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Resurrecting New Orleans

The Gulf Coast originals never left home

New Orleans, Jazz Band

A concert by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Preservation Hall, New Orleans, circa 1965.

Archive Photos/Getty

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.

“We just got a slack period,” he said. “It’s just like the world. It revolves, don’t it? And by the time it gets back to New Orleans, we’ll take over again. You got some kids out here can beat me singin’ and anyone else you’ve heard, just haven’t been discovered. You hit some of these street corners, especially in the spring in the evening, and you’ll hear some hit records.”

Lee Dorsey is convinced that the dance song, based on the simple beat and the single catchy slang phrase, is about to return, and with it the predominance of New Orleans. But it is not quite so simple as that, and while Dorsey waits for the mountain to shingaling back to Mahomet, Marshall Sehorn has been brooding on the complex factors that led to the fall of the New Orleans sound. He sketched in the situation:

“Just after World War II,” he began, “the musicians that came on the scene was recording at the Cosimo Recording Studio here and they was making good money. It all came outa one studio: you had Fats Domino doing all his recordings here, Bobby Blue Bland, Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Elmore James, Roy Brown, Charles Brown. . .you had Lloyd Price, you had Shirley and Lee, Jesse Hill, Ernie K-doe, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Bobby Marchand — you can just go on right down the line. If you added up the chart records cut in studio, the city has a higher rating of chart records than anyother city. Fats Domino cut 16 million-sellers in this town. Lloyd Price cut at least five. Little Richard — no tellin’ how many. Then you had all the Larry Williams records, Jimmy Clanton records, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns records. Like New York has dozens of studios. Do you know how many sessions go on for days that you never hear of? Practically every session that was cut here materialized into something. All the major companies were here, and Atlantic was havin’ two sessions a day for some time.”

What happened to dry up the boom? “Well,” said Marshall, “it lasted until about ’61. Then all of a sudden you found a group that called themselves AFO — All For One. That was Harold Battiste on sax, Red Tyler on sax, Melvin Lastie on trumpet, John Boudreaux on drums, Chuck Badie on bass. It was a clique of musicians and they were doing all of the sessions; they had a production company and they all had an in with the union. But see, then AFO got greedy; the other musicians kicked but they couldn’t do nothing about it. The manufacturers said, ‘Hey, everything startin’ to sound the same, we want something else.’ So people stopped comin’. Not all of a sudden, but they stopped, and AFO began to feel that there was a race problem against them here, ’cause they was all black. They thought that if they were in New York or California they could take on the whole world and still give the New Orleans sound. Well, they get out to the Coast and they find it don’t happen just that way. People want the authentic thing. And they started fightin’ among themselves and busted up and went separate ways.”

Some of the AFO members went on to successful careers. Harold Battiste, for instance, produced Sonny and Cher’s albums. They seemed to prove, however, that the New Orleans sound was not best served by removing it from its home base. (One exception to this rule is Mac Rebennack, alias Dr. John. None of his albums has been made in New Orleans, but all contain the genuine second line flavor. On his next LP, Gumbo, he and his band reconstruct several numbers by Professor Longhair and Earl King with great love, care, and respect for the originals.)

There is more to the decline of the New Orleans prosperity than just the AFO incident. Many New Orleans artists and record people believe that the big companies milked the city dry of much of its talent and then left.

The vacuum was filled by small independent companies that did not have the capital, the stamina or the managerial savvy to flourish. One of the many artists who suffered from the mass withdrawal of the majors was Earl King, a brilliant and prolific composer (“Trick Bag” and “Come On, Part I,” which Hendrix recorded) and a guitarist of such virtuosity that in his youth he often stood in for the legendary Guitar Slim, playing Slim’s licks verbatim.

“All the new artists that were comin’ up and some of the old artists began recording for independents, and the independents didn’t have the facilities to really project the artists,” says King. “It seemed that New Orleans was at a standstill in production, but yet they had more recordings done during the Sixties, I imagine, than they did during the Fifties.”

The independents simply could not promote the records as efficiently as the majors had. Local radio stations stopped playing New Orleans records unless they became national hits. “You take a song you can’t get rid of in this market and release it to a major; they’ll come right back into this market and suddenly it happens,” says King. What makes this pattern so bitter to many New Orleans musicians is the fact that many local songs became national hits in “cover” versions, which were seldom as lively as the originals. Chris Kenner’s original version of “Land of 1000 Dances” never sold, but Wilson Pickett’s did; it took Herb Alpert to make a hit of Allen Toussaint’s “Whipped Cream.”

