If stranded on a desert island and given but two wishes, most Earthlings would opt for food and water. The Orleanian, without thinking twice, would take the food, skip the water (probably carcinogenic anyway) and request some rousing music. It’s a matter of necessity.
Indeed, without the sounds of New Orleans, the planet would be a far more dreary place. During the BBC’s live television coverage of Mardi Gras ’88, the eminent composer/pianist/producer Allen Toussaint, responding to the question of why New Orleans has had such a profound impact upon the course of popular American music, explained: “This is the birthplace of a lot of good things that have happened – and I say ‘lots’ in more than just jazz, because we’re aloof from the rest of the country – even geographically. Also, our pace – we move at a different pace here and we hold on to certain things longer so the natural links in the chain here from earlier times are still hanging on pretty dearly so I would say things grow up in other places but most of the really fine stuff is born here in New Orleans.”
When Toussaint was asked why these fine New Orleans musicians, when offered large sums of money to perform elsewhere, generally prefer staying in the Crescent City and earning a pittance, his answer was appropriately succinct: “It feels good!”
New Orleans musicians know that when they’re home, they can stop on almost any corner and get a great po-boy or plate of red beans and rice lagniapped with a quarter-pound of pickled pork. They’ve got cousins and aunts and uncles all over town, and they know that when it turns cold, the frosty weather only lasts two or three days – not six months. The most severe damage inflicted by the average winter is the browning of backyard banana “tree” leaves.
Given such a propitious environment, it is understandable that New Orleans musicians – in times as distant as Lee’s surrender – would discard the artistic shackles of sheet music and play what they felt – a revolutionary principle and one that has guided music to the present day.
In the improvisatory spirit of New Orleans music, what follows is a Funky Guide to New Orleans Sounds, listed alphabetically and with no pretense to being complete, authoritative or anything other than the notes of a long-time, vigilant observer from Chris Kenner’s fabled “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
LEE ALLEN – The hankin’ tenor saxophonist on many of the grandest New Orleans rhythm and blues hits, including works by “Fats” Domino, Smiley Lewis and Huey “Piano” Smith. In 1958, Lee had his own hit, “Walking With Mr. Lee.”
LOUIS ARMSTRONG – His first two words, according to his mother, were “Oh Yeah!” When Louis was 13, he “borrowed” his mom’s gun, fired it in the streets as he celebrated New Year’s Eve, was arrested and sent to the Waifs’ Home. At the Waifs’ Home, a sort of early version of the reform school, Louis learned the rudiments of the trumpet and subsequently became the most famous man in the history of jazz.
DAVE BARTHOLOMEW – Squarely behind the success of “Fats” Domino and a host of other New Orleans stars during the ’50s was Dave Bartholomew: bandleader, trumpeter, songwriter and talent scout. According to his pupil, guitarist Earl King, Bartholomew deserves much of the credit for the sound which made New Orleans famous: “A lot of people may think of Dave as a slavedriver but he’s a learning machine. I learned a lot from Dave: how to think about things, the do’s and don’ts of the studio, things that you can live with without panicking. We get in the studio nowadays, and we think some little trivial things means something to the public, and it really doesn’t. Somebody might stay in there doing 50 takes to perfect something that’s at the end of a song. Dave told me one time, ‘Earl, nobody’s gonna listen to you that long to get back there. If you’ve got a mistake at the end of a record, forget it!'” Or in other words, a little funkiness never hurt nobdy!
BUDDY BOLDEN – Considered the True Father of Jazz, Bolden had more than the usual problems of wrestling with reality. When his mother-in-law (See “Ernie K-Doe” entry) got on his nerves, Bolden bashed her in the head with a water pitcher. Committed to the state insane asylum, Bolden died a forgotten man (amateur phenomenologists will note the obvious parallel to trombonist Don Drummond, the True Father of Reggae, who murdered his sweetheart and died in a Jamaican mental asylum in 1969). The sheer power of Bolden’s trumpet was legendary – the microphone had not yet been invented and Bolden didn’t need one. Entertaining fans on the West Bank of the Mississippi while standing on the East Bank was a common feat. Bolden never recorded and left behind two blurry photographs of himself. His headquarters, during the first decade of this century, was the Funky Butt Hall (which stood on the site of today’s City Hall) and Bolden’s theme song was “Funky Butt, Funky Butt, Take It Away.”
