Margaret Lewis Warwick’s soulful country ballad “Reconsider Me,” penned by Warwick and RAM label owner Mira Smith, reflects the hours the songwriting duo spent together honing a mournful, intimate interplay of voice and guitar. The world-weary lyrics and Warwick’s forlorn, wistful vocal fit like hand in glove with the echoing guitar lines.
Ironically, the pair’s low-key version would set the stage for musical-chart fireworks when interpreted by heavy-hitting vocalists. Country-music legend Narvel Felts, for one, scored a No. 2 hit with his version released in 1975, following earlier attempts by fellow twangsters Ray Pillow and John Wesley Ryles. However, perhaps the version most beloved by local music fans floated from the angelic voice of New Orleans’ own “Tan Canary,” soul titan Johnny Adams, whose soaring 1969 waxing was his biggest hit, peaking at #8 on the American R&B charts and #28 on the pop charts.
Adams isn’t the only Louisiana legend to take on “Reconsider Me.” The recently deceased Jimmy Elledge, who at age 18 burst onto the scene with his Chet Atkins-produced take on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” tackled the song late in his career on a self-released CD. A pianist with a multi-octave vocal range, Elledge delivered perhaps the only take spine-tingling enough to rival the Tan Canary’s.
But tonight, July 17th, at 6 p.m. at the Old U.S. Mint is your chance to hear the original co-composer re-create her version as only she can. Mira Smith has passed, but come see Margaret Lewis Warwick tonight in a presentation by the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation and The Friends of the Cabildo. She will be accompanied by a band that includes Monroe musician Kenny Bill Stinson, known for his dead-on imitation of “The Killer,” Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as for his stint in Louisiana supergroup Lil’ Band o’ Gold.
“Shreveport could have been another Nashville.” So declares singer, songwriter, and music entrepreneur Margaret Lewis, the West Texas-born songbird who got her first big start in 1957 with an invitation to appear on the Louisiana Hayride. The glory days of the nationally broadcast Hayride – which launched the careers of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Johnny Horton, Kitty Wells, and countless others – are over, but you can catch Lewis, now known as Margaret Lewis Warwick, at this Tuesday’s edition of Heroes of Louisiana Music at the Mint.
In Shreveport, Lewis formed a partnership with the equally legendary Mira Smith, a songwriter and guitarist who owned the local label RAM (short for “Royal Audio Music”). Between 1959 and 1961 Lewis cut numerous country and rockabilly singles on RAM, including “Cheaters Never Win” and “Shake a Leg,” and later signed with Capitol. She and her sister toured as backup singers for Dale Hawkins, performing on some of his Chess sides. She also forged a songwriting partnership with Smith, hitting with “I Almost Called Your Name” for Margaret Whiting and “Mountain of Love” for David Houston.
In 1966 the duo moved to Nashville, signing on with Shelby Singleton’s SSS Productions and cranking out a slew of major hits: “Soul Shake” for Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson; “Country Girl” for Jeannie C. Riley; “Wedding Cake” for Connie Francis; and the country-soul classic “Reconsider Me,” which charted for New Orleans’ own Johnny Adams as well as Narvel Felts. Lewis has had more than 100 songs cut by artists such as Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Conway Twitty, and two of her songs are included on the 2005 Grammy-winning compilation Night Train to Nashville.
Lewis married Smith’s cousin, Alton Warwick, in 1981 and eventually returned to Shreveport, where her efforts helped spare the fabled Municipal Auditorium from the wrecking ball. She has served as chairwoman of the Louisiana Music Commission, and in 2009 she received the Offbeat magazine award for lifetime achievement. She currently performs with her group The Thunderbolts and most recently produced the Louisiana Hayride’s Bicentennial Bash.
With Tropical Storm Lee having battered the central Gulf Coast, specifically south Louisiana, for all of Labor Day weekend, today’s Song of the Day continues the rain theme, with three versions of “Raining in My Heart” by Excello-related artists (or their sidemen) who will be appearing at this month’s 10th annual Ponderosa Stomp. First up, the Excello swamp bluesman who created the anthem, Slim Harpo. Though Harpo is now jamming in that great jukejoint in the sky, Harpo’s primary guitar players — James Johnson and Rudy Richard — are both scheduled to appear at the Stomp’s Excello reunion this year. According to musicologist John Broven in his book “South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous”:
“Rainin’ in My Heart” changed everything for Slim. For a start, The Cash Box warmed to the record: “Slow moaning, earthy blues proves the artist’s meat as he takes the tune for a tuneful ride. A real weeper.” … The mesmerizing “Rainin’ in My Heart” more than justified the reviewer’s optimism. After climbing the R&B charts the record crossed over to the popular ratings and reached No. 34 on the Billboard 100 in the summer of 1961.
