In New Orleans, there are people who make the music and people who make the music happen. The people who make the music happen are the record store owners, the sound engineers, the equipment dealers, the club proprietors and the talent bookers, among others. This year OffBeat chose to honor someone who, after years of being a talent booker making the music happen, has now gone back to being a musician making the music. You simply cannot have been in New Orleans for the last three decades without at some point going to a show that he concocted and produced. This year the OffBeat Best of the Beat Business Award goes to former talent buyer for the House of Blues and Tipitina’s Sonny Schneidau. Can we get an “Ooooolamallawalla?”
Schneidau has been running around the New Orleans music scene since the mid-1970s. He’s a self-taught piano player whose free-spirited mom encouraged him to listen to Coltrane and Miles on Clear Channel radio stations and took him to the Warehouse when that club was in its heyday. He also fell in with his sister Georgia’s friends when they would have parties and hire local musicians to play. “They’d hire Fess to play and Booker. The first time I ever saw Booker was in the basement of my sister’s house,” Schneidau reminisces. “That was a moment that was somewhat of an epiphany. Cyril Neville was on congas, and it was just the two of them, and it was very much an eye-opening life-changing experience. I kind of got the bug. It was just surreal to sit at the feet of that. To see these two guys walking in with scarves and eye patches and tattoos. It was somewhat intimidating and then to see them sit down and make the most extraordinary music. To sit 10 feet from that as a 15-year-old was a powerful moment.”
His sister’s friends coalesced into the Krewe of the Fo’Teen whose Gator Balls evolved into the club known as Tipitina’s. They styled it as a place for Professor Longhair to play as well as all the rhythm and blues greats who were starting their long comebacks. “Tips opened up while I was in high school. The first gig was when we opened up and I was underage. It was January of 1977, and the Meters were playing. Mardi Gras was right around the corner, and they were short on bartenders, and they put a mask on me. Someone said, ‘Nobody’s going to know. Go back there and sell drinks.’ I got to serve drinks and watch the Meters all night. I was like, ‘Wow, this is better than high school.’”
Schneidau also became the sound man when he graduated. He remembers, “So I got the call in June: “Listen, our sound guy has to leave the country quickly and unexpectedly, so can you come do sound tonight?” I said, “Of course. Sure.” Two days later I was mixing Professor Longhair and the Meters. I was figuring it out on the go. I ended up mixing all—unless the band brought their own crew—I mixed everyone at Tip’s from mid-1977 until I left in late ’93. That was a ton of amazing shows. I loved engineering and getting right up in the music. I loved the close contact with the artist and talking about what kind of sound they liked. It was being a de facto other band member trying to mix the sound right for the band. I got to mix Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.”
Schneidau also started booking the shows in 1982. In his kitchen before this interview, he pulls out old Tipitina’s calendars where in one week are bands like the Neville Brothers, Eek-A-Mouse, and the Ramones. He points out one Sunday where there was a free show with Stevie Ray Vaughan from Austin. “It was magic,” he smiles, “It was about the community and the music. It was a very special time.” Schneidau stayed with Tipitina’s after it closed and reopened. By the early 1990s, he was looking for new challenges, and one presented itself. Schneidau explains, “Producer Michael Murphy is a dear friend, and he was involved in some projects that we did at Tip’s. And he was familiar with House of Blues and Isaac Tigrett. He approached me about moving over to HOB, and it was a point in time when I was ready for a new adventure. And Isaac was a very interesting guy. It was really something else. I got to experience the whirlwind of that company in its infancy.”
To say that Sonny booked great shows at the House of Blues is like saying that Hungry Williams played some funky rhythms. On the wall along the stairs from the dressing rooms to the House of Blues stage are painted squares that list most, if not all, of the shows that have happened at the House of Blues. There’s a square for the Foo Fighters, and a square for the Pretenders, and a square for Bobby Rush. There are squares with names like Buddy Guy, Jimmy Smith, the Afghan Whigs and Bobby Lounge. Each square has hash marks to count each time that artist played the club. With only a couple of exceptions, since his leaving HOB in January of 2016, Schneidau booked each and every one of those shows. It’s an impressive record, and one for which he was acknowledged by industry magazine Pollstar twice as “Talent Buyer of the Year.” There is still excitement in his voice as he recalls those early years. “In the opening years, House of Blues, we could do anything. And in the first year, that was manifested by doing two nights of Bob Dylan, and three nights of Eric Clapton in the first month. That was a wild moment. It was us against the world. We were Isaac’s band of pirates. It was fun. I think throughout the years being able to break new acts as they came along like the Black Keys and others was great, but also to be able to book all of my heroes and people as I’m growing up and I’m falling in love with music such as Al Green or Ray Charles or Johnny Cash or Solomon Burke or Milton Nascimento. That’s the fulfilment of a dream to have a hand in producing all these people and getting to meet some of them.”
Despite having been gone from the House of Blues for a year, Schneidau is not even close to being out of the music world. He’s just changed his role. “I left the House of Blues in January of 2016, and it was my decision. I pretty much based it on a desire to, as Fess used to say, ‘to take a pause for a worthy cause.’ It’s been a good year. I’ve been busy and I have a band. It’s a daunting enterprise to take the stage in this town where the level and history and spirit of the musicians is so incredible. It’s called the Fortifiers. I play guitar and some keyboards. We have a little EP. We do some Chicago blues, some swampy stuff like Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo (and we do a killer version of Roger & the Gypsies’ ‘Pass the Hatchet’). We do some country because we all love George Jones. It’s all in that rootsy vein. It’s been a lot of fun.” In his living room looking out at the 12th Ward on a rainy day, he pauses. “It’s an honor. There are so many people involved in this business in New Orleans and they’re here doing it day in and day out plugging away. It’s a special honor to have OffBeat select me for this.”
Sonny Schneidau will perform with the Fortifiers at the Best of the Beat Awards on January 19 at Generations Hall.