“There is a New Orleans city accent … associated with downtown New Orleans, particularly with the German and Irish Third Ward, that is hard to distinguish from the accent of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Astoria, Long Island, where the Al Smith inflection, extinct in Manhattan, has taken refuge. The reason, as you might expect, is that the same stocks that brought the accent to Manhattan imposed it on New Orleans.” – A.J. Liebling, “The Earl of Louisiana,” the famous quote introducing John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces”
Rumors of the New Orleans Yat’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Despite the best efforts of invasive hipster gentrification and federal levee failures to eradicate this indigenous species from its native habitats like the 9th Ward, the humble Yat survives — but has been driven underground. Some Yats even manage to thrive in this brave new world of HBO caricaturization and Hollywood co-optation – and not just in Bunny Matthews cartoons. In fact, recent sightings even confirm the existence of the now-almost-mythical Yatasaurus Rex.
Should you, fearless explorer, venture out on any moonlit Saturday night to a strip mall near the airport, at Kenner’s Third Rock Tavern at Williams and Veterans boulevards, you might spy not one, but two, of these Yatasaurus Rexes: none other than guitarist Charlie Cuccia and drummer Jeff Hicks — both original members of the locally noted T.Q. and the Topcats, who now hew off beefy slabs of blood-and-guts rock ‘n’ roll as “Da Meat Department” band.
Original Topcats member Charlie "Jake the Snake" Cuccia - still rocking after all these years
Through plumes of thick smoke, in between high-octane libations and corny double-entendre jokes, these Bourbon Street and Jefferson Parish lounge veterans crank out classic-rock covers with a grit and soul you won’t find in some wimpy, miserable politically correct Frenchmen Street outfit. Eschewing most of the traditional New Orleans canon for the likes of Stones, Chuck Berry, and Dylan — sung in sandpaper rasps evoking Howlin’ Wolf and Captain Beefheart — they somehow come off as more authentically New Orleans than any vanilla retro “roots-rock” band.
With snifter of Grand Marnier in hand and rooster-like ducktail in full glory, Cuccia exhorts his Yat minions to “raise your glasses, children of the Williams Boulevard!” before launching into a towering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” while Hicks recalls his days of selling cars for New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson in rhapsodizing about a stripper he used to love at the nearby Downs Lounge in Metry – all to the tune of Bob Seger’s “Main Street.”
Revisit the 1970s and recall, if you dare, the moribund radio soundtrack of the time: the ponderously toxic art-rock sludge of bands like Yes; Genesis; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; and King Crimson. Even Led Zeppelin stooped low enough to invoke “the winds of Thor.” It was to this music — as well as more earthbound acts such as Heart, Skynyrd, Journey, and New Orleans’ own Zebra — that young Yats cruised along Wisner Boulevard in their souped-up Trans-Ams, roaring along Lakeshore Drive past Bart’s restaurant, all the way to the Point at West End for a quick toke before copping a feel off their feather-haired Stevie Nicks-wannabe girlfriends.
Enter Charlie Cuccia and Jeff Hicks, circa 1972. Cuccia and Hicks are proud co-founders of T.Q. and the Topcats, a band that still performs today as the Topcats, though with no original members. Gloriously retro before retro was cool, T.Q. and the Topcats defiantly rocked out old-school-style in the face of the 20-minute, mythology-and-melodrama-infused rock-opera opuses of the day.
T.Q. and the Topcats at Lake Pontchartrain in the 1970s
T.Q. and the Topcats were a Crescent City version of Sha Na Na — on gumbo-laden steroids. According to the Topcats’ Web site : “Originally formed at East Jefferson High School in Metairie, La., with their first practice in a garage on September 28th, 1972, T.Q. & The Topcats were a ’50s and early ’60s show band. The group performed all of the classic songs of the pre-Beatles era of rock and roll. Every song the band did was performed with outrageous choreography or some type of skit with costumes, smoke and special lighting. They also did tributes to Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Everyone in the band sang and did choreography and everyone had a nickname to put across the feeling of a hoodlum gang of the 1950′s.” Cuccia leered under the reptilian alias “Jake the Snake,” while Hicks sported the hirsute handle of “Belch A. Rooney.”
Vintage video of the band in its greaser heyday — including the unbelievable sight of an ax-wielding Cuccia executing dangerously ball-busting splits mid-solo — can be seen herein, on Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and “Roll Over, Beethoven,” as well as on the Gary U.S. Bonds cover “New Orleans,” in which Hicks belts out the lead vocal on a tribute to his native stomping grounds.
