One of the most talented, but sadly underrated rhythm and blues musicians in New Orleans was the late guitarist Edgar Blanchard. Blanchard played and arranged hundreds of recordings, working ‘with artists like Roy Brown, Little Richard, Eddie Bo, Johnny Adams, Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner.
As a guitarist, he was incomparable.
“Edgar was one of the top musicians in the country,” said the late Alonzo Stewart, who played drums behind Blanchard for more than a decade. “A guy like George Benson couldn’t even hold the light for Edgar to stand under. He could do it all.”
As an arranger, he was a pioneer in R&B.
“I knew Edgar from playing the Dew Drop in the early 1950s,” said producer Harold Battiste. “He was the first guy from here I’d consider an arranger. He wrote charts for every instrument in the band and that was something no other bandleader was doing then.”
Blanchard was born in 1924 at Grosse Tete, Louisiana, a village located 15 miles west of Baton Rouge. As a child, he moved to New Orleans with his parents and three brothers.
Apparently Blanchard was already a good guitarist as a youth. Trumpeter Frank Mitchell recalls playing a job in New Sarpy, Louisiana, in the 1930s with Blanchard when the guitarist couldn’t have been much more than ten.
During WW II, Blanchard was in the army and saw action in Europe. After the war, he returned to New Orleans and studied music arrangement at Grunwald’s School of Music under the GI Bill. He also formed a band with June Gardner (drums), Otis Ducker (alto), Ed Blackwell (piano) and Stewart Davis (bass).
Blanchard called the band the Gondoliers, a name inspired by a trip.to Venice during the war where he saw real gondoliers serenade their passengers.
In the late 1940s, the Gondoliers were making the rounds of clubs like the San Jacinto, the Robin Hood, the Gypsy Tea Room, the Dew Drop and the Downbeat, where they backed Clarence Samuels and Roy Brown.
“Outside of Ernest McLean, Edgar could outplay every other guitar player in town,” said Mitchell, who often crossed paths with Blanchard in the late 1940s. “By being a guitar player he was a natural arranger. His band was playing stuff other bands in town couldn’t handle.”
The Gondoliers were regulars at Percy Stovall’s Pelican Club. Stovall had begun booking New Orleans recording artists like Roy Brown and Chubby Newsome around the area and he needed a steady backup band for these acts. In December of 1948, Blanchard and the Gondoliers were signed to an exclusive contract by Stovall who decided to sell the club anti concentrate on booking.
In 1949, Stovall got the Gondoliers a long term engagement at Houston’s Golden Peacock, a club owned by Don Robey. Robey also ran Peacock Records and had an eye for new talent. He recorded the Gondoliers (“Creole Gal Blues” b.w. “She’ll Be Mine After a while”) and used them on a session with Papa Lightfoot, but not much happened with either record.
In early 1950, the Gondoliers were back working at the Dew Drop, but Blanchard broke the group up and took a job with Roy Brown. After several months with Brown, the entire band defected and Blanchard assumed the job as band leader making 5125 a week. Blanchard toured and recorded with Brown, and his playing and arranging can be heard on “Big Town” and “Hard Luck Blues,” which topped the R&B charts.
“Edgar was playing the baritone chart on the bass? things of his guitar,” recalls Mitchell, who joined Brown when Blanchard was bandleader. “Our tenor player quit and we had a hard time finding a new one. Edgar just stepped in and played the treble clef and the baritone chart simultaneously.”
Blanchard was one of Brown’s Mighty Mighty Men until the Fall of 1951 when he quit. With the taste of success as a studio musician, he returned home hoping to pick up the guitar down and was planning to move North and get a job in an automobile factory. I talked him into staying. I told him, ‘You take care of the music, I’ll take care of the business.’ We kept the name Gondoliers because people already recognized it.”
The new version of the Gondoliers included: Warren Hebrard (tenor), Edward Santino (piano), Mitchell (trumpet), Stewart on drums and Blanchard (guitar). Lee Allen was originally supposed to be in the group but he took a job studio work. However, at the time, guitarist Ernest McLean was getting practically all of the studio work in New Orleans. Frustrated, Blanchard quit playing.
