Rads fans, please note: Reggie Scanlan had a medical emergency on the day we did OffBeat’s cover shoot and was not able to be included on our cover. We regret this, but Reggie’s health is more important.
Like all great New Orleans musicians, the Radiators are about where they came from. Though they’ve contributed more new material to the eccentric lexicon of New Orleans songwriting than any of their contemporaries, they are as much about their influences as their originals. If you could plot an algorithmic nexus that finds the spot where Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, Champion Jack Dupree, Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, the Beatles, Professor Longhair, the Rolling Stones, Earl King, the Grateful Dead and the Meters intersect, that would be the black hole into which the Radiators pull everything.
The alternate dimension that ensues might be glimpsed one night while staring at the suddenly animate ceiling of the Dream Palace (now called the Blue Nile) as the band plays “Tomorrow Never Knows”; it certainly pops out during once-legendary middle-of-the-night sets at Tipitina’s, perhaps to the accompaniment of “UFOs Exactly,” “Smokin’ Hole” or “Get Your Rocks off”; or on the rails of an impossible night at Mardi Gras World during a M.O.M.s Ball where naked fans dance ’til never, some gently whipped by a stealthy dominatrix in “Crazy Mona” costume, while the Rads roll the beat and Theresa Andersson appears in full body makeup as Nina Simone to sing “See-Line Woman.”
Even stranger things have happened when the Rads summon their krewes to party. Those who know, know. Otherwise I have to say you missed it, even though the band reconvenes to pay tribute to its loyal following periodically. Over the years those fans built what amounts to a secret society of satellite krewes in various locales—San Francisco, South Florida, New York, Rhode Island, Minneapolis and Colorado, to name a few. And of course Sweet Home New Orleans. Fishheads from these locales, including expatriate New Orleanians or fans that became hooked on the Rads while attending Tulane, held regular gatherings, particularly the Halloween balls thrown by the Krewe of DADs in Minneapolis, Heat Gen in Rhode Island and the Monkey Balls in Fort Lauderdale. I first encountered the band at a New York gig in the mid-1980s and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, three sets of the most inspired mix of rock, blues, country, New Orleans R&B and psychedelic alien tongues I had ever heard. I thought I was pretty up-to-date on what was going on musically, but the Radiators caught me by surprise and they had a houseful of people who knew the material by heart.
Bassist Reggie Scanlan noted that the band’s relationship with its audience was partly due to a liberal live taping policy. At a time when musicians from Bruce Springsteen to U2 were so paranoid about unauthorized material being offered to the public that they actively policed their shows for recording devices, the Rads followed in the footsteps of the Grateful Dead, allowing all their shows to be taped and traded among their fans. It doesn’t seem like such a radical idea now that everything rains from the digital cloud, but back then it was a daring and effective way to build loyalty and educate potential listeners.
“People would come in and ask if they could tape shows,” said Scanlan. “We said ‘Sure, if you want to go to the trouble to tape the show you can have it.’ We didn’t realize that the tape traders were sending these things back up to the East Coast. When we went up there to play, people already knew who we were. It was an amazing grass roots advertising system. But also, people following the Heat Gen, which is the Radiators listserv, people were talking about what part we had played in their lives, and you start seeing that we were really the soundtrack for a pretty good chunk of most of these people’s lives. Whatever else was going on in their life, this was the constant. So I think that’s one of the things that people kind of latched on to.”
The Radiators beckoned me to New Orleans, where I marveled through hundreds of shows, never reaching the bottom of their barrel of musical tricks. You could go to a dozen shows in a row and not only hear no repetition of individual songs, but no single night that took the same course. With a book of hundreds of originals and an uncountable number of ever-changing covers that were taken apart and reassembled in the moment, you never knew what to expect when you lined up for another romp through their omniverse.