In the Sixties, too, the New Orleans sound continued to exert a powerful influence on popular music while New Orleans musicians went begging for jobs. King says that the rhythm in Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman” has been used in “maybe 50 Motown sessions and ‘The Penguin’ that’s out by Rufus Thomas has got the same rhythm on it. And the ‘Trick Bag’ rhythm, you’ll find that popping up on many numbers. It’s in a Led Zeppelin song and a couple of jazz quintets used it, including Cannonball Adderley.” There are dozens of similar examples, and local musicians can reel them off by the hour.

In the early Sixties, Minit Records, with AFO as rhythm section and Allen Toussaint as resident composer, producer, arranger and A & R man, had several national hits and gave promise of becoming a strong company. But Minit petered out when Toussaint was drafted in 1963. While most of the independents had small ambitions, one entrepreneur tried to give New Orleans the kind of fully developed hometown record company it needed. Cosimo Matassa, who owned the city’s most famous studio, started a company that boasted its own pressing plants, studio and distribution set-up.

“Cosimo was tired of seein’ Atlantic and everybody else get rich,” Marshall recalls. “So, he became a manufacturer, with a label called Dover Records that handled two independents, Nola Records and Parlo Records. Two records put him into bankruptcy. Both records was a million and a half to two million seller each. ‘Barefootin’ by Robert Parker. And ‘Tell It Like It Is’ by Aaron Neville.” Cosimo came up against the hard fact that the only way a manufacturer can force record distributors to pay him is to keep turning out hit records. He shipped out his two hits, the distributors balked at paying him, and he lacked the bait of another hit record to make them come up with the money. Distributors, he says, still owe him about $400,000. With no way to pay the costs of producing the records, Cosimo lost his house and was forced to sell his studio equipment at public auction.

In the six years since his business disaster, Cosimo has managed to piece together a modest eight-track studio in a rundown section off Canal Street. “Welcome to Winoville, USA,” he said as he unlocked the front door and we stepped over an empty bottle of Muscatel that had been abandoned on the threshold. An open freight elevator took us to the second floor, which contained a large room full of baffles and a smaller control room.

Cosimo has no doubts about the city’s reserves of dormant musical talent. “Although there’s a lot of music down here, there isn’t a helluva lot of music employment. We must have a dozen bus drivers and postmen that are good musicians; we got a helluva conga man drivers a city bus and two or three good hornmen are mail carriers. But the club owners here are a tough breed and they’re not giving anything away. They got a good collection of strung out musicians that earn just enough to stay one jump ahead of them.

“The union, too, contributed its share to the difficulties,” Cosimo continued. “For a while we really had a bunch of dumb bastards for union officials, in the 24-karat ignorant class. They were petty, obstructionist, full of minor interferences, and they chased a couple of people away from here. The president of the Local still thought in terms of phonograph records displacing musicians and he saw record companies as the enemy of the musician.

“In the early Sixties, the union officials did some hankypanky with the union funds and a bunch of musicians wrote to the International in protest. Well, the International just sent the letter back to the president of the Local who set up a kangaroo court which fined these guys and took their cards away. Red Tyler worked on the riverfront as a stevedore for a year. Here’s a guy who was a tenor man and baritone man on some of the greatest records to come out of New Orleans, and they threw him out of the union ’cause he had the audacity to question what they were doing with his money. So these guys just give up. What can you do?”

One of the few New Orleanians to have produced hit records in the last couple of years is Wardell Quezergue, a quiet, bespectacled Creole who was responsible for King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Gene Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.” Unable to find backing at home, Wardell produced both singles in Jackson, Miss., using the resident rhythm section, and was thus spared the prima donnaish squabbling that he says characterizes New Orleans musicians.