Warren Storm, left, with fellow swamp-pop legends, the siblings Van Broussard and Grace Broussard
Next up, a version by brother Warren Storm, who logged many an hour in Jay Miller’s legendary Crowley recording studio playing drums on records by Lazy Lester and other artists with the likes of fellow hired guns: pianists Carol Fran (appearing at the Stomp this year) and Katie Webster; bassist Bobby McBride; guitarists Guitar Gable, Al Foreman, and Pee Wee Trahan; and fiddler/bassist Rufus Thibodeaux, among others. Here is Storm’s own version of “Rainin’ in My Heart”:
And finally, here is a live 1989 version of “Rainin’ in My Heart” by Ponderosa Stomp inspiration Lazy Lester, looking as resplendent as ever in a red Dixie beer baseball cap, now a collector’s item in the wake of the landmark Tulane Avenue brewery’s decimation by Hurricane Katrina and looters galore. We still have a tear in our beer over Dixie’s relocation above the Mason-Dixon line to Wisconsin, which now brews the beverage (presumably) sans its key ingredient of muddy Mississippi River water:
“GG gave me his notice. He wanted to start his own group. … An artist with the talent of a GG Shinn does not need to share the money 12 ways.” – Boogie Kings bandleader Ned Theall, recounting Shinn’s exit from the group
It was 1966 when singer-trumpeter GG Shinn split from the Boogie Kings. But his legacy with Louisiana’s longest-running rock ‘n’ roll band is so strong that his spirit never really left. His short-but-indelible stint, during which time he fueled a power-packed vocal tandem with Jerry Lacroix, is still considered the group’s apex. And that’s saying something, given the cavalcade of great singers who’ve done tours of duty within the BK ranks, like Clint West, Tommy McLain, Lil’ Alfred Babino, Duane Yates, Allen Wayne, and Gregg Martinez, to name just a few. Shinn and his monstrous vocal chops make their welcome return to this year’s 10th annual Ponderosa Stomp.
GG Shinn and Jerry LaCroix, the King Brothers
In its heyday the twin Shinn-Lacroix vocal attack drew admiration even from megastars. “The Righteous Brothers really were in awe of GG and Jerry. Bill [Medley] and Bobby [Hatfield] have made many public comments about the talent of these two guys,” Theall recalled. Dubbing themselves “the King Brothers,” Shinn and Lacroix teamed up on numerous duets like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Let It Be Me.” It was their unbridled artistry and soul that lifted the Boogie Kings – as tight and musically proficient as the musicians themselves were – from mere cover band to something loftier.
As Theall added:
“The two years that we had GG and Jerry as a team molded the sound and style of the band as we totally broke away from the old sound of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. These two guys were so strong that many of our fans think that this was the ‘original’ Boogie Kings. They made such a huge impact on our success that it simply can’t be measured. … The odd thing about them is their contrasting styles. GG has this sweet, pure, smooth voice with a dramatic high register, and Jerry has a rough, get-down-and-dirty, soulful voice. But the two of them together would make the most beautiful blend of rhythm and blues music that the Boogie Kings have ever had.”
And once a Boogie King, always a Boogie King, as evidenced by Shinn’s reappearances with the group during modern-day reunion shows. But who is GG Shinn? Quite frankly, his full story has yet to be told. But Shinn was born Aug. 25, 1939, and hails from Franklin, La., where in 1956 he formed his first band, the Flat Tops. By 1963 he was recruited into the Boogie Kings, which had been founded in 1955 in Eunice, La., by Doug Ardoin, Bert Miller, and Harris Miller. The band played everywhere around Louisiana and east Texas, gaining in notoriety particularly at the Bamboo Club in Lake Charles and the Big Oaks club in Vinton near the Texas border, the latter club drawing a young Janis Joplin as a patron.
The Boogie Kings at their peak in 1965, with Jerry LaCroix and GG Shinn.
According to Theall: “We played at the Big Oaks every weekend and the crowds were tremendous. One had to be 21 years old in Texas to purchase liquor, but in Louisiana, one only had to be 18. The club was located about a half mile from the Texas border, so the kids would come over in droves to get boozed up.”
