From “Big Chief” and “It Ain’t My Fault” to “Deacon John’s Jump Blues,” from “Iko Iko” and “Trick Bag” to Creole Mass, Wardell Quezergue has been one of the key architects of New Orleans music over the last half century. A genius arranger who has worked in every style imaginable, Quezergue’s list of accomplishments defy his own recollection. During this candid look back over a lifetime in music, Quezergue announced his retirement. “I had a lot of fun,” he concluded.
With Mardi Gras festivities at hand, sometimes it seems you’re responsible for most of the soundtrack. Do you remember the first time you heard “Big Chief” on the radio?
During those days I used have my ear to the radio 24 hours a day to see if they were playing any of my records. When I heard “Big Chief” on the radio it sure sounded good. It sounds different off the radio. It sounds fuller.
When you cut that track did you have any idea how much of a legend Professor Longhair would become?
Well, as far as I was concerned he was a legend when he did that. It’s a funny thing, a lot of times going into the studio you would think something would be a hit doesn’t end up that way and some things you don’t think are a hit will be. He was a natural talent. That was a difficult song to record. Smokey Johnson played the drums so hard that his hands would start bleeding. We had to stop the session several times because the Professor when he played during those times, the legs of the piano would be splintered because he kept the tempo by kicking the leg of the piano and he would rip the piano to pieces. So we had to tie his leg to the piano. He played the whole song with his left hand. The musicians we had to keep switching up trying to figure where to put them to get the right sound for him to sing it. After a while he got into it. That was hard to do because I think at that time nobody had recorded Mardi Gras songs like that. We cut [James] Booker too, we did several big bands things with him. We did one of Fats Domino hits that we did jazz style with him playing organ.
When you were a kid did you celebrate Mardi Gras?
In a sense yeah but during my time the parades passed right in front of my house and back then the neighborhood tribes and all that kind of stuff, oh they was tough those days. They like to kill you (laughs). I grew up in the Seventh Ward and the cats would congregate around there to go Uptown. Even early in the morning they’d be juiced up then.
I come from a musical family. My father played guitar and banjo. I have a brother that played drums and another that played trumpet, so we had a family band and every Sunday we’d have a jam session. At that time I played trumpet. I didn’t go to school for music. I never had private tutors for playing or writing. All of that was done by ear. I learned from my father and older brothers. Members of the band knew how to read, but I didn’t know what an arrangement was. We used to buy charts and play them so that’s how we learned to read.
Were you influenced by Armstrong as a trumpeter back then?
Oh yes, Armstrong, Harry James and Dizzy Gillespie. When I got older I was really into Dizzy, I was almost starting to look like Dizzy, I had a goatee under my chops and all that. I tried to act like him and all that kind of jazz.
How did you start using the tuning fork to write arrangements?
I don’t write by piano. I get a key from someone by playing a chord on a piano but if I don’t have a piano I use a tuning fork to get the key that someone is singing in. I don’t have a perfect ear but I have relative pitch. If you sing I have my tuning fork and from my tuning fork to what you sing I have an alphabet in my mind and that’s how I write it.
I didn’t finish high school, and I really got my professional education in the service. When I enlisted I went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where I met a lot of good musicians. We went to Japan, where I started writing for the military band. The musicians were real good, so the more I wrote the more I could hear what I was doing. We were playing a concert in Japan when we heard that the Korean War started. We stopped the concert and had to go back to our base.
That’s an amazing story about how you were about to be sent to the front and they kept you behind because they needed you to write the arrangements for the band.
I had on my full field pack ready to go fight and I was taken off the truck because they needed somebody to write. The guy who replaced me was killed. When I found that out I made a vow that I would write a mass in Thanksgiving for that. I didn’t write it for many years because when I finished in the service I had to work to support the family so that really got out of my mind. But it was later on, at a point where I wasn’t working, that it dawned on me I had promised to do this so I started writing the Creole Mass.
