OffBeat’s Best of the Beat awards show will be recreated during the upcoming fourth season of the HBO series Treme. Ironically, this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Music at Best of the Beat will be shared by a collection of New Orleans R&B greats—Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Robert Parker, the Dixie Cups, Frankie Ford and Jean Knight—that overlaps with the participants in one of season three’s main story lines, Davis McAlary’s R&B opera Old Dudes Who Never Got Paid.
McAlary’s opus was a tribute to the history of New Orleans R&B as well as an attempt to draw attention to how badly these musicians were treated by a record industry that exploited its artists at every turn. Plot lines included lengthy descriptions of how credit was taken and money stolen from many of these musicians.
Yet OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement Award winners share much more than hard luck. Over the course of a period running from the 1950s to the 1970s, these musicians created a series of timeless hits that demonstrate how New Orleans R&B helped create the rock ‘n’ roll era and the golden age of Top 40 popular music. “Ain’t Got No Home,” “Carnival Time,” “Sea Cruise,” “Chapel of Love,” “People Say,” “Iko Iko,” Barefootin’” and “Mr. Big Stuff” are all major elements in the soundtrack of New Orleans chartbusters. The artists who made these sides share affinities that define the nature and history of New Orleans music.
Al “Carnival Time” Johnson
Johnson is the only one of the three pianists being honored at BOB who still actively performs. In fact he recently played to a packed house at Buffa’s before episode nine of HBO’s Treme, rolling through a set of classic New Orleans R&B tunes heavily weighted toward Fats Domino material before closing with “Carnival Time.” Johnson was in strong voice and he can still pound out those triplets.
Though Johnson came from a musical family, he didn’t start out on the piano. “My father bought me a trumpet when I was a kid,” he recalls. “He wanted me to play jazz.” But after Johnson heard Fats Domino, Sugar Boy Crawford and Smiley Lewis, he switched to the piano. “My father was disappointed,” admits Johnson. “He really wanted me to be like Satchmo.”
Johnson began playing in public while he was still in high school. “I played talent shows, a lot of parties and clubs all over town,” he says. Johnson’s first recordings, “Old Time Talkin’” and “I Done Wrong,” were released in 1956 on Aladdin Records. Joe Ruffino, owner of Ric and Ron Records, got wind of Johnson and brought him into the studio to record “Lena” and “You Done Me Wrong” in 1958. Ruffino was notorious for ripping off his recording artists, and Johnson was no exception. “He didn’t pay me anything for that,” says Johnson. But having a record out was the only way to establish a reputation in the clubs, so Johnson went back into the studio in 1959 to record “Carnival Time.”
“I like Carnival,” says Johnson. “When we were growing up, my grandparents and them were always into Carnival. It was ‘Carnival this’ and ‘Carnival that.’ So there were Mardi Gras songs, Professor Longhair had ‘Go to the Mardi Gras’ [‘Mardi Gras in New Orleans’] and Art Neville had ‘Mardi Gras Mambo’ and I wanted to do something different, so I came up with ‘Carnival Time’.”
Ruffino took half the writing credit on the song and all the money. Johnson finally won the legal rights to his royalties in 1999.
Johnson endured some rough years after Katrina but now is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, returning to New Orleans after being displaced in Texas and moving into a home in the Musicians’ Village.
“I sure did lose my home in the lower Ninth Ward,” he says, “but now things are looking up for me. I sure love playing and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.”
Clarence “Frogman” Henry
Clarence “Frogman” Henry still lives on the West Bank in a modest ranch house that is a literal shrine to his most famous creation, “Ain’t Got No Home.” On the front lawn, two frog statues flank an icon of the Virgin Mary painted in matching green. Inside the house are thousands of pieces of frog memorabilia. “People keep sending them,” he explains, gesturing at the hundreds of frog pictures, figurines and toys neatly arranged on top of and underneath the grand piano in his living room and all over the walls and mantelpieces. “I have my own museum here.”
Henry is an affable man who seems entirely comfortable with his lot in life, even though he can no longer play the piano due to arthritis in his hands.
Though he wouldn’t earn the nickname Frogman until he became an adult, he was already playing around with the croaking voice frog sounds as a kid. “I used to do it at school,” he laughs. “I would scare the girls with it.”
The young Henry idolized Professor Longhair. Though he was underage he would sneak into clubs to hear Longhair play the piano. Henry copied not only the music, but the look, wearing a wig when he played talent shows. Like most of his peers, though, Henry eventually emulated Fats Domino, who fashioned New Orleans R&B piano into one of the main elements of early rock ‘n’ roll. One night when he was playing at the Joy Lounge, the same club where Frankie Ford took impromptu lessons from him, Henry came up with the lyrics to “Ain’t Got No Home” on the spur of the moment.
