Jimmy Horn is the kind of character you only find in New Orleans. America used to turn them out everywhere, but the country has been culturally homogenized to the point where everyone is wearing some kind of uniform all the time, even if it’s the uniform of the nonconformist. But somehow New Orleans still allows the cantankerous individual to cut his or her own swath through society.
Horn is a bright guy with an aggressive style and an uncanny sense for self-promotion, even in his most confrontational moments. He relishes conflict and has trolled the universe with some of the most provocative online strings I’ve ever encountered. His battle with the Krewe of Chewbaccus over the nature of second lining reads like an epistolary novel. Some find him difficult but everybody I know has gone to see his band King James and the Special Men at least once. The band is a musical menagerie, a hallucinatory glimpse into the world of ’50s/’60s New Orleans R&B that completely avoids the kind of period homage that so much neo-retro New Orleans music suffers from. His horn section, which is singular in the originality of its arrangements, contains some of the top players in the city. These guys also play in some of the more neo-retro bands as well, but in those contexts they tend to stick closer to the stock arrangements that period music thrives on.
Horn understands that the appeal of the classic New Orleans R&B came partly from the sheer wildness of frontmen like Ernie K-Doe and Jessie Hill. You might see him fronting the band looking like a Bowery Boy ready for action, then the next time like a high pink pimp in full regalia or a virtually naked superfreak in a barely opaque shroud. Or, as a California reviewer put it in writing about a rare out-of-town Special Men performance, “a plumber.” Horn has so far deliberately chosen to play away from the tourist centers, following a long run at BJ’s deep in the Bywater with a short stint at Sidney’s on St. Bernard before settling on what seems to be the perfect venue for another Monday date, the Saturn Bar. Along the way he turned BJ’s into a tourist center by attracting the Treme video team to that deep Bywater outpost along with out-of-towners like Elvis Costello and Robert Plant.
People who haven’t been listening closely enough have referred to this outfit as a cover band, but Horn has dealt a fatal blow to such criticism by dropping a pre-apocalyptic bomb of a recording, Act Like You Know, on his own Special Man Industries label. It combines the ancient tropes of Caribbean music, New Orleans blues and R&B with Horn’s own brand of mythologizing. Special Man Industries is set to release a series of vinyl and digital releases over the next few months, new recordings with the Special Men as the house band by Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, Leyla McCalla, the Young Seminole Hunters Mardi Gras Indian gang and Louis Michot from the Lost Bayou Ramblers.
Onstage Horn can be as intense as Cagney, but in his everyday guise he is a good listener and a better storyteller. He walked into Bud Rip’s on a scorching late summer afternoon, sat at the bar and ordered a beer. The sun streamed through the side door looking out onto Burgundy Street, but inside the darkened bar the air was still and cool. The beer glasses sweated and reflected the images of the few people day drinking to avoid the heat outside. Across Piety Street the original Schwegmann’s from 1895 sat shuttered, broken and cursed since Katrina. An old bottle of Schwegmann’s bourbon used to sit behind the bar; now there were craft whiskeys on the shelves and microbrews on tap. But there was still the sense of a ghost world at hand, and as he put down his glass Horn began a story that could only come from the dusty annals of a romantic and eccentric youth.
“I was born in Utah. I left when I was five. It was a farm. Our crops were mainly feed for the animals. Utah is very arid, so a lot of water was what my grandfather described as jerkwater. A lot of it was runoff, so we used to go out there with shovels and change the ditches for the runoff a couple of times a day. Outhouse. Cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens. I loved it. I didn’t know anything different. I had a very rich childhood. Surrounded by petroglyphs. The state of Utah is basically a rectangle with the corner cut out. 98 percent of the population lived in two major metropolitan areas at the extreme northern and southern corners of the state. The entire rest of the state is sheep. The northern half of the state is white, chalk-like talc white dirt. The southern half of the state is red—red rocks, red clay. Where I come from in the state you can walk to a spot where the white and the red form a line that just bump into each other. That, and the petroglyphs, and the stars, the animals—I was very happy as a kid.
