A young Clarence “Frogman” Henry, singing in his prime in the corner of a late-1950s Bourbon Street Bar, backed by a crack lineup of New Orleans musicians.
For those who wish they could have been there, last year’s Heroes of the Ponderosa Stomp film was a highlight of the festival. The film—part of the Stomp’s Clandestine Celluloid Film Series—included a clip of exactly that scene, and the glimpse it provided into a storied time of New Orleans and American musical lore was magical, transporting the audience to a place many had only read about or heard on recordings, or that those who had been there held as only a distant, hazy memory.
The film was a medley of clips compiled by Joe Lauro, a documentarian, president of Historic Films—a film archive with an astounding collection of musical performances— musician, and a well-known collector of 78rpm records.
This year, Lauro is returning to the Ponderosa Stomp’s Clandestine Celluloid Film Series with three films: a Fats Domino concert film from 1962; The Original Soul Men, a documentary about Stax duo Sam and Dave; and a new edition of Heroes of the Stomp.
Like everybody else who’s seen Lauro’s films, we were curious about where on earth he finds these lost gems. In this interview, he shares a few of his stories from the field and previews what he has in store for Ponderosa Stomp audiences this year.
Tell us about your collecting habit. You started off as a 78 collector?
I still am to this day. I specialize in pre-1935 recordings—jazz, blues, Cajun, country, gospel, a little bit of pop, and a little bit of ethnic stuff. I’m focused primarily around 1923 to 1934.
I’ve been collecting records since I was about 12 years old. I didn’t know what I was buying back then, but the records were cheap—they were 10 cents a piece or something—so you could take a chance. I kind of made my way through listening to stuff. I remember I found my first jazz record when I was about 14 and said, “What the heck is that?” I started looking for more from that point on. It’s a pretty advanced collection at this point.
What was it like collecting records before the age of the Internet, without its many resources for collectors?
We always had record clubs. In New York there was the Record Research Organization, and all the New York record “mice” as we called them, they were doing research. Records were very plentiful then. They were getting stuff and figuring out the matrix numbers and the masters. A lot of the musicians were alive too, so collectors would sit down with these guys and ask, “Who’s playing on that, is that you?” These guys put it all together. It was all done manually. The record companies back then didn’t really keep a good record of who plays on what, and if they did it would be years before people got access to most of that information. So it was all done by sitting down with the musicians or guys who knew the stuff well and knew people’s styles. It was all done in people’s living rooms. We’d have record sessions all the time.
There was a lot of sharing of finds with other people in the club?
Oh yeah, we would bring over stuff to the other guys and say, “Look what I found this week!” “Oh my god, let’s trade!” Back then, before the Internet, it was different. Now, when I buy and sell occasionally, I buy records through the Internet more than ever. I don’t visit as many collector friends as I used to—a lot of them are dead. There is a whole new breed of young guys and women doing it, though, which I think is great. The Internet has really just put a new dimension on it, like it has with so many things. I used to just get in the car and drive, hit the small roads, hit the towns. My folks lived in Florida for many, many years, and I would hit the Tampa area all the time. I just loved it. I’d go down and borrow the car, take off for a day or two, and just go everywhere, look for stuff. I found lots of good things down there.
Any particularly good record digging stories that stand out?
Oh gosh, there’s so many of them. Since I was talking about Florida…Years ago, on the back road of route 19 right around the Tampa area, there was a chimpanzee farm. It was like a zoo for lost and aging circus/carnival animals. You’d be driving on the road and there would be signs that said “Chimp Farm, 1 Mile!” “Chimp Farm, 20 feet!” with hand-drawn gorillas and stuff. Then, if you passed it, it said, “Chimp Farm! You just passed it!” I pulled in there and paid my two bucks, and there were all these carnival caravan wagons lined up together that they made cages out of.
It turned these people were carnival people. They were kind of the last of the carnies, they used to drive around the Southern towns. The guy that I talked to, what he used to do is wrestle the alligators. He only had two fingers on one hand. I never asked, but I noticed while I was talking to him and I can only imagine…He had one-legged gorillas—I mean he had all the reject animals. It was like their old-age home. It was wild. And I said to him, of course, “You got any old records?”
He looked at me and looked at his wife, and they took me deep into their compound. There was this chicken coop, and he goes “Yeah, we’ve been using them as insulation.” And sure enough, on the top and bottom of the chicken coop were stacks of records, all country records. And the first two layers were just covered in chicken shit. I was having an allergy attack—I never even had allergies, but that day I had allergies. I was getting sick breathing, but I had to keep looking. And I found about every Charlie Poole record ever made, all these Gid Tanner records, a couple of blues records, a Frank Stokes blues record on Victor.