T.Q. and the Topcats played the New Orleans area and expanded their reach throughout the Southeast, eventually making their way to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. They shared the stage with stars such as Dick Dale, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Billy Joel, while a notable photo from September 1976 records for posterity the band’s meeting with “Bedtime for Bonzo” star Ronald Reagan.
T.Q. and the Topcats with Ronald Reagan
A fascinating piece of black-and-white footage shows T.Q and company interacting with Johnny Carson on the “Stump the Band” segment of “The Tonight Show.” Viewing the video, the linguistic link between New Orleans and New York City has never been clearer. As the slick Dionysus-like Cuccia raps with Carson, I’m not sure if I’m seeing and hearing Vinny Barbarino, John Gotti Jr., or the frontman for T.Q and the Topcats. At any rate, the T.Q. gang — looking like they had just kicked the asses of the Jets from “West Side Story” in a parking-lot rumble — endures Carson’s playful putdowns before launching into an incredibly soulful, handclapping, a capella rendition of “Iko Iko” that would make the harmonizing Valence Street-era lineup of the Neville Brothers proud.
In 1980, capping a flurry of personnel changes and stylistic shifts, Cuccia and Hicks exited the group, which is now known simply as the Topcats. But the duo continued to ply their musical chops in nightclubs from Bourbon Street to Williams Boulevard. Cuccia also has cut a CD on Gary Edwards’ Sound of New Orleans label, featuring top local sidemen such as saxophonist Jerry Jumonville, guitarist Cranston Clements, keyboardist Joe Krown, and drummer Barry Flippen. To purchase or to hear samples, click here.
The rooster-maned Charlie "Jake the Snake" Cuccia - still crazy after all these years (seen here in a natural habitat: the Old Opera House on Bourbon Street, where he often plays with the Old No. 7 Band)
Besides playing Saturday nights at the Third Rock with the “Meat Department” band, Cuccia also leads the Swinging Jewels (sans Hicks) on Thursday nights at Waloo’s on North Causeway Boulevard in Metry. The Jewels comprise drummer Joey Catalanotto from the Wiseguys; grittily soulful singer-songwriter Gary Hirstius (also a former Topcat); and bassist Thomas McDonald, who has probably picked up a riff or two from his legendary neighbor: jazz and R&B bassist Peter “Chuck” Badie of Harold Battiste’s trailblazing AFO Records. A monsterly funky bassist, McDonald also can sing his ass off — as well as slap out a scatlike syncopated melody on his shaved head. His version of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” otherwise known as the national anthem of the state of Louisiana, is as soul-drenched as the original, and his vocal modulations will make your baby’s heart flutter and squeeze you a little bit tighter as you’re slow-dragging together on the dancefloor.
Yes, hearts are fluttering at a Swinging Jewels/Meat Department show, but so is the laughter. These wisecracking clowns are simply hilarious. When you’ve played for decades on Bourbon Street for practically nothing but the sheer love of rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve got to develop a sense of humor. The outrageous jokes and Three Stooges humor run constantly like diarrhea of the mouth as the musicians take verbal shots at the audience and each other.
Coasting on seemingly nine lives, the modern-day incarnation of the Topcats is busier than ever, still playing club dates, school fairs, and festivals. But the heart and the soul of the band once known as T.Q. and the Topcats resides elsewhere, and can usually be found on Williams Boulevard in the unforgettable — and only in New Orleans — form of Charlie Cuccia and Jeff Hicks, brothers for life in their own uniquely hardcore brand of hey-brah groove.
The primal drumming and gut-bucket vocal stylings of original Topcats member Jeff Hicks (aka Belch A. Rooney) are totally out of this world - and totally rock 'n' roll, brah
Synonymous with the CYO, VFW, and Masonic-hall dances that rocked New Orleans in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the Crescent City’s legendary blue-eyed R&B supergroup the Jokers is reuniting for the first time in 11 years at New Orleans’ Rock ‘n’ Bowl this Sunday from 3 to 7 p.m. (though some reports have the show starting at 2). It will mark the band’s first performance since iconic lead singer Roland “Stone” LeBlanc joined them for their last reunion show (on May 15, 1999, at Kenner’s Pontchartrain Center) before his untimely death in December 1999.