When he finished the song, Henry played it for bandleader Paul Gayten, who was also a talent scout for Chess Records. Chess put the track out on its subsidiary label Argo, but promoted it as the B-side of another Henry song, “Troubles, Troubles.” The legendary WWEZ disc jockey Poppa Stoppa started playing “Ain’t Got No Home” and the phone lines lit up with requests to play it again. “They was calling and asking for the frog song by the frog man,” says Henry. “They didn’t know my name.” Poppa Stoppa immediately appended “Frogman” to Henry’s name.
“Ain’t Got No Home” hit the number 3 spot on the R&B charts. Its iconic vocalese chorus and bizarre frog voice sequence made it one of the most identifiable novelty tunes in history. But Henry was no one-hit wonder. In addition to some excellent local hits such as “Lonely Tramp” and “Baby, Baby Please,” Henry had a hit in 1961 with the sentimental Bobby Charles ballad “But I Do” and scored again with a cover of the Mills Brothers classic “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” Henry played on an American tour opening for the Beatles in 1964 and enjoyed a long run at various Bourbon Street clubs before he cut back on his performing schedule.
Many of the key songs associated with these artists were recorded in Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio, one of the physical birthplaces of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Cosimo was it,” says Henry. “Cosimo had the studio down on Governor Nicholls Street. Both ‘Ain’t Got No Home’ and ‘But I Do’ were recorded there. Everybody around the world wanted that sound. Little Richard and a lot of other people came down here to record at Cosimo’s to get that sound. That little studio had a sound that nobody could get anywhere else. They would come here to New Orleans to get that backbeat, that Caribbean feel.”
A prominent subtext of this year’s awards is the work of Wardell Quezergue, an arranger of staggering genius whose stamp on New Orleans music runs far deeper than most people understand. Quezergue’s unique vision unites the disparate elements of hits by The Dixie Cups, Robert Parker and Jean Knight. Both the Dixie Cups and Knight participated in the 2009 Ponderosa Stomp Foundation tribute to Quezergue at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
“He was a complete original, a genius,” says Knight of Quezergue, who died in 2011 and received the Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement Award in Music in 2007. “The point about Wardell was he don’t listen to anybody else’s music, don’t listen to the radio, because he didn’t want to be influenced by other people’s music. He does his own thing. ‘Mr. Big Stuff’ was so great because it was so original.”
Knight came to Quezergue’s attention when she was a singer at Maude’s Playhouse.
“Wardell wanted me to listen to some songs,” she recalls. “One of them was ‘Mr. Big Stuff.’ I liked what it was saying but I didn’t like the melody. He asks me why and I say ‘because it ain’t sayin’ what it should say. The words are sassy but the melody ain’t.”
Quezergue made an adjustment that suited Knight and brought her along with King Floyd up to Malaco’s studio in 1970 for a legendary session that produced two of the biggest hits in the history of Stax Records, “Mr. Big Stuff” and King Floyd’s “Groove Me.”
“That was exciting,” says Knight. “I thought, ‘This is fun, we’re going all the way to Jackson, Mississippi to record.’ I remember it like it was yesterday. It was on a Sunday. I let King go first because he had to go back to work. When I did that song, I knew it was gonna do something big. Because it had the attitude and I got the attitude to go with it. I knew it would be big but I never dreamed it would still be goin’ today.
“I been goin’ for nearly 50 years,” notes Knight proudly. “I had a big hit with ‘My Toot Toot.’ My version is the version everybody plays now. Rockin’ Sidney wrote it and he does it Cajun style. The Cajun people really like that. But I did a rock ‘’n’ roll version. I was on American Bandstand with ‘Big Stuff’ but I was on Solid Gold with ‘Toot Toot’.”
Frankie Ford was adopted by Vincent and Anna Guzzo when he was 3 months old. The Guzzos named him Francis Guzzo and indulged his love of music. When he was 5 years old, he sang “Pistol Packin’ Mama” with Carmen Miranda’s band after his father introduced him to bandleader Ted Fiorito. He went on to win amateur talent contests all over Louisiana and went to New York at age 12 to perform on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, where he placed second.
Frankie started playing rock ‘n’ roll while attending Behrman High School, taking piano lessons from another of this year’s award winners, Clarence “Frogman” Henry.
