When a musician of Earl King’s stature dies, the funeral service is often a homecoming of New Orleans musical artists, a chance for people who haven’t seen each other in years to reunite, an opportunity for folks whose working hours are after dark to meditate on mortality in the broad daylight.
At Gallier Hall, on April 30, 2003, the day of Earl King’s funeral, the building was packed with local music legends. Earl’s four handsome sons—Derek, Earl, Erroll and Tyrone Johnson—sat before the open coffin with their sons. Earl’s sons bear a strong resemblance to their father, who a friend once described as looking like “an African prince.” The sons, unlike some of the flamboyantly costumed musicians, were dressed in conservative black suits and white shirts. From my vantage point, sitting behind Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Neville, Mr. and Mrs. Leo Nocentelli, Willie Tee, Deacon John Moore and his brother Charles, Tammi Lynn, Ice Cube Slim, Herman Ernest, Quint Davis and assorted others, I couldn’t detect what garment Earl King, renowned for his flashy stage apparel, was wearing. Knowing that Earl believed in reincarnation, his spirit was probably already dwelling inside a newborn infant in a faraway land—a baby with an eye for sharp threads.
I have two sons and I always wanted them to be as proud of their native culture as I was. But I didn’t want to ram it down their throats because that’s a surefire way to make a kid hate something.
When my oldest son was a baby, I took him to Professor Longhair’s funeral. Although I don’t think he remembers that freezing New Orleans day, at the time I thought it was a good idea.
When my sons were in high school and musically devoted to hip-hop and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I figured they would benefit from exposure to Earl King. So one Sunday afternoon, my wife, our sons and I headed Uptown to Trinity Episcopal Church.
Inside the stately sanctuary, where Garden District bluebloods worship, Earl King appeared—his hair elevated with extravagant artistry, his body clad in a suit anyone raised in New Orleans would call “K&B purple,” a shade decidedly more funky than royal. As I had witnessed many times before, once the music commenced, Earl was transformed from a quiet middle-aged individual into a possessed performer with frantic eyes, playing extremely eccentric, angular, atomic guitar passages with his teeth or with the guitar held behind his head. Earl was as wild as Jimi Hendrix, but as I reminded my sons, Earl King was already doing this when Hendrix was still a Seattle schoolboy.
After the performance, Earl shook my sons’ hands and they seemed impressed. For a teenage boy to even pretend that he’s impressed by his parents’ music is quite an achievement. Perhaps they were even more impressed by the purple suit. I realized that my kids were now meeting Earl King at about the same age I was when I first encountered Earl King.
In 1970, I was working at Jim Russell’s record shop on Magazine Street. In those days, Mr. (33 years later, I still refer to him as “Mr.”) Russell’s primary business was as a one-stop, a place where small-time, predominantly black retailers could purchase copies of the latest hits to sell to their customers. These retailers included entrepreneurs who drove around the city in vans with loudspeakers attached to their roofs, blasting out music and selling records, like Popsicles, directly from the trucks.
My job was to memorize the title, artist, label, serial number and label color of these 45 rpm records and to be able to pull orders as quickly as possible. Given the economic exigencies of our customers, they often would buy two or three copies of 50 different records.
Another part of the business involved the actual creation of local hits. In return for various considerations (which I would sometimes deliver, in plain white envelopes), radio DJs and program directors would be encouraged to play certain records. I often witnessed a new record arriving on, say, Wednesday, and by Saturday, it was a hit all over New Orleans.
Musicians, singers, producers and promo men continually dropped by Mr. Russell’s shop and one of my duties was to unload merchandise from the trunks of their cars. Earl King was among the gentlemen whose trunks I relieved of records and albums. I have no idea where these records came from and at the time, I had no idea who Earl King was. To me, he was somebody who did business with Mr. Russell, often accompanied by his lifetime “agent”/sidekick, local producer/musician Isaac Bolden (whose rather belligerent father ran a record/appliance shop on South Claiborne to which I delivered records on a daily basis), and somebody who was a lot jollier than most of the shop’s clientele.
