Five nights a week the Bourbon Street Five perform in the Monteleone Hotel’s Carousel Lounge. Unbeknownst to the tourists and conventioneers casually listening to the band run through their extensive repertoire of Dixieland and New Orleans standards is that they are being entertained by Lawrence Cotton, a pianist who has played in no less than four of the greatest New Orleans rhythm and blues bands of all time. Cotton, an energetic 73, played with Guitar Slim’s band under the leadership of Lloyd Lambert, Edgar Blanchard and the Gondoliers, Danny White and the Cavaliers, and Dave Bartholomew’s Orchestra. Consider that resume?
Lawrence Cotton was born February 2, 1927, and still lives in the Uptown section of New Orleans, only a couple of blocks from where he grew up. It was his father provided his initial musical inspiration.
“He was a natural piano player,” recalled Cotton. “My father could have gone far with music if he’d have gone to the French Quarter and pursued it but he never did. He worked up and down the river on boats and at a grain elevator. He didn’t play in clubs, but he was the king of the house parties. Back then people would sell beer and liquor at their house on Saturday night and a couple of piano players would come by. I was too young to appreciate it at the time, but a lot of great piano players came by the house. I remember one fellow only played in the black keys, like G flat and F sharp. There were a lot of piano players I never heard of, but they all could play.”
In the mid-1940s, Cotton’s mother died and he briefly moved to Los Angeles where he lived with an uncle. He returned to New Orleans in March 1946 when his draft notice arrived and was promptly sent to boot camp at Fort Smith, Arkansas.
“I spent 36 months in the Army Air Force,” said Cotton. “I made Sergeant and almost made a career out of the military. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a good job and really I appreciated discipline. I was sent to typing school and I learned all the facets of running an office. It was good training for the rest of my life.”
Like many black servicemen returning to New Orleans, Cotton took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled at Grunewald’s School of Music. After a year studying theory and reading, in 1950 he was offered a job with Hosea Hill’s Serenaders, a group based in nearby Thibodaux, led by bassist Lloyd Lambert.
“Lloyd came by the school looking for a piano player and I wound playing with the group on weekends at a place called Happy’s Corral across the River in Harvey,” said Cotton. “In December of 1952 we all joined the Musician’s Union. Besides myself and Lloyd in the band, there was Gus Fontenet on saxophone, “Turk” John Girard on trumpet, and the original drummer’s name I can’t remember, but he was from Thibodaux. Later we hired Oscar Moore.”
The Serenaders eventually changed their name to Lloyd Lambert’s Orchestra and were paired with the original Master of the Telecaster, Guitar Slim.
“Slim was playing at the Tiajuana on Saratoga Street before he moved over to the Dew Drop,” said Cotton. “That’s when Frank Painia [the owner of the Dew Drop] and Hosea [who owned the Sugar Bowl in Thibodaux] started booking him. Lloyd had made the record with Slim [‘The Things That I Used To Do’] but then he went on on the road with Roy Brown. We kept the band together and used another fellow from Thibodaux, [possibly Lou Williams] on bass. When Lloyd came back home he said, ‘Our band is just as good as any of those bands out on the road.’ And he had heard B.B. King and Lionel Hampton play. In the meantime, ‘The Things That I Used To Do’ started taking off and Lloyd asked me if I’d go on the road with Slim. I told my wife I’d be gone a couple of weeks, but I wound up out there three years. The first place we played was the Apollo Theater. The Shaw Agency took over our booking and we traveled all over the country behind Slim.
“I had never met Slim before going on the road with him. He was a beautiful guy and had natural raw talent. Slim wasn’t an accomplished musician and had to play a clamp (capo) on the guitar so he was in the same key with the band. But Slim was like the pied piper; people followed him everywhere like they were in a trance. Slim had a long cable for his guitar. We had this big husky valet Jimmy that carried Slim out of the clubs on his shoulders. Slim would keep playing without missing a beat. We played a job once in Vacherie [Louisiana] where Slim climbed up in the rafters of the club with his guitar and the people went berserk.
