In this month’s installment of essential New Orleans songs, we look at some of the cornerstones of New Orleans R&B. Each of these songs made an impression nationally and left a permanent mark on New Orleans music—and “Mother-in-Law” was of course the most important song aside from “Star Spangled Banner”; Ernie K-Doe said so himself.
In the coming months we’ll look at jazz, modern rock and songwriters, even some of the pre-jazz music in the city’s collective consciousness. But with festival season on the way, it’s time to get reacquainted with some songs that you’ll inevitably be hearing played live. – Brett Milano
“Mr. Big Stuff”
Jean Knight, 1970
It’s said that lightning never strikes in the same place twice. Well not only did it for the benefit of two New Orleans artists, and a struggling record company, on May 17, 1970, it happened within 90 minutes in small Jackson, Mississippi studio. On that day King Floyd recorded the million-seller “Groove Me” while Jean Knight (nee Caliste) waxed her own gold record, “Mr. Big Stuff.”
In the months leading up to the session, Knight was singing on weekends at tiny New Orleans clubs like Jerry’s Ebony Barn on Chef Menteur Highway. During the week, she was a baker at Loyola University.
“I was going downtown to pay a bill when I ran into a guy I never met before,” recalled Knight in 1996. “His name was Ralph Williams and he said he was writing songs for me that he wanted Wardell Quezergue to record. I’d never met Wardell before, but when I did, he said he wanted to record me. Ralph brought a tape of songs for me and right away I picked out ‘Mr. Big Stuff.’ It was done in a ballad style, but I wanted to put some sass in it. I knew right away that song was going to do something because when I rehearsed it at home, all the little kids in the neighborhood would be outside the window dancing. Wardell set up the session at Malaco and we drove up to Jackson. We only had four tracks to work with, but we nailed ‘Mr. Big Stuff’ on the second take.”
Even though Knight was certain it was a hit, she went back to baking bread because Malaco initially was unable to lease “Mr. Big Stuff.” It wasn’t until nearly a year later that “Groove Me” surged up that charts when Stax Records saw promise in Knight’s session and leased it.
Right away the record broke in New York and Washington, but it was slow getting off the ground in New Orleans,” said Knight. “Wardell called me and said I better get on the road because his phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I didn’t want to leave Loyola though without a baker so I waited until the school year was over in June.”
Leave it be said, Knight didn’t stop making bread as she was soon making $5,000 a night while on a national tour. In 1971, “Mr. Big Stuff” was runner up in the Grammys Song of the Year category, second only to Aretha Franklin’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
“Walkin’ To New Orleans”
Fats Domino, 1960
While “Walkin’ To New Orleans” became one of Fats Domino’s million-sellers and a constant in his live performances, the song’s roots came from Southwest Louisiana (actually Abbeville). The song was written by Bobby Charles—nee Robert Guidry—who had regional success with mid-1950s swamp pop hits like “Why Can’t You,” “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey” and especially “See You Later, Alligator.”
In the spring of 1959, Domino was performing at a dance in nearby Lafayette. After the show, Charles made his way to Domino’s dressing room to recall old times (they both recorded at Cosimo’s studio) and inform him he was working on some new material he thought Domino might consider recording. Domino encouraged Charles and invited him to come visit him at his new Ninth Ward mansion.
“Fats told me to come see him in New Orleans,” said Charles in 1987. “I told him I couldn’t, because I was broke. Fats just laughed and said, ‘Well, why don’t you walk to New Orleans?’ That was my hook.”
While the song was indeed a natural, in order to get Domino to record “Walkin’ To New Orleans,” Charles had to relinquish one-third of the song’s copyright to Domino and one-third to producer Dave Bartholomew.
“That’s the way business was done back then,” lamented Charles. “That was the only way to get Domino to record outside [new] material.”
While over the years Guidry would write other songs for Domino including “It Keeps Rainin’,” none would surpass the majesty of “Walkin’ To New Orleans.”