“Edgar came in the Famous Door where’ i was playing around 1952,” said Alonzo Stewart in 1985.
“I,told him I was going to start my own band and asked him if he’d be interested in joining. Edgar had laid with Paul Gayten. August “Dimes” Dupont later took his place.
“We did nothing but rehearse for a month,” said Stewart. “I had to put some money up to get the band off the ground. I bought uniforms, a P.A. and music stands. We really sounded great after that month. Our first job was at the Hideaway where Fats got started. That first night we had every musician in the city come out. to see us play. The place was packed. We were a hit from the beginning.”
The Gondoliers’ first regular job was spelling for Sharkey, Bonano at the Famous Door. The group did well but were eventually terminated.
“We sat down and read music,” said Mitchell. “The guy that owned the place, Mr. Hip, wasn’t used to that. He was accustomed to Dixieland guys standing up and just. playing off the top of their head. One night after the gig Mr. Hip came up and said, ‘Your band is too good, I’m gonna have t.o give you your notice. But I like you guys. I’m gonna make sure you keep working, I get calls all the time from people looking for music.’
‘The next day he got a call from one of the Perez brothers. They owned the Perez Lounge on Airline Highway. It was a big dinner club that strictly catered to rich white people. He had Pete Fountain‘s Basin Street Six working in there. That band was half whiskey heads and half pot heads. One night the pot heads and the whiskey heads got in a fight on the bandstand and the band got fired. So the Perez that ran the joint decided to hire a black band.”
The Gondoliers worked the Perez Lounge for several months and began, working at the Dew Drop. They also accompanied headliners that Frank Painia booked.
“We backed Johnny Ace at the Stable Club in Bilioxi,” said Mitchell. “We tore the house up and the club owner wanted us back. The next day the Stable’s owner called our job and Perez answered the phone. We were taking our break in his office, because we couldn’t sit in the club. Until then, Perez thought we were just a local band, He came in and said, ‘You must be some high class niggars playing all over the place.’ Edgar was cocky and he said, ‘Yeah, we sure are. We travel all over the country.’ The next thing we knew, we had to take our breaks in a tiny room behind Perez’s office.
“Then one day we came to work and Perez had written some songs in a Negro dialect that he wanted us to perform. We just tore the songs up in front of his face. After that we took our breaks in the room where they stored the onions and potatoes.”
The owner of the Stable did lure the Gondoliers to Biloxi where they often played six nights a week during a two year stint. When they came back to New Orleans they played the Dew Drop or traveled with Joe Turner or Ray Charles.
In 1953, the Gondoliers worked on Joe Turner’s hit. “Honey Hush” and Blanchard provided the brilliant intro. Without the Gondolier’s, Blachard played on Professor Longhair’s local hit “Tipitina” along with Earl Palmer and Lee Allen. With the Gondoliers, he played a session with Ray Charles.
“We did four songs with Ray down there at J&M,” said Mitchell. “But the man from Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun, got mad and threw three of them in the garbage. They were just blues, but he thought they were too progressive. He just kept that one .song, (‘Don’t You Know Baby’.)”
Not long after the Charles session, Mitchell’s wife convinced him to quit the Gondoliers, a decision he still refers to as the biggest mistake of his life. Around the time Mitchell quit, Blanchard began doing a number of sessions for Specialty Records producer Bumps Blackwell who was beginning to work in New Orleans.
Blanchard’s playing would enhance several Specialty recordings including Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin,” “Ready Teddy” and “Miss Ann.” He also cut two singles, “Mr. Bumps,” a hot rock and roll instrumental, and “Stepping High,” which included some country picking a la Chet Atkins.
When Blanchard wasn’t in the studio, he and the Gondoliers kept busy. At one point they worked 96 consecutive weeks at San Antonio’s Keyhole Club followed by 28 weeks at Pensacola’s Piccadilly. In New Orleans, they worked the Dream Room, the Famous Door and, of course, the Dew Drop.
“The Gondoliers were a complete floor show,” said Stewart, “Besides dance music we did a vocal group thing like the Ink Spots. We also had a comedy routine that went over well. We’d clown on numbers like “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark” and “Tom Dooley.”
