THE DAYS THE MUSIC DIED… A pair of longtime musical greats with strong ties to the Crescent City—“Champion” Jack Dupree and James ”Thunderbird” Davis—passed away in January. “Champion” Jack, the barrelhouse pianist whose New Orleans roots remained vibrant despite 36 years of self-imposed exile in Germany, died of cancer on January 21. He was 82.
Dupree returned to New Orleans for the first time in decades for the 1990 Jazz Fest. While in town, he recorded Back Home in New Orleans (Rounder Records). He came back for the 1991 Jazz Fest, and recorded two albums’ worth of material. Rounder Records released some of it in 1991 as Forever and Ever; a spokesman at Rounder said the company will probably issue another Dupree album sometime this year.
Local drummer Kerry Brown, who was first introduced to Champion Jack’s music as a child, played on the 1991 Dupree sessions.
“It was such a pleasure,” Brown said. “I’m glad I was on the last two albums he recorded. It really is in the history books now.
“And the one that’s coming out is going to be killer. They didn’t even put the killer songs on Forever and Ever.”
Blues vocalist James “Thunderbird” Davis, a Gray, Louisiana resident who was to record his second album for New Orleans’ Black Top Records this month, died January 24 after collapsing onstage in St. Paul, MN. He was 53.
Resplendent in a white suit, Davis was singing “What Else Is There To Do?” for a packed house at the Blues Saloon when he died. “He was doing what he loved to do,” said Black Top’s Hammond Scott. “In a way you could say he went out in style.” Blocked heart arteries were reportedly the cause of death.
Davis, born James Huston, released a handful of singles in the ‘60s before fading into obscurity. Davis’ career was resurrected after Scott tracked him down in 1988. His Checkout Time LP, released by Black Top in 1989, was the first full-length album of his career. He was to record his next album this month at Ultrasonic Studios.
Davis’ last recordings were made during sessions for the Carol Fran/Clarence Hollimon Black Top album Soul Sensation, released this month. Davis and Fran did a duet on the gospel standard “This Little Light of Mine.” Hammond Scott said he had originally intended to save the song for Davis’ next album, but decided at the last minute to include it on Fran’s already lengthy album.
“I’m glad I didn’t use good sense to save it [for Davis’ record],” Scott said. “It never would have made the connection it will on this record. I had no idea it would be the last thing we’d hear from him.”
Scott spent the weekend following Davis’ death fielding inquiries from publications across the country, including Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter.
“I wish we had gotten one day reaction like this to his talent when he was alive,” said Scott. “I think he’d be moved by all the interest in his passing.”
THE GRAMMY GAME… Though New Orleans’ haul of 1991 Grammy nominations wasn’t as large as in previous years, the total did surpass that of, say, Iowa. Four area artists received a total of five nominations.
“They finally found a category I fit into, thank God!” exclaimed Irma Thomas, overjoyed at her first nomination in 34 years as a professional singer. Her Live—Simply the Best album (on Rounder Records) was nominated in the Contemporary Blues category. Perennial favorite Harry Connick Jr. picked up a couple of nominations for his Blue Light, Red Light LP. Lafayette-based Beausoleil garnered a Best Contemporary Folk Album nomination for Cajun Conja. And Aaron Neville’s Warm Your Heart LP—the one that’s sold over half a million copies—was nominated in the Pop Male Vocal category.
Surprisingly, neither Wynton nor Branford, nor anything that is Marsalis, was nominated, even though both released strong albums last year. Maybe if Branford writes a snazzy new theme for “The Tonight Show” when he takes Doc Severinsen’s job in May, he’ll cop a nod for “Best Theme Music From A Show People Watch In Bed.”
An estimated 65 million viewers will tune in for the Grammy Awards show, to be broadcast on February 25 on CBS from New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Go, Irma, go.
BYRD FLIES AGAIN… The late great Professor Longhair—aka Henry Roeland Byrd—the man who influenced everyone from Fats Domino through Elton John while singing about “Tipitina” (not “Tipitina’s”) and a bald-headed woman, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a rock forefather.
New Orleans was represented at the January induction dinner by Aaron Neville, who joined some of the rock world’s biggest stars onstage for the evening’s all-star jam finale. Aaron tapped a cowbell alongside the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, U2’s The Edge, ex-Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, and many, many more.
This year’s ceremony was a bit less dramatic than last year’s dinner (thankfully), which was interrupted by news that American warplanes had commenced the bombing of Iraq.