Like most great rock bands, the group gestalt overwhelms the individual elements that make it up. There’s a simpatico that runs along vectors among the members, but it’s stretched to near breaking point by clashing elements. Dave Malone and Ed Volker are the two main vocalists, and they are as different as you could want, yet they interact like Siamese twins. Keyboardist Volker writes most of the songs and specializes in deconstructing pre-existent material and brewing recombinant mutations; Volker’s singing is like the utterances of a Greek poet instructing the choir or channeling a message from the gods. He enters a trance state as he performs. Malone is the classic rock frontman, carrying the weight vocally and on guitar, completely unselfconscious as he smiles to the audience. Malone is the soul of affability, a genuinely friendly guy who accounts for a good deal of the band’s visceral appeal to its fans. He’s also a good songwriter, whose compositions tend towards country romanticism and back porch certitudes. Somehow Malone and Volker contrast perfectly with each other over the course of a show.
Malone and co–lead guitarist Camile Baudoin are among the best two-guitar combos in rock history. Malone writes many of the guitar hooks for Volker’s songs and plays those melody lines as well as soloing; Baudoin has a unique style, combining unusual skill at R&B rhythms and fills—often accenting whatever Malone is playing to give it a bigger sound—with what Volker describes as “stunt” guitar solos, jaw dropping recastings of a song’s harmonics that blast the tune into another world. “He has an uncanny ability to listen to whoever he’s playing with and play whatever they’re playing back at them,” Volker noted. Baudoin also plays hellacious slide guitar and he and Malone double beautiful harmony lines in some of the arrangements. The interaction between the two often sounds more like hard bop jazz tenor saxophonists battling each other.
The rhythm section embodies contradictions. Reggie Scanlan honed his craft playing with Professor Longhair and James Booker; he’s capable of delivering an activist bassline or dropping the bomb in a reggae pattern, and can get involved in the guitar conversations the way Phil Lesh does in the Grateful Dead’s improvisations. Frank Bua is a powerhouse rocker, a classic pocket drummer with a penchant for the stately march rhythms of New Orleans second lines. It’s a style that clashes in some ways with Scanlan’s, yet somehow the section manages to swing and rock hard at the same time. When another percussionist is involved, like Glenn Sears during the ’80s and ’90s and Michael Skinkus more recently, the rhythms tend to float more, which is ideal for collective improvisation.
When I first met Volker, in the dressing room at New York’s Lone Star Cafe, I asked him what the band was about.
“It’s just a lot of old friendships,” he said. “We have fun, we’re starting to make a little money, and we’re starting to change clothes every day. It’s great.”
Those friendships are the key to understanding a group whose roots are in the dozens of local bands they played in during the 1960s and ’70s, long before they joined forces as the Radiators in January 1977, rehearsing at Volker’s Waldo Avenue garage out by the lakefront.
Growing up in close proximity in Uptown, Volker, Baudoin and Scanlan knew each other long before they became professional musicians. “Ed and I have known each other since kindergarten,” said Baudoin. “The neighborhoods we lived in were right next to each other, where Napoleon and Broad kind of meet into each other.”
Baudoin recalls that Volker “had a sense of humor” even in kindergarten, and that they used to play with their milk and cookies at recess.
After kindergarten the two were in different Catholic grammar schools at first, but met up again a few years later at St. Matthias.
“In fourth or fifth grade,” Volker recalled, “my family moved out of Broadmoor to the area by where Carrollton meets Claiborne, where I went to St. Rita.”
Volker and Baudoin went to De La Salle high school. By then both of them knew they wanted to be musicians. Baudoin’s family visited their relatives in Cajun country on most weekends, where “my Paran [grandfather] Alton taught me how to play guitar,” said Baudoin. Alton played in a country band, the Dufrene Brothers, and let the pre-teen Camile sit in on a gig. “After that,” said Camile, “I pretty much knew what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life.”
Volker also acquired his love of music through family ties.