After Blackwell stopped recording in New Orleans, Blanchard became a favorite of Paul Gayten who was doing sessions for Chess. While working with Gayten, Blanchard did some of his most innovative playing. On Gayten’s instrumental “Driving Home,” he played a variation of the guitar pattern which sold Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk.” He also put a guitar intro on Eddie Bo’s “Oh-Oh” that sounded like a rockabilly lick Scotty Moore might have played on one of Elvis’ Sun recordings. He also backed Charles Williams, Clarence Henry and Bobby Charles during this period.
The Gondoliers got to record for Chess, under the guise of “Myles. and Dupont,” doing a vamp’ on Huey Smith’s style on. “Loud Mouth Annie.” Blanchard also recorded a vocal, “Lawdy Mama,” complete with a one note 24 bar solo, which wasn’t issued until researchers found the track in the Chess vaults in the 1980s.
Blanchard also did some recording in 1958 with Ace, including the instrumentals “Let’s Get It” and “Lonesome Guitar.” The tracks were loaned to Joe Ruffino who was starting the Ric and Ron labels and needed material.
Blanchard wound up going to work in the capacity of A&R man for Ruffino and his playing became the backbone of the early Ric and Ron sound. Blanchard worked with Eddie Bo, Al Johnson, Tommy Ridgley, Irma Thomas and Johnny Adams. In fact, Blanchard’s second single, “Bopsody Blues” was withdrawn in favor of Johnny Adams’ initial single “I Won’t Cry,” which Blanchard arranged.
Blanchard and the Gondoliers recorded Ric’s only LP, Let’s Have a Blast, which captured the vaudevillian element of the group’s stage show but unfortunately didn’t include the group’s musical skills.
By 1960, Frank Fields (bass), Warren Bell (alto) and Lawrence Cotton (piano) had joined the Gondoliers. At the time the group was installed at Natal’s, a white club on Chef Menteur Highway. “We spent more than five years at Natal’s working six nights a week,” said Stewart. “But the place got sold around 1964 and they made it a bowling alley.
“We spent more than five years at Natal’s working six nights a week,” said Stewart. “But the place got sold around 1964 and they made it a bowling alley.
“After that we we worked a white club in Mobile. We were supposed to play there three months, but after a couple of weeks, George Wallace came to Mobile’ and held a rally. The owner got worried about violence and he paid us off and told us to go home. We played a couple of weeks at the Safari, but after that there was no more work and we broke up. I stayed in music but Edgar took the Civil Service exam and got a day job.”
By the mid-1960s, Blanchard’s taste for Old Cominsky began to catch up with him. “Edgar was in and out of the hospital,” said Mitchell. “The doctor told him to put the bottle down when they had to cut a piece off his, liver. He did pretty good for a while, but then he started playing some gigs in the French Quarter and he, he started drinking again. The doctor had to cut another piece off his liver and told.him that was it, they couldn’t cut no more.”
In 1970, Blanchard was working weekends at Genero’s on Airline Highway with trumpeter Henry “Hawk” Hawkins, playing and singing Ink Spots tunes. Several of his contemporaries said Blanchard was in poor health because of his weakness for whiskey, but he was still healthy enough to maintain a day job and pick up the occasional job playing music.
On the morning of September 16, 1972, Edgar Blanchard, one of New Orleans’ greatest musicians, was working as a security guard at the Milne Boys Home when he succumbed to an apparent heart attack. He was 48. Blanchard left’ a wife and a son. He is buried at the New Light Baptist Church Cemetery in Gross Tete.
Ernie K-Doe celebrated his birthday in style February 22 at his Mother-In-Law Lounge. In attendance were Jim Russel, Sammy and Tommy Ridgley, and Ernie Vincent. K-Doe announced that he won’t be performing at this year’s New Orleans ‘Jazz and Heritage Festival but instead will stage his own Festival. He will be performing all 10 days of Jazz Fest at the Mother-In-Law Lounge. Tommy Ridgley and Rock N’ Bowl’s John Blanchard are planning a 50th anniversary in show business party which will feature as many ex-Untouchables as can be assembled.
(Writer’s Note: In the 1980s, six tracks were released on Bandy cred- ited to Blanchard that !were recorded in the 19605. Considering their primitive content, chances are they’re probably not Blanchard.)