Over the last half century, he was an integral part of the Black New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras Indians as Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias. He was an enormous contributor to the changes that took place in the Mardi Gras Indians during that time, and he brought awareness of the Indians from Central City to the world at large.
Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis was born on January 14, 1944 with an extraordinary gift, an ability to sing that was apparent from early childhood. He had no formal musical training but when he sang in church people noticed. At home, Dollis proudly exercised his vocal talents to the delight of friends and visitors. He especially enjoyed singing like Fats Domino.
Unlike many New Orleans culture-bearers, Dollis did not come by his interest in Mardi Gras Indian lore through older family members. In fact, his family discouraged him from masking Indian. Dollis grew up on Jackson Avenue in Central City, where he became fascinated with the elaborately beaded costumes a neighbor fashioned for Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day and started hanging out at a backyard Indian practice in the neighborhood. Dollis’ parents, worried about fears of violence between rival tribes, forbade him to join up, but Dollis secretly sewed his own Indian suit out of fragments from his neighbor’s old costumes and paraded on Mardi Gras with the Golden Arrows when he was 13-years-old. He later joined the Wild Magnolias, where he quickly rose from Flag Boy to Big Chief largely because of his singing ability.
Beginning in 1964 Big Chief Dollis helped refashion the nature and practices of Mardi Gras Indian culture and protocol, preserving the traditional ritual texts but changing the nature of the competition between tribes. Dollis was part of a new breed of Mardi Gras Indians that eschewed violence and sublimated the competition between gangs into a contest of costumes, the prettier and more elaborate the better.
“We tell about the days way back they was wild, wild, wild; I mean they was cutting, killing and shooting,” said Dollis. “The uptown and the downtown would fight. We didn’t want that. So we stopped. Tootie Montana was big on that. He wanted to get it straight because he was beautiful. He looked so good. Then everybody wanted to be … beautiful. So we got all the Indians and all the chiefs to stop the violence.”
Dollis also revolutionized the relationship between the Mardi Gras Indians and the music that accompanied their sojourns. According to Bertrand Butler, a childhood friend of Dollis who went on to become Director of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council, Bo introduced new instrumentation to the Indians’ music. “The first time I got to really respect Bo, we was on Washington between Freret and South Robertson, they had a bunch of old guys there,” Butler recalls. “We was all in a bar room where they used to practice and it was a Sunday. We heard a lot of noise out there coming down the street and we weren’t used to hearing this type of noise; we were used to hearing tambourines. So somebody comes in and says that it was Bo Dollis comin’ down the street. This wasn’t Mardi Gras; it was a normal practice day, Sunday. And we all came outside and they were tellin’ him, ‘Hey, you just play the tambourine!’ and Bo Dollis say, ‘Just hit on something.’ This brought something new into the game and that was the bass drum—boom boom, drawing attention. I was tellin’ him, ‘Man you soundin’ like Bobby Blue Bland man, you’re bringing Bobby Blue Bland music into the Indian culture.’ And he used to laugh. But he did sound like Bobby Blue Bland. He had a nice voice, a beautiful voice.”
Mardi Gras Indian culture made a dramatic breakthrough to the outside world in 1970 when Dollis and his childhood friend Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles organized a Mardi Gras Indian second line as part of the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which took place across the street from the French Quarter in Congo Square. New Orleans had just emerged from the social restrictions of segregation. It was a truly historic moment for a city scarred by the American original sin of slavery to have an African-American secret society lead an integrated public parade to a spot where their ancestors had been sold as chattel. The voice of Bo Dollis called the way into the Promised Land.
Dollis smiled at the memory. “Me and Monk,” he said. “I put my suit on and started singing, leading a second line, down Canal Street all through the French Quarter, singing all the way to Congo Square and the people followed along all the way. I was singing. With all the other Indians.”
Dollis also took a bold step toward opening Mardi Gras Indian culture to the outside world that same year when he and the Wild Magnolias made a commercial recording, cutting a 45-rpm record produced by Jazz Fest founder Quint Davis, “Handa Wanda (part 1 and 2).” The song has a vibrancy and pulse of an almost pre-literate intensity, music as a means of magic communication all its own. The 45-rpm single on the Crescent City label appeared in juke boxes all over town and became a cornerstone of Mardi Gras culture and the absolute template for all subsequent Mardi Gras Indian recordings, which now number in the hundreds.
“I was all for it,” said Dollis. “I always loved to sing. Quint [Davis] came to an Indian practice. I didn’t know if I could stay in tune. I never wrote music but I could sing. Whatever the band played, I could sing it. Anywhere you go, I could go. I can’t write music, but I can feel whatever they do.”
The first Wild Magnolias recording was fairly representative of what the gangs sounded like as they paraded down the street playing small percussion instruments and chanting. But in performance, they had begun to be accompanied by keyboardist Willie Tee, who wrote arrangements for the chants and put together a psychedelic-funk backup for them with his band, the Gaturs. In 1974 they released the legendary Wild Magnolias album, backed by a New Orleans all-star band that included Willie Tee, his brother Earl Turbinton, Jr. on saxophone, Snooks Eaglin on guitar and Alfred “Uganda” Roberts on percussion. This band’s performance at the Bottom Line in New York made the Magnolias headline news.
Eventually the Wild Magnolias evolved into two performance styles: traditional parade music and a funk/R&B concert band. Over the years, Dollis has led these bands with his commanding vocal presence and by writing some of the most important new compositions in the Mardi Gras Indian canon, including “Handa Wanda” and “Smoke My Peace Pipe” (which charted at #74 on the Billboard R&B Top 100). As a result, the Wild Magnolias have become the most celebrated Mardi Gras Indian tribe, eventually building an international audience in the 1990s and opening up the music’s conceptual borders to the point where Japanese guitarist June Yamagishi joined the band.
Through it all, the keening cry of Bo Dollis’ voice called the Indians to the parade. But Dollis suffered terrible physical ailments during his family’s post-Katrina evacuation to Florida. A series of strokes and complications from diabetes left him severely disabled and made it difficult for him to speak. But he could still sing, and he remained part of the Wild Magnolias live show, particularly for Jazz Fest.
Bo Dollis made his last performance with the Wild Magnolias during the band’s Jazz Fest-closing performance on the Heritage Stage in 2013. At the end of the show, when asked to return for one last encore, Bo indicated from the side of the stage that the moment had come. “Now, you do it,” he said to his son, Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis.
“Handa Wanda” 7” single (Crescent City, 1970)
The Wild Magnolias (Barclay/Polydor, 1974)
They Call Us Wild (Barclay, 1975)
I’m Back…at Carnival Time (Rounder, 1988)
Super Sunday Showdown (collaboration with Mardi Gras Indians and Dr. John, 1991)
1313 Hoodoo Street (AIM Records, 1996)
Life Is a Carnival (Capitol/Metro Blue, 1999)
30 Years and Still Wild (Pony Canyon, 2002)
They Call Us Wild (re-release with The Wild Magnolias and bonus material) (Sunny Side, 2007)