“Both my parents loved music,” Volker explained. “My dad met my mother when she was working in a record shop. Mom always had the radio on while she was doing chores around the house. My older brother, Richard, had a little 45 disc player in a closable case, and he had Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly. Hearing this stuff mesmerized me.
“One day I faked being sick on a school day that I knew was a day my Mom would be out shopping and, having the whole apartment to myself, I played all this wild music loud and danced in some convulsive manner. Actually playing music didn’t really occur to me ’til a few years later when, in order for my brother to be ‘with it,’ he had to purchase the Ray Charles What’d I Say LP for the party he was hosting at our home. That sealed the deal, as far as the desire, but the music of Ray Charles daunted me by its sophistication. When I got the LP of Joey Dee & the Starliters Live at the Peppermint Lounge, I got to hear a much simpler approach in a live, spirited setting, so it was a more practical stimulus.”
By the time he and Camile met up again, Volker had already started imagining what it would be like to make his own music, designing potential album covers for his band. “When I was a kid,” he said, “first starting to get turned on to music, when I first started to write songs I would design my own LP covers and write the whole back cover and list all the songs.”
Volker had a record player in his basement, where he and Camile would go to listen to his 45s. “He was one of the few people who would sit down and listen to stuff with me,” said Volker. “I turned him on to Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, before they were well known. I turned him on to a lot of stuff.”
“I remember him in his basement,” said Baudoin. “I remember the record player was a really good one. And I remember he was playing bongos then. He had a good record collection, a lot of blues. It was amazing to listen to that stuff.”
Volker convinced Baudoin to form a band in the basement.
“He had a friend named Jack Montz who played guitar,” said Volker, “and I played piano and bongos. The three of us would get together and I would sing and play harmonica and bongo drums. That’s how we got our first band together, the Fugitives. It was Camile and Jack on guitars, me on bongos, harmonica and vocals and Mike Hartel on drums. We tried to enlist my brother Richard to play bass, but it didn’t take. Eventually, a mutual friend of Camile’s and mine from De La Salle, Eddie Whiteman, decided to pursue bass playing. His older brother Stark Whiteman had a local hit, ‘Graduation Day.’”
In addition to CYO dances, the Fugitives played dances and parties at the Beaconette Lounge at Napoleon and Claiborne.
“At least half the clientele drinking in the place, as well as playing on the stage, were underage,” Volker recalled. “Eddie got asked to join another band, the Other Side, and I was so pissed, I called up the front man, Vaughn, and asked to join. The Other Side played on Bourbon Street the summer of ’66 when we were still in high school. [The band] won a rigged battle of the bands and recorded a single at Cosimo’s of a song called ‘Run.’ On the flip was a tune of mine, ‘Aw Honey I’m Juiced.’ It was actually CBS who recorded us, but they scrapped the Cosimo sessions and flew Vaughn up to New York to do the song. CBS had three different winners from this rigged band contest it was recording and they made us change our name to Them Cajun Boys.
Briefly, we went under a CBS-chosen name that another winning band ended up with, the Plebeian Rebellion. The Other Side lasted into my brief sojourn at Tulane, until late ’67, when I was invited to join Yesterday’s Children, whose tambourine player, Quint Davis, I had become fast friends with, our listening sessions reaching marathon proportions. Eddie and Camile joined Yesterday’s Children, but in a configuration that never played a gig despite months of dedicated rehearsals. After my sojourn with Yesterday’s Children, Camile, Eddie and I got together with a succession of different drummers under the name Daniel and the Sand Fly, mainly playing Bourbon Street.”
Camile was also in a band called Souls of the Slain, while, at the same time, Frank Bua played in the very popular Palace Guards, who recorded for local label U-DOE records. Volker actually co-wrote a pair of songs with Jeff Miller of the Palace Guards: “Looking Everywhere” and ”Gas Station Boogaloo Downtown,” a jangly psychedelic romp.
