Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music: Bo Dollis

Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis was born on January 14, 1944 with an extraordinary gift that eventually made him a sacred figure in New Orleans and a fabulous symbol of the city’s unique culture everywhere else. Dollis had a voice that set him apart. He had a native ability to sing that was apparent from early childhood. He had no formal musical training, and he didn’t come from one of New Orleans’ legendary musical families, but when he sang in church people noticed. At home, Dollis proudly exercised his vocal talents to the delight of friends and visitors and over time developed a soul singer’s voice, full of passion and intensity with a rasp that gave him a wild edge.

Dollis grew up on Jackson Avenue in Central City, where the esoteric African-American society of Mardi Gras Indians offered an alluring and vaguely dangerous brotherhood. The gangs were organized into hierarchies for their street excursions—Big Chiefs, Spy Boys who scouted for opposition gangs, Flag Boys who relayed that information to the Chief, the Wild Man who literally scared people away from the procession. Dollis became fascinated with the elaborately beaded costumes a neighbor fashioned for Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day and started hanging out at a backyard Indian practice in the neighborhood. Dollis’ parents feared the reputation for violence that had built up over the years as gangs from different sections of the city engaged in bloody turf wars. They forbade him from joining up with a tribe, but Dollis secretly sewed his own Indian suit out of fragments from his neighbor’s old costumes and marched on Mardi Gras with the Golden Arrows when he was 13 years old.

The mystical power of the word at the heart of Mardi Gras Indian ritual resided in Dollis, whose preacher’s powers made him stand out after he joined the Wild Magnolias. Though he was a relative newcomer, Dollis quickly rose from Flag Boy to Big Chief in 1964 largely because of his singing ability. As Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, Dollis helped refashion the nature and practices of Mardi Gras Indian culture and protocol through the 1960s, preserving the traditional ritual texts but changing the nature of the competition between tribes and bringing the Indians to a wider audience. Bo Dollis was part of a new breed of Mardi Gras Indians that eschewed violence and sublimated the competition between gangs into a contest of costumes, the prettier and more elaborate the better.

Mardi Gras Indian culture made a dramatic breakthrough to the outside world in 1970 when Dollis and his childhood friend Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles organized a Mardi Gras Indian second line as part of the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which took place across the street from the French Quarter in Congo Square. New Orleans had just emerged from the social restrictions of segregation. It was a truly historic moment for a city scarred by the American original sin of slavery to have an African American secret society lead an integrated public parade to a spot where their ancestors had been sold as chattel. The voice of Bo Dollis called the way into the Promised Land.

Dollis also took a bold step toward opening Mardi Gras Indian culture to the outside world that same year when he and the Wild Magnolias made a commercial recording of their hitherto secret liturgical music, cutting a 45 rpm record produced by Jazz Fest founder Quint Davis, “Handa Wanda.”

The first Wild Magnolias recordings were fairly representative of what the gangs sounded like as they paraded down the street playing small percussion instruments and chanting. But in performance, they had begun to be accompanied by keyboardist Willie Tee, who wrote arrangements for the chants and put together a psychedelic funk backup for them with his band the Gaturs. In 1974 they released the legendary Wild Magnolias album, backed by a New Orleans all-star band that included Willie Tee, his brother Earl Turbinton, Jr. on saxophone, Snooks Eaglin on guitar and Alfred “Uganda” Roberts on percussion. This band’s performance at the Bottom Line in New York made the Magnolias headline news.

Eventually the Wild Magnolias evolved into two performance styles, traditional parade music and a funk/R&B concert band. Over the years, Dollis has led these bands with his commanding vocal presence and by writing some of the most important new compositions in the Mardi Gras Indian canon, including “Handa Wanda” and “Smoke My Peace Pipe.” As a result, the Wild Magnolias have become the most celebrated Mardi Gras Indian tribe, building an international audience and opening up the music’s conceptual borders to the point where Japanese guitarist June Yamagishi joined the band.

Through it all, the keening cry of Bo Dollis’ voice has called the Indians to the parade. But today Dollis can no longer rely on that magnificent instrument. Incapacitated by a stroke and weakened by heart surgery and a three-times-a-week regimen of dialysis treatments, he has difficulty speaking and suffers from memory lapses. His afflictions have not dampened his cheerful spirit, though, and when we arrived at his home above the beauty parlor run by his wife Rita, he greeted us with a warm smile and a firm handshake. It was a sunny fall day and the strong afternoon light illuminated scores of feathery tufts that fell from the Indian suit Dollis’ son Gerard donned for the photo shoot. His speech was halting, but Gerard sat beside him, prompting his memory at times and filling in some historical detail.

Were your parents music fans?

So did you listen to the radio growing up? Jazz, R&B?

Yeah. I did sing in church. Everybody went to church, my mama and brothers went. It was just singing. I didn’t think anything of it. I would sing with the choir at church. We sang around the house. People would come to hear me sing.

I can’t say it like I wish I could anymore. I sang… what’s his name? Fats Domino! I wanted to be like him. People would say, “He sounds just like Fats Domino.”

You got introduced to the Indians by a neighbor, right?
The Indians were what I was interested in. He was an Indian chief and he was right there where I lived and I used to watch him make an Indian suit. He was with the White Eagles and I used to watch him. He’d give me little pieces and I tried to make one myself. So I made my first Indian suit. I ended up with the Wild Magnolias. I went with the White Eagles but they had a Big Chief and I could only be a Red Indian with them so I left. So I ended up with the Wild Magnolias because there I got a spot. I got with them and I got to be a Flag Boy. I’ve been with them ever since.

