The Ponderosa Stomp is a record collector’s library come to life. The classic—and occasionally obscure— R&B, rockabilly, blues, garage and swamp pop songs that shaped pop music history are performed by the artists who made them. It’s not an oldies show, though. Producer Ira “Dr. Ike” Padnos pairs the artists with bands that love the original recordings and try to recreate the original sound and fire, and results help the performers shed years and present the voice, sound or intensity that made their names in the first place.
This year, the Stomp celebrates its 10th birthday September 16-17 at the Howlin’ Wolf, and over the years it has expanded to be more than just a series of shows. On September 15, the Stomp’s 45s-fueled dance party “The Hip Drop” enters its fifth year, this time at d.b.a. The Stomp has led to the Ponderosa Stomp Conference—a series of oral histories and interviews with some of the participants in the Stomp. This year, it takes place September 15-17 at the Renaissance Arts Hotel. Also that weekend, the Stomp’s Clandestine Celluloid Film Series screens rare rock ‘n’ roll-oriented movies at the Renaissance Arts Hotel as well.
Needless to say, a decade of working with the legends of rock ‘n’ roll has left Padnos with many stories.
When you were booking this year, did you have anything particular in mind that you thought was appropriate for the tenth year?
Number one: we wanted to go heavy on Louisiana and New Orleans acts. We also felt some of the greatest people involved, such as Cosimo Matassa, have never really gotten a good musical tribute, so we wanted to have a tribute to Cosimo Matassa. We also wanted to recognize the great J.D. Miller and Excello Records out of Crowley, Louisiana, so we booked heavily to that.
Another thing we wanted to do was bring back some of the Stomp’s greatest hits through the years, some of the people we haven’t brought back in a long time. So it’s Big Jay McNeely; we wanted Big Jay back. G.G. Shinn was another performer who really killed it. Jivin’ Gene—people still talk about him. They weren’t necessarily the biggest names, but they put on really great sets so we wanted to bring some of those back.
Another thing we always talked about doing was a Stax revue, but since everyone else has done a Stax revue, we were fighting the urge. But [Ponderosa Stomp veteran band] the Bo-Keys play that stuff better than anybody, so we finally decided we’re going to give in and do a Stax revue. We’ll have Eddie Floyd, William Bell and Mack Rice be part of it, and have a combination of obscure and well-known material. “Big Bird” by Eddie Floyd has always been one of my favorite songs, but you’ll never see Booker T and the MGs play it because Booker T was the guitar player on the record. [Steve] Cropper didn’t play that part. This way, I can get them to do it.
Do you ask musicians for specific songs?
If you have a guy that was known to be the nastiest, low-down guitarist in town, why would you want him cleaned-up playing B.B. King songs? If you had someone who caught one or two great songs, why keep him on stage for two hours padding with covers until you got to the good material? The idea was to treat the Ponderosa Stomp like the old rock ‘n’ roll revues, and the old revues were like a jukebox—all killer, no filler. We ask, “Can you please do this material?” A lot of times they’re like, “Those songs didn’t sell.”
But what do you do when you have people like Allen Toussaint or Dave Bartholomew who changed the face of music? How do you tell someone who’s been producing, writing and arranging music, “We’re trying to make a special program; could you do that?” We’ve had discussions with them, and when doing that you have to be very respectful. Luckily, we’ve had good responses. When we had Mac—Dr. John—revert to Mac Rebennack and do that [guitar-based] material, we weren’t sure he was going to take to it, but he said, “As long as Wardell [Quezergue] does the arrangements, I’ll be willing to take a stab at it.”
We had Johnny Farina of Santo & Johnny, and we asked him to play “Bullseye!.” He goes, “Why would I want to play that? We recorded it once; I never played it again.” I said, “Johnny, believe it or not, people are going to ask if you’re going to do it.” Sure enough, he got done and said, “Man, you were right I couldn’t believe it.”
The problem too, is to make sure you have sympathetic musicians that have the capacity to play with the musicians. A lot of times they’ll say, “That band doesn’t know how to play my music.” I say, “They will know how to play your music; just talk to them.” Billy Boy Arnold walked into a rehearsal and he looked at Alex Chilton and he said, “Okay, guitar player, I want the tenth measure, third stanza guitar fill now.” Alex looked at him for a few seconds and said, “Okay, got it,” and played it. Billy Boy said, “Okay, you’ll do.”
