In 1960, Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” sold over 800,000 singles, topped the charts and has subsequently been covered over 100 times. Today, the song’s creator lies under a plywood grave marker in Holt Cemetery, a space reserved for the indigent citizens of New Orleans.
Because of the impact of the timeless “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (the song has been covered by other artists well over 100 times) Jessie “Poops” Hill has unfairly been cast by some as a one-trick pony. Granted he was often stuck in the same gear (Hill referred to that gear as “The scroungie groove”), but he was also a prolific songwriter, a fine percussionist, possessed an enormous amount of stage presence, and was a true New Orleans character. Jessie Hill was born December 9, 1932, and was part of an extended Ninth Ward family that included the Nelson and Lastie clan (including guitarist “Papoose” Nelson, vocalist Prince La La, trumpeter Melvin Lastie, saxophonist David Lastie, drummer Walter “Popee” Lastie and Hill’s grandsons, trumpeter James Andrews and trombonist Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews). Hill became interested in the drums while attending McCarthy grade school, later playing Dixieland with Kid Arnstine and Freddie Domino’s bands.
In 1953, Hill began playing drums with Professor Longhair, often providing the only accompaniment the legendary pianist needed. Unfortunately, Hill never recorded with Longhair, but according to many, he was one of the few drummers capable of following Longhair’s unorthodox style. After Longhair suffered a stroke, Hill had a short stint with Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns before re-forming the House Rockers in 1958. This time around, Hill turned the drums over to John Boudreaux, added John Payne on bass, and fronted the band on vocals and tambourine. Around this time, Hill found the immortal song that would change his life.
A Guy Named Big Four
“Jessie got ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ from a guy named Big Four,” said the late David Lastie in 1984. “Big Four was a winehead that played piano for drinks and tips. New Orleans used to be full of guys like him. One night we were at Shy Guys’ down in the parish [St. Bernard]. Big Four was playing ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ while Jessie was in the corner writing the words down on a paper sack.”
Hill later added a catchy intro which he “borrowed” from Dave Bartholomew and finalized the song. “We started playing ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ as a gimmick,” recalled Hill in 1984. “It got real popular everywhere we went. I’d tell the audience, ‘Y’all ready for my new record? We’re gonna cut it real soon.’ I didn’t know anything about recording then and at the time, I even tried to sell the song. But the people were ready for ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ when it came out.”
The House Rockers made a rough demo of the song which Hill hoped to shop to local record companies. His first stop was at Joe Ruffino’s Ric and Ron office, but Ruffino wasn’t interested. Ruffino did suggest taking the tape down the street to A-1 Distributors where Joe Banashak was just getting into the manufacturing business with Minit Records. “Jessie came in with this tape and he said he wanted me to hear it,” recalled the late Joe Banashak in 1985. “The tape was spliced and kept breaking, but I said to Larry (McKinley, then Banashak’s partner), ‘Man, he’s really got something going.’
In January 1960, Banashak arranged for Hill and the House Rockers to record “Ooh Poo Pah Doo (Part 1 & 2)” at Cosimo’s Studio where the newly hired Allen Toussaint was to produce his first Minit session. Unimpressed by what Hill and the House Rockers had going on, Toussaint supplied some tentative piano, but in actuality served as an observer rather than a producer. “I didn’t think ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ made much sense,” admitted Toussaint. “I thought songs had to be more expressive. But when I saw the effect it had on people, I began to look at things differently.”
“Ooh Poo Pah Doo” is perhaps the most prototypical New Orleans call-and-response number of all time. On it Hill declared, “I’m gonna put some disturbance on your mind,” and “They call me the Most,” while the House Rockers laid down a ragged-but-right second line beat.
Initially, “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” was a popular Carnival record before it slowly started breaking outside of New Orleans. Although the single’s momentum was spread out over a year, “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” peaked at Number 3 in Billboard’s R&B chart in May and reached Number 28 on the pop chart. It sold over 800,000 singles. As for Hill, he was probably more astounded by his success than anyone. Hill embarked on a series of engagements at Northern theaters, but the tour was cut short when the House Rockers quit in Washington when Hill shorted their pay.
Back in New Orleans, Hill and the House Rockers mended their fences and cut the frantic “Whip It On Me,” which graced the pop charts for a mere week, slipping in at Number 91. Hill followed with the riotous local hit, “Scoop Scoobie Doobie,” where he instructs engineer Cosimo Matassa during the introduction, “It ain’t no ‘Scoobie Doobie Doobie’—it’s ‘Scoop Scoobie Doobie, Doobie Doobie Dabby Dabby Doe!’”
According to Banashak, Hill got mired in a rut after his initial success, and some of his sessions ending abruptly in fist fights without anything recorded. “Jessie wouldn’t write any new material and I had to rely on Allen Toussaint [who had a hard time adapting to Hill’s primitive style]. All he would do is light candles and spread gris-gris all over his house. Jessie just couldn’t get it together.”
Despite taxing Banashak’s patience, Hill often provided comic relief around the A-1/Minit office. Banashak recalled that at the time, Hill didn’t drive. When he needed a royalty advance, which progressively became more and more frequent, Hill would stop by a Ninth Ward car lot and tell the salesman he was looking for an appropriate automobile to be chauffeured by his driver. Knowing Hill was a recording star and sensing a fat commission, the salesman would volunteer to drive where Hill beckoned. Hill would then instruct the driver to head downtown to Baronne Street where Banashak’s office was located. Once in front of the building, Hill would tell the driver “See you later,” and hunt for Banashak.