You must have been a hell of a Flag Boy because you moved up to Big Chief pretty quickly.
I had a good voice and they wanted me to sing. With the White Eagles I couldn’t sing. See the Indians can’t sing. They can answer, but they can’t sing. We walk down the street and I sing [amazingly, his voice opens up to full strength as he sings a patois that ends with “Down the street here I come”].

You put on a suit. You look good. I was… young. They say they want me to be chief, and some of the people in there were 35, 55. I said, “I don’t wanna be no Big Chief,” and everybody said, “You’re good! You gotta sing. You’re Big Chief.”

I wanted to be the Spy Boy. I was young and I could move around. I wanted to spy out on the other tribes.

Did you start writing songs for the Indians right away?
I would sing, and what you hear Indians sing today is what I was singing then. You don’t hear too many of the new Indians singing the older songs, but it’s more of the stuff that I used to do. They don’t know the words to the songs. They may know the title, but they don’t know the words to the song. They don’t know what they’re doing. They not Mardi Gras Indians they just talkin’… they just crazy.

When you started out, were the old timers then doing different songs or different lyrics to songs?
Maybe one or two guys, but they all sang the same songs.

It was a ritual.
Right. But they don’t have that now. They don’t know that.

So you think some of that ritual is lost.
Oh yeah. All that’s lost. They don’t try. There’s no more Indians

When you were coming up, you were part of a whole generation of young people who were becoming Indians, right?
Yeah. We were young. One time with the Indians you could go from up here to the Treme and back, marching. Now you can’t go from here to up the block because the suits are too big. [laughs] They got to be carried on a cart because the suits are too big for the people, too heavy. It’s pretty…

In the old days you traveled light because you had to cover a lot of distance.
Right. All except the chief, he always had the suit.

Gerard: Back then, the other Indians except the Chief, the Second Chief, the Trail Chief, the Spy Boy and all, they might wear four or five patches. Now they wear 20 patches.

Dollis: Everybody wants to be chief. [laughs]

Gerard: You know that Flag Boy might have a flag in his hand, the Wild Man might be carrying a wooden shotgun, that’s how you tell who they are. The Chief is supposed to have the biggest crown, that’s how you tell who he is. Today you might see some Flag Boy with a bigger crown than the Chief! When I started out, you had five, six patches. Now I’ve been doing it a while so I got 20 patches, but nobody starts with five or six patches now. Now I don’t think anybody want to be an Indian except for the Wild Man.

Was it a difficult decision to record the Mardi Gras Indian music, which was considered a secret ritual up to that time?
No, no, no. I was all for it. I always loved to sing. Quint came to an Indian practice. I didn’t know if I could stay in tune. I never wrote music but I could sing. Whatever the band played, I could sing it. Anywhere you go, I could go. I can’t write music, but I can feel whatever they do.
Gerard: Quint came to an Indian practice, he didn’t know who my dad was. My dad came in and started singing and Quint was like, “Whoa, who’s this voice? We’re going to put you in the studio.” So he just started singing.

This was 1970, which was also the first year of jazz festival.
Yeah. We led the first parade. Me and Monk. I put my suit on and started singing, leading a second line, down Canal Street all through the French Quarter, singing all the way to Congo Square and the people followed along all the way. I was singing. With all the other Indians.

That was the year you opened up Mardi Gras Indian culture to a whole new audience.
Gerard: A lot of people were scared of the Indians back in those days. They heard about all the violence, so they were more scared than anything else.

Dollis: We tell about the days way back they was wild, wild, wild; I mean they was cutting, killing and shooting. The uptown and the downtown would fight. We didn’t want that. So we stopped. Tootie Montana was big on that. He wanted to get it straight because he was beautiful. He looked so good. Then everybody wanted to be… beautiful. So we got all the Indians and all the chiefs to stop the violence.

Gerard: We all just wanted to change it. We fought with pretty suits instead of our hands and knives and guns. Back in the old days we’d fight in the day then at night we’d buy each other drinks in the bar. But when it comes to guns, there’s no buying drinks after the fight. Once the guns come out, you’re either going to jail or you’ll be six feet under.

Dollis: The gangs today, they kind of like looking like those old Indians were with the way they fight and shoot.

Maybe they can stop the violence again like you guys did.
They won’t until they can find somebody to lead them there. They need a chief to take care of it.

Were you close with Tootie Montana?
I was friends with Tootie, but I didn’t see him so much. I would see him at Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras day or Super Sunday. He knew me and I knew him. We both loved what we do.

When you would meet Tootie or another chief on the street during Mardi Gras, you had a ritual exchange. Did you really try to get the upper hand or was everybody cool about it?
The people wanted to see us confront each other and yell and sing or something like that, but we knew each other and what to do. A lot of times it was about your suit and showing that off. I used to try and see the other chief’s suit before he sees me. I used to try and see them before they come out of their house. One time, I went to a house to look and his crown was so big he couldn’t get out his front door! That’s how big some of them got.

After Katrina a lot of the neighborhoods are gone and not as many Mardi Gras Indians are around. Do you think it will ever come back to what it once was?
Since the storm… everybody now… tryin’… it’s only for money. Ain’t nobody….

But surely some of the Indians are keeping it alive.
Yeah, they’re keeping it alive, but nobody knows what they should be doing. What I wanted to do, I wanted somebody to talk to all the Indians, all over the city and write a book. So we could have all that information documented. I got nobody who could do it. ’Cause you can’t even find all the Indians I know about. I could talk to them myself, I know how to talk to them. I wanted the older people to tell about it. I wanted to get that done. But now I can’t… talk.