There are some people we can’t love enough, and one is Harold Battiste.
This year marks the first time that we have honored an individual three times: We selected Battiste as our first Heartbeat Award honoree in 1996 for a career of contributions to New Orleans music, then he was recognized in 2006 with a Lifetime Achievement in Music Education for the years spent teaching people about music and the music business—both in the classroom and outside of it.
This year, we’d like to cite some of his tremendous contributions as a musician, arranger, producer, A&R man, and as an ambassador for New Orleans’ music and cultural heritage. Harold Battiste, Jr. was born in New Orleans October 28, 1931 and is a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School and Dillard University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in music in 1953. Upon graduation, Battiste played the Dew Drop Inn and other clubs around town, and he got occasional calls for studio work. Battiste’s travels took him to the West Coast where he crossed paths with Sam Cooke, and Cooke’s label owner, Art Rupe.
Battiste wrote the arrangement for Cooke’s first million seller, “You Send Me,” and Rupe hired him as an A&R man to run an office for Specialty Records in New Orleans. At Specialty, Battiste worked with several local artists including Art Neville, Jerry Byrne and a teenaged Mac Rebennack.
Specialty ceased operation in 1960, which allowed Battiste to pursue his dream. He envisioned a black-owned record company that was owned and operated by musicians. In 1961, Battiste formed the AFO (All For One) label and the At Last Publishing Company. An AFO press release at the time stated, “Negroes create and write the music. Negroes sing and perform, but never reap the financial benefits. We have been thinking about this venture for quite some time and finally have gone into business.”
Initially, AFO was on the fast track, especially with the emergence of Barbara George’s huge hit, “I Know.” However, a combination of business setbacks, bad deals and a shift in the public’s record buying habits eventually doomed AFO. Battiste and most of his AFO associates headed to California where they hoped the pastures were greener. Once he got there, Battiste renewed his association with Sam Cooke and he was appointed the head of productions for Cooke’s label, SAR Records. After Cooke’s tragic death, Battiste began a 15-year stint as arranger and producer for Sonny and Cher, which resulted in six gold records and a long-running television program. While in California, Battiste would introduce his old protégé, Mac Rebennack, to the public as Dr. John, and Battiste would produce several of Dr. John’s early albums.
Eventually, Battiste pursued his other passion, academia, and accepted several teaching positions. In 1989, he returned home and joined the Jazz Studies faculty at the University of New Orleans. He also formed the AFO Foundation, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to documenting the heritage of New Orleans music. Currently, Battiste is a member of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the Congo Square Cultural Endowment and the Louisiana State Music Commission among others. In 1998, the City of New Orleans declared a Harold Battiste Day in his honor. He has dedicated himself to preserving the post-bop era compositions of Ellis Marsalis, Ed Blackwell, James Black, Nat Perrillat, Alvin Batiste and Red Tyler, many of which he collected and published in The Silverbook earlier this year.
Certainly this is a man deserving of a second Lifetime Achievement Award and all the love we can show him.
Irma Thomas, artist
I auditioned for Harold when I was a little girl—12 or 13. He was doing A&R for Specialty Records then, but he said he couldn’t sign me because I was too young. Later, when I started making records, he played in my band for a short time, but then he moved to California. When I moved to California (late ’60s), I saw him once. He hired me to sing background on a Sonny and Cher session. He was very business-like, got right to the point, but he was a very nice man.
Mac Rebennack, artist
I gotta say, I had some good experiences with Harold, and some bad ones. But after all is said and done, the good outweighed the bad. Back when he was with Specialty, he was the first guy that got me in the studio and into some good music. Harold was always a great judge of material. I had a problem early on, though, because I didn’t know anything about copyrights and I lost a lot of my songs to the powers that be.
When he got into the AFO thing, Harold used me on sessions on guitar when Roy Montrell wasn’t available. He really helped get me on sessions when I went out to California. We did a lot of Sonny and Cher, and Phil Spector dates together. Of course, later we worked together on the Gris Gris and Babylon, albums.