When I got out of the service I went to the Gateway School of Music and I met a lot of musicians there. We formed this band called the Royal Dukes of Rhythm, and I was writing dance music, jazz music, and not worrying about the Top Ten. We sounded good but we wasn’t getting any work, and I was told by one of the black social clubs that we had to do the Top Ten songs if we wanted work. So I started writing charts for the Top Ten songs, and we had a couple of good singers and we started getting work.
After I started writing for the Royal Dukes of Rhythm, people heard the band and I got a chance to make some records. One of the artists was the Dixie Cups, I kind of tutored them before I started writing for them. They had that natural ability. They fell right into it. That was my first success. We recorded that in New York. Lieber and Stoller were behind that, they were very nice. “Iko Iko” is a song from New Orleans anyway, so that was a natural. To get the rhythm on that we were hittin’ glass ash trays, bottles, anything you could put your hand on. We had all the New Orleans musicians with us so it was like Mardi Gras in New York in the studio.
Then I did some things with Dave Bartholomew. We did Earl King’s “Trick Bag.” Then Nola records came along and we did Robert Parker, “Barefootin’.” The thing I thought when Robert came to me with that was that the girls at the dance used to kick off their shoes, so I thought that was a good trick there. Then we made an instrumental version of the “Popeye” with the big band. We had one out up against Eddie Bo’s “Popeye” song.
A lot of those early singles have phenomenal bass lines.
Whenever I arrange the first thing that comes to my mind is the bass part. From the bass you get the groove, you get the bottom of what you want to do from the bass. A good drum player will fill in the gaps. That’s the root. But it’s always the melodic line with the bass that starts me off with everything. It’s all about energy.
Jerry Wexler tried to get you to join Atlantic Records as a staff arranger.
He came here man, he called me to the hotel room and he had the checkbook on the bed. He said write whatever number you want on that check and I’ll give you any artist you want on the label to work with, except two. He couldn’t give me Aretha Franklin or Roberta Flack because they were committed to arrangers by contract. I wouldn’t sign because I had so many people that were depending on me and I knew that they wouldn’t be able to do it on their own.
Then you put a busload of people together and cut Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff’ and King Floyd’s “Groove Me” for Malaco.
King Floyd, ha ha, King Floyd, ha ha ha, what happened is there was this place in Mississippi, Malaco Records, and we went up there, they had a studio and no artists and their session players were country players, and we had artists but no studio to record them. So we went up there and started rehearsing, we cut Jean Knight and King Floyd, and the musicians were country players. When I did “Groove Me” that was the most difficult composition to do because it was very very odd, the bass line was odd, to get that jumping feeling, but they laid it down. So anyway I came back home with the tracks, King Floyd listened to it and said “Man I should have stayed in California.” He didn’t like it. So I said “Well there it is.”
Berry Gordy also wanted you at Motown.
Berry tried to get Smokey Johnson up there. We went there with so many artists from New Orleans, Earl King and others, in fact I did some arrangements for a stage show of some of their artists, Stevie Wonder and some of them. There was a riot the show we did in Cleveland. Stevie started singing, they were pitching things on the stage, somebody yelled out “Play the Star Spangled Banner” so we started playing that and it got rougher. Years later Stevie came down to do some work and he remembered that gig and he remembered my name. While we were with them in Detroit we went into the studio where they record and there was one little microphone no bigger than my little finger and that was the only microphone that they put over the band. That must have been some microphone to make that sound so good. The studio had holes in the walls that you could see the inside from the outside and you could see the eyes of the kids looking in while you were recording. They refused to repair those holes because they didn’t want to lose the sound. I never forgot that. Smokey had ’em going. Smokey had so many things going on at the same time they thought he was three drummers.
Looking back on it all Wardell, what do you think?
I think I had the greatest time in the world. I wish I was richer but I’m rich in terms of what I was able to do. I had a lot of fun and a lot of people I’ve met, but I just don’t remember all the things I’ve done and who I’ve done it with.
Guys like Dr. John, Earl King, they’re very easy to write for because they have their own identity. All you had to do is put your little thing with theirs. I just did a session, which is my last, with Dr. John and I haven’t been involved with that good a session in a long time. There are so many good songs on the album. It was very hard for me to do because I have a condition but I don’t want to go into that. It was my last but it was worthwhile.