Jim Russell, the recipient of OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Music Business and the “youngest” 84-year-old in New Orleans, is my surrogate father. I began working at his Magazine Street record shop in 1970, when I was a teenage college drop-out. The years I spent at Jim Russell’s were as close as I ever got to a “higher” education. Under his tutelage, I learned everything: why New Orleans is the fount of all music; who the great New Orleans musicians were (most of them were our customers); how to get from Uptown to the St. Bernard Projects and back in 15 minutes without losing (or getting robbed of) thousands of dollars in cash; what sort of people you can trust (very few); and the ability to tell a story with sufficient drama and poetic license.
Russell’s tales were extraordinary and inspiring. In World War II he captured one of Hitler’s top officers. Back home in the U.S.A., he decided to become a disc jockey and got fired from his first radio job for the crime of playing black music, which in those days was called “race music.” He met and became the manager of neophyte disc jockey Alan Freed. He advised Freed that what the kids really wanted to hear was black music. Freed agreed and dubbed the sounds “rock ‘n’ roll.” The kids went crazy and Russell and Freed headed for the bigger and brighter lights of New York. In New York, Freed ruled the airwaves and Russell began producing Freed’s live rock ‘n’ roll concerts. And then the Mafia paid Jim Russell a visit. The Mafiosi wanted a cut of the rock ‘n’ roll pie, or to be more precise, they desired the whole pie. They made Russell one of their infamous non-refusable offers: leave town or else. Russell thought about it for a few minutes and headed for New Orleans. Freed stayed in New York and played Mafia-approved rock ‘n’ roll. In 1959, the payola scandal erupted and Freed was fired from New York’s WABC. In December, 1962, Freed pled guilty to two counts of “commercial bribery” and was fined $300. Psychologically broken by the scandal, Freed succumbed to alcohol abuse and died three years later.
Russell, meanwhile, in his new New Orleans stomping grounds, was having a ball. He discovered a pool of talented, underpaid disc jockeys and talented, underpaid musicians. Russell began staging record hops at gymnasiums and commissioned the disc jockeys to emcee. When priests and principals balked at the idea of teenagers scuffing their gymnasium floors, Russell said, “Okay, we’ll make the kids take off their shoes when they dance.” The “sock hop” was born.
Russell encouraged the musicians to head for Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio: “You make the records and I’ll make the disc jockeys play them.” These musicians included Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Smiley Lewis, Joe Barry, Earl King, Professor Longhair and a host of others. As long as the musicians were local and were reliable enough to show up at his record hops, Russell welcomed all comers—black or white.
Russell’s rather advanced attitudes towards race did not make him popular with the segregation-era New Orleans Police Department. When he brought the white singer Joe Barry to the black Dew Drop Inn, where Russell, Barry, Irma Thomas, Smiley Lewis and Lee Dorsey shared a table, the police arrested Russell and Barry. The Dew Drop’s owner bailed them out and Russell returned the next night. Jim Russell has never liked anyone telling him “No.”
The end of the Golden Era of New Orleans Music came with the arrival of the Beatles. Radio nation-wide, as integration became the societal norm, re-emerged as a segregated medium. Previously, New Orleans radio stations played black hits and white hits; radio stations now had to decide which format (black or white) to adhere to. Russell didn’t like the handwriting on the sonic wall and opened his “World Famous” record shop, where he has presided since 1969. When the music video was born and MTV came to New Orleans in search of rock’s roots, the network devoted considerable time to Russell’s theories. Russell stared into MTV’s cameras and told the kids to forget about Metallica and Nirvana: what they really needed to hear was Fats Domino. The music of New Orleans, in Russell’s estimation, is one of mankind’s finest inventions.
Without further ado, I give you—in his own resonant words—Jim Russell.
“This is an incredible story—so incredible that it’s entirely believable because there is living proof in the state of Louisiana, who will confirm every word. We’ll start with how I got here, how it all started.
“It all started way back in Pittsburgh in 1948 when I got a desire to become a disc jockey when I saw an ad in the paper. What I did, I answered the ad and I said to my parents, ‘Well, I know it’s gonna mean I’m going to leave. It’s only a hundred miles up the creek but I can be home every now and then—maybe.’
“So I went to be interviewed for a disc jockey position and I was sure I was going to be a baseball play-by-play announcer because that had been my dream since 1938. Well, it didn’t happen that way. When I got there, the owner of the station asked me to come into his office, he talked to me for a few moments and then he says, ‘Let’s see, first, if you’re going to be a good newsman. You see the time—it’s five ’til 12 and you’re going on at 12.’ ‘Say that again, sir.’ ‘You’re going on at 12.’ I said, ‘Can’t I look at the script? Can I rehearse a little bit?’ He said, ‘No, this time I’m gonna make it cold. We have four-and-a-half minutes and you and me are going to walk to the AP [Associated Press] machine and we’re going to tear off several sheets. Now we’ve got the news of the day, the sports news and the weather, and we’re going to clip it together and there it is. When the red light goes on, Jim, you are on.’
