For three consecutive days in April 2018, Ellen DeGeneres—the internationally famous TV talkshow host from Metairie—broadcast a video clip of New Orleans musician, Valerie Sassyfras.
“So, there’s this video I saw last week,” the bemused DeGeneres told her millions of viewers. “And I cannot get this out of my head. It’s a lady performing a song called ‘Girls Night Out.’ Let’s all enjoy it.”
Three months before the Sassyfras video’s debut on The Ellen Show, former Times-Picayune features writer David Lee Simmons filmed the clip and posted it on Instagram. It captures Sassyfras, a New Orleans singer, songwriter and keyboard player, performing at a children’s Mardi Gras event in Algiers Point. Wearing two shades of aquamarine, she’s singing, dancing and giving it her all on a tiny stage in Confetti Park. The kids in the park are too busy preparing for their parade to notice.
The video opens with Sassyfras singing her synth-pop song’s instantly unforgettable chorus—“Girls night out. I’m gonna go crazy. Girls night out. I’m horny and I’m lazy”—Simmons’ video pans to the kids in the park before returning to Sassyfras as she’s twisting with hands on her hips and her backside to the camera.
“I’d love to know where that is,” the contextless DeGeneres said after she showed the clip. “I want to know more about her. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Sassyfras didn’t see herself on The Ellen Show until the third and final day it aired. “I still didn’t know if Ellen knew I’m from New Orleans,” Sass said when OffBeat managed to catch up with her at a Carrollton Avenue coffeeshop. “I’m sitting in my living room, raising my hand, saying, ‘Ellen, I’m right here! You can ask me anything.’”
Producers of The Ellen Show contacted her, Sassyfras said, “and talked to me as if there was a possibility I could be on the show, but it didn’t happen.” Although an in-studio appearance on The Ellen Show never materialized, the singer believes the exposure the video received brought her to the attention of America’s Got Talent. In March, Sassyfras auditioned for the TV talent show, which begins its new season May 28.
Even though Sassyfras doesn’t subscribe to a traditional religion, she believes her appearance last year on The Ellen Show happened through divine intervention. “When people tell me, ‘I’m going to send a video to Ellen,’ I’m saying to myself, ‘Good luck.’ You can’t just send a video to Ellen. A million people probably hit her up every day. It just has to happen.”
It was fateful too, that Simmons happened to be in Confetti Park in January 2018. He often posts video he shoots at local events on Instagram. “I love taking my son to parades and festivals,” Simmons said of being in Confetti Park. “I filmed the scan of the crowd, just by habit, and then, as I landed back on Valerie, she was sort of undulating. I was taken aback, like, ‘Wow.’ Just when you think you’ve seen everything in New Orleans, you come upon an artist like her.”
Sassyfras’ now famous playground performance was nothing exceptional for her, she said. “People ask me, ‘Do you always put out on every gig?’ Yes.Because you never know who’s going to show up.”
Now 65, Sassyfras appears at festivals, clubs, concerts, and parties. Singing with pre-recorded tracks, she works solo and with the Sasshay Dancers, Rishona Hines and Kendra Jarrell. Her props include feathers and whips. “People love whips,” she said.
Following her third French Quarter Festival booking in April, Sassyfras’ upcoming gigs include May 17 at Bayou Boogaloo; May 18 at Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette; May 24 at the Howlin’ Wolf Den; and May 30 at the Old Point Bar in Algiers Point. On May 4, she joined a huge bill at the Sugar Mill featuring St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Tank and the Bangas, and Sweet Crude.
Sassyfras’ just-released new album, Crazy Train, encapsulates her variety-show versatility and songwriting chops. The tracks include “The Big Easy,” a swaggering homage to her hometown; the zydeco-powered, self-referencing “The Sass;” a lush remake of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way;” a new recording of “Girls Night Out;” and two songs inspired by the family drama and estrangement she experience in recent years, “Writin’s on the Wall” and “Evil.”
More gigs and better gigs happened after The Ellen Show. “My social media blew up,” Sassyfras said. “My phone blew up. People who wouldn’t respond to me before started answering my emails.” Sassyfras’ post-Ellen Show coups include opening for Portugal. The Man at the Sugar Mill, acquiring manager Adam Shipley, and being cast in the starring role for New Orleans indie-pop band Royal Teeth’s made-in-Nashville music video for “Never Gonna Quit.”