One day, Mr. Russell asked me if I knew who Earl King was. “You know ‘Trick Bag,’ don’t you?” Mr. Russell asked me.
I knew “Trick Bag” because it was a favorite of the “pits” at my high school. In those days in New Orleans, you were either “pit” or “frat.” Pits daubed their hair with grease, wore Ban-Lon shirts, white socks and pointed-toe shoes. Frats had bangs shampooed with Prell, loafers and pastel button-down collar shirts color-coordinated with their socks. Pits beat up frats and listened to black music. The pits would skip school, head to the Frostop drive-in around the corner, play “Trick Bag” on the jukebox and concoct new and devious ways to oppress the frats. Eventually, the pits went to Vietnam or prison, and the frats became doctors, lawyers and me.
Mr. Russell explained that the Earl King singing “Trick Bag” and the Earl King often cracking jokes in the shop were the same man. And then Mr. Russell pulled out every song Earl King ever recorded and made me listen to them. This was my higher education. Mr. Russell truly believed that New Orleans was the fount of all popular music and that impressionable minds like mine needed to have the gospel of New Orleans R&B pounded into our heads until we understood that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and countless others simply stole our culture and Caucasianized it. He wanted me to see that it was a tragedy that songwriters like Earl King weren’t millionaires. John Lennon and Paul McCartney certainly didn’t have to go around selling albums out of their cars (and the day Paul McCartney did visit Mr. Russell’s shop, the proprietor made him pay through the nose for every morsel of our culture he desired).
Years later, in an interview utilized for the liner notes of an album titled Trick Bag: The Best of Earl King, Earl King supplied me with the following genesis of “Trick Bag”: “My grandmother had told me one time, ‘You know, your dad had a temper—kind of strange.’ And she was telling me a tale about it, about one of his girlfriends. Every night, my dad used to go over by his girlfriend’s house and eat supper. But this particular night, his girlfriend called him to the back fence and she gave him a nice plate—wrapped up—over the fence. Then my dad, after he thought about it, goes over and kicks her door down and she had another dude over there. And that’s why there’s the line in there—’I saw you kissing Willie over the fence…’
“Then thinking about the cliche of ‘Trick Bag’ connected with the way people feel about when a guy’s got his nose wide open with a chick, she’s got a Mojo working on him or something like that—all those things emanated in my mind, putting it together. Of course, writing ‘Trick Bag’ or any kind of satire like that, I’m usually laughing the whole time while 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.”
Earl King was such an accomplished songwriter because he possessed a keen interest in human foibles, triumphs and tragedies. After my Russellian indoctrination into the genius of Earl, I often ran into him at one of his “offices”—the lunch counter at the K&B drugstore at the intersection of Louisiana and St. Charles Avenues. Here, Earl would listen to Everyman’s story, and when he wasn’t listening, he was perusing reading material from the store’s magazine rack. Once, we had a serious discussion about Japanese gardening, its principles and refinements—information Earl had picked up from magazines he’d read at K&B. It has lately dawned on me that my obsession with bamboo and all things Japanese probably stems from my encounters with Earl King.
During the ’70s, Earl began performing with a white rock band, the Rhapsodizers, comprised of keyboardist Ed Volker, drummer Frank Bua, my former band-mate Clark Vreeland on guitar and my former junior high classmate Becky Kury on bass and vocals. The Rhaps were the perfect accompanists for Earl. Ed was the shaman, Frank was a very strong drummer, Becky was a very simplistic bassist and Clark’s guitar playing could be just as jaggedly obstreperous as Earl’s. It was classic New Orleans R&B on acid, the joyous collision of pastel polyester leisure suits (Earl’s) and decrepit denim jeans (everybody else). It was barroom perfection.