It was Wardell’s company, Nola, that produced “Barefootin'”; like Cosimo he was a casualty of the single’s success. In the Fifties, he directed his own band and wrote dozens of arrangements for Fats Domino; he was becoming a successful producer when suddenly he was reduced to cleaning streets and parks to support his nine children. When another producer offered him the chance to produce New Orleans singer King Floyd, he was working in the stockroom of a record distributor. For all his despair at New Orleans pettiness, Wardell would like to record here again. He points out, however, that Stax got credit for “Mr. Big Stuff,” simply by virtue of distributing it; likewise Atlantic and “Groove Me.” “Now how can we get the credit to come back to New Orleans?” Wardell asks, shaking his head.

Bringing the credit back home is currently Marshall Sehorn’s grand project. His scheme is to use the major record companies to finance his operations and distribute his product, thus avoiding the pitfall Cosimo stepped into; meanwhile his own homebased company will hopefully create a nationally envied recording operation in New Orleans.

The company owned by Marshall and Allen Toussaint, Sansu, has signed a contract with Warner Bros., who will bring out the first two records this spring: an album by the Meters, a band which Sansu manages, and a solo album by Allen Toussaint. Warner’s will put up the money for both these albums but Sansu will retain the publishing rights to the songs and will keep 50 percent of the profits to reinvest in New Orleans. With those profits, Marshall wants to build a 16-track ultra-modern recording studio, where he and Allen can produce Sansu’s other acts, which include Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-doe, Earl King and Aaron Neville. The studio, he hopes, will be open by June and will produce such a string of hits that New Orleans will take on the same magical aura of success and the same highly desirable trademark “sound” that attracted Dylan to Nashville or the Rolling Stones to Muscle Shoals.

The whole plan hangs on one of the first two albums becoming a respectable hit. The local banks refuse to make loans to musical enterprises, so Marshall needs the record money to open his studio. Having begun in the record business as the “token white man” for Fury Records, his job was to promote the black firm’s singles to white Southern DJs — Marshall is confident that he can promote the Meters in the R & B market.

“Now if I bring the black scene in,” he says, “I’m gonna be awful disappointed and kick a lot of asses if Warners don’t bring me the white market.” The white market is the main thing that the Meters lack. Since their first single, “Sophisticated Cissy,” came out three years ago, most of their records have made the Top Ten in the R & B charts. Of more than a dozen singles, only their last one, “Good Old Funky Music,” failed to crack the charts at all, and that was because Jubilee, the company to which Marshall leased their records, went bankrupt. If white kids have heard of the Meters, it is probably from either “Cissy Strut,” which sold 800,000 copies or “Chicken Strut,” which sold almost the same number.

The Meters are four black New Orleanians in their mid-20s who began by playing clubs and supplying tunes to fit local dance fads. Hence the Cissy numbers, which they wrote to accompany the mincing step, a parody of a drag queen’s wiggle, that was big in New Orleans several years ago. “At our first big gig, a lot of people came out to see if the Meters was fags,” says George Porter, the bassist. “They was mostly girls, and they found out we wasn’t.”

The Meters’ music is based on a tight, syncopated criss-cross of dance rhythms set up by the drummer and bassist; the bottom of their music is reminiscent of Sly Stone’s at its most intricate. The drummer, Zig Modelist, has soaked up the licks of generations of New Orleans drummers and his work teems with second line beats. Porter’s bass work consists of busy, almost melodic lines that are also filled with the ineffable New Orleans feeling. Art Neville, brother of Aaron, fills in powerful organ chords and occasionally spins out supple lines in a solo. And Leo Nocentelli, the leader of the group, plays an inspired rock & roll guitar which is almost ghostly in its thin-sounding tone and eerie dissonances.

The Meters have spent much of their time serving as the rhythm section for Lew Johnson, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-doe and other Sansu acts. They are still caught halfway between being a studio band and a star performing group. On a Sunday night, playing at a black dance club called the Nitecap, they seemed barely aware that a crowd was present and they were outdressed by most of the dancers on the tiny floor.

They did their own versions of Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, C,S,N & Y and Sly tunes, none of which was as interesting as their own material. Leo insists that they have to play the jukebox numbers because the audiences in New Orleans refuse to recognize them as a first-rate original group. “People down here don’t give you as much respect as you’re worth,” he says. “Like we supposed to be an artist rather than a band. And the people here, they don’t look at you as an artist, due to the fact that you’re local and everybody sees you around and you got buddies and everything.” Once again, a New Orleans group will have to conquer another city before it can return home in triumph.