Hill’s abbreviated tenure at Minit (seven singles) also included the soulful “I Got Mine” and the brilliant “Oogsey Moo,” co-written by Professor Longhair. In 1961, Hill steered Prince La La and Barbara George to the newly formed AFO label where they both supplied hits. He also submitted material to AFO but used his wife’s name as an alias since he was under contract with Minit. Hill’s last Minit session was in February 1962, when he waxed the aptly titled “Can’t Get Enough (Of That Ooh Poo Pah Doo).” “I left with Joe Jones to make a job in Houston,” said Hill. “I wasn’t making money fast enough, so I got on a Greyhound bus and came to L.A.”
The trip turned out to be fortuitous for Hill. After working with local record man J.R. Fulbright, Hill connected with New Orleans expatriates Harold Battiste, Dave Dixon and Mac Rebennack, who had moved west seeking greener musical pastures. It was Rebennack who convinced Hill to concentrate on writing and Hill began supplying material to several artists and labels.
Hill and Rebennack’s bond remained extremely strong (they formed their own publishing company) throughout the years. “I been knowing Mac since before he became Dr. John from hanging out at Cosimo’s,” detailed Hill. “I’m the one that made him start singing. He used to sound like Alfalfa [the Little Rascals character] until I straightened him out.”
Hill did do some recording on the West Coast, including his first solo LP, Naturally, produced by Rebennack’s then manager Charlie Greene in 1972. Musically it was forgettable outside of the title track and the bizarre “Introducement” which contained several “Poopisms.” The album was packaged memorably, with a gatefold cover that included a revolving pinwheel displaying several photos of a sporty Hill looking as if he was ready to lead a second line down Rampart Street.
According to David Lastie, who briefly worked on the West Coast, Hill was doing extremely well, especially by New Orleans standards. “Jessie was doing beautiful out there man. Big cars, two houses—he was hustling. But he started borrowing money and running up bar tabs. Jessie milked L.A.”
The Poo Cab
Hill’s tenure in Los Angeles ended in 1977 after a disagreement with Harold Battiste who ran the production company he worked for. Shortly thereafter, Hill’s Cadillac, which contained a briefcase filled with contacts and incomplete songs, was impounded by the L. A. P. D. because of numerous unpaid parking and traffic citations. Unable to beg or borrow enough money to rescue his automobile, Hill decided the time was right to move back to New Orleans. Renting half of a double from Fats Domino, Hill set about trying to jump-start his career. Gigs in New Orleans proved to be few and far between, outside of the annual Gator Ball, monthly appearances at Tipitina’s and infrequent cameos opening local dates for his landlord. Song writing assignments were all but nonexistent. Eventually, Hill got a taxi license and shuttled tourists to and from the airport in “The Poo Cab,” a black Cadillac he purchased with an unexpected royalty check.
Unfortunately, the last decade of Hill’s life spiraled downwards rapidly due to an escalating dependency on alcohol and narcotics. Hill lost his cab license after several DWI convictions and the Poo Cab sat forlornly in front of Fats’ mansion on Marais Street with four flat tires. Friends, family, band mates and club owners avoided him because he was constantly trying to borrow money. Even Fats was forced to evict Hill. Several benefits were staged for Hill, but the money raised didn’t solve any of his problems. During a Dirty Dozen Brass Band session in the early 1990s, Hill interrupted the proceedings by telling producer Scott Billington he had a great idea for a new album—Jessie Hill Performs Professor Longhair’s Songs. Eager to get on with the task at hand, Billington agreed the project might have merit, but suggested perhaps they could talk about it in a few days over the phone. Hill demanded an advance for the album immediately and refused to leave the studio without it. Eventually, the Dozen’s Roger Lewis interceded, gave Hill $20, and he was on his way.
After far too many binges and the premature announcement of his death broadcast on WWOZ, Hill succumbed to heart and kidney failure September 17, 1996. His old partner Dr. John footed most of Hill’s funeral expenses and the event was attended by Antoinette and Ernie K-Doe, who were clad in homemade suits that matched the Antoinette-created ensemble Hill wore in his casket. (A photo of the K-Does posing ghoulishly with Hill’s cadaver hung in the Mother-In-Law Lounge for several years until thankfully it finally disappeared.) A brass band and a large second line accompanied Hill’s remains to Holt Cemetery on a hot and humid Saturday morning. Upon reaching the grave site, an impatient minister concluded the proceedings abruptly by telling all those within earshot, “Okay, let’s get this nigger in the ground and go home.”
Today, Jessie Hill, a New Orleans rhythm and blues legend, lies under a plywood grave marker not far from an impressive and expensive granite marker that pays tribute to Buddy Bolden, the first man of New Orleans jazz.
Ooh Poo Pah Doo (Collectables)
The only available Jessie Hill collection includes the title cut, “Whip It On Me,” “Oogsey Moo,” “Scoop Scoobie Doobie” and ten others.
Up From The Cradle Of Jazz by Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones