Coco Robicheaux found his life as a musician in the gutter. “I moved into New Orleans from the countryside when I was 17,” Robicheaux chuckles, “and I started playing guitar soon after that. In fact, I found my guitar one day when I was walking down Bourbon Street—I found the head of a guitar on the street. I picked it up and thought about hanging it up on the wall.
“So I kept walking, and about a block later I found the broken-off neck and fretboard from the same guitar. I picked that up and kept on walking, and after another block I found the crushed and mutilated body of the guitar.
“So I took it home and put it all together, hooked it up with fishing line—you could get a whole reel of fishing line for what you’d pay for a set of strings.
Then I met this dude who told me he could show me 500 songs in five minutes, and he sat down and showed me the IV-V-I progression, which opened the whole thing up for me.”
Now, thirty years later, the singer/songwriter has finally recorded his debut album, Spiritland, backed by a colorful cast of musical characters drawn from the Crescent City blues underground. And, as a result, he’s slowly beginning to take his rightful place in the city’s splendrous music community as a headline attraction with a coolly commanding stage presence, a terrific repertoire of original songs, and a distinctively powerful vocal rasp that brings his tunes to a life all their own.
A native of Ascension Parish, Coco Robicheaux has been on the scene since way back in the game. He’s a founding member of the Professor Longhair Foundation—that’s his bust of Fess that greets you when you walk into Tipitina’s—and recently returned to the Crescent City after years of knocking about the USA.
His waist-length hair probably goes back before the rediscovery of Fess by quite a few years, and you can pretty easily picture a young Robicheaux emerging from the City That Care Forgot in the mid-’60s to enter the charmed circle of rock ‘n’ roll beatniks drawn to San Francisco in the days of the Avalon Ballroom, Mouse posters and Country Joe & The Fish, just before there were hippies.
It’s all there in his music, too: the ten original compositions collected for Spiritland, just released by Orleans Records, have been written and scored out of the circumstances of Coco’s life experience, and each directly reflects an aspect of the unique Robicheaux reality.
“‘Walking With The Spirit’ and ‘Spiritland’ are what I call ‘3:33 songs,'” he confides, “because they seem to come to me right at 3:33 a.m. ‘We Will Fly Away’ and ‘Cryin’ Inside’ are in that same time zone too. Two of these songs came to me exactly at 3:33, one at 3:30, and one at 3 a.m.”
Not everything comes from the aether; sometimes the songs come straight from the street. “I got that line in ‘Pit Bull’ about ‘whammer-rammers’ from these two old dudes I saw walking down the street one night,” Coco says. “One of them grabbed the other one by the arm and said, ‘Look out, they got one a them whammer-rammers in there—he hit that fence and about give me a stroke.’
“‘I Knew Without Asking’…that came to me while I was laid up in bed recovering from being hit by an automobile, just thinking of all the other places I’d rather be. It was recorded in one take with Jim Singleton, Gary Reiger, Dahlia, and Michael Sklar. Singleton was in a hurry, so he wrote the part out, ran through it once, said ‘let’s cut it,’ and then split.”
Other works are evocative of their origins in Coco’s varied background. “I wrote ‘Working Man’—kind of a country & western reggae song—after I worked on building a house for this dude in Florida. When we got done he wouldn’t even let us come on his property—and we had built his damn house.
“‘We Will Fly Away’ and ‘Saturday Night Before Christmas’ come out of what I think of as the Cajun back-country melancholy that’s so deep. They like to hear one of these once in a while, but not so often that they’d just sit there and blow their brains out.”
One of Robicheaux’s songs has already been featured in a television documentary. “I wrote ‘Cryin’ Inside’ for Mighty Sam McClain,” Coco remembers. “It was arranged by Cranston Clements and sung by Mighty Sam at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, and it wound up in a documentary movie called Up Jumped Moses, about this cat Moses Dillard.
“Somehow Moses Dillard heard a recording of Mighty Sam’s performance from Montreux while he was in his prison cell and used this song with his prison choirs at the Tennessee State Penitentiary, so the choir appeared singing this song in the film about Moses Dillard.”
Coco’s song “St. John’s Eve,” sure to be a perennial favorite, includes field recordings of swamp sounds he made at Bogue Falaye at midnight on St. John’s Eve in 1993. “St. John’s Eve is a big night that honors St. John, or Legba as he is known in the African church,” he explains. “They used to have some real hellified ceremonies on that night.”
Coco Robicheaux entered this world as Curtis Arceneaux on October 25, 1947. He tells his own story best:
“Yeah, I was born on the side of the road somewhere in California, outside this little town called Merced.
“This was kind of different because all my cousins were born on the kitchen table at my grandma’s house in Ascension Parish. My relatives have worked the same land there for generations.
“My dad was in the Air Force, he traveled all over, but when I was born my parents were on vacation in California. My mother always said, ‘When you were born, three wise men came.’ It turned out that they were Mennonites with long beards who lived in these trailer homes outside of Merced.
“My great-grandmother Philaman (‘Gran’) was a hoodoo woman. She was real big in our little part of the world, and she kind of used me as her altar boy. She’d only travel in a buggy—automobiles were regarded as the Devil’s contraptions.
“She didn’t believe that kids should have money of their own, so when we did little chores for her she paid us in eggs, and we’d take ’em into town and trade ’em for candy and things.
“I played my first professional gig in Gonzales, Louisiana, in Ascension Parish, at a sock hop in the high school gym in 1959. It was right before Christmas, and my cousins didn’t have any shoes, so one of them wore my grandmother’s shoes to the gig. It was $3 for the gig—$1 for each of us, and all the Cokes we could drink.
“I was playing trombone and singing, and my cousins played trumpet and drums. I got into show business because some of my other cousins were musicians—Van Broussard was my cousin, and also Grace Broussard, who was with Dale & Grace that had a hit record with that Don & Dewey tune, ‘I’m Leaving It All Up To You.’ We did Van’s song, ‘Winter Wind,’ which was a big hit over in there.
“I started high school in Gonzales, then went to Slidell. I was playing the slide trombone in Slidell before I started playing slide guitar. I was with a little band called the Rebels, and then I was with a group called The Phyve for quite a few years, playing trombone and singing lead. We had a big horn section and did all the James Brown numbers.
“We played this place on the old Covington Highway called the Bayou Lounge every Friday and Saturday night for years. We had our own radio show on WBGS—that’s Bill Garrett’s Station—and a TV show over in Mississippi, but the guy hated the way I looked and got rid of us.
“That’s when I made my first record, for PeeWee Maddox on the J&B label out of Long Beach, Mississippi. This was in the early mid-’60s, and the record was ‘I Lost My Girl’ b/w ‘I’m No Good.’
“We made another record here at Cosimo’s studio called ‘The Frog,’ but a singer named Bobby Reno came in and put his voice over our tracks and had a little local hit with my song. We had a whole album’s worth of stuff recorded at Cosimo’s that disappeared somehow.”
Before moving to the San Francisco Bay area, Coco “kind of hit the road for a few years. I went out west as a migrant worker, picking weeds in Texas, and ended up picking cherries up in Washington state. San Francisco blew me out—this is in 1966, when it was really getting hip—and I moved there in late 1967 or early ’68.”
Coco partook fully in the events unfolding in the Bay Area during that turbulent period when the line between the cultural life and the political struggle was a very thin one.
“I left San Francisco in 1969 after the People’s Park thing in Berkeley,” he recalls with a grimace. “I was at the head of a column of thousands of people with a pickaxe in my hand—my job was to bust up the concrete so they could plant trees and flowers there—and I thought I’d better get out of town before they caught up with me.
I asked Coco how he got his name, which I’d first heard years ago in Dr. John’s song “Walk On Guilded Splinters” and had always thought of as a folkloric thing.
“They’d been calling me Coco Robicheaux since I was a little boy—it was the name of the kid who got snatched up by the loup garou, and they would call kids that when they would be doing wrong, to scare you.
“I started using it full-time after some dude stole my ID in San Francisco and did a bunch of terrible crimes under my name. This guy plagued me for years with all the bad stuff he did under Curtis Arceneaux, so I just called myself Coco after that.”
It took quite a while for Coco to take up the life of a professional musician. “I came back to New Orleans in the early ’70s,” he recalls, “and just hung around a lot. I wouldn’t play around town too much, but I’d go out to these country places and travel around to Texas and Florida.
“I got wiped out by Hurricane Allen over in Texas, by the Mexican border, and all I had left was my car, so I moved on to Key West and was living behind Sloppy Joe’s bar in my Lincoln Continental. This was in the early ’80s, and I had a band there called Mojo Hand, in Key West.
“I came back to New Orleans again just after Mardi Gras in 1992 and decided to concentrate on my music, writing songs and playing around with whoever I could. I signed up with Orleans Records two years ago and got hit by a car the next day, which kind of held up the project for a while, but once I got back on my feet it started moving along pretty good.”
Coco’s course seems pretty well set now. After kicking around for so many years, he’s got his music nicely under control, and his career path has finally opened up. You can almost see Legba looking down the road after Coco Robicheaux with a twisted little grin. “I gave that boy a hard time at the crossroads,” he mutters to himself, “but it looks like he’s on his way now.”