Reggie Scanlan, who was a couple years younger than Volker and Baudoin, remembered watching some of the Fugitives’ sessions.
“I grew up on Burdette Street, a block off of Fontainebleau,” said Scanlan. “It was around the corner from Ed’s parents. I was friends with his younger sister so I used to listen to his bands rehearse in the basement. I went to Our Lady of Lourdes elementary school. Renard Poche was one grade behind me. I went to De La Salle for freshman year and was invited not to return, Redemptorist for sophomore and junior year and invited not to return after being accused of being a subversive and a scofflaw. I graduated from Fortier and went to LSUNO (now UNO) for college.”
Bua was born in New Orleans and grew up in Metairie. “I went to East Jefferson High School,” he said. “After graduation I attended the University of New Orleans and received a degree in political science. I was going to be governor but decided to play music instead.
“After the Palace Guards I started playing with the Arthur Brothers. At first we called ourselves Indian Fire, then Salt Meat. We were playing at the Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street at night and Ed and Camile were playing on Bourbon Street backing up Chris Owens. I invited them to my apartment on Chartres to smoke some Acapulco Gold. We did that and I said ‘Let’s go jam’ because our equipment was set up at the club. We went down there, Camile and Ed and me and the bass player, and it was magic, one movement went into the next with no stops. I told the guys in my band I was tired of doing the copycat music, I’m gonna quit and join these guys. They said ‘You quit us you gonna go to the dogs.’ So we named the band the Dogs.
“Ed and Camile and I and Eddie Whiteman formed the Dogs and moved to California and lived there in a hippie commune for about a year. There were 30 people all from Louisiana in this giant log cabin. We came back because Traci Borges out at Knight Recording Studio in Metairie wanted us to come back and be the studio band. I hesitated to go because I had an invitation to try out for the Doobie Brothers, who we had opened for out in California and who’d just lost one of their drummers. But Ed and Camile were like my family, so we went back to New Orleans and worked as the studio band for a while. We wound up playing on Bourbon Street again, which I just couldn’t do anymore. We were playing at the Ritz and this cheetah that they had there shit all over my drums.”
Meanwhile, upriver in Edgard, Louisiana, Dave Malone was learning to be a musician from his older brothers John and Billy. Malone was born in New Orleans but his family moved around a lot before settling in Edgard, where his brothers taught him to play guitar and he grew up listening to his parents’ country records and idolizing the Beatles. He played with his older brother John’s band before forming his own group, Family Dog.
Malone is the only Radiators member who developed his musical personality outside of the Bourbon Street–centered interactions of the other four. But he still crossed paths with them because he “couldn’t wait to get out of Edgard” and moved to New Orleans to live with his brother John before he graduated from high school. He played with John in Dustwoofie, saw Frank Bua play with the Palace Guards and even had a meeting with a talented young songwriter at Tulane.
“Ed Volker was going to Tulane,” said Malone. “He was already a well-known songwriter which I knew ’cause I had the Palace Guards 45. I had an acoustic guitar with me and we played some songs. The first song Ed and I ever played together was ‘In the Summertime’ by Mungo Jerry.”
Eventually Dave moved in with his brother to the band’s communal living and rehearsal space, “Woofie House,” on Robert Street by Dryades. That’s when he met Reggie.
“I went over there one day,” said Scanlan, “Dave was there with Suzie, his wife to be. His brother, who was also living there, was a bass player. We went down in the basement studio and started jamming on some Taj Mahal stuff. A few months later his brother left the band and Dave asked if I wanted to be the bass player. I said ‘Fuck, I’m in.’ They were doing a lot of Poco, Pure Prairie League, country rock. We had several bands, starting with Dustwoofie, and then Road Apple with Spencer Bohren. I quit Dustwoofie because the manager wanted me to sign an exclusive contract where he got 25 percent of all my earnings. I went up to Baton Rouge for a while and played there. Ed came up to Baton Rouge and he was putting together a band to play on Bourbon Street. It was me, Ed, Becky Kury, Clark Vreeland and Bruce Raeburn on drums. We played in the French Quarter for four months until the strip club we worked at fired us. That band was called Sophie and the Heart Regulators. At that point Kury was the singer, she didn’t play an instrument. Becky started playing bass after that with the Rhapsodizers. She asked me to teach her. It was strictly a matter of economics as far as she was concerned. Ironically, she developed a very unique and interesting style of playing.”
