The list of great New Orleans rhythm and blues drummers—Cornelius Coleman, David Oxley, Bob Ogden, Earl Palmer, Charles “Hungry” Williams, Joseph “Smokey” Johnson, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, James Black, Charles “Honeyboy” Otis, Herman Seale, Oscar Moore and Albert “June” Gardner—is seemingly endless. However, the drummer who perhaps embodied the sound of New Orleans most perfectly, and who played on the most successful records made in New Orleans, is the great John Boudreaux.
“What John Boudreaux was doing on drums deserves a special look,” said Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack. “Instead of playing a backbeat on the snare drum, he played all four beats on the snare, a little New Orleans funk cha-cha. Suddenly, the Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’ and other Motown hits had John’s groove stamped on them. They didn’t know how to play as funky as Boudreaux, but you could hear it all the same.” Boudreaux left New Orleans in the early 1960s with his AFO associates and is the only one to not yet move back home. In January he returned briefly to help orchestrate the release of his first solo CD release. Luckily, we caught up with him during his brief visit.
Where and when were you born?
December 10, 1936, New Roads, Louisiana. My grandmother lived in New Orleans. She liked to take care of me, so my mother brought me back and forth from New Roads to New Orleans a lot. When I was 10 or 12, my mother, her mother, and my mother’s sister, put their money together and bought a house on St. Philip Street, right across the street from the Caldonia Inn.
Besides yourself, did anyone else in your family play music?
My grandfather played the bass drum and he was the Grand Marshal in the New Roads Mardi Gras parade.
How did you get interested in music?
I wanted to play saxophone but the drum and the saxophone were two different prices. The drum—we’re talking snare drum—was a lot cheaper, so my mother bought the drum. That’s how I started playing drums. I must have been 14 then.
You played in school bands?
I played in grammar school at Craig and then I went to Booker T. Washington [High School]. I played in the marching band and the concert band. Then I transferred to Clark and played in their bands.
Early in your career you played with Professor Longhair. How did that come about?
The first time I played with Professor Longhair was about 1952. I was never his regular drummer—I just played a few gigs with him. He would never call me to play with him, but he’d have someone else call me. I guess he had other drummers ahead of me. The first place we played was in a little park by the Lafitte Projects. There was me, Fess and Harold Battiste on saxophone.
Was the Hawkettes the first band you played with regularly?
Yes. Several great musicians came through the Hawkettes. George Davis, Morris Bechamin, Carol Joseph, Israel Bell, Al August, Auguste Fleury. [Mac] Lil’ Millet was the original singer, that was before Artee, Art Neville, came along. Art was on the record we did, “Mardi Gras Mambo.” We were a young band and popular with teenagers. We played a lot of homecoming dances and after football game dances. A lot of them were at Clark because most of the guys in the band went to Clark.
Tell us about making “Mardi Gras Mambo.”
That was my first recording session. We cut that at a radio station [WWOZ] for Jack the Cat [Ken Elliot] in 1954. He brought us the song. They tell me the original version was country and western, but I never heard it. George Davis was responsible for arranging our record because he was the most musically advanced member of the group. The record [issued on Chess] was popular as soon as it hit the airwaves and it’s been a popular Mardi Gras song ever since.
Was Paul Gayten [Chess’ local A&R man] involved in the session?
He was in the studio, but he didn’t offer any insight into what we were doing musically.
Were you with the Hawkettes long?
The leader of the Hawkettes was “Boy Blue”—Carol Joseph. He went away to attend Southern University. He’d come back every two or three weeks to play a gig, but while he was away, Art Neville kind of scooped the band away from him. He started doing most of the singing and the band went along with it. I left the Hawkettes to go on the road backing a phony Shirley and Lee. Looking back on it, that was one of the worst mistakes I ever made. You see the Hawkettes didn’t really have a name at the time  and Morris Bechamin called me. He had left the Hawkettes and was putting a band behind the phony Shirley and Lee. We got caught by Billy Diamond [Shirley & Lee’s manager] in Little Rock, but we couldn’t really hurt Shirley & Lee—they were too big. Billy sat down and talked to our manager, Curtis Grosley, but we went on to the next job and played. That gig only last about a month though [Newspaper reports at the time stated that the phony duo, Charles Allen and Symetress Calloway, were arrested and a $75,000 suit was filed against them by Shirley and Lee].
I started playing with Eddie Bo. I never went on the road with him but I played all the local dates. Sam Alcorn, James Prevost, Irving Bannister, Robert Parker and sometimes Nat Perrillat were in the band. That was a very good band. Somebody told me I made a couple of sessions with Bo, but I really can’t remember. I also did a little bit of work with [booking agent] Percy Stovall’s band. I also played in the house band at the Dew Drop behind Charles Brown, Big Maybelle and Joe Tex. The Dew Drop was entertainment at its best. They had full shows with music, comedians and dancers. Patsy Vidalia [the emcee] was a show by himself. Then of course there was the Magnificent Malouche—Esquerita. I played behind him, or her, several times.
How was it that all of a sudden you were the main studio drummer in New Orleans?
Ha, ha, I have no idea—I’m still surprised. I got to know Mac Rebennack and he started using me on sessions [at Ric and Ron]. The first thing we did might have been Irma Thomas’ “Don’t Mess With My Man.” Then there was Professor Longhair’s “Go To the Mardi Gras.” Mac was also doing sessions for John Vincent [Ace Records] and he used me on those sessions too. I did quite a bit of work with Mac at the time. Then Allen Toussaint hired me and he started having hits. I played on K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law” and all of his hits. I played on Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That” and “Land of A Thousand Dances.” I played on Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya.” Allen was supposed to play on that but he couldn’t at the last minute [Toussaint was under contract to Minit and Dorsey was on Fury Records], so he told Marcel Richardson what to play on the piano.