In the ’80s, my friend Hammond Scott founded Black Top Records with his brother Nauman. I was recruited to design album covers, write liner notes and brainstorm over the telephone with Hammond. One of Hammond’s key motivations was to produce Earl King albums worthy of Earl’s talents. In 1986, discussing Earl’s forthcoming session with Roomful of Blues, I thought we should shoot the cover photograph at Tastee Donuts Shop Number 58, the location of Earl’s then-current “office.” “We could call it Glazed,” I suggested.
Owen Murphy was summoned as photographer and we all assembled at the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Prytania. It is not easy to photograph 11 people—just getting 11 musicians to keep 22 eyes open simultaneously is difficult. For the back cover (this was in the days of the 12-inch album), we wanted a shot of Earl alone, at the counter with coffee and donuts. I told him to pretend like he was composing a song on a napkin. Earl didn’t pretend; he actually wrote the musical notation for a song on the napkin. Afterwards, Hammond made sure that napkin was never lost. I likewise never lost the annual Christmas cards Earl sent out—top-of-the-line glittery cards embellished with Earl’s jaunty signature.
The day before Earl’s funeral, Hammond was at New Orleans Music Exchange, renting a piano for the service. Antoinette K-Doe, a persistent cultural force, convinced City Hall to afford Earl the honor of lying in state at Gallier Hall, normally reserved for deceased mayors and, in 1889, the funeral of Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederate States of America. There was some debate between Earl’s family and Earl’s friends concerning the appropriateness of such an event. Earl placed a high value on privacy—late at night, after recording sessions, he would have Hammond drop him off on street corners rather than reveal his exact address. In more than one interview, he claimed that he was “the seventh son of a seventh son,” when in reality, Earl was the only child of Earl Silas Johnson III and Ernestine Gaines. Many people were familiar with various facets of Earl King but few were exposed to the whole diamond.
Singer Tony Owens served as the amiable MC of Earl King’s funeral service. There was much laughter during the proceedings, as musician after musician told humorous stories about Earl. Rev. Skip Alexander of the Fifth African Baptist Church recited verses from Psalms and I Corinthians, and then Owens began introducing the various musical attendees.
Willie Tee was the first to offer a tribute: “Earl wrote the song that has become my signature song—’Teasin’ You.’ There’s not a place that I go anywhere in the world that people don’t expect me to sing that song. I almost, at one time, learned to hate that song.
“I guess I’m one of the fortunate ones. I’ve always thought of myself as the last of the young old cats. I’ve had the opportunity to meet guys who were the real legends. ‘Legends’ has become something that people think they can, by having talent shows, just bestow on people. One of the things that I think that we have to do is find a better way to give the flowers to our musicians before they pass away.”
After receiving applause for his remarks, Willie played a brief piano solo.
Tony Owens addressed the mourners: “Some of you have no idea the talent in the house today—so many very, very close friends in the house…” Then he introduced Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John.
“This man right here wisened a lot of us up,” Dr. John remarked. “A lot of us got in this business of music and we all just wanted to play music. Earl told us, ‘If you don’t own your songs, and you don’t own the publishing for your songs, guess what? You ain’t gonna see the money!’ This is the kinda guy Earl King was.
“We liked to call him Squirrel, we liked to call him a lot of things but I’ll just say one thing—I feel Earl King laughing at all of what’s happening here right now. I can see his teeth, I can see him laughing from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head. Earl is in the spirit right now and he’s plotting a way to sit back and do whatever he wants to do next. If you want, I’m gonna see if I can get some of these cats to come over and play something. Whoever wants to play something, that’s what it’s about. Let’s just show all the people out here: y’all all love Earl King, we all love Earl King, that’s all we have to give. It ain’t no big deal.”