That was just one of the craziest stories that came to mind, but I’ve got a lifetime of them, believe me. That’s what you miss with the internet, getting out there and junking. We used to go door-to-door. I’d go into small towns when I was really young, like 16, 17. We’d knock door-to-door and ask people if they had records.
When did you start adding films to your collection?
I’ve always been a collector, so the film thing came naturally. I’m not a film collector. I completely separate records and films. It’s my business, my archive is my business. There’s not one reel of film in my house. It’s something where my collector instincts served me well in putting together the archive. You know the skills about finding stuff, and what questions to ask, and how to deal with people.
When I was a kid I just always liked watching movies, I never played sports. I was the kid watching Laurel & Hardy films on Saturday afternoon when my friends were playing baseball. I went to NYU Film School and I wound up working with a guy—we were making a documentary on rock ‘n’ roll. He had a tiny little archive, one little wall of film, but he had it so organized. He was the first guy to put the film onto video, and literally log it into a DOS program.
We were getting more calls to license footage than the people that had archives that were the size of a city block, because the technology was moving fast and all the archives were still in the dark ages. You used to go to those archives and they’d hand you the original reel of film after you looked at the card catalog. You had to put a mark next to the section you needed, then they’d send it to a lab, make you a print and put a scratch through it. It was an ordeal! So we put the stuff on tape, and we just made it really easy for people to see it. We’d send out a videotape via messenger or FedEx, and that’s how I got started. That company was called Archive Films, and it was bought up by Getty. It was the basis of Getty Images’ historic film library. I was kind of the main guy there. I didn’t own it, but I was the main employee, the manager for about 7 years before I started my own company, Historic Films.
Where do you get the leads for these films that you’re bringing in now?
Well, for example with the Ed Sullivan Show, which was the top variety show in America for 26 years, from the late ‘40s into the early ‘70s, my partner actually owns the program, he owns the rights. So we rep the clips. We also own the Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert programs. Lots of other small collections, we either have tracked down the family and bought it, or we just represent it for them because they’re not re-airing them. And that’s pretty much how we piece together the archive. It’s specialty really is American music—everything, not only jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, but blues and country and pop and Dorris Day stuff—everything.
So it’s not the same physical digging as with your record collecting?
There is a bit of that involved. There certainly was when I was first putting the archive together twenty some-odd years ago, where yes, I was buying stuff out of collector magazines, I was getting leads about people and going to visit them. There have been many times when I was knee-deep in a dumpster pulling out discarded two-inch reels from a TV station that was getting rid of their stuff. But I was doing those things for my archives rather than as a collector that would get together with my friends. But you know, it all comes from the same place, it’s a lot of stuff that people discard. They call them “orphan films,” films that kind of have fallen through the cracks. My archive is made up largely of orphan films. And then some wonderful TV shows, concert series that we represent through buying the rights or tracking down the owners.
Do you have a film in the archive that’s a favorite? That’s particularly special to you?
It’s funny, it’s like the record collecting. My favorites are the newer things that have recently turned up. We got this TV show that aired in the early sixties, a one-up special called “The Best On Record.” It was basically the Grammy broadcast, before the Grammy people even got involved with owning it. It was like an hour-and-a-half special hosted by Frank Sinatra and everyone is singing their hit song. Everyone from Peter, Paul and Mary to Tony Bennett. I mean, even Mahalia Jackson is on it. It’s an extraordinarily great show. Henry Mancini. It might be from ’63 because I think Peter, Paul and Mary are singing “If I Had a Hammer,” so whenever that was their hit [Peter, Paul & Mary’s “If I Had A Hammer” was released in August, 1962]. So yeah, that’s a recent find. We found a kinescope that somebody had, and that’s exciting.
What do you think makes it so special to go back and watch something like that?
I was just thinking about this the other day. I was in the car and this record came on that I always liked when I was a kid, The Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In”. And I’m thinking, alright, this was a mega-hit back then and what is it? It’s a 12-string guitar, a bass, and three voices—nothing else. That’s what it was. The thing about all this stuff back then is, all these people were performers. There were clubs everywhere, every other block in the city had a nightclub! There were so many more places for people to perform, and that shows in this old film. I get excited because when I’m watching this stuff, I’m watching these people perform. I’m hearing a live band with people who have honed their skills on stages everyday. It’s a different world. It’s a struggle—New Orleans is an exception, but even in New York it’s a hard place to get stages these days. Pop music is so different now, and I revel in the older pop music because it’s just so in your face, live and human. That’s what I love about watching that stuff.
What state do these TV shows and films come in? Are they the original tapes?