The band is determined to stick to its roots, however. The new album is called Cabbage Alley in tribute to the narrow passageway that was the poor black’s version of Bourbon Street, and which was recently torn down to make room for a mammoth football stadium. The Meters’ pride flashed when they were asked about Cabbage Alley. “We could sit here all day and talk about it, and a cat still isn’t gonna understand if he don’t come from New Orleans,” said Art Neville. “But basically this song, ‘Cabbage Alley,’ has the Dixieland heritage, the second line feeling, even more than anything else we’ve written. If you born here, you just gonna have it, that’s all.”

The ultimate success of Marshall’s venture will also depend on Allen Toussaint. I met Allen late at night in his motel room in Atlanta, where he had gone to produce the third album of a rock/gospel singer named Mylon — at Mylon’s urgent request. Handsome and dressed all in black, he had a reserved, formal bearing much older than his 32 years; he spoke meticulously and often broke into a small mysterious private smile at private musings. “I still honestly only want to make music,” was one of the first things he said, and it was thoroughly believable. He had the manner of a strict music teacher dedicated to iron standards; a manner that would undoubtedly wither any musician who turned up at one of his sessions unprepared.

As an artist, Allen closely resembles Carole King, both in his shyness and his uncanny ability to custom-tailor his songs to the personality of the singers for whom he writes. Starting at the age of 14, he turned out a prodigious number of songs. Some were album fillers, thrown off in 20 minutes; some were huge commercial hits like Ernie K-doe’s “Mother-in-Law”; some were careful and beautiful vehicles for specific artists, like Irma Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart”; others were songs that provoked successful cover versions like Al Hirt’s “Java,” Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream” and the Rolling Stones’ “Fortune Teller.”

Allen wrote nearly all these numbers while working for Minit, and played piano on many of them in whatever style was called for — he could play like Fats Domino, Huey Smith or Professor Longhair, his idol. Most often, his hits were characterized by gospel piano a la Ray Charles and funky second line drumming; the sound of the Minit hits had a profound influence on countless groups, black and white, far away from New Orleans.

In 1965, he teamed up with Marshall to produce Lee Dorsey records. For Dorsey he wrote three more hits: “Ride Your Pony,” “Get Out of My Life, Woman” and “Working in the Coal Mine.” Writing hits for other people has partly served as a means to avoid writing for himself. A solo album, released two years ago on Scepter, contains dazzling instrumentals but fails to project any clear music personality. Clearly he is grappling with this problem as he records his new album for Warners, backed up by the Meters. “It almost appears impossible sometimes,” he says. “I live with and through other people. I really want to record myself for the first time, but I don’t know how to think me. I’ve never had to think me.”

The announcement that Allen had signed with Warners brought in a spate of offers and it seems likely that he will soon gain the recognition he deserves as a producer. The Band used him for a couple of cuts on Cahoots, Elton John has requested his services, and Atlantic wants him to work on several sessions.

He remains devoted to New Orleans; he speaks about the city’s musical future with the fervor of Albert Schweitzer plugging for a new hospital. “We will have a record scene. We will. We need a studio with no excuses in the studio — that kind of a studio, and we’re going to build one. We’ll be able to make music comfortable there, without having to piece it together all over the country.”

It is obvious that New Orleans needs a record scene if it is not to turn into a musical museum. The second line feeling still runs strong in the city’s music, but in the next generation it could be drowned in the homogeneity of national radio programming. In the past few years there has been a burst of funeral parades, which only means that the traditional masters are dying in droves. The city’s only ragtime band consists mainly of Scandinavian ragtime freaks. The oldtime jazz is supported mainly by European buffs who arrive by planeloads for the annual Jazz Fest. The only place in town where you can hear Fats Domino tunes is in a small Bourbon Street club where Clarence “Frogman” Henry keeps his songs alive, abetted by a few brilliant veterans of Fats’ old band. Few of the younger bands ever heard of Professor Longhair; many young blacks sneer at the Mardi Gras and its primitive but vital musical traditions. “I put a lot of parade beats in my stuff,” says Professor Longhair, “but the younger musicians don’t understand that.”

Probably the only way to make them understand is to put the New Orleans sound back on the Top 30. “I say, hold fast, hold fast to the roots,” says Marshall Sehorn, and the warning comes none too soon. 

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