“Not only was I living in this eighteenth-century landscape, but my father was a textbook audiophile. Hi-fi to the ceiling, the record collection… So we had an outhouse and a Bosendorfer turntable. So I started with my dad’s records. One day, Jimi Hendrix. The next, Little Richard. I was listening to Jimi Hendrix when I was five years old. My father got shipped to Illinois, where I went to school and went back to the farm for the summer. Then my mother took me and my brother back to Utah, where I did fifth grade, then she took us to the outskirts of Seattle, where I did sixth and seventh grade. Then my mother and I split up for a while, and my father had been transferred to Susquehanna Township, Pennsylvania. That’s where I discovered punk rock. I was not interested in sports. I was interested in punk rock and skipping school. That was my main focus in Pennsylvania, was skipping school and playing punk rock. I really loved the energy. Years later I realized Little Richard was as punk as all get out. Fats Domino bumping his piano across the stage, that’s punk as hell. Guitar Slim dying his hair all crazy. Jimi Hendrix got that from Guitar Slim.
“I got here in ’93. Completely on a whim. Playing on the streets. Washboard Lissa Driscoll introduced me to the entire city of New Orleans. When I got here I was green, a wide-eyed kid. She was the one who showed me patience. She introduced me to Sheik Rasheed. He had played with Sun Ra. We had a good band for a while. I knew about Sun Ra and we figured it out from there. I played saxophone. We had some people from Sun Ra’s band who came through town to play with us, we had Kidd Jordan play with us, I didn’t even know who he was then. It was amazing. To meet him while he was taking a 20-minute solo on a piece of music I wrote, it was transformative. He shared some notation with me and Rasheed. They weren’t scales, they were exercises where you’d run up and down these different intervals on an octave and your way up and your way down was different every single time. They weren’t modes, they weren’t scales. It was an ear exercise. You sit there and read ’em off the paper and just keep putting different notes together and what you’re doing is forcing yourself to slowly hear different intervals. That’s the most I really learned about music was during those years. Sun Ra changed my life. Those are the people who inspired me. They might not make the same kind of music but it’s music, the craft of making music, and recording it, is a medium on to itself. So people like Sun Ra and Dave Bartholomew influenced me in very similar ways. It doesn’t matter that they don’t play the same music, because if you boil it down they do, they play American music, which, you know, is largely African.
“It’s all American music. When you strip away a lot of the pretense and artifice of what is popular music now you’re gonna find the exact same elements in play. You’re gonna need a good rhythm section, you’re gonna need a good melody and song forms that say what they’ve always said. Nothing has changed. The same chord changes you hear on a Rihanna record you can hear on an old record from the ’20s if you look at it. It’s a living, breathing tradition.
“A lot of the time I was just playing on the streets or helping out artsy types down here in the Ninth Ward: ‘We’re having a party at Quintron’s. We’ve got this crazy idea for decorations, I’ve got this idea for costumes.’ I was very serious and wanted to do all this intellectual space jazz, Sun Ra, Coltrane. But I would play rock ‘n’ roll too. When Quintron called me up back in the day I would show up and do anything. ‘Hey we’ve got somebody dressed up like a woman and we need you to make noise.’ Back then my mortgage to live in a 250-year-old Greek Revival with a double veranda was $80 a month. I was delivering food on a bicycle in the early ’90s making well over 100 dollars a day. I was making recordings that I would play at parties. I hoarded the stuff. It was for my own personal enjoyment. I wish I had all those tapes now. Business was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to have fun. I’ve never been one to live a certain way with hopes of having fun in my eighties when I retire. I’m trying to get everything I can out of life now.
“I met Ernie K-Doe through Quintron. Quintron had met Ernie and brought him to his club/house, the Spellcaster, which was 20 years ago, I guess. Ernie came to the Spellcaster and did a show where Ernie sang over his own CDs. I immediately thought to myself. Wow. Wow, wow, wow… Wow… Wow. After the initial shock and awe of the show wore off I thought ‘This guy needs a band.’ It was a freak show. It was definitely a spectacle, yet he sang very well. That was really the beginning of the Special Men, seeing K-Doe at the Spellcaster and thinking ‘Wow this guy needs a band.’ After that I was intrigued and I went to the Mother-in-Law on my own. It was Ernie, Antoinette and Rico Watts there, no one else. Ernie and Antoinette were having a chat and Rico was off to the side, playing his keyboard. I was maybe 21. I walked in, I sat at the bar. Ernie was on my side of the bar, speaking through an air horn and Antoinette was on her side of the bar speaking through a microphone attached to the PA system. Antoinette got the last word in, put her hand on the bar, leaned in to me, and with the most gracious voice, and a face to match it, asked me if there was anything she could get me. I became a regular fixture at the bar and Antoinette took me under her wing. She introduced me to Earl King as her son. She told Rico one day that God must have mixed up with us because he was the whitest black man she’d ever seen and I was the blackest white man she’d ever seen and maybe we’d got mixed up. She told Ernie that I was her illegitimate son she’d had with Elvis. There’s a lot of time I could have been doing this music business stuff but I was spending my time hanging out at the Mother-in-Law with Antoinette and Ernie, then up in Mississippi with Jessie Mae Hemphill.