“Sick and Tired”
Chris Kenner/Fats Domino, 1957
Of Chris Kenner, promotor Percy Stovall lamented, “I always wondered why Chris had all them hits. He couldn’t sing, he couldn’t dance, he dressed raggedy—he just stood there. He would get so drunk he forgot the words to the songs. They used to boo and throw bottles at him.” However, the otherwise astute Stovall didn’t mention Kenner was one hell of a songwriter.
A man of burly stature (his handle was “Bear”), Kenner worked on the docks as a stevedore hauling bags of sugar. With dreams of escaping a lifetime of labor, Kenner decided he was going to try to make a hit record. In his spare time Kenner wrote songs and took them around to local producers and record companies to see if they were interested. Apparently, Kenner was shown the door more than once, including a few times by Imperial’s Dave Bartholomew.
“Chris has been coming around for years,” said Bartholomew. “This day he said, ‘I got something really good today.’ I said, ‘It better be, I’m getting ready to go to lunch.’ So he sang ‘Sick and Tired.’ I said, ‘You got it! I don’t need no more.’ Sure enough, we recorded it and it was a very big record for Chris.”
A huge local hit in 1957, Fats Domino’s cover a year later soared up the national charts. It’s pretty much become an R&B standard. At the time, Bartholomew thought Kenner had promise at Imperial primarily as a songwriter, but before that happened Bartholomew’s boss Lew Chudd nixed the idea.
“Lew said he didn’t think Chris could sing or sell records,” said Bartholomew.
Chudd’s decision would soon blow up in his face as Kenner would go on to write and record hits like “I Like It Like That,” “Something You Got” and “Land Of 1,000 Dances” to name but a few.
“The Things That I Used to Do”
Guitar Slim, 1953
One of the biggest New Orleans records of all time (21 weeks on the R&B charts, six weeks at number one) the origin and recording of “The Things That I Used to Do” have reached mythical proportion. Recorded by the larger than life Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones), the session took place at the J&M Studio on October 16, 1953.
According to Earl King, the idea for the song came to Slim in a dream. Slim related to King that in the dream he was confronted by a devil and an angel, both of whom held the lyrics to a song. Naturally, Slim chose the devil’s song and it turned out to be “The Things That I Used To Do.”
Tales of the recording of the song are numerous among those who took part. Some said “all night.” Some said “all day.” Lloyd Lambert, who played bass on the session, confirmed “two days.” Frank Mitchell, who was present on trumpet, pretty much concurred with Lambert. Mitchell said the first day of recording was a bust because Slim got too high on gin and reefer. Two valets had to prop Slim up behind the microphone to get a useable take—but to no avail. Slim was carried back to his room at the Dew Drop and ordered by all parties concerned to sober up.
The next day, Slim pulled himself together and got four shattering songs down on tape, including “The Things That I Used To Do.” The pianist and straw boss arranger, Ray Charles, can be heard yelling “Yeah!” in relief/disbelief at the conclusion of the song.
The song’s selling points were many, including Slim’s scorching solo, and the country boy’s innocent lyric “I’m sending you back to your mother, and I’m going back to my family too.” Slim’s song became an instant classic as hundreds of covers and deviations of the song have been recorded over the years.
“Ooh Poo Pah Doo (Pts. 1 & 2)”
Jessie Hill, 1960
During the 1950s, Jessie Hill was a wild-man drummer from the Ninth Ward who had stints with Professor Longhair and Huey Smith’s Clowns. By 1959, he was fronting his own band, the House Rockers, who featured David Lastie on tenor sax. At the time, a piano player named “Big Four” was causing a disturbance down in the Parish at Shy Guy’s Place playing a call-and-response ditty called “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Jessie wrote Big Four’s lyrics down on a paper sack and stuffed them in his pocket.
Jessie, at the time the sole proprietor and employee of “Poo Cab Service,” picked up the story in 1983.
“We started playing ‘Ooh Poo Pa Doo’ as a gimmick—it was kicks. It got real popular so I started saying, ‘Y’all ready for my new record? We’re gonna cut it pretty soon.’ My little circuit was ready for it when it came out.”
The House Rockers pooled their assets and recorded a crude demo of “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” With New Orleans fast becoming a hub for hit records, the entrepreneurial Hill shopped the tape to Larry McKinley and Joe Banashak, who at the time were beginning to put Minit Records on the map.