According to disc jockey Poppa Stoppa’s liner notes from the band’s 1992 retrospective CD: “It all started in the summer of 1957 when the JOKERS appeared on the nationally televised Jerry Lewis Telethon. From that moment on, the JOKERS were a dominant force in the New Orleans Music Sound. Their tight, driving musical renditions of popular rhythm & blues songs rocked and rolled people everywhere. What made their show exciting was the introduction of wild stage antics and dancing amongst the crowd during their songs. They were consistent Battle-of-the-Bands contest winners, probably because of this revolutionary approach to entertaining.Anyone who attended one of the JOKERS’ dances will tell you what I’m talking about, but don’t take my word for it…listen for yourself. As you play this CD, featuring the various lead singers of the JOKERS, spend a few minutes reliving that fabulous era. If you were lucky enough to have seen the JOKERS perform, each song will bring back some special memory. Thank you JOKERS, for giving all of us memories we will never forget…and that’s the reason why NEW ORLEANS WILL NEVER FORGET THE JOKERS!”
The roster of lead singers that have passed through the band’s ranks reads like a who’s who of New Orleans R&B: Roland Stone, 1957-1959; Chuck Cavet, 1959-60; Mike Ancona, 1960-65; Stark Whiteman, 1961-65; Art “Sir” Van, 1965-67; and Harvey Jesus, 1967-75. Led by drummer Edwin “Eddie” Roth throughout its history, the band also featured a strong supporting cast of musicians, including bassist Cullen Landry, now the leader of R&B band Midnight Streetcar; pianist Richie Ladner; and horn players Herman Gilmore, Iggy Campisi, Gene Joubert, and Tommy Alfortish, to name just a few.
Don’t miss this ultra-rare reunion show – and the roll call of hits that have imprinted themselves on the brains and booties of countless New Orleanians who remember those halcyon days of the nascent, still-burgeoning art form of rock ‘n’ roll: “Just a Moment of Your Time,” “There’s Got to Be a Girl,” “Bells In My Heart,” “To Tease and to Please,” “Graduation Day,” “Don’t Break Your Promise to Me,” “I Wish I Knew,” and many more. This type of oldies show used to be more common when the New Orleans Musicians’ Alumni Association was in full swing, but those days are gone. Sunday at Rock ‘n’ Bowl with the legendary Jokers – be there or be square. [For a fuller history of the Jokers, see Bob Walker's tribute site here.]
This just in – the Stomp’s Alison Fensterstock with the latest on the future of Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge.
Just about a week after deciding that she would close the landmark tavern she took over after her mother’s death last year, Betty Fox has announced that she will try to keep the Mother-In-Law Lounge open after all. The outpouring of support that came after her announcement on June 20 prompted a change of heart, she said.
On March 25, 2000, four young New Orleans acts played with K-Doe at the Mother-in-Law Lounge as a tribute to one of their most important mentors. K-Doe loved to teach his children and they loved to learn from their favorite teacher. The bands that night were The Rubber Maids, Egg Yolk Jubilee, The McGillicuddys, Fireball Rockett and Mr. Quintron. (the blurry face underneath Martin Luther King is the Stomp's D Lefty Parker) Photo by Scott Saltzmann
When I think about the Mother-In-Law lounge, I always picture K-Doe singing this song in his club: “Come on Home.”
Here is some flip cam video I shot at the recent Stomp gala. It’s not the greatest- but it will give you an idea of what went down.
The video features music by Lil Buck Sinegal and the Top Cats with Stanley Buckwheat Zydeco Dural, Bobby Allen, Jay Chevalier, Frogman Henry, Al Carnival Time Johnson, and Dave Bartholomew. Others appearances include Wardell Quezergue, Dr. John, Harold Battiste and Warren Storm.
The Louisiana State Museum Foundation honored legendary producer Dave Bartholomew, studio owner Cosimo Matassa and the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation recently at the Cabildo in New Orleans. The event marked the 60th anniversary of the Fats Domino release “The Fat Man,” widely considered the first rock ‘n’ roll record, which Bartholomew arranged and Domino recorded at Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio. Currently on display in the museum is “The Secret History of Louisiana Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which was curated by the Ponderosa Stomp and features exhibits about Domino, Bartholomew and Matassa’s contributions to early rock ‘n’ roll.