The Rhapsodizers—Volker, Kury, Bua, guitarist Clark Vreeland and eventually Baudoin—had a good run during the 1970s. Volker wrote a lot of songs for that group that eventually became Radiators material. The Rhapsodizers were on the verge of a major label deal with Atlantic Records when the band suddenly broke up.
“Ahmet Ertegun heard the Rhapsodizers at Jazz Fest in 1976,” said Bua. “They flew Ed and Becky to New York to sign the deal and when they went up there they wanted to make Becky the star. They were gonna put Becky with a studio band in New York. Ed asked Becky what she was going to do. She said she was going to take the best offer. So Ed said ‘Okay I quit,’ and so I quit too and Camile quit with us.”
Volker wasted no time. He called for a rehearsal with Dave Malone and Reggie Scanlan, who were just finishing up with Road Apple.
“I thought we would just go out there and drink some beer, smoke some pot, play a couple of tunes and just hang out,” said Scanlan. “But when we got there we started playing and after a while we looked at each other and said, ‘Did this really just happen?’ So Ed said, ‘Look, I don’t know what’s goin’ on here, but let’s do a rehearsal on Monday and we can learn one of my songs. Then we’ll see if we can be a band.’”
The song was “Red Dress,” which Volker had written for Becky Kury during the latter days of the Rhapsodizers. Ed showed them the song and Dave immediately came up with a guitar intro that fit like a glove.
“Dave was just doing a very simple figure,” said Camile, “a funk lick, something like the marching band you would hear coming down the street in your neighborhood.”
Volker was blown away.
“Not only did the Rads nail the ‘tune’ part I had written, but the guitar figure set the groove up perfectly.”
They never looked back. Rehearsals turned into live performances at a pizza joint a few blocks from Volker’s house, Luigi’s Pizza Parlor.
“From that point on we just took off,” said Scanlan. “Ed just opened up the fountain and all these songs came flowing out. We just fell into a groove. Everybody had different kinds of approaches to it, but it all came out as one groove. We could do a cover song and we didn’t care if it sounded like a cover song. The whole thing was an absolute surprise and the more it kept blossoming, the more we couldn’t wait to do more with the music. That’s why our shows in the beginning were like four and five hours long, because we couldn’t get enough of playing.”
The fans became part of the package, wild supporters like “Willie-burn-your-shirt,” who would dance in a frenzy to the music and burn his shirt. Volker wrote about some of these characters in his songs. The Radiators quickly took over the venues where the Rhapsodizers had played—the Dream Palace, then Tipitina’s—and the legend grew.
“The difference between the Rhapsodizers and the Radiators was that Becky didn’t really know how to play bass but she had great feeling,” Baudoin explained. “She could make one note played over and over sound great. There are some bass players that can’t do that. There were a lot of originals, and the Rads were able to take those originals and expand on them. The simplicity of the Rhapsodizers’ versions was good but inside of those songs were little dialogs and road maps that you could touch on. In between those places good things happened that made the Radiators what we were.”
Volker dubbed the Rads’ style “fish head music.” The band began to expand its audience and gradually realized that fans calling themselves Fishheads were spawning all over the country.
“I remember one of the first gigs out east, I think it was in North Carolina, we started playing and people were yelling out the names of the songs—our songs,” said Volker. “It was astonishing. I wanted to make it interesting for me and for the other members of the band, but the audience picked up on it. We would mix it up going from a Muddy Waters song to a Meters type of song to a Merle Haggard song as well as the whole New Orleans canon. We were firmly grounded in the eclecticism of the 1960s.”