“[Frogman] lived over here on the West Bank and he was playing at the Joy Lounge under where the bridge is now,” says Ford. “He would teach us stuff on the piano. We stayed in touch over the years but not recently because I’m not working anymore.”
After being discovered playing in a bar on Airline Highway by Ace Records talent scout Joe Caronna, the young singer made his first record, “Cheatin’ Woman” backed by “The Last One To Cry.” Huey “Piano” Smith was the keyboardist on the record, which came out in 1958.
Smith turned out to be a pivotal figure in Frankie Ford’s career, when Ace president Johnny Vincent decided to bring the young rock ‘n’ roller in to sing Smith’s composition “Sea Cruise” with Smith and his band playing the backing track. Ford wasn’t even in New Orleans when the song was cut; he was working a gig in Philadelphia. Vincent flew him back to New Orleans, where “Huey taught me the words to ‘Sea Cruise,’” says Ford. “The piece of loose-leaf paper I wrote the lyrics on is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone said it was one of the greatest songs to come out of New Orleans. That sums it up. Rolling Stone, what more do you want?”
“Sea Cruise” became a huge hit in 1959, selling more than a million copies, and has gone on to become a rock ‘n’ roll foundation stone. Though Ford has never recorded anything remotely as popular, he continued to be a vibrant performer and recorded frequently until a recent illness forced him into retirement. His only regret is that he can no longer play gigs.
“I had to quit about two years ago,” he says. “I miss it so. I can’t travel anymore. I can still perform but it’s getting there that is the problem. I have very few regrets but my life didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, because if it did I would still be performing.”
The Lifetime Achievement Winners will be part of an R&B and funk revue hosted by guitarist Ernie Vincent, whose instrumental “Dap Walk” is a funk touchstone deeply encoded in the DNA of contemporary American music.
“I was on the scene in the 1970s, playing with everybody, but I particularly enjoyed playing with Tommy Ridgely,” says Vincent. “I’m an old hand at R&B revues. We’d play the Moose Club and the Elks Club and all kind of places like that. They’d get a bunch of people to play and I’d back ‘em all up—Frogman Henry, Carnival Time Johnson, Robert Parker, I played with all of ’em.”
Of all this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winners, Vincent is probably closest to his contemporary Jean Knight.
“I was working with Ernie before I even recorded,” says Knight. “I would be the warm-up singer before the big names would come out. We used to tear it up.”
Vincent’s band back in the day was called the Top Notes, and he’s revamped the group with a bunch of hot young players.
“I like the sound of the horns,” says Vincent. “My band is a kind of déjà vu from those days, they play with me and they’re real good. They play the same way my band sounded in the 1970s.” On a recent showcase at the Louisiana Music Factory, the new version of the Top Notes proved Wilson’s point, turning out a deep funk groove that had the crowd buzzing.
Expect more of the same at the Best of the Beat awards.
“We’ll do some of our own stuff,” says Vincent, “then we’ll do the material associated with the award winners. Not sure what we’ll include but you’re definitely gonna hear ‘Dap Walk.’”
Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Frankie Ford and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson are all piano players. They remind us of the deep tradition of New Orleans piano that underlies all the city’s music, dating back through Champion Jack Dupree and Professor Longhair and ultimately to the Storyville “professors” epitomized by jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. Robert Parker is a saxophonist rather than a piano player, and on his big hit “Barefootin’” he’s a vocalist, but he shares this legacy in that he played sax on Longhair’s signature hit “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” as well as Johnson’s “Carnival Time.”
Parker, who grew up in Central City, was a rare artist who made the transition from sideman to headliner practically overnight. Parker got a break when he joined Professor Longhair’s band, the Shuffling Hungarians, in 1949 and played on several of his early recordings. After writing “Barefootin’” Parker took the song to Wardell Quezergue who cut it immediately. “Barefootin’” was irresistible because it combined the old New Orleans syncopated beat with contemporary soul.
Parker followed “Barefootin’” with several local hits over the next decade, including “Let’s Go Baby (Where The Action Is)” and “Mr. Pitiful.”
The Dixie Cups
Barbara Hawkins of the Dixie Cups also remembers Quezergue with fondness.
“Wardell was a sweetheart,” she says. “Wardell wrote the arrangements for all our hits. If Wardell hadn’t been there I don’t know how we would have made out. We used to bring him on gigs with us to conduct the band. He went all over the world with us.”
Barbara Ann Hawkins grew up in New Orleans’ Calliope projects singing with her sister Rosa Lee and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson. “Every day after you did your chores you went outside on your porch and everybody in the neighborhood got together and sang,” she says. “I never dreamed anything would become of it.”
