New Orleans, La. —
There is no escaping the music in New Orleans. It comes from phonographs perched on wrought iron balconies, from washtub bands in City Park, from jukeboxes blaring in corner bars, from out of the wide open doors of Bourbon Street clubs and from funeral bands parading in the streets; music as usual, but without money, for the music business in New Orleans has stumbled into one of its periodic slumps.
In 1917, an implacable lobby of sailors’ mothers forced the Secretary of the Navy to shut down the brothels of Storyville, thus robbing the jazz musicians of their working places. But the jazz survived. In the Fifties, New Orleans became a rock ‘n’ roll boomtown, but that manic phase died too, due to the medievalism of union officials, the greed of musicians and of record companies, and the almost hysterical stealthiness that plagues this city’s musical community. Many locals smell another boom in the offing, but the depression of the mid-Sixties has left scores of musicians unemployed and has left more than one musical prophet without honor in his own city.
No pilgrimage to New Orleans is complete without a visit to the dwelling of Professor Longhair, the brilliantly innovative pianist who is one of the offhanded founders of modern day popular music. “Fess is the Bach of rock & roll,” says Allen Toussaint, a brilliant young New Orleans producer and one of the Professor’s disciples. “He isn’t just playing piano when he’s sitting there; that’s a lot of things going on.”
The Professor lives on Rampart Street, only a block from the former home of Louis Armstrong, in a peeling but dignified single-story white frame house. He prefers not to sun himself on the decaying five-column porch but to hide in the front seat of his battered Buick station wagon, like a salamander under a rock. His features, moreover, are reptilian; he is lean and lithe as a cobra, with enormous yellowish bugeyes, a flat nose and two buck teeth made of gold that stick out like blunted fangs. Late on a warm afternoon, the Professor was dozing in his car, cap pulled over his eyes, trying to recuperate from a three-night jag of poker playing at Happy Jack’s Social and Pleasure Club.
“See how my eyes runnin’ water,” said the Professor, wiping away a pool that had formed on his eye pouch. “Strained ’em. Them dim lights. Them cats fallin’ into differences, walkin’ the pot, and pullin’ cards out from under the bottom of the deck when they should be dealin’ off the top. Strain your eyes.”
Although he still composes and does occasional lounge dates, the Professor played his last paying recording session in 1964, and has yet to collect on it. “I just give it up,” he says. “All I wanted to do was make some money, and I got nothin’ but alibis. So I went back to my old thing of playin’ cards.” In recent months the Professor has been subsidized by the producer of the New Orleans Jazz Fest, an earnest young man who has provided a telephone, vitamins, and an RMI electric piano. “It’s really a sensitive, dignified piano,” says the Professor. “Keeps you with your tie up all the time.” He is revamping his old material on his new piano. “My old records sound kinda draggy to me now. You gotta keep up with a dances if you want to make money. Now everybody jumpin’ and hoppin’, they ain’t dancin’ no more, so you got to rig this stuff up to suit them.” The Professor’s new mentor has yet to receive an adequate recording offer.
Professor Longhair’s place in local musical history has been secure ever since the night in 1936 when, playing in the Vieux Carre with a band fancifully named the Shuffling Hungarians (“I had one Hindu in the band but there weren’t no Hungarians”), he slipped a new and stiffer beat into a shuffle called “Bald Head.” “That’s why they call me the father of rock ‘n’ roll — cause nobody ever hearin’ it before like that. I don’t know what inspire me, I just got happy that one night.”
In the Fifties, when the record industry descended on New Orleans, the Professor had several hits and a manager who kept all the money. About the time the Professor retired from recording, the big record companies retired from New Orleans. But the Professor doesn’t see that as the end. “The music never die,” he says. “There are millions of piano players here now. I believe there are more musicianers now than there are just plain ordinary laborers. To tell you the truth, the music’s already comin’ back, you just don’t have nobody to push it.”