JAMES BOOKER – “Human nature is the reason why I play piano the way I do,” Booker once confessed to this writer. “But not just ordinary human nature – some people say I’m a freak of nature.” Booker, who died in 1983, was also a heroin addict, a graduate of Angola State Penitentiary, a rather flipped out raconteur, a homosexual and a child prodigy, cutting his first record at 14 under the capable direction of Dave Bartholomew. Booker’s only hit was the organ instrumental “Gonzo,” released in 1960and named after a character admired in the film “The Pusher.”
CLARENCE “GATEMOUTH” BROWN – Gatemouth,” a major guitar idol of the ’50s, settled down (sorta) in New Orleans during the mid-70s and worked with a band that would later become LeRoux (of “New Orleans Ladies” fame). With contemporary “Gatemouth,” the musical consumer gets “Gate’s Salty Blues” doused with a syrupy Nashville gravy and the occasional duet with little daughter Renee. To hear the mind-wrecking stuff, consult two compilations of Mr. Brown’s Peacock recordings: San Antonio Ballbuster (Red ‘~Lightnin’) and The Original Peacock Recordings (Rounder).
CARBO BROTHERS – Chuck and Chick Carbo led the Spiders, a vocal group produced by Dave Bartholomew which assaulted the charts in 1954with “I Didn’t Want To Do It.” Henry Carbo, brother of Chuck and Chick, teamed up with Irma Thomas on Ms. Thomas’ first recording session, shortly before she left junior high school at 14 to give birth to her first child.
DIRTY DOZEN – The Dozen are a modern, souped-up version of the sort of brass band commanded by Buddy Bolden nearly a century ago, proof positive that New Orleans funk transcends time, space and evanescent fashion.
ANTOINE “FATS” DOMINO – “The Fat Man!” In 1949, when “Fats” made his first expedition into the recording studio, he was a day laborer taking home $28 a week. By 1957, his concerts were causing riots among Eisenhower Era teens and “Fats” was collecting $2,500 per recital. Domino’s primary vices are gambling (two million dollars lost over a ten-year period in Las Vegas) and Cadillacs with gold-plated accoutrements (bought with cash, Domino’s preferred medium of exchange). His virtues include an impishly sexy voice and a smile as polished as the glistening tiles of Casamento’s oysterium.
DRUMMERS – The 12 Gods of New Orleans Rhythm: Earl Palmer, Cornelius “Tenoo” Coleman, Clarence “Juny Boy” Brown, John Boudreaux, Joe “Smokey” Johnson, Charles “Hungry” Williams, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, James Black, Edward Blackwell, Robert French, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and Willie Green.
SNOOKS EAGLIN – From funk to flamenco to the blues to the Beatles (“overrated,” in Snooks’ estimation), this blind guitarist is the master of eclecticism. One of the funniest Snooks legends involved his hasty departure from an upstate New York recording session with Professor Longhair because the sound of snow falling outside his bedroom window kept the hypersensitive Snooks awake all night.
FRANKIE FORD – Frankie, along with Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, was one of the few Caucasians participating in the’ local rhythm and blues scene during the Fifties. Recording with Huey “Piano” Smith’s band, Frankie cut the immortal “Sea Cruise” and was the closest thing New Orleans had to a Ricky Nelson-style teen idol. As a child, Frankie (real name: Guzzo) appeared on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, singing “Bacha Mi” in Italian, and Wheel of Fortune.