Incredible video from our friends at the Oxford American: Billy Lee Riley honored by his friends and comrades at the Silver Moon club in Newport, Arkansas, on August 30th, 2009. In attendance a roster of Stomp veterans – Sonny Burgess and the Pacers, W.S. Holland (from Johnny Cash’s and Carl Perkins’ bands), Carl Mann (“Mona Lisa and “Pretend”), Ace Cannon (“Tuff”), Dale Hawkins (“Suzie-Q”), and Travis Wammack (“Scratchy”) among others.
Still, one of the best events at the (SXSW) festival was one of the most basic: a showcase of New Orleans bounce, the raunchy, local hip-hop style that developed in the 1990s but is only now escaping its hometown. The beat is fast, syncopated and relentless, and bounce fans know exactly what it’s for: shaking rumps at high speed. Katey Red, a tall transsexual in a black sequined dress and high heels, rattled off rhymes about sex and prostitution. No subtlety was necessary.
I had just purchased six piping-hot, 8-inch rice-and-porkers at the Sausage Link on old U.S. 90 in Sulphur, Looziana, when I glanced down at the newspaper rack by the exit door and spied a surprisingly familiar sight in this almost-alien swampland. Had I drunk too much beer at the Kaw-Liga bar down the road, where I had eavesdropped on the locals debating whether an actual wildcat had killed old man Guidry’s horse? Or was I really seeing what I was seeing?
The cover of the freebie magazine on the rack featured the photo of a man gripping sticks from behind a drum kit, namely “Lightning Mitchell” of Lake Charles, with the headline reading: “He’s Been Jamming With the Legends for Over 60 Years. Now He’s Chilling With Us.” I shamefully did not recall having heard of Mitchell before, but the article informed me that he was the drummer on Phil Phillips’ immortal “Sea of Love” and Boozoo Chavis’ pioneering zydeco landmark, “Paper in My Shoe,” and had played with the likes of Katie Webster and Lil’ Alfred.
But what had made me do my surprised double take was the striking poster on the wall behind Lightning: “Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau.” It was the Ponderosa Stomp poster for Year #2 (2003), with its roll call of legendary names like Billy “Boy” Arnold, Jody Williams, Henry Gray, and all those usual suspects. You had better bet your ducktails that Lightning Mitchell is a fan of the Ponderosa Stomp—and vice versa.
I was on my way to the VFW Hall in Starks, LA., near the Texas border, for a star-studded and certainly very Stomp-like bill: Warren Storm, Willie “Tee” Trahan, Tommy McLain, TK Hulin, and Charles Mann. The occasion for such an illustrious lineup was the Jack W. Johnson Memorial Dance. Jack had been a trumpet player for Louisiana Express, one of the go-to backing bands used by all the swamp-pop legends, such as those playing this show, as well as Lil’ Alfred, Johnnie Allan, and many others.
I had phoned the promoter a week before to reserve tickets and a table. My call all the way from New Orleans had no doubt jolted the late Jack Johnson’s brother, Don, who was producing the show in Jack’s memory. After all, it’s no hop, skip, and a jump from the Old Gumbo to the Sabine River. I was slightly worried that Don would view my citified status with suspicion, a la that famous scene from “Easy Rider,” when the xenophobic small-town guy in the diner notes disdainfully to his country compatriots: “Check the flag on that bike.”
But at the VFW Hall, after Warren Storm informed me that Don wanted to meet the guy who had come all the way from the Crescent to Calcasieu, my trepidation immediately dissipated. Don took one look at the tricked-out embroidered rooster ballcap on my head, smiled, and held up a hand to reveal a scar running at least 7 inches from his palm up his arm. “Steel-spurred rooster got me 20 years ago,” he revealed with a twinkle in his eye. Pumping his scarred right mitt, I knew then that Don and I were 100% simpatico.
And as the music started, we were immediately transported back to the late 1950s, when the U.S. dollar was as good as gold and swamp pop was king. The VFW Hall was jammed with booted, cowboy-hatted, and Hawaiian-shirted dudes and their dates, who were dressed to the nines and smelling like perfume factories, drowning out the faint industrial reek of nearby Sulphur and Lake Charles. This was the hottest ticket in town. The only minor disappointment of the night was that our reserved seating at a long row of tables was so packed with Cajun and Texan flesh that we opted to stand for most of the night just offstage near the merchandise table, around which the headliners were seated like so many Cabinet secretaries or heads of the five New York famiglias. So though we mostly stood, we were near enough to touch the hems of their godlike garments.