Deacon John, artist
The first time I met Harold was the day I joined the Musicians Union. Harold had an office over top of Houston’s Music, which was across the street from the Union Hall on Claiborne Avenue. I remember Papoose [Walter Nelson, Jr.] was rehearsing the guitar solo that he played on [Art Neville’s], “Cha Dooky-Doo.” Later, when he started AFO Records, he occasionally called me in for sessions when Roy Montrell, who was a member of AFO, was on the road with Fats Domino. He also called me for a Duke session on Junior Parker that he arranged. He was cool in the studio; if there was a problem, he’d just say, “You guys know what to play. Let’s just get this right.”
Harold went out to Los Angeles in the early ’60s with the AFO cats, but most of them came back not long after. Harold stayed, though, and did pretty well after hooking up with Sonny and Cher, and when the Dr. John thing happened.
I think he was the most talented arranger to come out of New Orleans. When he came back to New Orleans, he buried himself in academia. He was very well-qualified for that, being a graduate at Dillard. People didn’t realize it at the time, but at the little AFO office at Orleans and Claiborne Avenue, Harold was a pioneer. It was the first black-owned music production company in New Orleans. They were the first ones to say, “We should all have a share in this business.” He opened the door for a lot of people.
Cosimo Matassa, studio owner/engineer
Two things impressed me about Harold. First, he knew what he was doing. A lot of producers just sat in the booth and let things happen in the studio. Harold always had a plan. Secondly, Harold was focused. He took care of business. Compared to Dave Bartholomew, who was a taskmaster, Harold was more laid back, but he let everybody know who was in charge. He went in the studio well-prepared and there were no surprises. He was creative, but he did stuff his artist could handle. He cut the cloth to fit the body, so to speak. I wasn’t surprised at all he did so well when he went to the West Coast. Like I said, Harold knew what he doing.
Chuck Badie, musician/original AFO member
When Harold called and said what kind of label he wanted to start, I said, “Count me in.” It [AFO] was a wonderful organization and I was proud of it. We did something that at the time needed to be done. Until then, it was companies from out of town that came here and made most of the records. We got paid for playing on the sessions, but those companies made the real money.
With Harold and Red Tyler, we had two guys that had been A&R guys for other labels, so they had some experience. Roy Montrell and Melvin Lastie had played on a lot of sessions, so we had experience there. John Boudreaux, Ellis Marsalis, Tami Lynn and myself weren’t amateurs either. We were lucky, and had a hit right away with Barbara George (I Know”), but we had some unfortunate business dealings. Eventually, we realized AFO wasn’t going to be successful in New Orleans. It just wasn’t happening here.
Mark Bingham, studio owner/engineer
I’ve been working with Harold since the mid-1990s when he started doing the “Harold Battiste Presents the Next Generation” series. He’s positive and always prepared. The work is already done when he gets in the studio.
The guy has so much history behind him just with AFO and the Phil Spector stuff he did. He’s always willing to answer the questions you’ve always wanted to ask him. Like he told me once, he played two instruments on Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” including the “duh, duh duh, da da duh” part on soprano sax and got paid scale—$114. He’s a guy I’ll always look up to that has never gotten a lot of credit.
Credit Where Credit’s Due
Harold Battiste’s history as a musician, arranger and producer is a long one, involving sessions he remembers well and some, including his appearance on Gram Parsons’ 1973 album, G.P., that he doesn’t remember at all. Here’s a very short list of the records he was a part of to give you a sense of the breadth of the music he helped create.
“You Send Me” – Sam Cooke
“You Talk to Much” – Joe Jones
“I Know” – Barbara George
“Lights Out” – Jerry Byrne
“Ya Ya” – Lee Dorsey
“Cha Dooky-Doo” – Art Neville
“I’m a Fool to Care” – Joe Barry
“She Put the Hurt on Me” – Prince La La
“Mojo Hannah” – Tami Lynn
“Check Mr. Popeye: – Eddie Bo
“I Got You Babe” – Sonny and Cher
“The Beat Goes On” – Sonny and Cher
“River Deep, Mountain High” – Ike and Tina Turner
Gris Gris – Dr. John
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – Original Soundtrack
Monkey Puzzle – Ellis Marsalis
Blue Valentine – Tom Waits
The Plimsouls – The Plimsouls
Johnny Handsome – Original Soundtrack by Ry Cooder