A New Orleans native who grew up in the Ninth Ward and Uptown, Sassyfras has been a music pro for more than 30 years. Her credits include the klezmer band Klezmania, the 1980s and ’90s Cajun and zydeco group Sassyfras, and a three-and-a-half-year residency at the former Piccadilly cafeteria location on Jefferson Highway.
In 1988, Sassyfras formed Sassyfras, the band, with her late husband, Johnny Donald. They met five years before at the Bass shoe store in the Riverwalk Marketplace, when he was store manager and she was assistant manager.
“I gave Johnny a hard time,” Sassyfras said with a laugh. “I made him do all the work. He gave me all these assignments and I didn’t do any of them. I knew that he liked me and I took advantage of that. I was cruel to him. Those first years, I would go out with other men and throw them in his face. Why did I do that? I grew up in a household where there was no love. My mother and father hated each other. All they did was fight and yell at each other. So, I didn’t know what love was all about.”
Donald loved Sassyfras from the moment they met, she said. It took some time, but Donald’s devotion eventually won Sassyfras over. “I was like, ‘Well, Val, this guy is there for you no matter what you do to him. He keeps coming back. Maybe you should open yourself up little bit. Maybe this is a real thing.’ After I realized that, everything got better. But sometimes it got so intense that I would ask myself, ‘How can I even handle this?’ At the same time, it was so great. We had music in common but, looking back on it, I think when a man is really devoted to a woman, that’s the way it has to be. It can’t be the other way around. If a man is devoted to a woman, and she decides to give into that, there’s nothing better. If it’s the other way around, and the man is not devoted, it probably won’t last.”
Donald persuaded Sassyfras to leave the klezmer band she’d formed with her sister and brother-in-law. “Johnny said, ‘Val, you’re wasting your time with them. If you want to do music, let’s do it together.’” The couple’s band, Sassyfras, performed locally and nationally. The group also recorded a vinyl single, “Sassy Cajun Queen” / “Charlene,” and a cassette release recorded at Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, Somethin’s Brewing.
“Back in the ’80s, Cajun and zydeco music was the hottest thing going,” Sassyfras remembered. “Paul Prudhomme was traveling the country, appearing on The Today Show. He went all over promoting Cajun cooking and that made Cajun music really popular. And me and Johnny both have French heritage. So, we stuck with that and traveled all over playing.”
During their years together in the band, Donald encouraged Sassyfras to write songs. Today, she said, every song she writes is, in one way or another, about him. “I never thought of music as a career before Johnny. I never had the confidence to get up in front of people and perform. But he gave me that confidence. And I guess writing songs came naturally, because you get tired of doing other people’s songs. You want to have your own thing going.”
Despite her early lack of self-assurance, Sassyfras already had much musical experience. She’d studied classical piano, tap dancing, and ballet from childhood through high school. Donald’s experience included a college band that specialized in Elvis Presley songs. “Johnny said they probably could have gone far, but the kids in the band didn’t want to travel or go beyond their little town, Meridian, Mississippi, so it fizzled.”
Between 1986 and 2011, Sassyfras and Donald lived in New Orleans, Nashville, Clinton, Arkansas, Hattiesburg, and on a boat in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. After Hurricane Katrina’s tidal waves swamped their boat and flood water filled their apartment in New Orleans, they lived in St. Augustine, Florida. Along the way, they operated Johnny’s Serious Burgers in Metairie, the Bayou Jubilee restaurant in Nashville, and various music stores.
In St. Augustine in January 2006, less than six months after Hurricane Katrina, Sassyfras and Donald were riding together on their four-wheel bicycle when an 18-wheeler turned and jackknifed in their path. Donald pushed Sassyfras off the bike, seconds before the rear of 18-wheeler rolled over his legs. “Johnny was never the same after that, but he still had a lot of strength,” she said. “After that, we actually renovated another business location in St. Augustine and set up a guitar shop. Johnny always pushed, pushed, pushed. We got the store open, had a recording studio, and we both gave lessons and played around town. That’s what we always liked to do. We were part of the community.”
Sassyfras believes her husband would have been happy to stay in St. Augustine, but she wanted to come home to New Orleans. “I knew he had limited time, and I didn’t want to be in Florida by myself,” she said. “I didn’t feel like it was home.”
The couple returned to New Orleans in 2011, the year Sassyfras began her solo residency at Piccadilly on Jefferson Avenue. Not allowed to sing in the cafeteria-style restaurant, she played instrumental renditions of songs by Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, the Dixie Cups, Linda Ronstadt, Arlo and Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson, The Band, Hank Williams, The Jackson 5, The Temptations, Elvis Presley and, returning to her roots, Rockin’ Sidney’s international zydeco hit, “My Toot Toot.”