“We started the band at K-Doe’s right around 2000, and we were at the Matador. We played Mondays and Wednesdays at K-Doe’s and Fridays at the Matador for happy hour. That might have been for two years and that’s when I started spending time out of town. I moved to Alabama briefly, and then the band stopped. I’ve explained this before, but when we first started it was all about learning the material and immersing ourselves in it. There was no point to it beyond that, it was just ‘We love this, we want more of this. Let’s just push this as hard as we can.’ Me and Chris Davis had books and books and sheets and sheets of music and lyrics and we worked like crazy people. I was playing piano. I’m a terrible pianist but I can play ‘Walking to New Orleans.’ So that’s how it started, with Fats. Then I started spending time with Jessie Mae Hemphill, going back between Jessie Mae and Antoinette. I moved to Alabama but I was driving over here once a week, playing at the Dragon’s Den solo or with Chris Davis on drums. Doing a country blues thing because that’s what I did when I didn’t have a band, played slide guitar on some country stuff. When I was with Rasheed I played tenor saxophone. I also played upright bass in a trio with him.
“What did I learn from K-Doe? K-Doe would drop pearls of wisdom on me like ‘Why run around in circles trying to prove yourself while the truth is standing pat?’ That was the kind of shit he’d say.
“Antoinette would be giving me little pointers on how to be an entertainer. It was really just like egging me on. Back in the day at the Mother-in-Law it was like the clubhouse. You’d be sitting there talking to some old timer for two or three hours drinking High Life and Antoinette would say ‘Oh he’s one of the original Ink Spots.’ We’d be playing there, Walter [‘Wolfman’ Washington] would come in and take Pork Chop’s [John Rodli] guitar and start playing with us, and he wouldn’t give that guitar back for an hour. They’d come to see Antoinette and she’d say ‘Check out my little white boys.’ She told me ‘I’m your manager. Call me Mama.’ When she met my mother, first thing out of her mouth she said ‘Baby I got you.’ Remember Brown Sugar, the DJ? She had us play her family reunion.
“I owe a lot to the Special Men. Clint Maedgen was our original saxophone player. The first version was like school. Surrounded by elders, egging us on. Over the next ten years I came a long way as a songwriter. Jessie Mae helped me a lot in that regard. Giving me the confidence: ‘Call yourself King James.’ I thought it was kind of arrogant and she said ‘You’ll grow into it.’ It’s all about being yourself. I’m not gonna be out there singing like Son House, but singing about cell phones. So I was listening to punk and Trouble Funk and rap music, and putting all that into it. My tastes are very wide. It’s not about I’m gonna do this project and I’m gonna do this project. It’s about why are you doing this at all? How do you do it to make yourself happy in all the different ways and still hope to be able to connect with the people outside your inner circle? It wasn’t a new thing, it wasn’t a decision to go in this direction, it was just playing rock ‘n’ roll like you always have.
“I’m not a big fan of phone voice: ‘Hi! What can I do for you? Thanks for coming out tonight.’ I like to be a little more… myself. I’ve reeled it in a bunch. I’ve been called abrasive. I try to be fair. But at the end of the day a lot of that stuff is just opinions. We all have ’em. As far as being the voice of the band, yeah, I think it would be really easy for me to dress up in a costume as if I was born sometime I wasn’t and try to relive something that’s been buried for decades. But I’m just doin’ me, what comes naturally.
“Everything I’ve always needed was here, I just was ignorant to it. Whether I wanted to jam out on some Sun Ra or some Lee Scratch Perry or some Junior Kimbrough… I want people to come see us and take away their troubles and lose their ambition even if it’s just for two hours.