One of the recent things that we acquired, just a few months ago, was The Jackie Gleason Show from 1962-66. It was his show “Live from Miami”, the one that had this character Frank Fontaine, who did this “Crazy Guggenheim” routine in every show. Everyone who grew up in that era watched that show and knew Crazy Guggenheim. We got all the shows from the family, and they came in the original two-inch master.
The two-inch of that day was the state of the art, and when you look at it now it still looks like he’s in the room with you. It’s got this “live-ness” that you miss in the digital world. It’s a whole different feel. It’s an analog format, but it’s a high-end of videotape from that period. I’m not a technician, but there’s something about that stuff that’s so special, and if we’re lucky, we get it in that form. Oftentimes it’s more like getting a kinescope, which was basically filmed off of a monitor in the studio. Usually you did it in the pre-tape world just to record the show for posterity. It would broadcast once and that was it, and they would make a kinescope to preserve it. And a lot of the rarest stuff I have is on these kinescopes. The quality varies from god awful, like the Ike Turner and the Rhythm Kings show we have, from 1958. It’s god awful, but, man, it’s Ike and his band in ‘58. What am I going to say? I’m not going to complain about it, I just thank god it exists, you know!
Do you do any mastering or cleaning of the films?
That’s really not our job, because you’re talking 40-50,000 hours of material, and we’re a small commercial archive. We don’t have the money for that. But when I make a film, whenever I make my own production, which is the other thing that we do, we make sure we get the film in the best possible state we can through digital restoration or whatever we can do to clean it up. We’ll make the transfer from the best possible master we can find. Sometimes there’s only one, but we make sure we transfer it several times and get the version we can make of it.
What will you be showing at the Ponderosa Stomp this year?
I’ll be showing three things. I’ve been working on a very long-winded project for me—because usually we make a film in six months to a year—for about 4, 5 years, maybe more. We’ve been doing this thing on Fats Domino—Fats and Dave [Bartholomew] really, it’s really about both of them, not just about Fats Domino—and in our research we found a live concert that is ungodly, because if you know anything about early rock ‘n’ roll, you know all you get is maybe a song in a movie that’s usually lip-synched, or you get an appearance on a TV show that might be live, but it’s never going to be more than one or two songs, tops. We found a full 40-minute concert of the original Fats Domino band, which is really the Dave Bartholomew Orchestra. It’s three horns: Herb Hardesty, Lee Allen, Alvin “Red” Tyler. It’s all the original guys. [Cornelius] “Tenoo” Coleman on drums. Fats of course. It’s not the guys from ’54, ’55, but it’s the guys from the late ‘50s, and it’s extraordinary. You get to see them do what probably they were doing in rock ‘n’ roll shows all around, getting a little wild. It’s wonderful.
And you’re going to show that whole film?
We’re reconstructing it, yeah, because it came in pieces. We’re going to reconstruct it and show it for the first time ever in the United States in its full form. There’s some other material from the same tour that we found, that I showed at a previous Stomp—a three-minute medley from the Ed Sullivan Show—but that was filmed immediately after they returned from this tour. So we’re going to put it all together and even show a couple of the other acts that were on the bill at that concert that I’m going to be showing. I don’t know where exactly the concert took place, but it was part of a European tour.
What about the other two films you’re going to show?
Well, there’s a big Stax/Volt component to the Stomp this year. I did a film about Sam and Dave called The Original Soul Men about three years ago. What it really is is full-length performances of Sam and Dave’s greatest stuff from all different places with documentary elements in between the performances. Interviews with Sam, interviews with Dave’s wife via telephone, interviews with people like [Donald] “Duck” Dunn and other people who worked with them, and then people like Paul Schaffer and Dan Aykroyd, who just has a lifelong love for those guys. It’s really a bit of a tribute to Sam and Dave, focusing on their live performance.
And then the other thing is another version of Heroes of the Stomp, which is just a lot of great clips that have turned up from people who are performing or have performed at the Stomp, and just some other great stuff that I think is unusual and fun, from the Beach Boys to [Clarence] “Frogman” Henry.
Is that going to be pretty much the same thing as you showed last year?
No, no. All new clips. There might be one or two repeats, but I’ll have a full hour program of all different stuff. Again, it isn’t going to be all Stomp people, but it’s like, if they were alive, they’d be at the Stomp. It’s all related material. It won’t be the Beatles, it’ll be the Remains.
Joe Lauro’s films screen Friday, September 16 at the Renaissance Arts Hotel (700 Tchoupitoulas). Admission is $20 for the full day, and includes admission to the Ponderosa Stomp Conference as well.
11-11:45 a.m. Fats Domino Concert Film, Live 1962 (35 minutes)
12-1 p.m. Heroes of the Stomp (60 minutes)
1-2:30 p.m. The Original Soul Men: Sam & Dave (80 minutes).