“Jessie came in with this pitiful-looking tape,” said Banashak. “It was spliced and kept breaking. But me and Larry listened to it and I told Larry, ‘Man, he’s really got something going.’”
Indeed Jessie did have something going. In January of 1960, the House Rockers recorded a full-blown session at Cosimo’s with Allen Toussaint added on piano. By Mardi Gras, part one of “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (part two was basically a David Lastie instrumental) was the biggest record in New Orleans for weeks. It took a little chicanery by Banashak to break the record nationally, but by the summer, Jessie was basically “putting some disturbance on the mind” of teenagers along the Eastern Seaboard. Ironically though, record buyers in Philly, Boise and Los Angeles were listening to part two of the single. Obviously a song with a long life, “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” has survived more than 100 covers.
“Pass the Hatchet”
Roger & the Gypsies, 1966
Flavored by a little bit of soul and a dash of the parade beat, “Pass the Hatchet” was a rare New Orleans garage band groove. The man most responsible for “Pass the Hatchet” was bassist Earl Stanley, who in 1965 led the Stereos, then the house band at Papa Joe’s. To augment his Bourbon Street wages, Stanley began doing session work for Joe Banashak at Instant Records.
“I did a Kathy Savoy session for Banashak and I got him to see if he was interested in my songs,” said Stanley in 2001. “That’s how he got ‘Pass the Hatchet.’ My cousin, Roger Leon, came by my house and played a little melody on the guitar. We put a song together, but I didn’t think much of it. He wanted to record it though and gave me $300 to get it done—we had some time left at the studio and put it together real quick. Roger and I played guitar, Art Sir Van was on piano and Little Joe Lambert was on drums.
“My partner Ray Theriot was jumping around in the studio so it must have sounded pretty good. Banashak liked it so we leased it to him and put Roger & the Gypsies’ name on it. I didn’t think it would do a thing.”
Unbeknownst to Stanley, the tape languished on the shelf for months, until Eddie Bo listened to it during some downtime. Bo remixed the tape, added some well-placed grunts, percussion and vocals, and the single was released on Seven B.
“Eddie got screwed on that record,” said Stanley, who never heard the finished product until listening to it on the radio. “Banashak didn’t give him co-writer credit, even though what he added to ‘Pass the Hatchet’ really made it catchy and a hit. It did really well here—number one on a few stations. We made a few gigs as Roger & the Gypsies, but not too many. That was the only record Roger & the Gypsies made.”
However, that’s not the end of the story. Although “Pass the Hatchet” was virtually unavailable for two decades, it began showing up in anthologies, movies and television commercials, which began generating a great deal in licensing income (but sadly none for Bo). At the time of this 2001 interview, Stanley’s share of the song had earned him a six-figure sum. However, what pleased Stanley most was standing on St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras Day early in the millennium and hearing “Pass the Hatchet” played by St. Augustine’s Marching 100.
“Working in the Coal Mine”
Lee Dorsey, 1966
Surely no Allen Toussaint song fit an artist’s demeanor better than “Working in the Coal Mine” did for Lee Dorsey. Discovered singing just to pass time while he worked in a body shop, in between tours, Dorsey could be found beating dents out of fenders with his son in the 7th Ward for over two decades.
One of several mid-1960s hits written by Toussaint for Dorsey, “Working in the Coal Mine,” reaching the Top 10, was his biggest. At the time, Toussaint was putting together a funky New Orleans studio band that consisted of a quartet of musicians who would later be called the Meters. That band played on “Working in the Coal Mine” and all of Dorsey’s later records.
As Toussaint pointed out in 1983, he felt that Dorsey was the perfect medium for his music: “Lee certainly inspired a lot of my writing. Who else but Lee Dorsey could pull a song off like ‘Working in the Coal Mine,’ ‘Ride Your Pony,’ ‘Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky,’ ‘Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley’—those songs would probably never have been written if it have not of been for the kind of guy that Lee is. He just inspires all kinds of ideas that nobody else does. I can always see myself moving through the world and me back there watching and writing about it.”
