As a tip of the hat to the success of the current LSU football squad, OffBeat takes pleasure in recalling a killer New Orleans R&B tribute to the Fightin’ Tigers team from 1958. Considered now a most politically incorrect song title, “Chinese Bandits,” by the Cheerleaders, was a favorite on local radio for months.
“The Cheerleaders”—Huey Piano Smith, Frankie Ford, Jerry Byrne and Mac Rebennack—only existed on 45 r.p.m. The inspiration for the title came from Paul Dietzel, the LSU coach. He dubbed the undefeated 1958 substitute defense squad the “Chinese Bandits.” At the time there was a popular comic strip “Terry and the Pirates.” In the “funny papers,” that band of pirates often skirmished with a band of Asian privateers dubbed “Chinese Bandits.” Such was their head-hunting reputation that the Bandits became media favorites—even being featured nationally in Sports Illustrated. It should be noted that in 1958, no player of Asian descent, or of color, would wear a LSU jersey for over a decade.
After LSU went 11-0 and won the Sugar Bowl, the state was in a frenzy. Not long after, Frankie Ford, née Frank Guzzo, a teenage rock ’n’ roll performer from Gretna, came under the wing of Joe Caronna. Described by Mac Rebennack as “a stone hustler,” Caronna—among several other enterprises—was also a partner in Johnny Vincent’s local record distribution company. Vincent also owned Ace Records, which at Caronna’s recommendation, got Ford signed to a record deal. Besides “Sea Cruise,” the Ford/Caronna partnership also spawned the Spinet Records company.
“That was the year LSU had the best team in country,” recalled Frankie Ford. “Joe said LSU was gonna be number one, so we came up with this topical thing ‘Chinese Bandits.’ I wrote the chorus and Huey and I made a deal to split what we made. We called ourselves the Cheerleaders, because of our [Ace] contracts.”
Very much a Huey Smith arrangement, it was Mac’s band the Skyliners’ vocalist Jerry Byrne (“Lights Out”) who sang the memorable refrain “Chinese Bandits they can rock, gonna stop a touchdown—chop-chop!”
“We sent some dubs out to the stations and they started calling in like crazy,” added Ford. “The first 1,000 records came in with blank labels. They were screaming for the record. We had to write the titles on by hand. We put each record on the turntable to see which side was which. We hand-delivered them to the stores because it was Saturday and the distributorship was closed.”
Of course, eventually things died down, but the LSU band still plays the song occasionally. Besides being “borrowed” by some parties, “Chinese Bandits” 45s have become quite collectable. You’ll still hear it occasionally when religiously they rebroadcast Billy Cannon’s 1958 punt return on Halloween night.