And moving away from the hoi polloi’s tables might have been a lifesaving strategy. With so many rabid dancers coming and going as the band shifted gears in rapid-fire succession from belly-rubbers to jitterbuggers, sitting in those crowded aisles might have been deadlier than a Who arena show marred by trampling casualties. So dense was the stampede back and forth from tables to dancefloor that I could almost hear the mounted Cajun cowboy’s cry of “Hippy Ti Yo!” riding herd on the rug-cutters running furiously pell-mell to relive their youths with every frenzied dance step.
Charles Mann and Warren Storm
Anyone familiar with the Ponderosa Stomp needs no introduction to the legends who graced the stage at the Starks VFW that night. Tommy McLain, the benevolent leprechaun-like John the Baptist figure in a frosty-white beard, still singing with the voice of an angel after all these years. Charles “Red Red Wine” Mann, emoting intensely on-stage like a cross between Jerry Lee’s preacher cousin Jimmy Swaggart and soul master Otis Redding. Willie “Tee”, a gentle bear of man with a Satchmo-like gravelly voice and a growling sax. TK Hulin, whose uncannily youthful rock-star looks and authoritative Tom Jones aura fuel his nonstop dynamic stage presence as he belts out the unforgettable chorus to “Alligator Bayou”: “I’m a good-time, hard-lovin’ Cajun man.” Truer words were never spoken. And then, certainly the Caucasian equivalent of Lazy Lester in the Ponderosa Stomp pantheon of music giants: Warren Storm, who can dub himself “The Godfather of Swamp Pop Music” without anyone batting an eye, so deep is the stentorian soulfulness of his bayou wail and pleading, tremelo-like vocal quaver. At 70-something, we can forgive him for not pounding the skins that night. We also don’t bat an eye at the notion of driving practically to the Sabine River Turnaround to see this atomic bomb from Abbeville delivering the goods one more time.
And let’s not forget the backing band, Cypress, who brought .44 Magnum musical firepower to befit the occasion—and each member a card-carrying coonass to boot. Many touring swamp-pop legends find themselves stuck with mediocre pickup bands playing without benefit of rehearsal. Not Cypress. Honing their chops as Storm and Tee’s regular outfit on at least eight gigs a month, these minstrels are well-versed with the stars’ material as well as each other. Composed of two relatively youngish bucks on bass and drums (Scott Broussard and Kyle Dugas) and two more seasoned veterans on keyboard and guitar (Karl Bordelon and Tommy Richard), the Cypress band galloped along like a frisky quarterhorse at a Cajun bush track—a sure bet at any big race. Bordelon even picked up the trumpet on occasion to sound a few Gabriel’s notes, no doubt as the night’s honoree, Jack Johnson, smiled down from Swamp Pop Heaven.
Honoree Jack Johnson's portrait held by his survivors
As the evening wore down, it got to be crying time again as we paused to reflect on Jack Johnson. Over muffled tears and blinding flashbulbs, we took pictures of Jack’s survivors posing with a framed portrait of the trumpeter that had been signed by all the swamp-pop legends on the bill. Through whiskied breath I tried to coax some smiles out of the siblings, reminding them that this was Jack’s party and he would want the occasion to be a festive one. They did their best to comply.
Warren Storm reads raffle numbers with promoter Don Johnson's wife
And though the show was almost over, Warren Storm had one more special performance to give: He spent a good 20 minutes reading off the winning numbers for the parade-of-prizes raffle tickets that had been sold. At my request, he even read off a few numbers in his native French tongue. This is a musician who—if there were any justice in this stinking world—will be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with the rest of his swamp-popping peers, and there he was reading off the winning digits at the Starks VFW before launching into his final set and driving back to Lafayette in the wee hours. That’s the utter epitome of class and showmanship.
What a scintillatingly brilliant night of music it had been, yet there was still one more little divine pot of gold waiting at the end of this rainbow: the Lucky Longhorn motel in Vinton, an arm of the Texas Longhorn Club complex. Part truck stop, part motel, part restaurant, part casino, part laundromat, this cozy little oasis just off I-10 can meet every weary swamp-pop fan’s traveling needs. And with your choice of shower or Jacuzzi, you’ll find more than a little lucky respite there as you lay down to sleep and dream those “Sweet Dreams” of your next magical musical mystery tour. Talk about a happy ending. Yeah you right, baby.