Dorsey concurred: “I guess Allen saves his best work for me. He knows what he’s doing. He can write a song to fit just about any style.”
Although Toussaint earned a well-deserved induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the equally deserving Lee Dorsey hasn’t been inducted, and is not even in the conversation. Hopefully this injustice will one day be corrected.
Ernie K-Doe, 1961
A number one, million-seller, “Mother-in-Law” will forever be associated with the larger-than-life Ernie K-Doe. Written by Allen Toussaint, the song’s origin has undergone a colorful debate.
“Allen had written it and thrown it away,” claimed K-Doe in 1982. “He had balled it up and threw it in the trash can. I saw it in the garbage can and pulled it out. I looked at the words and said, ‘Hey man this is good. I want to do this.’”
Toussaint, however, offered “a varied” explanation: “I was inspired by Danny White to write ‘Mother-in-Law.’ Danny didn’t make a lot of records, but he was very popular in the city. We weren’t recording Danny then, so when it came time to do a session on Ernie, I thought ‘Well maybe we can get away with these songs I wrote for Danny White.’ So K-Doe ended up recording ‘Mother-in-Law.’”
“Mother-in-Law” was a natural hit—the title alone evoking interest. Instantly catchy, Toussaint allowed K-Doe’s vocal to weave in between Benny Spellman’s repetitive baritone chorus, while leaving enough room for his sparkling piano fills.
In the spring of 1961, “Mother-in-Law” became the first record to ever top Billboard’s Hot 100, a feat not even attained by the great Fats Domino. In later years, that Charity Hospital baby and bad motor scooter K-Doe declared: “Only two songs will be remembered until the end of time—’The Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘Mother-in-Law.’”
Take that to the bank.
King Floyd, 1970
The irresistible multi-million-seller “Groove Me” was a song that nearly wasn’t recorded—at least by King Floyd. In 1970, the song was originally offered to Charles Brimmer and C.P. Love, who both declined it, before Floyd—then a New Orleans postal employee—decided to record it himself. Even then, Floyd nearly missed his own session because his car broke down on the way to Malaco’s studio in Jackson, Mississippi.
“When we got there, there were only a few minutes of studio time left,” said Floyd in 1983. “We cut two tunes in half an hour. ‘Groove Me’ only took one take. I guess it was destiny. I really liked the way Wardell [Quezergue] arranged the funk thing.”
Ironically, it was “What Our Love Needs,” the flip-side of “Groove Me,” that was initially promoted and aired locally. As luck would have it, WYLD’s George Vinnett eventually flipped the record over and began to play “Groove Me,” initially to Floyd’s dismay.
“I heard it on the radio and called the station and said, ‘George, you’re playing the wrong side!’ George said, ‘No way man.’ Everybody around here started playing ‘Groove Me.’”
It wasn’t just a small R&B station playing “Groove Me” around New Orleans; larger Top 40 stations in the area jumped on the record on WYLD’s cue. Eventually all the big stations in the country (and around the world) played it and the record jumped into the charts. The record topped the national R&B charts (number six on the pop chart) before Floyd even had a chance to perform the song live.
Besides becoming a dance floor anthem, “Groove Me” has had a second life in television commercials and big-screen sound tracks. It remains one of the most successful New Orleans records of all time.
“Shame, Shame, Shame”
Shirley & Company, 1974
In an earlier life, Shirley Goodman was one half of “The Sweethearts of the Blues,” one half of the 1950s New Orleans duet Shirley and Lee. Fast forward to 1974. Shirley, who also sang backup on Dr. John’s 1968 Gris-Gris album, was doing office work in California with Playboy Records. Shirley had remained friends with Sylvia Vanderpool, who in the late 1950s was one half of the duet Mickey & Sylvia (“Love Is Strange”), and they still occasionally chatted via telephone. With disco simmering on the front burner, Vanderpool was starting a dance label in New Jersey—Vibration. One night, Vanderpool called Shirley and said she had a disco song that was perfect for Goodman. She convinced Goodman to get on a plane and come record it. Next day she was in an Englewood studio.