“Well, is this the way to enter a new era, to be a disc jockey? That’s not playing records! So I went into the studio and needless to say, I have to admit that I did a pretty good job. The red light went off and he called me back to his office and he said, ‘Okay now, the next thing we’re going to do for you is you’re going to be our newsman but I’ve got 60 days of work for you to do first. You’re going to go to our tower and you are going to listen to every other station in the entire 60-mile radius and you’re going to write down the commercials they’re airing because we want our salesperson to go and try to get some business.’
“I did it. It was a job because he gave me six radios. He lined them up on the shelf and I would have to go from one to the other, trying to get snips of commercials. I did it for eight hours a day, five days a week, for 60 days, just like he said.
“Now comes play-by-play. He gave me the job to do one Saturday afternoon game and I did an admirable job. Then I became the disc jockey I wanted to be. Now let’s get into how I got to New Orleans.
“After close to a year, I realized that radio isn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. I thought I’d like more action. So I started to get record hops started in Canton, Ohio. Before you know it, I had another disc jockey come in from New York and he also worked for me on the record hop circuit. We were doing real well until I said, ‘I’d like to do something better.’ I got a hold of Alan Freed in Akron. I wasn’t allowed to play anything but country and western, and neither was he. I started to play some black music and they fired me. I had to go up to another station and get a job. They gave me a job for 30 days. I sucked in my tail for a while, got a little bit of money, went up to Freed and we went to Cleveland, Ohio. He was the number one disc jockey in the city in three months. Oh man—this guy was tremendous! All black music!
“So what happened was we were so good, New York called us right away and in three months, we were gone to New York. Over there, it took just a few more months and we started to put shows together—show after show. We were working on the big one—the one that was at the Brooklyn Paramount and the Brooklyn Fox. The amount of money we were making from those two shows was one tragedy that happened a short while later. I want to say, ladies and gentlemen, don’t ever think that you can conquer the world alone and think that you’re good enough to be this and that because when you’re making money in this country, people step in and they did. They shocked me! It was the organized crime they called the Mafia in New York. They gave me an ultimatum and said, ‘Your days are over. You can be the name in the front, you can do what you’re doing, but we’re handling all the money.’
“I didn’t like it one bit so instead of taking 72 hours, I contacted three people in America that I had befriended who liked me. I didn’t even tell Freed yet because he wasn’t due in ’til 2 o’clock. So here’s what happens. I called Gene Autry, who was a very close friend of mine—he had seven TV stations up in the Oregon/Washington area. I had a friend in Chicago with a 50,000-watt station and then I had WTIX in New Orleans, owned by Tod Storz. Let’s figure this out: we have cold months in New York, we have colder months in Chicago, we have miserable months in Oregon and Washington—mostly rain. But this New Orleans sorta haunts me. I went down here and immediately fell in love: eleven-and-a-half months of nothing but beautiful weather, man! You get a hurricane once in a while, they said. So I stayed.
“I called Freed two weeks later and told him, ‘Forget me!’ He said, ‘Oh, they already saw me.’ That’s where the payola scandal came in. The Mafia did it—they forced Freed to ask for payola. Then he died shortly after, in 1965. He was the greatest disc jockey I had ever been associated with.
“I can also say that down here in New Orleans, we had some great ones. We’ve got to recognize them and we’ve got to tell the people that these people are who made me what I am today in New Orleans. They believed what I offered them: I said, ‘Let’s go on record hops. I want you to play all the national music and I’m going to pick all the local music, which there’s not too much of.’ The kids started trickling in with little tape recorders—reel-to-reel. They said, ‘We can sing.’ The Jokers came in, the Nobles, all of the original bands. I said, ‘Look, go to Cosimo’s and get a record and we’ll do the rest. I’ll promote it. All you have to do is appear on our record hop, sing, and if you’ve got any talent, kid, it’s going to show right there.’
“That was the beginning and believe me, it lasted 12 years. The disc jockeys: Poppa Stoppa was Clarence Hayman, Larry Regan, Jack the Cat was Ken Elliott, Larry Wilson at WTIX, Jim Stewart at WNOE and Morgus—Sid Noel–over at WSMB. These disc jockeys are the ones that made everything happen for me.