* * *
There is, in fact, a man who has stepped forward to push the music: Marshall Sehorn, a North Carolinian, an ex-promotion man, and currently the co-owner of a New Orleans production company. “The tragedy is that John Doe Public doesn’t know there’s a New Orleans sound,” he laments in a lazy drawl that is complicated by the wad of Beechnut Chewing Tobacco that resides in one of his cheeks. Over the past several years, Marshall has laid the foundations of a New Orleans renaissance: for his partner, he has Allen Toussaint; for his rhythm section, he has a fine local band called the Meters, chosen by Cashbox and Billboard as the country’s top R & B group for two years running; for his artists, he has his pick of the city’s great unemployed and half-employed musicians. All he needs is a well-equipped recording studio, and he may soon have that too.
But just what is the “New Orleans sound” that Marshall wants to restore to national popularity?
“As long as there’s a Mardi Gras or a second line funeral, you’re gonna have the New Orleans beat,” says Marshall. “Of course, it got away — to Muscle Shoals, to Memphis, to Detroit. They just dressed it up. But this is the birthplace of jazz and this is the home of the second line, that extra syncopated beat that has been in existence ever since the first black man picked up a tambourine.”
The second line. Over the three days in which Marshall guided me through the Byzantine history of New Orleans rock & roll and introduced me to some of its leading figures, that phrase steadily grew in importance. One after another, the great local musicians — Professor Longhair, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Earl King, Ernie K-doe, Lee Dorsey, Aaron Neville — came back to the phrase as if it were the touchstone of their art.
The second line beat is the funky, calypso-like 2/4 cadence struck up by the bass drummer in a New Orleans funeral parade. The name itself comes from the row of mourners that follows the band — thus making up the second line in the funeral cortege. These “second liners” wave handkerchiefs and umbrellas and, upon hearing the drum beat, break into a dipping, funky-butt step — half shimmy, half strut — that is known as “second lining.”
The second line beat is clearly discernible in the work of New Orleans’ great drummers, bassists, trombonists, even its trumpeters and singers; it is there in traditional jazz as strongly as in the rock ‘n’ roll. It imbues even the most somber tune with the happy, laid back feeling that is the hallmark of New Orleans music.
“Even the blues here has got to be kinda happy,” says Lee Dorsey, the New Orleans singer whose hit singles include “Ya Ya,” “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” and “Working In the Coal Mine.” “You watch the average person around here. They work eight to five, five days a week. Saturday, Sunday, man, look out! They may be broke Monday, but they gonna have a ball, even if they have to borrow money to go to work. It’s not just Mardi Gras, it’s every week. They got to have that good time. It’s just New Orleans, that’s all you can say for that.”
To meet Dorsey, we had to drive to the Crescent City Auto Wreckers, where, inside the cyclone fence, among the hundreds of steel carcasses, he was standing in a small garage-hut, delicately taping pages from the Times Picayune to the windshield of his own gold Cadillac in preparation for a new spray job. “It’s got to be superb,” he said. “It’s my advertisement.”
He said that he does body and fender work out of choice rather than necessity. A perfect repair job thrills him as much as a good performance. If he rehearsed, he said, he could have the career of a James Brown, but like many New Orleans musicians, he prefers to regard music as a second job, almost an avocation. “They don’t feel they got to put no effort into it,” he said. “They just do it cause they feel it, it’s in them and whenever the occasion arises it comes out.”
Although this may sound like an elaborate rationalization, Dorsey has been anything but a failure. In his youth he gave up a career as an undefeated lightweight boxer — “Kid Chocolate” — only to fall into a recording career. Several years ago a less-than-open-minded Louisiana court sentenced him to 20 years for shooting (but not killing) a white man in self-defense; but the judge later cut the sentence to six months on the condition that Dorsey leave the country. He toured Europe, becoming Britain’s favorite R & B act, more popular than James Brown or Sam and Dave. He can still command $2,000 a night in the American South whenever he wishes. His last album tried to capture the white FM market by casting him in a cooler, bluesier mold; it failed. But he is content to sit and wait for his kind of music to come into vogue again.