“’Shame’ was pre-recorded,” said Goodman in 1983. “I heard it about four or five times and said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ Hank Ballard came in to sing (the other part) on it but he couldn’t get it right. A guy named Jesus Alvarez came and he sounded pretty good. Sylvia said, ‘Y’all sound good, try it.’ We did a couple takes, but we took the first one.”
“As I was flying back the next night, a disc jockey in New York started playing it [a demo] and was getting calls like never before. They put it out without a B-side. I cut it on a Wednesday, and by the weekend they had orders for over a million [records].”
Recorded in November, Goodman made three trips to Europe by Christmas promoting the then-12” single. A hastily produced LP—with a cover that had a drawing of Shirley shaking a finger at Richard Nixon—was compiled and filled out with demos and remixes. It did little. Ironically, European fans were well aware of Shirley’s early hits from the 1950s and requested them at her shows.
However, in America, it was different. “Nobody knew,” said Goodman. “Nobody tied the two together even in New Orleans.”
Amazingly, 43 years later, “Shame, Shame, Shame” remains the last single with direct ties to New Orleans to top Billboard’s R&B charts.
“Ain’t Got No Home”
Clarence “Frogman” Henry, 1956
In 1956, a 19-year-old Clarence Henry and his new band were packing them in six nights a week at Pops Perez’ Joy Tavern in Gretna. Although the band got off at 2 a.m., one Sunday evening it was particularly busy at the Joy and Perez requested that Henry’s unit keep playing.
“The sun had come up and we ran out of songs to play,” recalled Henry in 1983. “Finally I just hit an old blues lick on the piano and started to sing, ‘Ain’t got no home, no place to roam.’ Then I added the part about ‘I can sing like a frog, I can sing like a girl.’ The audience really went for it.”
Henry auditioned the song to Paul Gayten, who was a popular bandleader and Chess Records’ New Orleans rep. Gayten arranged to record “the frog song” with a band that included members of Fats Domino’s regular band at Cosimo Matassa’s studio. A single was quickly issued, but initially the reaction was mute, even in New Orleans.
“Chess pushed the wrong side,” said Henry. “Finally, Poppa Stoppa at WWEZ flipped the record over and played ‘Ain’t Got No Home.’ Right away people started calling the station asking for ‘the frog song.’ Poppa Stoppa was the first one to start calling me ‘Frogman.’ Back then everybody called Fats Domino ‘The Fatman.’ Poppa Stoppa said ‘You got a song about a frog, we’ll have to start calling you ‘Frogman,’”
Naturally, “the frog song” hopped into the national charts, eventually peaking at number three R&B and number 30 in the pop charts. “Ain’t Got No Home” would propel Henry to a long and prosperous career, the song has had a very long life. Besides being included in scores of oldies collections, to date it’s also been included in several movie soundtracks, including Casino and Forest Gump. Not bad for a song composed out of sheer exhaustion.
Robert Parker, 1966
Robert Parker’s musical debut occurred in the late 1940s when he was hired to play saxophone in Professor Longhair’s band—the Shuffling Hungarians. During the 1950s and ’60s, Parker led promoter Percy Stovall’s great road band which, backed various touring artists. It was while touring in 1965 that the inspiration for “Barefootin’” took place.
“We were playing a dance at Tuskegee University,” said Parker in 1999. “The girls there all took their shoes off and piled them in front of the bandstand before they danced. [Later] we played a Chris Kenner date in Miami with a comedian who had two daughters that were shake dancers. When [the comedian] came on stage, he said. ‘Everybody get on your feet, you make me nervous when you’re in your seat.’ That was my opening line and I worked on the rest. I finished the song and took it to Wardell Quezergue [Nola Records]. I cut a demo of it, but they [Nola] offered the song to other artists. No one was interested in recording it, so I cut it. Wardell’s musicians played on it.”
Nola sat on “Barefootin’” for nearly a year, and would have longer, had not Hank Sample, a singing deejay at WNNR who also owned a record shop, heard the demo and told Nola’s brain trust, “Man you better release this. It’s going to go big.”
Of course Sample was right. Nola initially pressed up 500 singles for local consumption. Then as Parker mused, “It busted wide open all over the country. All of a sudden my life turned from worse to better.”