“A LEARNING MACHINE”
Everyone expected Dr. John to sit down at the piano and play a medley of Earl King’s music. Instead, he introduced producer/bandleader Dave Bartholomew, who mounted the stage accompanied by pianist Henry Butler. Dave and Henry performed “Down By The Riverside” with Dave interjecting, “When I first met Earl, he was working at the Dew Drop Inn—nicer than anyone, always had a good conversation with everyone…”
In an interview, Earl had once told me that he considered Dave the ultimate teacher: “A lot of people may think of Dave as a slave driver, 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 thing 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!'”
After “Down By The Riverside,” Dave announced, ”I’d like to play a song in the old time way.” He then blew a muted trumpet on a stately rendition of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” Somebody in the audience yelled, “Let’s go to church!” and a chorus of ladies chanted: “Yeah! Yeah! Play the song!”
The Rev. Alexander recited a prayer and Tony Owens summoned Aaron Neville, dressed in black jeans and a very tight black t-shirt. “I’d like to say a few words about Earl,” Aaron began. “When I first jumped on the music scene, the first chance I got to sing with a band—’cause my brothers were all in the Hawkettes—was a song by Earl King called ‘A Mother’s Love.’ I was 16 years old, sneaking into the Dew Drop—I was big for my age. Anyway, Earl took me in, we’ve been friends ever since, he helped me through hard times, always gave me words of encouragement, and I thank him for that.” Aaron sang his typically angelic version of “Amazing Grace” and the ladies were consumed: “Sing it! Sing it! Sing, Aaron! Right! Oh yes! Sing it to me!”
Tony Owens thanked some of the people responsible for the funeral service: Antoinette K-Doe, Colleen Wood and Heather Twichell, who, with her mother Anna Ross, supplied space in their family tomb in St. Louis #2 Cemetery for Earl’s remains (as they also did for Ernie K-Doe).
“AN UNBELIEVABLE MARK”
Hammond Scott delivered the eulogy: “In the last few years, when Earl wasn’t well, it was a bittersweet experience to see him sometimes. Today, I’ll concentrate on the ‘sweet.’
“The most I think any of us can hope for in life is to really make a difference in the world after you’ve been here and gone. Earl made an unbelievable mark. When you think about it, New Orleans has had a great musical tradition for a long time and Earl has been such a big part of it, especially in the last four or five decades. Every decade represented a different phase in Earl’s career. In the early stages, he was under the spell of Guitar Slim—he extended that whole tradition and experimented with every other type of New Orleans R&B. In the ’60s, there was a whole different style—all the tunes he did for Imperial. In the ’70s, songs like ‘Let’s Make A Better World.’ He made a real difference in New Orleans music.
“Like they say, from a little acorn, a tree grows. Earl had that effect all over the world—he wasn’t just a local guy. So many people recorded his songs. That was one of the beauties of Earl. Some musicians have a little professional jealousy—Earl never had any of that. In fact, he was such a fan of other musicians. That’s why he was so good at writing tunes for other artists. His songs were so different, so unique.
“Earl had invitations to play all over the world—as near as Europe and as far as Australia and Japan. He really got around and touched a lot of people’s hearts. Anybody that knew Earl has a lot of great stories about him. Most of them are funny.
“I’ll always remember the spiritual nature of Earl’s songs. There’s always humor but there’s also wisdom.
“A lot of people don’t know that he was actually a great cartoonist as well. He didn’t even have to have the little word balloons for you to understand them. Most of his cartoons were very beautifully drawn, but the real humor in them was seeing the reactions of the different characters to the center of action in the drawings. Earl had so many talents.
“When I think of Earl, I always used to say he had the Best Hair in the Blues, no doubt about that. Nobody had hair as good as Earl’s. Of course he worked on that. He took a little beauty training. If you saw him in the daytime and he was wearing that little cap, he hadn’t got around to his hair yet. I don’t know how long a procedure it was but it was elaborate, I can tell you that.
“Earl will really be missed—I don’t really have to say that. It is a hard river to cross, as his song said, but Earl’s crossed it many times and he’ll show us the way. I loved him and I think everybody in this room did. It was hard not to love him.”