The band signed to Epic Records and made three nationally distributed albums from 1987–89 before Epic was bought out by Sony. That would have been a logical time for most bands to break up. But the Radiators felt that leaving Epic freed them to be themselves again, and the band gleefully returned to touring in the spots where there was a strong fan base, and to making albums on their own.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that whatever Ed’s vision is or whatever his approach is to what he’s doing, he never stopped,” said Scanlan. “He never stopped writing songs, he never stopped pushing whatever his limitations were. And because he was always bringing new stuff in it kind of kept the band like that. It’s not like those bands that’ve all got big egos and start saying ‘Well, I’m the guy that made it happen’ or whatever. We knew there was something about us as a unit. We didn’t talk about it but that was always the Prime Directive. It was in the band, not about the individuals.”
Nevertheless, the margins of error for a touring rock band were shrinking, and though the band continued to play memorable shows and make great recordings (see Brett Milano’s “Wild and Free: The Radiators on Disc”) the high wire act became more and more difficult to accomplish.
“After 9/11 the road started squeezing tighter and tighter,” Volker said. “There was enhanced security, and our fortunes started waning a little bit so we weren’t playing multiple nights when we traveled, so there was a lot more roadwork which meant a lot of riding from town to town.”
Entropy eventually catches up with everything. The pressures Volker started noticing continued to mount, and the band was forced to make more concessions to the shrinking economic margins. The flood and subsequent evacuation of New Orleans posed another challenge, which may have actually extended the band’s life, as New Orleans musicians shouldered the awesome responsibility of maintaining their city’s cultural identity in the aftermath of the deluge. Like many of their peers, the Radiators represented why New Orleans mattered at a time when the city’s future was very much in doubt.
Finally, Volker told his bandmates he was retiring from the road, and the group played its “Last Watusi” shows in June of 2011. Volker gave the others his blessing to continue on with a new lineup, but they also knew it couldn’t really be the Radiators without him. Malone, Baudoin and Bua formed a couple of offshoot groups, Raw Oyster Cult and Fishhead Stew. Scanlan put renewed energy into a band he had already been playing with, the New Orleans Suspects. And Volker concentrated on writing, cleaning up his archives, and playing in smaller lineups like Jolly House and Trio Mollusc.
The Radiators had broken up, but the fans were relentless in clamoring for an encore. After their last shows, the band was convinced by Quint Davis to reform and play at Jazz Fest. Annual January anniversary reunions at Tipitina’s followed suit. To this day Fishheads can still convene a couple times a year to celebrate that community. As some of the most prominent of those fans pass on, including krewe organizers and tapers like Karl Bremer, Paul Toracinta and Eric Vandercar, the reunions become as much about memorializing them as keeping the party rolling.
“Looking back it’s been a great run,” said Baudoin. “But what really stands out is how so many people that we’ve met over the years got so much out of it. It was a lot of fun being in the Radiators but even more important is the fact that we made a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”
“I was so fortunate to hook up with this group of guys, especially a songwriter as good as Ed Volker,” added Malone. “I’m very proud of what we did. We called our own shots and danced to our own music. All we had to do was look at our fan base to be reassured. We had a damn good run. If you sit back and try to put into perspective the different kinds of songs Ed wrote or I wrote or Ed and I wrote or someone else wrote it’s a hell of a body of work. Of all the things I might have been or might be, nothing will top being a Radiator.”
“I think it’s one of the best bands America ever produced,” concluded Scanlan, “and I think Ed is one of the greatest songwriters around. I can’t believe he isn’t better known for his songwriting. There have been bands that played better than us, but our biggest legacy is that we were the catalyst for the creation of an amazing community. Everybody made everybody feel welcome. That’s our lifetime achievement, bringing people together.”