“How did I find the band? They were already there man. They were waiting for me. First there was Chris Davis. Like I said we were doing all this intellectual jazz with Rasheed. But I was in my 20s and I wanted to party. So Chris and I decided to start another project where we could drink cheap beer and party. We borrowed a piano—I didn’t even really know how to play it—and we got this guy Punchy, a bass player who worked at the gazebo, he used to play Earl King and all that kind of shit, he was our first bass player. There’s Dominick.”
As if on cue, Special Men baritone saxophonist Dominick Grillo ambled into the bar. Small talk ensued, more drinks were poured and Horn continued his story.
“Once I had the band up and running again I realized ‘Man I’m a terrible singer.’ I sing ’cause I have to and I do enjoy it but I’m terrible at it. I’m very self-aware of my capabilities and my limitations. When I write I’m limiting these words so that they fit within my own capacity as a singer. So then I decided to write songs for other people. As soon as I started imagining I could write a song for a female singer it worked and I got Alynda Lee Segarra to sing it. Dave Bartholomew man, Tom Dowd, Sun Ra, they didn’t just write a few songs. I learned a long time ago to stop idolizing people… Kings and queens and the pope and whoever, Fats Domino, they’re all just human beings. I used to idolize people. Jessie Mae helped me with that. She said ‘They’re just people like you are. Don’t let it die with them. Be like them. Do it.’ Music isn’t creative, music is just heard. I don’t create music, I hear it and I come through with it. I’m the instrument. Good music writes itself. The music tells you what comes next.
“I wrote a song for Alynda, she would come see us on Monday night at BJ’s and I thought she’d go for it and she did. I wrote the song for my own vision but imagining I had her capacity as a singer. Once I had that song for Alynda I was hot to trot. The brain was kicking all those rewards at me. I had Louis Michot come in. We had a working agreement, Goat and I, I would bring in music and he was gonna record it. Andrew Goat Gilchrist, he worked with Maceo Parker, he worked with the Nevilles and the Meters for years and years. So we decided to put out a series of singles with other artists. So I had Louis translate one of my songs into Cajun French and we recorded it. Then Leyla McCalla came in and did a song. I made an alliance with a Mardi Gras Indian gang, the Young Seminole Hunters. They needed my help as much as I wanted to be a part of what they were doing. We started making a full-length album. That’s for spring. We’re talking to Corey Ledet about a full-length album. Just looking for more and more of this kind of thing. We have a record plant right here in the Ninth Ward. Act Like You Know is the first record pressed there. Vinyl and downloads. We’ve been compiling live recordings for a long time. I’ve got stacks of them. We will release something live but not right away. Right now I’m mainly concerned with establishing the identity of the label which is the Caribbean to Lafayette, with New Orleans at the center. It helps me to understand my birthright, American music, which is largely African, with a little bit of European form and songwriting mixed in. I have a goal to put Derrick Tabb in the same room with some Haitian drummers and start talking about Congolese sticking patterns.
“What do I think about gentrification? Change is the only thing that stays the same. You can’t fight it, as much as I’d like to. The town has always been full of transients. I came here from somewhere else too. It’s about assimilation. It’s also about upward mobility. Until I set foot here I never once thought about New Orleans. It never entered my consciousness as part of America. I think a lot of people never thought about New Orleans until Katrina was all over the news. This town has been what it was. Our water pipes, our electrical grid, it’s all crazy. Louisiana politics is insane. All of a sudden it goes from being a place where you could live in a 250-year-old Greek Revival with a double veranda for $80 a month to a place filled with a lot of young people who because of their economic status don’t have to assimilate in order to gain a foothold. What are you gonna do, hate people for being better off? Every day on this side of the dirt is a good day. You’ve got Syrian refugees, and here people are worrying about how bad Cox cable service is. ‘I had to use my cell phone to go on Facebook.’ I miss old New Orleans. Am I gonna leave? No. You’ve got people who were born here who can’t afford to rent an apartment. That’s what I’m talking about. All the cultural stuff, and the little white kids in the neighborhood with their artisanal cheeses… I like artisanal cheese. I don’t want to have to go to France just to get real cheese. I make red beans. I don’t want to live in a New Orleans where people can’t make gumbo or fried chicken. You can’t change everything. You can go out and complain, or you can just be out there every day trying to do your part to make sure your city doesn’t die on you.”