Tony Owens heralded Earl’s “agent,” Isaac Bolden: “You had to get in touch with this guy to get in touch with Earl. That’s how Earl was. He was that way. It didn’t matter if you were calling about a million dollars. If he didn’t want to be bothered, he didn’t answer the phone. He never changed. Isaac’s not here but he stuck by Earl.”
Deacon John was introduced: “Earl King wrote my very first recording I did back in 1962, a song called ‘I Can’t Wait.’ It got played a couple of times on the radio and then it was off the playlist.
“Earl has been a dear friend of mine for so long. I met Earl when I was a little teenager. I went on a gig up in Hammond and I saw a guy in a green and black checkerboard suit, his hair done up, sitting in a beauty parlor getting his nails done. I said, ‘Who is that?!’ ‘That’s Earl King!’ ‘Earl King? I thought it was Earl Connerly King! The sign says Chuck Berry…’
“The announcer said, We’re very sorry—Chuck Berry couldn’t be here tonight but he sent Earl King down to take his place.’ Anyway, I remember that day so vividly because Earl had about a 200-foot extension cord on his guitar—this was in the days before wireless guitars. Earl jumped on the bar, walked across the bar, people were giving him drinks, putting money in his pocket. Then he went out in the parking lot, climbed on top of cars, got on his back. That was the first time I met Earl, and later on we became such close friends, and eventually he wrote my very first record, recorded on the Rip label for Rip Roberts. Even though it wasn’t a big hit record, it’s really a very dear, precious record to me.
“One of the greatest things Dr. Martin Luther King said about a man’s life was that ‘He tried to help somebody.’ For Earl King, that was his life-long thing—helping other people. ‘Cause Earl helped my career, he helped Willie Tee, just about everybody you see in this room, Earl had some kind of relationship with, music-wise.”
Deacon John strummed a chord on the acoustic guitar he was holding and began singing, as he had done at the funerals of Ernie K-Doe, Bobby Marchan and Nauman Scott, a spine-tingling rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Any Day Now.”
Vocalist Raymond Lewis, famed for his ’60s hit “I’m Gonna Put Some Hurt On You,” was introduced: “We had 60 years of friendship, since we were children. He taught me how to play bass and I became a bass player. He always said something to make me laugh. He was good-hearted and let me tell you some of the things he did for me. In ’58 or ’59, rent wasn’t too high but a lot of times I didn’t have the money. He would give me the money to pay the rent. Everything I’ve heard today about Earl King is the gospel truth. His idol was Guitar Slim, he sounded just like Guitar Slim. We went and played a lot of places as Guitar Slim!”
Tony Owens introduced guitarist Curtis Obeda, leader of the Butanes, a Minnesota blues band that often backed Earl King. Owens continued: “There is a guy—I won’t give any details—but I know that in a very crucial moment, this was a man who stood up for Earl King. His name was Cosimo Matassa. Cosimo, please stand up.” Cosimo, the dean of New Orleans recording engineers, was seated near the ageless Jim Russell and Allen Toussaint’s former partner, Marshall Sehorn.
“A SPIRITUAL MAN”
Owens pointed out other notable mourners: arranger Wardell Quezergue, saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan and drummer Smokey Johnson: “Earl said no one—no one—could play in the pocket like Smokey Johnson.” Before Owens could complete his introduction of Irma Thomas, his remarks were halted by the laughter of the attendees when he said, “I was raised around the corner from her, when I was a little girl…” Irma proceeded: “Everybody has told their Earl King story—I have an Earl King story, too. When I first started out singing, back in the day, we were all too young to be in the Dew Drop, but I was one of the ones who was in the Dew Drop performing. Not only was I performing, I was also pregnant.
“Earl King was one of those fatherly people who would ease up beside me—he was never a very loud person, he was on the quiet side. One night, he whispered, ‘Irma, I told you about wearing those high-heeled shoes. You ain’t supposed to wear high heels when you’re pregnant.’ That’s the way Earl was. He was not one to make a big brouhaha out of anything. He was always a quiet person.