The girls were asked to sing at a school talent show, where Joe Jones, who recorded “Talk Too Much” in 1960, heard them sing.
“He called Sylvia [Robinson] of Mickey and Sylvia and told her, ‘I’ve got a gold mine in these girls’,” recalls Barbara. “He said he wanted to take us to New York, but he didn’t have the money so if Sylvia would give him the money he’d split half the royalties with her. But he took the money and never paid her back.”
Rosa details a history of treachery from Jones worthy of its own opera.
“We all drove up to New York in his car and he found an apartment for us,” she says. “He took us to every record company and they all loved us, but Jones wouldn’t sign because he wanted what he called ‘front money.’ We didn’t know what that was. We were young and just wanted to sing so we trusted him.”
The great songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were just starting their own label, Red Bird Records. “Leiber and Stoller really wanted us, so they agreed to pay Jones the front money,” says Rosa. “But he kept it all for his own family and never paid us any of it. He had a family in New Orleans and another family in New York.”
The Dixie Cups became a signature act for Red Bird right out of the box with a gold record, “Chapel of Love,” in 1964. “We had our own sound,” says Rosa. “All the other girl groups had a female lead and backup singers, but we sang three-part harmonies. When the writers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich played ‘Chapel of Love’ for us it was a dry, kind of country and western song. We asked if we could liven up the vocal arrangement and they went along with that.” The girls charted another top 40 hit the same year, “You Should Have Seen the Way He Looked At Me.” But after going out on a national tour they returned to New York to discover that they were broke.
“We got back and there was an eviction notice on the door,” Rosa says. “The electricity was shut off. The phone was dead. We had to call our mothers for money to pay the bills.”
Yet the Dixie Cups kept recording and kept having hits. Perhaps their most influential record was a 1965 hit with an impromptu interpretation of a Mardi Gras Indian-inspired verse, “Iko Iko,” a variation on the 1954 version called “Jock-a-Mo” by Sugar Boy Crawford.
“That was something that my grandmother sang and we heard it at home every day,” notes Barbara. “We were in the studio and all the musicians were on a break. We thought we were alone but Jerry and Mike were in the control room. We started singing and banging on ashtrays for percussion, just having fun, and when we finished the voice came over the speaker and said, ‘Can you do that again?’”
Meanwhile the girls still weren’t getting paid. Finally they went to Leiber and Stoller and asked for money.
“You mean Joe Jones hasn’t been paying you your royalties?” Rosa recalls being told. Each of them was given a receipt for payments and a check for $4,012 dollars. “That’s for a record that sold over a million copies in three months,” says Rosa. “Joe Jones took the rest.”
Eventually Johnson just quit the group and went home. The final straw came when Jones wanted to bring in another singer as the featured member of the group with Barbara and Rosa as the backup vocalists. After many years the group was able to disentangle itself from Jones and finally settle business matters. The Dixie Cups continue to perform, often appearing at Jazz Fest. The current lineup includes Athelgra Neville and the Hawkins sisters.
Though the characters in Davis McAlary’s R&B opera were all cheated, not all of OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement winners are still bitter about it. Al Johnson is particularly effective recounting his financial history as he sits at the piano in Treme. When McAlary breaks it to them that the record company isn’t putting the album out, Johnson is priceless when he asks if they’re still getting paid for the session. But today Johnson insists he isn’t upset over what was lost. “It took me a long time to get it straightened out, but it all worked out for me in the end,” he says. “I’ve got no complaints.”
Henry also appears in Treme recounting his attempts to chase down his royalties.
“I enjoyed doing that,” he says. “I watch the show just to see myself in it. But to tell you the truth, Leonard Chess and them recorded me back in the days. I had 29 years of royalties was due to me and in 1990 I finally got 5 years of them paid. I lost the other 24 years of royalties but I respect Leonard Chess, he gave me my first break and that’s why I’m where I am today. My daddy told me, ‘You make money, don’t let money make you.’ I’m thankful for my career. I’m happy where I am. I have no complaints.”
Despite the money taken from them over the years, OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement winners tend to look back on their salad days with fondness. They realize that the importance of the role they played in American cultural history is something that can never be stolen from them.
“I enjoy what I do,” says Barbara Hawkins. “I never dreamed when we first recorded that almost 50 years later we would still be entertaining audiences. We are blessed. We feel wonderful when we walk out onstage and start singing our songs and they sing them with us.”