I’ve always thought the real success of the Stomp was getting sympathetic young bands that love and hear the life in the classic recordings.
Luckily, we have some really talented musicians in the background bands established. Lil’ Buck Sinegal and the Top Cats are like having a Cadillac of bands for soul and New Orleans rhythm and blues. Then you add Deke Dickerson, who can play anything with his band. The Bo-Keys out of Memphis do that Memphis sound. Michael Hurtt and the Haunted Hearts can do swamp pop and country-ish things.
We have had a great ability to attract some top-notch musicians to put together. Alex Chilton would sometimes be playing guitar. Mr. Quintron could sometimes be spotted on keyboards. The drummer for the Afghan Whigs, Paul Buchignani, played a bunch of stuff for us, some of the great New Orleans horn players. The Stomp wouldn’t be successful without their contributions.
I always wonder what’s in it for Lil’ Buck and Buckwheat Zydeco to play. I imagine they wouldn’t get the same sort of buzz with playing with contemporaries.
In Buckwheat’s case, it’s like a musical vacation. He gets to put down his accordion and get on the Hammond B3, which he loves to play. With Buck, people forget that Lil’ Buck and the Top Cats used to be a 14, 15-piece band in Lafayette. In the ‘60s he had his own TV show. He used to back people back in the day such as Percy Sledge, so for him, it’s the opportunity to go back to that era that he loves but doesn’t get the opportunity to really play.
His response when I hand him material—when I handed him Howard Tate’s for the first time—was “Where did you find this guy? This guy’s incredible.” Last year it was Sugar Pie DeSanto. He likes the challenge of putting it together. Buck is not a reading musician; he charts everything out by ear. Last year, he was pulling his hair out because the singers changed keys three times on him, and it still came out.
I’m always blown away at how together they are.
They spend two days eating and playing up in Lafayette before they even come to the Stomp. Sometimes you get musicians who want to know how much they’re getting paid for rehearsal, but for this band wants to rehearse and get it right. The Bo-Keys are the same. So’s Deke Dickerson. When you walk in, that band knows how to back you.
Do you have day of the show rehearsals?
Yes, we do have day of the show rehearsals. It’s kind of funny because the hotels through the years have been true rock ‘n’ roll hotels. One of the rooms is set up as a practice room. Last year, Cyril Jordan and Roy Loney of the Flamin’ Groovies were doing a bunch of rehearsals with the A-Bones in the lobby.
We used Le Cirque Hotel during Jazz Fest  and Freddie Roulette was rehearsing and people were coming in grabbing cocktails, treating it like a party, and that’s the type of atmosphere it’s always been.
Some of the bands have rehearsed at the venue too. Once I was going to pick up Roy Head and Archie Bell to go to rehearsal. One of the seats in my car wasn’t up, and Ben Vaughn came up running asking if he could get a ride to work. Roy Head jumps up gets in the back seat in the human pretzel position that’s got to be uncomfortable for anybody but Roy Head. He was like, “This is great. I have so much room.”
At the very first Stomp, I’m sleepy, it’s 5:30 a.m. and I’m in my bed. At 6, the doorbell’s ringing, it’s James Blood Ulmer. “You can’t send me back to New York City; I have to stay the next two days.” He had so much fun he didn’t want to go, and he kind of fell in love with one of our friends—“I met this beautiful woman, and I love New Orleans. The Stomp is so different; I can’t go back.” He wound up hanging around for a few more days.
Everyone told me Link Wray was going to be really problematic, but he was like a big kid. He walked up to Scotty Moore, got down and kissed his feet, and said, “You’re my idol.” Scotty Moore was like, “Get up, get up. You can’t do this.”
The first year, Dave Bartholomew would call me every night at midnight: “You’re not advertising enough.” Every night. I would be like, “Dave, people will be there.” He called one night: “I don’t know if this is going to work out. I don’t know if people will be there. I went to the casino and people didn’t know me there.” “Dave, they’ll be there.”