Donald’s continuing guidance included song suggestions for her Piccadilly sets, and recommending she dance for the cafeteria crowd. “When I first went to Piccadilly, I was just sitting down playing,” she recalled. “I’d come home and say, ‘Johnny, I’m not hardly making any tips.’ He said, ‘Start moving around.’ I started working out choreography for each song. Never done that in my life. So, when I see young people do it, I’m impressed because it took me a long time to figure it out. Now I choreograph every song, whether it’s just me, or me and the dancers.”
After she introduced choreography to Piccadilly, the tips did indeed pick up. “And then the waitresses were pissed off at me because they thought I had my hand in their pockets,” she said. “Which I didn’t. I just made them work harder for their job.”
Sassyfras also found an ally in Piccadilly general manager, Butch Collins. “They told him to fire me after the first year,” she said. “He kept me for three-and-a-half years. That’s unusual for somebody in the corporate world, to keep you when they’ve been told to get rid of you. Piccadilly wasn’t paying me, it was just tips, but the general manager knew my value there. And he never told me what to do or play, just not to play too loud. He was the greatest boss I ever had.”
Donald, Sassyfras’ true love and music mentor, died in June 2013. “We were together from the beginning, but we didn’t get married for a long time,” Sassyfras said. “I’d been married before, but Johnny showed me the way on everything. And our relationship was equal, which I didn’t have in my first marriage. When a relationship is equal and there are no secrets, that’s powerful. You have each other’s back, always. Johnny was my partner. He devoted himself to me for 30 years. Thank God for Johnny. I wouldn’t be doing any of this without him.”
After Donald’s death, there was never any doubt about Sassyfras continuing to make music. “I don’t have any other skills,” she said with a laugh. “This is my thing. There is nothing else.”
Sassyfras’ albums include 2014’s Girls Night Out, 2016’s Sassquake!, 2017’s Blastoff! A Cosmic Cabaret, and this year’s Crazy Train. New Orleans drummer Scott Sibley produced the latest three projects. Sassyfras calls him the “Sass Whisperer.” Sibley met her at Piccadilly in 2011. “At the time, I was going through a tough time with my music career,” he said. “And then I saw this older lady just giving it one-hundred-and-ten percent, even though she wasn’t getting much reaction. I appreciated that.” Beyond her commitment to give audiences everything she’s got, Sibley said, Sassyfras constantly strives to improve. “She’s always looking for something to make it a better show and her songwriting gets better from record to record,” he said.
Los Angeles filmmaker Stiven Luka noticed Sassyfras’ talent and drive, too. In late 2016, Luka, then living in New Orleans, caught her set during a multi-act show at Siberia. She threw herself into the club performance as if she were playing the Superdome, he recalled. “Instantly, I had this feeling that I wanted to document her,” he said. In December, Luka and co-producer and co-director, Ella Hatamian, began production on a feature-length documentary about Sassyfras. They’ve shot footage in New Orleans and Los Angeles.
“Valerie is so diligent and disciplined,” Hatamian said. “For me, the essence of this is getting down to the bottom of who she is as an entertainer and what keeps her motivated. She is an amazing character, but more importantly she’s a really talented musician. When you think of someone who’s wild and kooky, you don’t necessarily realize how much depth they have, but Valerie has performed songs for Stiven and I that had us in tears.”
Like Hatamian, Luka, and Sibley, Adam Shipley–Sassyfras’ manager since September–found himself hooked by her songs and impressed by her work ethic. “The tenacity she has is the most I’ve seen in the majority of artists I’ve ever worked with,” he said. Her authenticity impressed Shipley, too. “If this was L.A. or New York, it would be someone creating this character,” he said. “But this is her. And she’s serious as a heart attack about her career and her songs and choreography.”
The in-progress Sassyfras documentary, Luka added, “is not a story of success or failure. It’s a portrait of someone doing what they do.”
In her song, “Crazy Train,” her new album’s heartfelt and country-ish title song, open-book Sassyfras tells everyone where she’s coming from: “I’ve really got nothing to lose. Got schemes and dreams I’m working on. Living on a real short fuse,” she sings. “When I stand in that neon light, gonna put it all out for you tonight, till my fingers bleed and my heart is full.”