The piano is an enduring constant in New Orleans music, and this month’s installation of classic songs features four of the city’s cornerstone keyboardists—six in fact, since the Dr. John track includes Allen Toussaint and Art Neville. Most of these songs went into the standard repertoire: Dr. John’s was a high-water mark for local music on the charts; Booker’s was the miracle moment of a fraught session, Newman’s is a song that, for better or worse, is now ingrained with local history. Finally we have a latter-day Cleary classic informed by all the above.
Randy Newman, 1974
It all depends on whether you’re talking about “Louisiana 1927” before or after Katrina. The song itself never really changed, but the context irrevocably did. As originally recorded for Newman’s Southern concept album Good Old Boys, “Louisiana 1927” was an historical period piece—certainly a poignant song, and with one of Newman’s most haunting melodies, but still a song you could listen to dry-eyed. The original lyric was indirectly about Huey Long, who used fallout over the 1927 flood to stoke local resentments and help get himself elected; so it’s as much a campaign song as a lament. But after 2005, the issue of government inaction after a natural disaster became a lot more resonant.
Everyone who follows New Orleans music probably has a memory of seeing a local artist do an emotional version of “Louisiana 1927” in the months that followed. For me it was Marcia Ball, who’d already been doing the song for years, but not with quite so much intensity. For many others it was John Boutté, whose performance of “Louisiana 1927” at the 2006 Jazz Fest ranked with the celebrated Springsteen set as one of that festival’s most cathartic moments. Both Ball and Boutté saw fit to underline the parallels by replacing President Coolidge’s name with President Bush; Boutté went a step further and sang, to much applause, of Bush flying over Louisiana “with about 12 fat men with double martinis in their hand.” Ball and Aaron Neville, among others, sang “this poor people’s land” (or in Boutté’s case, “this poor Creole’s land”) instead of Newman’s more caustic “this poor cracker’s land.”
Newman himself had the last word: When he played the song at Jazz Fest in 2008, he first invoked the government’s “shameful, disgraceful” response to Katrina, then delivered the song with such audible anger that his voice cracked. Randy Newman’s voice absolutely never cracks.
James Booker, 1982
The story behind this one is fairly legendary by now: Producer Scott Billington, then a young hotshot with the Rounder label, finds himself in the studio with an irascible genius. He’s only got three days to make a James Booker album, and the first two are outright disasters. “He chose a number of classic, somewhat obscure New Orleans R&B songs that he wanted to record,” Billington recalls. “And when we got into the studio, all of that went out the window. On the second day in the studio he wouldn’t speak to anybody. In one of his rare moments of speaking to me, he said that he wanted Earl King and Cyril Neville in the studio. Somehow we got them, and he wouldn’t speak to them either.” On the third morning Billington showed up at the studio to find a good-natured Booker waiting at the door, ready to play. Most of what made up the Classified album—one of only two proper studio albums that Booker ever cut—was recorded over the next four hours.
“Classified”—a song he had performed onstage, but not that often—was one of many songs that got sprung without warning that day, and the released version was the first and only take. While it shares a few licks with the Dr. John song “Qualified”—a song they probably played together when Booker toured in Rebennack’s band—Booker takes it further out. The two-minute intro spins dizzying variations on a rhythm riff, and the lyric, though largely different, shares the defiant feel of the Dr. John song (“Some say I’m crazy, some say I’m dumb/ That doesn’t mean they know where I’m coming from”). Billington got out with a close-to-definitive Booker record, and a few life lessons as well. “It certainly caused me a few sleepless nights, but it was the first time I could look at a musician and say, ‘This is what a genius is.’”
“Right Place, Wrong Time”
Dr. John, 1973
This track was a high-water mark for New Orleans music in the ’70s, putting Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and the Meters into the Top Ten at once (the single peaked at number nine). Unlike all other Dr. John albums, the two he made with Toussaint (In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo) were full collaborations that featured Rebennack mainly just as writer and singer; the funky electric piano on this song was Toussaint and the Meters provided the groove (the guitar solo was a New York session guy, David Spinozza). The Doctor had some high-profile help with the lyrics pf this song: According to his autobiography, Bob Dylan came up with “I was on the right trip, but it must have been the wrong car”; Bette Midler followed with “My head was in a bad place, I don’t know what it’s there for”; Texas legend Doug Sahm kicked some words in as well. The daring-for-the-charts line about “the right vein, must have been the wrong arm” was apparently Rebennack’s own. He also claimed that the line about “needing a little brain salad surgery” (yes, the line Emerson, Lake & Palmer borrowed for an album title) was Ninth Ward neighborhood slang for oral sex, but it’s hard to imagine anybody else dreaming that one up.
In the wake of the album’s success Dr. John joined the ranks of rock royalty, recording with a couple of Beatles (albeit in their most shambling sessions, including John Lennon’s with Phil Spector), touring with the Allman Brothers, and even doing a few benefit shows for the Black Panthers. The peak of this era, however, was a 1974 episode of the PBS music show Soundstage that he hosted with Professor Longhair, the Meters and Earl King, all at the top of their form. The show was only briefly released on video and was never on DVD, so thank God for YouTube.
“Bringing Back the Home”
Jon Cleary, 2016
Pianist Jon Cleary took a lot from New Orleans, and in this small epic of a song, he gave it all back. One of the later explicit Katrina songs, this appeared 10 years after the flood, on Cleary’s GoGo Juice album; it begins as a stately dirge and ends as a funky second line. Cleary’s aim here is to celebrate the music that New Orleans gave the world, and the closing chant of “Jazz, funk, rhythm-and-blues and soul” does the trick.
“Everyone was making Katrina songs and they were all depressing, a bit maudlin,” Cleary told us. “What I wanted to say came from something Bonnie Raitt told me one night, about New Orleans music being a gift to the world. So what the song says—and it says this in a long, Proustian run-on sentence—is that the music is the heart and soul of the people of New Orleans, and that’s the greatest gift America gave the world. Which is to say, it’s all about the normal people of New Orleans, and that’s the resource that was lost when people didn’t come back after Katrina. It’s about the heartbeat of the funk, which is what you see just by walking down St. Bernard Avenue.”
As a ’60s child in Kent, England, Cleary was soaking up U.S. imports while his friends were still at home with their Beatles and their Stones. He also devoured John Broven’s music book Walking to New Orleans—“I read it until those names were imprinted in my mind,” he said—so he knew he was in the right place when he came to town in the late ’70s, stopped by the Maple Leaf and saw Earl King onstage. Cleary absorbed the local piano traditions and took his place in the funk frontlines, usually leading the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.
GoGo Juice got Cleary his only Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album—an experience he associates with chewing gum. “I was just sitting there daydreaming when they called my name. And somebody had given me a stick of gum, which is something I never normally do. So I got up there and gave a garbled speech with this big piece of gum in my mouth. I couldn’t very well stick it under the podium.”