Metairie is a place often disparaged by those “not from here.” It is especially disparaged by those not from here who seek to cloak themselves and where they came from in all things New Orleans. By disparaging our hinterlands, they strive to make themselves all the more genuinely New Orleans. Ironically, these self-appointed New Orleans experts miss the “tout ensemble” for the trees (or maybe the lack thereof). They fail to discern that there is often more New Orleans buried amid the neon-and-concrete trappings of seemingly bland suburbia than in the city itself these days. Especially musically.
Mo’s Chalet is just such an under-the-radar den of down-home blues. Impresario Morell “Mo” Crane is an important patron of local music, particularly the classic styles such as jazz, rhythm and blues, and swamp pop. Mo brought in his old friend, sax titan Sam Butera, years before the New Orleans JazzFest ever sat up and took notice that the supercharged turbine behind Louie Prima was still jumping, jiving, and wailing like never before, well into his 70s.
But Mo doesn’t just hire the well-known entertainers. Super-talented rank-and-file artists who somehow got lost in the shuffle but are still cranking it out in the musical trenches can find a welcome stage at Mo’s Chalet. Names such as Bobby Lonero, Earl Stanley, Skip Easterling, Eddie Powers, Art SirVan, Allen Collay, Al McCrossen, and Billy Bell. These are just the sort of hidden gems that the Ponderosa Stomp strives to spotlight. And such a roster fits in with Mo’s motto: “GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT.”
And “the people,” in Mo’s case, fit a certain demographic. They are either members of “the Greatest Generation” or hail from the immediately younger age groups. These are the people who grew up in a still-vibrant New Orleans, attended its grammar and high schools, and bore witness to not only the jazz revival of the late 1940s and early ’50s, but also the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. These are the people who remember Butera and Prima blazing away on Bourbon Street and at the Beverly Club. These are the people who saw Pete Fountain and Al “Jumbo” Hirt trading lightning-bolt licks at Lenfant’s on the lakefront. These are the people who when they hear the name “Dukes of Dixieland” immediately think “Assunto brothers”—you know, those nice neighborhood Italian boys from around the French Market who just happen to have a red-hot family band. These are the people who grew up buying Fats Domino 45s and swaying to Jerry Raines’ “Our Teenage Love” at the CYO dances. They remember serving detention-hall stints with Roland “Stone” LeBlanc at Warren Easton High, or eating cheeseburgers next to a teenage Frankie Ford at Da Wabbit in Gretna after a sock hop at the McDonoghville VFW. These are New Orleans’ salt of the earth, and those who still make it out to Mo’s Chalet are the silver-fox survivors. They’re still boogieing down and drinking up well into their 60s, 70s, and 80s.
One recent Sunday I stopped in to hear vocalist Duke Duplantis front his RBT combo. What a gentleman Duke is—a total man’s man, whose specialty is singing Sinatra and other Rat Pack standards with the perfect measure of gravitas and testosterone. I don’t know who I’d be more afraid to piss off backstage in Vegas in a fight over some mob bimbo: Duke himself, or Ole Blue Eyes backed up by a gang of sycophantic “associates.” Of course, Duke—after setting you straight—would probably suggest a round of 18 holes at the local golf course and even pick up the greens fees just to show you what a stand-up guy he is.
And serving as the smiling bandleader with just a hint of an Elvis sneer to his lip, Richie Ladner brings decades of professional experience to the table, having been a latter-day member of New Orleans’ legendary Jokers. Playing with an almost pornographic joy, he is both a stellar pianist and vocalist, and his baritony rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” melded into a gospel medley still sends chills down my spine. When not amazing you with his melodiousness, Ladner will slay you with his hysterically ribald humor and impeccable comic timing.
A book could be written about saxophonist Johnny Pennino (http://www.johnnypennino.com), but luckily for the local music scene, his story is not yet over. Music aficionadoes have heard of the legendary Papa Joe’s nightclub on Bourbon Street, whose 1960s-era band featured luminaries such as Freddy Fender, Joe Barry, and Skip Easterling. Though not as well-known, Pennino made his musical bones at Papa Joe’s and was in fact that band’s longest-serving member. Fender once said of Pennino: “He blows a tenor sax in such a sweet, pleasant and unforgettable way. Nobody else can come up with anything so unique. Johnny’s sound is romantic. It is magical.” So magical that when Duke Ellington was brought to hear the young Italian stallion play on Bourbon Street in the 1960s, the Duke offered Pennino a job, asking: “Do you read music, son?”