“One king was a black man at WBOK: his name was Okey-Dokey—James Smith. He was the strongest, most powerful disc jockey that I had ever met, outside of Alan Freed. If Okey-Dokey asked six people to jump off of the bridge, they would do it! That’s how strong he was and how they loved him. I’m the only one that could bring down his ego. When he saw me, he almost hugged me: ‘What are we going to do today, Jim?’ Because I treated him like a king—no color barrier. I treated him like no color existed. I took him to white schools, to Warren Easton. They listened to his music and they loved it because I picked the music he was going to play at Warren Easton.
“I took Poppa Stoppa to the black places and we played the black music there. That lasted for 12 years and that’s how this business started. Believe me, to wrap it up, there was no artist in New Orleans or the state of Louisiana that did it by themselves. They did it through our organization of the disc jockeys here in New Orleans and we barred none. We took them all, gave them all a chance. The good made it. You know who the good are—the Neville Brothers, Art Neville, Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, there’s a ton of others. There’s others who never made it and that was their fault. We did our job. We’re the ones that put New Orleans on the map. We’re the ones that started the Jazz Fest—Quint Davis took the idea from right in here and did it.
“Records are a disease—to listen and to want to live it for as many years as I have. I have to tell you, 55 years it’s been and that’s a long time to have the disease of music.
“What makes New Orleans music so special is what we just discussed. If I had gone, and I have to say it emphatically, to Oregon or to Chicago, there would be no Irma Thomas, Joe Barry or ‘Frogman’ Henry because we’re the ones that played their records. Today you can verify that, ladies and gentlemen, by trying to get your records played. See how easy it is to get your records played. In 1955 or 1956, you just had to come to our studio. If you’re local, you’re on!
“There were just two of us white people at the Dew Drop Inn. Frank Painia [the Dew Drop’s owner] was considered a black man to a lot of black folks but actually he was a Creole. He loved the way I talked to him, he loved the way I treated him like a human being. He couldn’t understand that. He said, ‘Jim, no matter what you do down here, I want you to do it because I’ll back you 100 percent.’ So I took Joe Barry to the Dew Drop. Well, I wanted Joe Barry to sing ‘I’m A Fool To Care.’ About a half-hour later, two white cops came in and said, ‘What are you doing in this black establishment?’ I wasn’t familiar with the problem and I said, ‘I’m trying to promote Joe Barry.’ They said, ‘No, no, no’ and I turned around and they put handcuffs on me and Joe, and they took us downtown.
“If you ever went to jail in those days, they put you in a paddy wagon and it cost ten dollars to get out. Frank Painia put up the twenty bucks and got me and Joe out. The next night, we went back. Nappy Brown was the band and nobody came in the door to bug us because Frank said, ‘I’ll put up another 20.’ That’s how it was.
“One of the best black nightclubs—and I’m gonna say it loosely—that the black folks ever had in this city wasn’t the Dew Drop Inn. It was called Hays’ Chicken Shack. Now Hays’ Chicken Shack was something you would find somewhere at the end of the world. It was a beautiful restaurant, a beautiful club and he didn’t want any black black people in there because he and his wife were Creole. He only catered to Creoles, in the heart of New Orleans, on Louisiana Avenue. I put on shows there for years but Hays said, ‘Be sure, Jim, they’re not black black. I want them black light.’ Larry McKinley was allowed inside to emcee, but not Okey-Dokey.
“Now we’re going to talk about ratings. I had control of all the radio stations that the disc jockeys were on for all those years. Ten radio stations. I could maneuver the ratings every three months. If I put on extra promotions at WTIX, they would be number one for the next three months. I would shift from one to the other, all those years, and make everybody happy.
“After all those years with the deejays and all the record companies and all the record distributors, I wound up with 30,000 singles in my garage. When the Beatles came in and destroyed our whole livelihood—all the recording artists will tell you that, I had to find a new way. What I did was to go to the record distributors and the one-stops [wholesale record outlets] and I started a one-stop of my own. I started putting racks in 87 stores in the entire 30-mile radius. I put a survey out, New Orleans artists mainly, and we put those surveys in all the shops. That kept me going until it got so big and out-of-hand that I started looking for a building.
“Not too long after that, I hired a person by the name of Bunny Matthews. And then my daughter, Linda, and then John Guarnieri. That’s who made my business solid. I felt like the Rock of Gibraltar with those guys working for me. I didn’t even have to work hardly because they did it all.
“And then another tragedy set in. The doctors said I had some lung cancer and I had to send all the merchandise back to the companies. Then eight months later, I came back here and sat at that door in February of 1974. With no advertising, I opened up the door, put my chair out on the sidewalk and I had business already. I never looked back from there.
“I’m 84. That Jewish disease didn’t set in yet—ya know, Al Z. Heimer. I haven’t met him yet but I know he’s coming. Everything bad happens to people who are old. The worst thing in life is getting old!”