It’s somewhat appropriate that this year Gary Edwards is the recipient of OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement Award, annually given to a member of the New Orleans music-business community, since he recently moved to Music Street in the Gentilly section of the city.
During the last 50 years, Edwards has worn many hats when it comes to the business of music. Musician, booking agent, sound engineer, retailer, wholesaler, producer, label and studio owner—if it has something to do with music, Edwards probably has done it.
Edwards grew up on the Northshore and by the time he was in high school was playing guitar and bass in several bands. “We played R&B, not rock ’n’ roll,” specifies Edwards. While attending Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Edwards continued to play R&B and began managing a popular club—Cave Tangi—where he booked popular bands from around the area. After graduation, Edwards moved to New Orleans in the mid-’60s to pursue a teaching career.
“I taught high school chemistry for several years,” he recalls. “The plan was to go to law school, but after one semester, I decided that law wasn’t for me. There was a lot of great music around New Orleans at the time. Deacon John probably had the best band around then—they were so good they intimidated me as a musician.”
Edwards took a job in a musical instrument shop and eventually took over its ownership. Through the shop, Edwards nurtured a relationship with one of his primary influences, Ellis Marsalis.
“Ellis had been playing with Al Hirt, making plenty of money, but he quit to start his own group,” Edwards says. “I’d go see him play in the Quarter. He played trad jazz but he did it with a modern flare. He was getting ready to present regular jazz gigs at the Labor Union Hall and the hall needed a sound system. I knew how to put one together so I did it for Ellis. Then, when he went to Lu and Charlie’s, I put the sound system in there. I was always amazed that here was an extraordinarily talented musician—he’d play his gigs and go back to his family’s motel and be the night clerk. He had to, to make ends meet.”
Through his experience with amplified sound, Edwards was approached by Quint Davis to set up the sound at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970—four stages at Congo Square.
A two-day event then, someone made off with all of his microphones after the first day and Edwards had to scramble to find 20 more microphones so the second day could be presented. It was at the 1970 festival that Edwards met another big influence—Sherman Washington, who led the Zion Harmonizers.
“There was just something emotional and honest about their [gospel harmony] music that struck me,” Edwards remembers. “It was more than just singing; it was delivering God’s love and message. Being around that music and those musicians had a tremendous effect on me.”
Not only would Edwards later record the Zion Harmonizers when he later started his own label (aptly named the Sound of New Orleans), Washington introduced him to the local black religious community, which helped him expand his sound rental and retail business. A favorite at music festivals in Europe, Washington also introduced Edwards to several European promoters—contacts he has maintained to this day. (Just last month, Edwards took several New Orleans groups to the Umbria Festival Italy.)
The ’80s was a very busy decade for Edwards. His music-rental business grew to be the largest in the South (he continued to supply equipment to the Jazz and Heritage Festival and did likewise at the 1984 World’s Fair) and he also owned St. Bernard Parish’s largest record shop. (“I made a fortune selling Led Zeppelin, Motley Crew and Michael Jackson LPs,” Edwards says with a laugh.) He also became the stage manager at the Fairmont Hotel’s famed Blue Room. If that wasn’t enough, Edwards took an expanding interest in working in the studio, building up the Sound of New Orleans’ catalog of gospel, Dixieland, blues, R&B and trad jazz. This would lead him to his third major influence—Cosimo Matassa.
“I got to know Cos at his last studio on Camp Street,” Edwards explains, “but I’d studied his recordings for years. Cos had this unique way of capturing spontaneity in his recordings. He just let the musicians do their thing and got out of the way. That’s the approach I copied.”
Unfortunately, Edwards’ world went up in smoke in 1988 as a huge fire destroyed his Mid City warehouse. He lost all of his sound equipment, his files, his stock of albums and tapes. “One of the biggest regrets in my life is not having fire insurance,” laments Edwards.
Back at square one, Edwards moved to St. Louis and didn’t return to New Orleans until 1992. Back on his feet, Edwards set up shop on Canal Boulevard, where he opened the Sound of New Orleans Studio. The ’90s was a fertile decade for New Orleans music and Edwards helped facilitate its growth. With the advent of the compact disc, the Sound of New Orleans catalogue grew rapidly. By recording the Treme, Algiers and High Steppers brass bands, Edwards assisted in the New Orleans brass-band explosion. Several Latin, swamp pop, Cajun and zydeco releases also appeared on S.O.N.O., along with the Dixieland, R&B and gospel standbys. Clearly, by the early part of the new millennium, Edwards had one of the largest and most diverse local recording labels. Then came Katrina.
Edwards’ building took on 10 feet of water. Again, he lost everything, including 13 rare and highly collectable Hammond organs Edwards obtained over the years form local churches. “My other big regret is not having flood insurance,” says Edwards.
After the storm, Edwards and his wife bought a house in Houston, not to return to New Orleans until 2009. Edwards steadily picked up the pieces, replacing his catalogue and adding to it. In fact, at the time of this interview, Edwards was in the process of finishing up a CD project with Patrick Williams and his Blues Xpress.
While rooted in tradition, Edwards also has his thumb on modern trends. When asked about the current “sound” of New Orleans music, he was quick to reply: “Truthfully, I think it’s getting diluted. It’s losing its unique identity. Since the storm, a lot of out-of-town musicians have moved here. Technically, they’re very good players, but they don’t have that New Orleans feel that a lot of listeners are used to.”