But New Orleans’ pull was too strong on Pennino, and he stayed put, carrying the torches of Jumbo and Butera and continuing to play with an otherworldly fire-and-brimstone ferocity, yet with utter lyricism and beauty on tour-de-force power ballads such as “Europa.” Pennino’s voice on saxophone is completely unique, but then so is his shamefully undershowcased singing. His vocal rendition of Dean Martin’s “Return to Me” is incredibly sensuous, and his Elvis interpretations must have the King himself sitting up in his crypt and taking notice. But Pennino ultimately is a horn player who makes anyone’s band sound better, as evidenced by swamp-pop legend Johnnie Allan turning to me one night at a West Bank hideaway and asking in bewilderment: “WHO IS THAT GUY?” The Cajun icon was simply blown away by Pennino, who had just accompanied Allan on his own set—walking on totally unrehearsed and never having before met.
Injecting some intangible Mo-jo to the mix was John Dauenhauer on baritone sax, who is always a welcome sight wielding that bazooka-like piece of brass, which was key to the classic 1950s riffing ensemble horn sound, but which is rarely employed today—and sadly so. The titanic instrument’s notes are almost imperceptibly heard at first—hitting your gut and injecting a fat-bottomed groove to the wailing sound of the tenor above it. Thanks to Our Lady of Prompt Succor for the presence of John Dauenhauer on bari sax. He’s like a flambeaux carrier in a Mardi Gras parade: Just when you thought the tradition had died out, there he is with his big flame-throwing rig, bringing it all back home again.
Drummer Wally Rabalais is another unsung local veteran, having set a splendidly percussive tone with countless bands and frontmen like Bobby Lonero; Al Dressel and the Fugowees; and Midnight Streetcar. Rabalais is a rock-solid timekeeper but also surprises audiences with his own singing voice. For one second at Mo’s I thought Clarence “Frogman” Henry was in the house, exclaiming out of nowhere that he sang like a frog and had no home. Turns out it was Rabalais doing his dead-on Frogman impression from behind the drum kit. The legendary Frogman was hopefully enjoying some well-deserved relaxation on his front porch in Algiers, content to let his disciples do the singing.
The band entertained that Sunday with every genre of music, from cocktail-lounge warhorses to country two-steps, from Smiley Lewis’ “Someday” to Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee,” from Roland Stone’s “Just a Moment” to the classic 1950s doo-wop “We Belong Together.” And in true New Orleans fashion, a second-line erupted. Not a stomping parade of gator-popping buck-jumpers, but a procession of guest singers who stepped up to add their own unique spices to the mix. Owner Mo Crane’s brother Rene—a kindly venerable figure with billowy snow-white hair and a blood-red guayabera shirt—took a turn at a couple of chestnuts, and then Mo himself—a man whose infectious lust for life is positively Viagra-like—stepped up to the microphone, shucking and jiving to Al Jolson and a totally romping version of “Gentle On My Mind.”
Mo’s Chalet: A musical oasis in Metairie that really delivers on its promise to “give the people what they want.”
The scene: An historic crossroads in Chalmette, where St. Bernard Highway meets Paris Road, under the unearthly, Mordor-like glow of the Chalmette Refinery, in a parish where so many ghosts still tiptoe on the fringes of our consciousness: French land barons. West African slaves. Canary Island fishermen. Creole dandies. Kaintuck riflemen. Bloodied British invaders. Sicilian truck farmers. Mobbed-up political bosses. At this crossroads sits a roadhouse that has operated under numerous names, in myriad incarnations: now called Old Brad’s Nite Life. It was there last Sunday evening that I took an unforgettable musical ride on a runaway R&B freight train: the Midnight Streetcar.
Led by an original Joker, bassist Cullen Landry, the Midnight Streetcar is firing on all cylinders in its mission to keep classic New Orleans rock and roll alive and kicking. This night featured a double-barreled vocal attack: St. Bernard native son Phat 2′sDay, a jump-blues specialist whose booming bellow shines on Big Joe Turner and Smiley Lewis shouters; and then Laurin Munsch, possibly the closest thing we have left to the “Tan Canary,” Mr. Johnny Adams.
