don’t want me baby, why don’t you leave my money alone. All you’re good for is raising an uproar in my home!”
Even more satisfying was the follow-up “Lonesome Whistler” b/w “My Home Is A Prison.” The latter was a song Miller wrote on the spot in his studio. At the time, Sundown’s wife, a church-going lady, wasn’t happy about having a blues artist for a husband and called the studio looking for his whereabouts. Sensing Sundown’s discomfort during the conversation, Miller wrote the song in a couple of minutes. It was Sundown’s best seller.
Between 1957 and 1959, Sundown was a frequent visitor to Miller’s studio as he built up an impressive portfolio of recordings. The best included “Don’t Say A Word,” with Lazy Lester on harmonica, the chugging “You Know I Love You,” the stark “I Stood By (And Watched Another Man Steal My Gal),” and the much covered “Gonna Stick To You Baby.”
Sundown never had a chart record, but his singles sold in very respectable quantities, a tribute to his talent, and Excello’s unique way of merchandising. Besides wholesaling records the traditional way, via regional distributors and one-stops, Excello owner Ernie Young had a brilliant way of merchandising vinyl. Young also owned a record shop at 177 3rd Avenue in Nashville—Ernie’s Record Mart. Walk-in trade was welcome, but its sales paled compared to the lucrative mail order business Ernie’s built up. Until 1975, Ernie’s sponsored a one-hour portion of John R’s nightly show on 50,000-watt AM giant WLAC, a station that at night could be heard as far away as Mexico and Canada. In addition to playing Excello releases, John R hawked Ernie’s “specials”—packages of singles for “The low low price of $2.99.” Titling these packages “The Blue Light,” “The Back To School Special,” etc., Ernie’s would bait the listener with a current hit, such as Bobby Bland’s “I’ll Take Care Of You,” or Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrop,” and then pad the offer with two or three Excello 45s in the special. This form of retailing was especial effective on listeners who lived several miles away from the nearest record shop, or like this writer, trapped in ice-bound Ontario, where R&B records were as readily available as surfboards. My early record collection was largely comprised of several “Soul Sister,” “Back Door” and “Blues Lover” specials, and they served as an introduction to artists like Lonesome Sundown. (I used to tremble opening the green and white labeled packages that arrived from Tennessee and couldn?t wait to play each 45 on the family hi-fi.) I was once told by a long-time Ernie’s employee that they filled 300 to 1,500 orders a day.
The year 1960 only saw one Lonesome Sundown single, “Learn To Treat Me Better,” which featured some in the pocket Katie Webster piano. In 1961, Sundown again had only one single, the atmospheric “Lonesome, Lonely Blues” b/w the strutting “I’m Glad She’s Mine.” As he did with most of his artists, Miller gradually updated Sundown’s sound by adding horns (Lionel Prevost’s saxophone was especially great) and electric bass.
“It looked like a record store, radio repair shop and studio combined.”
LOUISIANA’S FIRST VW VAN
That same year (1961), Miller arranged for Sundown and several other Excello artists to do a series of showcase dates in Chicago. Miller drove to the New Orleans docks to take delivery of the first VW van to enter Louisiana. After the drive back to Crowley, Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo, Carol Fran, Lightnin’ Slim and Sundown piled in the VW and headed north. After several frightening problems on the highway, everyone arrived safe and sound in the Windy City. Unfortunately, the shows were a disaster according to Miller. Rather than feature their own material, Miller’s crew decided to cover the current Muddy Waters and B. B. King hits.
Arguably Sundown’s best back to back single, the driving “My Home Ain’t Here” b/w “I Woke Up Crying (Oh What A Dream)” kicked off 1962. The following year saw “I’m A Samplin’ Man” and “When I Had I Didn’t Need (Now I Need And I Don’t Have A Dime).” Unfortunately, it was obvious from Sundown’s dwindling recording output that Excello was losing interest in blues, and in fact, Ernie Young was getting ready to sell Excello.
In 1964—an era of sharkskin suits, process hair styles and freedom marches—came one of Sundown’s most down home blues couplings, “Hoo Doo Woman Blues” b/w “I’ve Got A Broken Heart.” Lonesome Sundown’s 16 single tenure at Excello came to a halt with “It’s Easy When You Know How.” His career as a blues artist came to a halt after a traumatic divorce. On February 7, 1966, Sundown joined the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith Fellowship Throughout the World Church, eventually becoming a minister there. After abandoning music, Sundown lived frugally in a one-room cinderblock house on a dirt road, drove a motorcycle and earned a living as a construction laborer. In the late 1960s, Sundown was having second thoughts about abandoning music and visited label owner Floyd Soileau in nearby Ville Platte with new material on more than one occasion. Soileau was interested, but eventually passed, as he wasn’t sure if Sundown was contractually free from Miller.
Sundown did make a brief, but welcome comeback in 1977, cutting a fine LP, Been Gone Too Long for Bruce Bromberg’s Joliet label (since reissued on Hightone), which paired him with his old band mate, Philip Walker. He even made some noise with the brilliant single “Louisiana Lover Man” around the Bayou State.
“I’m your Louisiana lover man,
I’m gonna love you to beat the band.
From Bazile to Big Mamou, all the way up to Baton Rouge.
I said, ‘I come on like a hurricane, I’m your Louisiana lover man.’
Mary wherever you are, I love to hear you say ‘bon soir.’
I’m stuck here in old Monroe, but you’re down in Thibodaux.
I’ll be home as quick as I can, I’m your Louisiana lover man.”
—Louisiana Lover Man (Green, Amy)
Belatedly, Sundown made it to Europe and played the 1979 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Unfortunately, at the New Orleans date Sundown was paired with a zydeco band that had absolutely no idea what Sundown was trying to do. Dreams of comeback were shelved and Sundown went back to driving a bulldozer.
In 1980, Sundown moved to Baton Rouge. Historian/swamp artist/author Johnnie Allan captured an animated Sundown on film playing his old Telecaster in front of a new Cadillac so life couldn’t have been too bad. Sadly, in 1994 Sundown suffered a stroke and he was no longer able to speak. Cornelius Green, a. k. a. Lonesome Sundown, died April 23, 1995 in Gonzales, Louisiana. Posthumously, in 2000, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, an award accepted by his widow Gloria.
I’m A Mojo Man
Been Gone Too Long
South to Louisiana
By John Broven