“Earl was a spiritual man. You may not have seen him in church every Sunday, but Earl was a very spiritual man. He always talked about the spirit-person, the spirit within the person. He always tried to bring out the spirit of the person.”
Irma invited everyone to sing and clap along as she performed the 1969 Edwin Hawkins gospel hit “Oh Happy Day” with Martha Carter and Tammi Lynn.
Tony Owens introduced Antoinette K-Doe, dressed in white with her hair in pigtails and studded with daisies, accompanied by Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson: “I went to City Hall and she—Jackie—was the first one to hear me cry: we have to have Gallier Hall for Earl. Every New Orleans legend deserves Gallier Hall.” Councilwoman Clarkson proclaimed, just in case any New Yorkers or Parisians were in the house: ‘We are the finest multi-cultural capital in the world!”
Harold Battiste, former arranger for Sonny and Cher, co-creator of Dr. John’s hoodoo image, and a person of almost Old Testament appearance, was introduced and spoke in a very soft voice: “For many years, I stayed away from New Orleans. My body was out in California, but my spirit and soul were still here. In 1958, I was coming home to New Orleans from California on the train, and in El Paso, Texas, Earl King got on the train. I was just working on an idea, about something I knew Earl could appreciate, about the musicians here and the condition of the local economy.
“I had an idea that maybe musicians oughta try to own their own stuff. Earl King was the first cat that I ever talked to about that, which turned out to be A.F.O. Records. Earl encouraged me. When I got to New Orleans, the only other person I told about it was Alvin Batiste. But Earl King was like a philosopher. Whenever I was in the presence of Earl, I felt like I was going to learn something that they never prepared you for in school. He was somebody who really cared about us. And he talked in a language that I could understand. Thank you, thank you Earl for giving me so much.”
Tony Owens introduced guitarist Leo Nocentelli (who took a bow), drummer Herman Ernest (who joked about being “a little boy” when he was a child), and guitarist Charles Moore (Deacon John’s brother). Owens continued: “Earl paid attention, Earl was an artiste. Earl loved Ravi Shankar—he played a sitar. Earl would talk about Ravi playing a West Indian pentatonic, but ‘I’ve got a concept—I’m gonna play a blues scale on top of that! Nobody can be hip to this!’ I said, ‘Earl, brother, you say if you gonna do it, I know it’s gonna get done.’ And he did it! What a special man!”
Owens introduced Rev. McCoy, “a very close friend of Earl’s—everybody at City Hall knows him.” A stooped, elderly black man with a cane began furiously singing from offstage: “I thought I heard the foots of glory, I thought I heard the fireman ring the bell!” Completing his song, Rev. McCoy began preaching: “I’m an old man with a young mind and a good body and I wanna tell ya, every time he got in trouble, he got on that phone and called me!”
Drummer Earl Palmer, his frail appearance in stark contrast to the mighty beats he once pounded, was introduced and explained that for many years, he stayed away from New Orleans because he was married to a white woman and feared for their safety. Earl’s annual Christmas cards kept him in touch with his birthplace: “Earl was one of the few people who always asked me, ‘Do you need anything, Earl?'”
Rev. Alexander began preaching, noting that musicians did more to integrate New Orleans than any other group of individuals. The mourners, after over two hours of reminiscences, were getting restless and began departing. Aaron Neville and his pianist took the stage again. “Everyone stand up,” Aaron requested and he sang “Ave Maria.”
Tony Owens gave some final instructions: “We’ve got to get ready for the viewing of the body. We’re gonna get out of here and we’re gonna second line to Louis Armstrong Park. We’re inviting everyone here to join us.”
I finally approached the body of Earl King. He was wearing the fantastically funky “K&B purple” suit. The coffin was closed and we followed it outside into the dazzling sunshine, where it was placed in a horse-drawn hearse. Dr. John led the second line to Armstrong Park.