Munsch sings in a rich tenor that suddenly and effortlessly swoops and flutters heavenward into a spine-tingling upper register that breaks the sound barrier to nail his versions of Tan Canary classics such as “I Won’t Cry” and “Reconsider Me.” Sonic celestial orgasm, and then diving back down to the terra firma of his sweet tenor voice. It is simply criminal that a vocal talent like Munsch’s is not playing the Ritz-Carlton or the Blue Room. And Munsch is a seasoned showman, wandering amid the packed dancefloor and tables with a cordless microphone and coaxing out sing-alongs. But then, this man is a pure professional, having honed his natural talent over many years in mainstay Metairie nightclubs like Chesterfield’s and Critic’s Choice.
And as if that weren’t enough, the band featured a third big-time vocalist in the form of its electric pianist, Al Farrell. A star in his own right, this man can play and sing Ray Charles in his sleep, delighting the audience with his muscular tenor on “What I’d Say” and “Georgia.” A true towering talent. James Booker is dead, Huey Smith is dormant, but New Orleans has not yet run out of piano professors while Al Farrell continues to tinkle the ivories.
And throughout this musical journey stood the Streetcar conductor, the wiry visionary Cullen Landry, silently plucking away at his standup bass, his silver hair and ruddy face shrouded in shadow but clearly transported to another realm by the music of his youth as he anchored down the groove of his musical henchmen.
The band was fleshed out by other solid, standout players such as Larry Simpson on saxophone, Willie Panker on drums, and Nat Montalbano on guitar. Who else would you want to have cranking out all the New Orleans classics? And it was a magical night filled with a hit parade of New Orleans’ rich musical tapestry of the 1950s and ’60s.
Later that evening, I thought back to the classic Preservation Hall band lineups of the 1960s and ’70s. The musicians in those bands—like clarinetist George Lewis, trombonist Jim Robinson, and trumpeter Percy Humphrey—were children playing at the feet of the jazz originators (Bolden, Armstrong, Morton, Bechet) when they created that earth-shaking sound in the early 1900s. And we know that band today as the real deal. Likewise, Cullen Landry and his cohorts were once pimply teenagers playing at the feet of the rock originators—the heroes of their youth like Guitar Slim, Fats Domino, and Lloyd Price—at the CYO dances at St. Anthony’s, St. Dominic, and Germania Hall. Today we know Midnight Streetcar as the real deal in New Orleans R&B. Go see them.
On Saturday night, exactly 54 years after he headlined the St. Francis County Fair in Forrest City, Arkansas, alongside Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Floyd Cramer, Sun rockabilly Eddie Bond took the stage at the Center for Southern Folklore‘s Memphis Music & Heritage Festival.
At the fifth annual Ponderosa Stomp, Bond was backed by Deke Dickerson and the Eccofonics, along with special guest guitarist (and one-time Bond protege) Travis Wammack. Saturday, he played with a group of Middleton, Tennessee country musicians, including an unknown hotshot guitarist disguised in a Hawaiian shirt and glasses.
Bond, a showman responsible for the phenomenal 1956 b-side “Rockin’ Daddy” and the 1973 pop culture hit “The Ballad of Buford Pusser” who cranked out the hits even as he pulled double-duty hosting several popular Memphis TV shows, took the stage inside the Center’s Folklore Hall wearing his trademark yellow blazer and played “Rockin’ Daddy” — twice!
Go here to read my Memphis Flyer feature about the changing face of the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, which lost two perennial performers, Stomp alum Billy Lee Riley and famed producer Jim Dickinson, in recent weeks.
From the article:
When I caught up with Center for Southern Folklore director Judy Peiser a week before festival time, she had a heavy heart. Upon pausing to contemplate the gaping holes caused by the absence of the ever-dependable Riley and Dickinson, she said:
“Things are definitely mutating. It’s gotten so hard to do a festival every year because of the people who aren’t there anymore, people who had a major effect on what we do. I grew up listening to the music I started presenting, and now I’m presenting music that’s one generation removed. People like Jim and Billy Lee weren’t playing off records — they were playing off life.”
Peiser sighed, recalling moments she spent with Dickinson, co-producing bluesman Mose Vinson’s solo CD Piano Man. She remembered the blues sets that Riley often delivered, peppered with his classic Sun rockabilly hits such as “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” and “Red Hot.” She sounded dismayed at the thought of anyone other than Thomas, the minstrel performer turned Stax Records mainstay — billed as “the World’s Oldest Teenager,” he died in 2001, when he was 84 years old — performing “The Funky Chicken.”
“Life goes on,” Peiser finally said. “Sure, there was Michelangelo, but there were also a lot of people after him.”