Among the contenders for New Orleans’ Funkiest Songs of All Time is drummer Joseph “Smokey” Johnson’s “It Ain’t My Fault,” wherein Smokey accomplishes the feat–via one rhythmic pattern performed on the high-hat cymbals and yet another on the bass drum–of sounding like two drummers at once. As his friend and fellow drummer Bob French has often remarked, Smokey is the only drummer in the world who can correctly play “It Ain’t My Fault.”
Since 1964, a variety of musicians, including the Olympia Brass Band, the ReBirth Brass Band, D.J. Melo-Mix, Kid Fresh, Mystikal, Silkk tha Shocker and Mariah Carey, have either recorded their own versions of “It Ain’t My Fault” or sampled the original rhythm (as is the case with Ms. Carey, who titles her rendition “Did I Do That?”).
Smokey, for many years the drummer in Antoine “Fats” Domino’s band, is now partially paralyzed as the result of a stroke and no longer plays the drums. We interviewed him at his New Orleans East home, where he devotes much of his energy to tending a beautiful subtropical garden.
I was born in New Orleans on November 14, 1936. I was raised in the Treme. The thing about New Orleans is that I was born and raised here. I know everybody. New Orleans is the place for me. I notice that everybody who leaves, they come back. I started playing drums when I was about 12 years old. Before I started on the drums, I was on the trombone. I played in the school band at Craig School and I played at Clark High.
My music teacher used to live next door to me–her name was Yvonne Bush. She taught all the cats that can play–John Boudreaux, James Black, Arthur Reed, Nat Perrilliat, George Davis. She was a trombone player. Her sister was a drummer–Dolores Bush. I used to always be banging on her drums so I just moved over to the drums.
With Yvonne Bush, you had to learn everything. Another thing–we all played two instruments, the cats in the band with her. She just did it that way.
Back in those days, we had to get permission to play in the clubs–the principal had to sign. I started playing in clubs when I was about 17. The most popular joint was the Dew Drop. I played at the Tiajuana and I would go on the road with different cats during my summer vacation. I was playing with Sugar Boy [Crawford]–the band was called the Cane Cutters or the Chapaka Shaweez. Then I played with Roy Brown a while.
I wasn’t doing too many sessions until my uncle introduced me to Dave Bartholomew. What happened–Earl Palmer left town and my uncle introduced me to Dave and I did a big band album with Dave. After I did that album, I was recording with everybody.
Dave Bartholomew was like this: you’re allowed to make a mistake but you can’t keep making the same mistake. Or else somebody else will be sitting in your place. That’s the way to be because those recording sessions cost money and you can’t be goofing off.
I was in Fats Domino’s band for 23 years and I did a lot of recording with him. We toured all over the world. When I played with Fats, we worked one hour a night. I did that for 23 years. The longest we would play is an hour, 15 minutes. Most of the time we’d be living in the same hotel. Go play the gig, go right back upstairs and watch TV.
I’d get tired of playing the same songs every night. I’d know what Fats was gonna play before he’d play it. But when you think about that money–yeah! “I Found My Thrill”–that’s what them people are coming to hear. When I played with Fats, I did what I was supposed to do.
When we got back home, we had gigs on Saturdays and Sundays and we played what we wanted–straight-ahead jazz. It was me and [saxophonist] Fred Kemp, [pianist] Ed Frank and [bassist] Erving Charles.
New Orleans drummers–I’ll put it this way: in the ’60s, I went to Detroit, to Motown. Earl King was there. When I got to Motown, they had two drummers on recording sessions. When I got there, there was just me–by myself. I had the New Orleans thing. New Orleans drummers was playing different than any other drummers anyway. Anywhere you go in the world, New Orleans drummers–they had their thing.
The difference is the bass drum. The cats don’t play the bass drum nowhere else. New Orleans drummers–they’re laying it down. That comes from hearing them street parades, them marching bands and all that–you hear that bass drum. When they start to play, they learn how to play the bass drum.
In l964, we was up there at One-Stop Record Shop on Rampart Street–me, Wardell [Quezergue], [guitarist] George Davis, Carl Blouin on baritone, Curtis Mitchell on bass, Walter Kimball playing soprano saxophone. We was rehearsing one day–we used to do a whole lot of recording sessions out of there. So Wardell’s sitting by the piano. And I was playing this beat. I said, “Check this beat out, Wardell.” So we got it together right there, by the piano. It took us about ten minutes to put the tune together. “It Ain’t My Fault”–that’s where it was born at. Cos [Matassa] told me, he say, “Wotcha gonna name that, Smokey?” I said, “I don’t know–it ain’t my fault!”
I did “Big Chief”–man, that was one night. We was up at Cosimo’s [recording studio]–Professor Longhair, Earl King, Wardell. Professor Longhair said, “What are all them cats doing over there with all them horns?” He didn’t know they was going to use a big band for “Big Chief.” Fess was sitting down playing that riff and the big band hit. Man, he jumped up–”What’s going on here?!” Wardell said, “Don’t worry about nothing–just play what you’re playing.” We did some takes on that tune. We must’ve did about 35 takes. My hand was bleeding from playing the drums. You heard it–it’s a good session.
Earl King’s “Trick Bag”–that’s a good song I played on. Cannonball Adderley used to come to New Orleans all the time and he liked that song. That’s what I like–they used to let me play what I wanted to play. I don’t have nothing against people writing their own parts but I don’t believe nobody can write for a drummer.
Dave used to have me playing all kinda crazy things–I did a recording session on a garbage can cover. I used to bust the heads of my drums and play that way. Dave used to be looking for all kinda different sounds. On “Big Chief,” I was playing on the side of the floor tom and the rims of the snare drum.
I used to walk the streets with drumsticks in my hands, beating on everything. And it comes out. Drums will take you places you never thought you’d go. Places I used to read about in grammar school and high school. Drums’ll do it for you. You won’t have to work hard. If I don’t play no more, it’s all right ’cause I played a long time.