Dave put on one of the best shows of that first Stomp, along with Tony Joe White, who sounded like Suicide that night.
Tony Joe White was monstrous when he pulled out his Whomper Stomper [a distortion pedal] as he called it. I didn’t realize until a couple of years later that he and the 13th Floor Elevators nearly formed a band together. I ran into him at South by Southwest and I asked him about it and his eyes started gleaming. He said, “Oh yeah, the Elevators. Those were some fun days.”
For Roky Erickson [who first played the Ponderosa Stomp in 2007], one day I’m sleeping and I got a phone call from someone who says, “This is Roky Erickson’s drummer.” “Yeah, right,” and I go back to sleep. He calls back: “No seriously, this is Freddie Steady, Roky Erickson’s drummer. We want to play the Ponderosa Stomp.” I couldn’t make it happen for two years, and finally we did it. His manager said, “There’s only one thing I’ve got to ask you. It’s on Roky’s rider: Does the hotel have the Cartoon Network?”
I took Big Chief Roddy of the Black Eagles to see Roky at South by Southwest one year, and he loved Roky. Thought it was amazing. At the Stomp one year, Big Chief Roddy did this monstrous Indian funk set with Lil’ Buck, and at the end of it, he’s still in his suit and he’s running through the upstairs of the House of Blues to go hug Roky. It was pretty surreal.
How present was Roky offstage?
The first year he played, he got there a little bit before he played and stayed a little bit afterwards. The second year, he was hanging out backstage for quite a while. He was very happy and very at ease.
The night before he played the first time, we went out to dinner with 15 people and him. Nothing was open, so we ended up at the St. Charles Tavern, where people were amazed that he was hanging out. But he was very personable and signed autographs. I gave him the lobby card for Creature with the Atom Brain or I Walked with a Zombie, I can’t remember. When I saw him the first year, he hugged me, and someone said, “Wow. He never hugs anybody.” That’s very different from Roy Head trying to kiss you on the lips once in a while because Roy’s so crazy and wants to see what response he can get out of you.
Who was hard to get?
Throughout the years, Allen Toussaint was hard to get because we wanted to do some stuff that he usually hasn’t done. It took two years-plus to get Ronnie Spector. I called up one of my friends and was like, “How do I get Ronnie Spector?” He said, “Well do you know her husband comes to the Stomp? He wasthere again this year.” I said, “Can I have his number and call him?”
There are some that we couldn’t pull off. One was Ike Turner. I took him a whole bunch of Ponderosa Stomp posters with guitar players and said, “Notice whose name is missing from this list.” He wouldn’t talk to me; so I’m talking to his girlfriend. He said, “I want my band, I want this, I want that.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do all that, but I want this: a set of guitar instrumentals.”
“Who is this man? He’s crazy.”
“Then I guess we don’t have a deal.”
Phil Phillips, I actually had to go with Lil’ Buck to find him. I knew his real name and he lives in Jennings, so I got his address by googling him. Lil’ Buck says, “I bet he lives by the railroad tracks.” Sure enough, it was right next to the railroad tracks. No one answers, so we left a note and went to the little grocery store right there, and they said he’s kind of a hermit. About two weeks later, he called me back and I was able to get him. His voice was still amazing.
Duane Eddy was quite a few years in the making. Duane’s an icon, so when he played, he’d show up and do a song or two. I overheard him tell someone that the longest set he’d ever played was at the Stomp. On those Dick Clark tours, you did two or three songs and that was it.
I always loved the song “Bar-B-Q,” so we were trying to track down Wendy Rene, but that was hard because nobody knew her real name.
I’d been trying to hire Scotty Moore for a couple of years prior to the Stomp. On a fluke, I went to the Elvis Festival in Tupelo with Paul Burlison. He said Scotty was over at the hotel and that he’d introduce us. When we got there, he wasn’t feeling too good. Paul told his girlfriend that I was an anesthesiologist. Scotty was going in for a procedure that he didn’t understand, so I went from meeting Scotty Moore to giving him a medical consult. In a couple of weeks, we had some Circle Bar shows; the next morning, there’s this call on my answering machine, “Hi, this is Scotty Moore. I’d really like to come play for you.”