PETE FOUNTAIN – While making no claims to being New Orleans’ most profound musician (a duty best left to Wynton Marsalis, the Young Puritan), Pete is the epitome of what fine Crescent City playing is all about—especially on Mardi Gras morning in the company of his old homeboys, parading through the city streets as the Half-Fast Marching Club, costumed as Ancient Greeks or kilted Scotsmen, refreshing themselves along the way with portable cocktails and kisses from pretty stenographers dressed as Dalmatians and odalisques.
GUITAR SLIM – Born Eddie Lee Jones in Greenwood, Mississippi, Guitar Slim dyed his hair blue, sold his soul to the Devil, surrounded himself with female groupies, and enthralled audiences with his wild and daring guitarisms. In 1959,at the age of 32, he died in the backseat of a New York taxi. Guitar Slim’s million-selling hit “The Things That I Used to Do” was recorded in New Orleans on October 27, 1953.Ray Charles was bailed out of jail by producer Johnny Vincent so that he might supply the accompanying piano. Guitar Slim, Jr. (Rodney Armstrong; Eddie Lee Jones’ natural son) released his first album, “The Story of My Life,” in 1988 and says “Sometimes I feel like he wrote a lot of those songs for me because I live the same kind of life he sang about.”
CLARENCE “FROGMAN” HENRY – Who did the Beatles see when they came to New Orleans? “Frogman!” After decades on Bourbon Street, “Frogman” has “semiretired” to his Algiers residence and a vast collection of stuffed frogs. (Phenomenology note: “American” Orleanians of the 19th Century called their Creole counterparts “Johnny Crapoud,” or “Johnny the Frog.” The Creoles’ game, invented in New Orleans, thus became known as “craps,” the ultimate shot.)
INDIANS – Black Mardi Gras Indians traditionally don their feathered and beaded “suits” only on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day, although latter-day revisionist Indians perform at the Jazz Festival, funerals, conventions and the grand openings of health spas. The Indians boast a hierarchy as elaborate as that of Kalala Ilunga’s Luva kingdom, wherin Kalala’s descendants possessed “mystical” blood. In the old days, Indians possessed “bad” blood and spilled much of same; these days, they’re diligent pillars of society (feathers and beads not coming cheap, especially when they’ve got to be shipped down from Brooklyn). The exclusively male tradition of sewing and decorating costumes’ has obvious parallels in African culture, where weaving and sculpting are the sacred domain of males.
JAZZ – It was invented in New Orleans, along with most other forms of popular American music. End of argument. The word “jazz” is derived from the Old Testament “Jezebel,” as prostitutes were once called. Orleanians slurred this into “Jazzbell” and the ladies’ favorite music became known as “jazz.” “Jazz me, daddy!” meant something entirely different.
ERNIE K.DOE – K-Doe’s biggest smash, “Mother-in-Law,” was retrieved by K-Doe .from Allen Toussaint’s wastebasket, where Toussaint had tossed the composition, doubtful of its commercial appeal. In 1961, the song rose to the Number One position on Billboard’s pop chart. These days, K-Doe is the reigning court jester of New Orleans music and truly “a legend in his own mind.” And, as K-Doe theorizes, it’s all because he was born at Charity Hospital.
EARL KING – If K-Doe is the court jester of New Orleans, Earl King is the court historian. His “office” is Tastee Donuts Shop Number 58 on Prytania Street, from whence came the title for his Glazed album, a Grammy Awards finalist. A jarring guitarist (in the style of his mentor, Guitar Slim), Earl is a sophisticated student of human psychology. As Earl explained, concerning the composition of his classic ”Trick Bag” (released on the Imperial label during the early ’60s): “Writing ‘Trick Bag’ or any kind of satire like that, I’m usually laughing the whole time I’m writing it. I have to develop that attitude when I’m doing it to think of the funny side of it. It could happen to anybody. It’s as simple as that.”
SMILEY LEWIS – Smiley Lewis made what is probably the most joyful noise ever heard in New Orleans. His many hit songs – “I Hear You Knocking,” “One Night,” “She’s Got Me Hook, Line & Sinker,” “Tee-Nah- Nah” and a slew of others – were the rage of New Orleans teens during the ’50s, including one shy habitue of Lewis’ concerts, future assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Lewis passed from this realm in 1966.