What was it like recording for Allen Toussaint?
You couldn’t always play what you felt recording with Allen. On his sessions, he dictated what he wanted. He told me he didn’t want me to play cymbals. Anything I wanted to play with my right hand I had to play on the rim of the floor tom-tom. If you listen real close to some of those records you hear a clicking sound—that’s me hitting the side of the floor tom. Other producers like Mac and Harold Battiste weren’t so strict. They let you play whatever you felt. They might have come up with a suggestion, but they
would never say, “Don’t do this,” or “Don’t do that.” Sometimes Harold would write your part, but he’d just tell you to play off that. But give Allen a lot of credit, he had a lot of successful records.
Then came the AFO [All For One] Executives?
I was surprised I got that because almost all those other guys in AFO had their own bands. I was playing with Mel Lastie’s band when Harold Battiste called me. That was a unique band because we played all types of music. Jazz, blues, country and Dixieland.
AFO got off to a good start.
Yeah we had the record on Prince La La [“She Put the Hurt On Me”] and Barbara George’s “I Know.”
Barbara George has recently resurfaced—what was she like?
She was laid back and very very quiet. Harold kind of took her under his wing, but in the end, she listened to the wrong person and went against Harold and AFO.
Your referring to Sue Records’ Juggy Murray?
Yeah. I never had any dealing with him—Harold and Melvin [Lastie] did that for us.
Tell us about AFO’s immigration to California.
We went out there as a band—I mean a popping band, we were clicking. We were just like one, and we almost never rehearsed. I was excited to go because I wanted to go some place where I could study music. I wasn’t getting that here. I learned from playing with great musicians, but I wanted to get a legitimate music education. There was a radio announcers convention in Los Angeles  and Harold told us, “Let’s go out there with the option to stay.” We all said, “Okay.” They loved us at the radio announcers convention, but when we tried to get other gigs, nobody cared. You see we were playing a variety of music and the clubs weren’t ready for that. They wanted you to play just one style of music—jazz, funk, blues or Dixieland. You weren’t suppose to mix them up. That kind of split us up because the guys in the group had to go around looking for other gigs. I was still trying to learn to play, so I took gigs with artists like Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vincent.
Sam Cooke hired the band to record with some of the artists he had on his label [Sar and Derby]—Johnnie Taylor, Johnnie Morisette, the Sims Twins, the Valentinos and the Soul Stirrers. But the band couldn’t buy a gig out there even though we all top notch musicians. You needed money to live in Los Angeles so we all had to hustle work wherever we could. Some guys like Chuck [Badie] and Red [Tyler] went back to New Orleans.
What made you stay?
My family came out right after we [AFO] got here and that kind of made me stay. I didn’t want to drag them back to New Orleans and start all over again. In the 1960s I was happy with the music and I was staying busy freelancing with a lot of people. There were a lot of heavy cats out there I was working with. Harold got into the production end of the business and he hired me on quite a few sessions. In fact we worked on the early Sonny and Cher recordings. I hooked up with Mac again and worked on the Gris-Gris album. That’s when his career started to take off. Him and Harold came up with that concept during the Haight-Ashbury era. I enjoyed that music because it allowed me to really be creative. I love Mac, but back then he started getting involved with some people I didn’t really like, so I quit playing with him. I thought working with all these different artists would eventually work in my favor but in the end it really didn’t. Looking back I think it was a mistake to leave New Orleans.
You worked with a lot of other New Orleans cats out there didn’t you?
Oh yeah. Alvin “Shine” Robinson, Jessie Hill, Shirley Goodman, Tami Lynn, Plas Johnson, David Lastie, Paul Gayten, King Floyd. A lot of artists from New Orleans went out there trying to get a break.
Tell us about your new project?
It’s a modern jazz CD. It’s tracks from a lot of different sessions, some from five years ago. I just worked on it a little bit at a time. Bobby Love has a label here in New Orleans, Uptown Ruler, and he’s putting it out. It seems like it’s taking forever but that’s the music business.
You told me you’re playing saxophone now.
Yeah it’s a good thing I learned saxophone because I can’t play drums right now. I got some nerve damage in my [right] elbow and the muscle in my hand has disintegrated. The doctors think it might have deteriorated because I have diabetes. They want to take the nerve from one side of my elbow and reattach it to the other side. They think that will work and I can start playing again. I can’t wait.
What do you do when you come back to New Orleans?
I call my friends to find out where they’re playing and go see them. Of course I go out to eat because I really miss New Orleans food. But on this last trip I was sort of disappointed by what I had to eat. Unfortunately, the last few times I’ve been back here, someone I know has died. It’s gotten to the point where I always pack a dark suit with me because I know I’m going to go to a funeral.
Why has New Orleans produced so many great drummers?
Well first of all, there’s so many different styles of music here and the drummers have to be able to handle them all. Secondly, the parades. In any other city in the world when you say parade, people there think military parade. Of course in New Orleans it’s not military, it’s a funky, second line parade. New Orleans drummers have to learn that second line beat. Any gig you play in New Orleans, at some point you’re going to have to play that second line beat. That’s what makes the New Orleans drum style so unique.