Parker’s first date behind “Barefootin’” was a week at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York, before touring with the likes Joe Tex and the Temptations. Despite its limited national distribution (always a problem for New Orleans labels), “Barefootin’” made it to number seven in Billboard’s pop chart and number three R&B.
“I’m sure ‘Barefootin’’ sold over a million, but I never got a gold record,” said Parker. Nevertheless, the timeless soul classic punched Parker’s ticket and he went from being a journeyman musician to an international marquee name for years. Obviously “Barefootin’” has endured and has become part of New Orleans’ soundtrack.
Little Richard, 1955
Until September 3, 1955, Little Richard was just a journeyman R&B artist from Macon, Georgia, struggling on the chitlin’ circuit. On that date, Richard entered the J&M Studio, and along with Cosimo’s crack studio band—Lee Allen, Edgar Blanchard, Earl Palmer, etc.—waxed the seminal “Tutti Frutti,” which would rocket him to rock ’n’ roll superstardom.
“I’ll never forget that date,” recalled the song’s co-composer, Dorothy LaBostrie, in 1983. “I was listening to the radio and an announcement came on that said Bumps Blackwell [Specialty Records producer] was looking for songwriters. I was working as a cook for a lady but I told her I had to quit because I was gonna write a hit record. She probably thought I was crazy, but that’s exactly what I did. I practically broke Cosimo’s door down the next day.”
According to Blackwell, the band took a break after cutting a couple of ordinary tracks. Everybody then went down to the Dew Drop on LaSalle Street, likely to savor a plate of Paul Pania’s red beans and rice. At that point, Richard thought he’d try to impress the band by getting behind a piano and ripping into a lewd, suggestive boogie he’d been doing on stage. Instantly, Blackwell knew that was the style he wanted Richard to record, but his lyrics need to be tamed to get on wax. In came LaBostrie to the rescue.
“Little Richard was sitting at the piano,” said LaBostrie. “That was the first time I laid eyes on him. I just asked to hear his voice and I sat down and put ‘Tutti Frutti’ down on paper.”
Apparently, initially Richard wasn’t keen on recording ‘Tutti Frutti,’ but with 15 minutes left on the clock, Blackwell placed LaBostrie’s scribbled lyrics in front of Richard, and begged him to record the song. They nailed ‘Tutti Frutti’ on the third take. The rest as they say is rock ’n’ roll history.
Professor Longhair, 1953
Professor Longhair (nee Henry Roeland Byrd) has long had a special place in the hearts of New Orleans music buffs. Longhair rose to local prominence in the 1940s playing a unique blend of blues and boogie piano, along with a strong calypso/Latin/funk flavoring [rhumba boogie]. He recorded a handful of neighborhood hits, but despite being able to “rock your blues away,” his audience pretty much was confined to LaSalle and Rampart Street. In 1953, Longhair came to the attention of Atlantic Records proxy Ahmet Ertegun. Ertegun, having recorded Meade Lux Lewis and Champion Jack Dupree, had a keen interest in blues piano and arranged a Longhair session at J&M Studio. One side of the lone commercial 78 r.p.m. was the raucous “Tipitina.”
Over the years, many theories concerning the inspiration of the nonsensical “Tipitina” have surfaced. However, according to a tale Longhair once related, the inspiration of the song’s title came from a Central City female marijuana retailer named Tina. Tina was either a woman of diminutive stature, a woman that didn’t have any toes, or likely both. Tina’s specialty was providing curbside service for her product. Apparently, Longhair employed her services on more than one occasion. After stopping his vehicle near her location, Tina would be summoned to the car door for the transaction. Apparently, to complete the exchange, it was necessary for to Longhair to request—”Tip it Tina!”
Upon release, “Tipitina” was yet another neighborhood record but little more. Later, in the early 1960s, his Mardi Gras singles briefly elevated his stature, but he would sink into relative obscurity for nearly a decade. Finally in 1973, with the release of the New Orleans Piano reissue LP, his career enjoyed an unlikely global revitalization. The centerpiece of the album was the original “Tipitina,” which would soon after inspire the name of what would become a longtime Longhair venue and eventually New Orleans’ most famous music club.