MARSALIS FAMILY – Father Ellis is the Dean of New Orleans jazz pianists, and his two most famous sons are trumpeter/philosopher Wynton and saxophonist/actor/comedian Branford, both outstanding graduates of New Orleans public schools.
NEVILLE BROTHERS – Aaron’s the black Hercules who sings like a martyred saint; Art’s the cool keyboardist and founding father of the proto-funktional Meters; Cyril’s the Uptown Rastafarian; Charles is the quiet, contemplative saxophonist. Some of the brothers’ most recent work is a television commercial for Comet Rice.
CHRIS OWENS – Those in search of the Inner Meaning of Bourbon Street need look no further: not only was jazz invented in New Orleans, likewise for the sort of glitzy lasciviousness claimed by Las Vegas.
PROFESSOR LONGHAIR – Without the annual playing of his “Go To The Mardi Gras” on local radio stations and jukeboxes, would Carnival take place? No one with any intelligence wants to find out…this is the kind of thing that causes volcano eruptions and sudden tidal waves in Lake Pontchartrain. Fess is the definitive collision of tragedy and comedy, baldheaded women and Stagger Lee and the Zulu Queen, whistling in the dark to a rhumba beat, pounding his ill-fated pianos as hard as any trumpet ever blown by Buddy Bolden.
WARDELL QUEZERGUE – Quezergue is the arranger behind many terrific New Orleans compositions, including Willie Tee’s 1965 “Teasin’ You,” written by Earl King to commemorate a particularly foxy lady, and was the producer of two Number One hits in the early ’70s: King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Jean Night’s “Mr. Big Stuff.”
MAC REBENNACK – Better known as Dr. John and based in New York, Rebennack is the reigning interpreter of New Orleans piano styles. He’s also done recent TV commercials for butter, toilet paper and J.C. Penney – testimony that native funk is good for capitalism.
HUEY “PIANO” SMITH – The master of the comic rock ‘n’ roll tune (“Rockin’ Pneumonia,” “Don’t You Just Know It,'” etc.) nowadays lives in Baton Rouge and has totally deserted the sinful world of music for a closer walk with Jesus.
IRMA THOMAS – The eternal crowd pleaser (and one of the few New Orleans performers with any business acumen – thanks to her no-nonsense husband Emile), Irma’s greatest (and sweetest) recent work is a TV commercial for Gambino’s King Cakes.
UPTOWN – “Uptown,” in New Orleans, has multiple meanings. It can define expensive real estate and/or cheap real estate. It can mean BMW convertibles, women named Bitsy and Noonie, preppy uniforms and private schools. In the case of the Neville Brothers’ last album, Uptown is just east of Hollywood.
ED VOLKER – Volker is leader/pianist/songwriter of the Radiators, what happens when the ghost of the Allman Brothers meets the ghost of Lowell George in the front parlor of a New Orleans shotgun crammed with various percussion instruments and a 50-gallon drum of Tequila.
ISIDORE “TUTS” WASHINGTON – The late “Tuts” Washington was the most elegant (and grouchy) pianist New Orleans has ever seen. His pupils included Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint. Tormenting tourists was High Art in the capable hands of “Tuts,” who did not like taking requests.
XENOPHOBIA – “The fear of outsiders.” New Orleans music’s raison d’etre.
YA YA – The old Louisiana phrase is “Gumbo YaYa” or “Everybody talks at once.” In a different context, “Ya Ya” became the title of vocalist/bodyman Lee Dorsey’s biggest smash.
ZYDECO – Zydeco, the hard-driving sound of Southwest Louisiana, has only in very recent times been heard throughout New Orleans, which is not exactly the domicile of Cajuns. Look at it this way: Moscow and Siberia are both in Russia; New Orleans and Breaux Bridge are both in Louisiana. We all breathe oxygen: there the similarities end.