JIMMY BUFFETT’S BOYS AND GIRLS… Apparently grown weary of his sand-and-tequila poster child reputation, Jimmy Buffett has gone and found himself a real job (sort of)…he started a record label (dubbed, if you can believe it, Margaritaville). Two of the label’s first proteges include the Big Easy’s own Evangeline (all girls) and the Iguanas (all boys).
Evangeline’s Nancy Buchan says that her band will probably join Buffett for his summer tour, after cutting an album for his label in February. In a possibly ominous development, Georgio Armani has reportedly expressed interest in designing the band’s stage clothes (no word if the album will be called Evangeline Goes Italian).
In January, Buffett swapped venues with the Iguanas. He invited them to open a week’s worth of arena gigs for him, then joined them for a showcase at Tipitina’s, billing his band as Freddie and the Fishstyx. The Iguanas spent some time in Buffett’s private Key West studio in December, but at press time, a record deal had not officially been signed.
WHEN HARRY MET A MIDDLE LINEBACKER… It may have been a beer-and-chili dog crowd as opposed to his usual quiche-and-sherry gang, but a cool Harry Connick Jr. managed nonetheless to unwrap a suitable rendition of ”The Star Spangled Banner” to kick off Super Bowl XXVI. Connick, who also played a sold-out, five-night theater stand while in Minneapolis, MN, became the fourth New Orleanian—after Al Hirt (1967), Wynton Marsalis (1986) and Aaron Neville (1990)—to perform the national anthem at a Super Bowl.
Nipping at Connick’s heels is 15-year-old Crescent City vocalist Terrill Pierce. All he got to do was sing at the Saints’ ill-fated playoff game…hardly a Super Bowl, but Harry’s got nine years on the kid. Give him time.
THE BIG GET BIGGER… The already-meaty lineup of Bourbon Street mainstay Willie Lockett and the Blues Krewe was bolstered recently by the addition of guitarist Wayne Bennett. Bennett, best known for his work with blues crooner Bobby “Blue” Bland during the 60s, was named Blues Guitarist of the Year in 1981 by the National Blues Foundation. Krewe saxophonist David Raynor, a longtime acquaintance of Bennett’s, invited him aboard; Bennett will perform with the Krewe on a semi-regular basis. “He’s a real welcome addition to anything we do,” Raynor says. “It’s nice to be working with him…the guy’s a legend.”
In February, Bennett will join the Krewe on the 15th at Ruby’s Roundhouse in Mandeville, and at the Mid-City Lanes on the 29th.
A FUNKY BLAST FROM THE PAST… Rhino Records has reissued The Best of War and More. Its thirteen cuts recall the positive side of the era that spawned disco and Chicago. And although it may be a bit dated lyrically (nuggets like “8-track playing all your favorite songs” and “rapping to the CB radio in the van,” from “Summer,” come to mind), the music, with percussion provided by New Orleans rehearsal hall magnate Harold Brown, is choice.
Brown was unaware of the Rhino reissue; however, he said he may join a reunited War “if the conditions are right.” The band has been recording on the west coast minus Brown, a founding member and co-author every cut on the greatest hits record.
DINO HANGS WITH A SKUNK… A smattering of music and TV heavies mingled with the regular cast of characters in the French Quarter’s Stage Door for Dino Kruse’s annual NATPE jam on January 20. The informal get-together coincides with the National Association of Television Programming Executives’ convention. “This isn’t an audition,” said Kruse, despite the industry cats in the room. “This is for fun.”
Crammed into a corner of the Stage Door, Dino Kruse and His Cast of Thousands—including Brian “Breeze” Cayolle on sax-ran through old favorites like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Take A Walk On the Wild Side” and Eric Clapton’s “Have You Ever Loved A Woman?” As promised, Jeff. “Skunk” Baxter, of Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan fame, joined in on guitar.
Kruse—if not the hardest working musician in town, then certainly the best connected—plans to be on the road throughout much of February and March, returning for gigs during Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. He also plans to cut tracks of for a new album in early spring, and then shop it to labels.
THAT SAME NIGHT… While Dino and his pal Skunk jammed at the Stage Door, harp man Rockin’ Jake (who, oddly enough, is never seen in the same room with OffBeat‘s itinerant ad man, Larry Jacobs) joined fellow New Englanders (and old friends) Savoy Truffle onstage at a chilly Tipitina’s. Savoy Truffle does a sort of Yankee-fled version of the Radiators sound…which might have explained the presence of the Rads’ Dave Malone and Camille Baudoin in the audience.