“Slim was a character, he’d dye his hair and his shoes red to match his suit some nights, but he wasn’t a dumb person. If you sat down and talked to him he made a lot of sense. He knew a lot about the Bible and probably would have been a powerful preacher if he wanted to be. Slim used to have a recurring dream about a beautiful woman that would come to him. He’d reach out to embrace her but as soon as he did, she would turn into a demon. Some times I’d be driving the station wagon and he be asleep in the seat next to me. He’d wake up screaming and grab my arm. I had to push him away or we’d get in a wreck.”
Cotton recorded with Slim in Chicago, California, New York and New Orleans, although after “The Things That I Used To Do” Slim’s sales dropped. Cotton remained tastefully in the background, but his New Orleans touch on the piano was certainly a high point on Slim’s releases. In 1955, Specialty (Slim’s label), recorded Cotton’s inspired instrumental “King Cotton,” which did quite well in the Deep South.
After five years with Slim, Cotton gave his notice in December of 1958.
“My wife’s father had a stroke and I got tired of ripping and running on the road,” said Cotton. “The agency would book us here one night, the next in Tallahassee, then Jacksonville. It doesn’t sound like much now, but that was before there were Interstate highways. Plus there was segregation. We couldn’t use the bathroom at some gas stations or get a decent meal. “
Two months after Cotton’s departure, Slim died of pneumonia in New York City.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Cotton. “He used to tell me, ‘Cotton, I live two days to your one.’ Slim didn’t take care of himself. He drank so much that he had the DTs. Some nights he’d come off the stage ringing wet and go straight outside in freezing weather. Lloyd told me he was driving around in New York in the winter with no heater in his car right before he died. But you know if Slim was alive today, he would have been bigger than that guy that had “Boom, Boom, Boom” [John Lee Hooker] or any of those other blues guys. Slim was a hell of an entertainer.”
After his stint with Slim, Cotton joined Edgar Blanchard and the Gondoliers, replacing Jake Myles.
“Edgar was a tremendous musician,” said Cotton. “He could sing, arrange and play the guitar. We played at Gordon Natal’s on Chef Highway for three years and then went to Mobile for two years. People just didn’t realize the talent Edgar had. Man, he went out on the road with the original Ink Spots. I made that party record with Edgar [Lets Have A Blast ] but that was the only recording I did with him.”
In 1963, the Gondoliers disbanded and Cotton joined Danny White’s Cavaliers.
“That was another real popular band,” said Cotton. “A lot of times we played two gigs a night. We used to play at the Dream Room on Bourbon Street at four in the morning. All the French Quarter musicians and strippers came by the club. Danny was a hell of an entertainer and he really could sing. Curtis Mitchell [bandleader and bass player] used to listen to every new record that came out and transcribe it to the band. That’s how we were up on all the latest sounds and stayed so popular.”
The Cavaliers broke up once New Orleans R&B fell out of favor with the public and Cotton took a job playing solo piano at the Paddock Lounge alternating with Walter Lewis. In 1966, he took a job with U.S. Customs, attracted by the regular paycheck and the benefits government employment offered.
“I never was out of a gig,” confirmed Cotton. “I worked days at the Custom House and most nights playing music. Dave Bartholomew hired me and I worked with him eight or ten years. We played a long time at the Royal Sonesta. Dave was good guy to work for and straight with everybody. Whatever recognition Dave has gotten, he deserves it.”
When asked to rank the bands he’s played with, Cotton laughed. “That wouldn’t be fair. They each played different styles and they each played very well. My only regret is that I didn’t buy a tape recorder and record the band when I played with Lloyd Lambert. Some nights we sounded so good it would have blown you away. Really that was a remarkable band.”
In 1988, Cotton began working with trumpeter Wallace Davenport at the Monteleone Hotel. Davenport took sick two years ago and and eventually Mitchell Player took over the leader’s position. Amazingly, Cotton, a New Orleans piano legend, albeit largely unsung, is still taking lessons.
“Yeah I go to a private teacher, Roger Dickinson,” said Cotton. “He’s really brought me up to another level. I didn’t know it but I used to play with a jerk because my third and fourth fingers were weak. I’ve done some strengthening exercises and I play real relaxed now. I practice at home a lot and really expanded my repertoire. Roger’s got me working on the minor scales now. You see, music is never-ending thing. If you pursue it, and you want to be good at it, the road never ends.”