Floyd Soileau of Ville Platte’s Jin label hired the band to record their first album, titled “Clint West and the Fabulous Boogie Kings,” which included the West vocal showcase “The Twelfth of Never.” But by 1965 West split from the Boogie Kings, and Texas singer Jerry LaCroix joined. As Theall tells it: “The band’s only competition was a band called ‘Jerry and the Dominos.’ We were wiping them out so badly that Jerry gave up his band and called me for a job with the Boogie Kings. I hated for that to happen because we really admired Jerry’s band. But then again, I was very happy to have the opportunity to work with Jerry. We had 11 pieces already, but I hired him anyway because of his enormous talent.”
Recalling the first time he heard the Boogie Kings, Lacroix noted:
“It was like a freight train coming through that room! These guys had five tenor saxophones, a couple of trumpets, a Hammond B-3 organ and one of those Louisiana drummers. They were playing all of that what is now called swamp pop music back then. Fats Domino, Bobby Charles, Louisiana-style music. These guys were really super powerful. They were great. So, after our band kind of disbanded, all of my friends went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. So, I said if I can’t lick these guys I’ll join them. I called up Ned [Theall], the leader of the band, and asked him if he could use another singer. He said, ‘Come on.’ There were three lead singers and all the horn players sang like black chicks in a gospel choir. They had beautiful voices. It was just an incredible band.”
A chance encounter with Sam Montel of Baton Rouge, who had been the force behind Dale and Grace of “I’m Leaving It Up to You” and “Stop and Think It Over,” led to a recording session at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans. The resulting album, “Sam Montel Presents the Boogie Kings,” includes the key tracks that cemented Shinn’s place in the annals of Louisiana rhythm and blues. Rich with Shinn’s jaw-dropping vocal gymnastics, those songs include “The Crying Man,” “Fever,” “Funny How Times Slips Away,” “Harlem Shuffle,” and “Devil of a Girl” (the latter penned by Morgan City rockabilly swamp-popper Vince Anthony Guzzetta).
By May 1966, the Boogie Kings scored an extended gig in Lake Tahoe, Nev., and according to Theall, “this was to be the last major appearance of the GG and Jerry team.” In 2010, Shinn told the Houston Chronicle: “I left the band because I wanted a small band that could travel better. That big band, it was just too expensive to move around.” Shinn formed a group called the Roller Coasters, which released the infamous “Putt-Putt” album, whose cover featured a trumpet-blowing, suit-wearing Shinn fronting a seven-piece ensemble (including two drum kits) set up on a miniature golf course.
Below is an audio recording of Shinn playing the 1968 Port Sulphur High School prom in Plaquemines Parish during this Roller Coasters period of his career, performing dynamic versions of the Temptations’ “Get Ready” and Glenn Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman.”
According to the Houston Chronicle:
In 1966, he put the Roller Coasters together and Lacroix joined him about a year later. The band was together for “two or three years,” Shinn recalled.
The Roller Coasters did shows up and down the Gulf Coast and played in Miami a lot, he said. “That was fun. Those days are gone.”
Shinn and Lacroix went separate ways. Shinn joined a jazz-rock fusion band called Chase, which produced two albums in the early 1970s. Shinn joined Chase in the middle of the recording session for the second album, “Ennea,” which was released in 1972.
As told by Theall in his inimitable style:
G.G. Shinn had replaced the lead vocalist in the Chase band. Their vocalist had split when the song “Get It On” went all the way to No. 1. Sound familiar? I knew Bill Chase personally. He was a brilliant trumpet player and a great person. I went to the first rehearsal of the band Chase. I remember it well, because Bill forgot his mouthpiece, and I loaned him mine. GG did the vocals on Chase’s second album. It was a masterpiece of an album, but it did not go anywhere. Shortly after the second album was released, Bill Chase was killed in a plane crash, and the world lost a great trumpet player and a wonderful man. Rest in peace, my brother. GG’s big opportunity was delayed by an act of fate. But he was lucky not to be in the plane with Bill.
Although the first Chase album sold nearly 400,000 copies, “Ennea” was not as well-received by the public. One likely reason was a shift away from trumpet sections. A single, “So Many People,” received some radio play, but the side-two-filling “Ennea” suite, with its tightly chorded jazz arrangements and lyrics based on Greek mythology, was less radio-friendly.
Shinn toured with Chase, even traveling to Japan, and YouTube videos of that tour capture Shinn’s overwhelming vocal power for posterity. Though Bill Chase is dead, the group’s members still perform together at reunion gigs.
According to the Houston Chronicle: “Shinn formed a band called T.S.C. Trucking Company and spent time in Las Vegas. That band lasted for about 15 years.” According to guitarist Gerry Mouton’s Web site bio: “While Gerry was with G.G., they played all over the country. Beaumont, Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Little Rock, Panama City, Nashville, Memphis, Louisville, Iowa City, Denver, Aspen, Monroe, Jackson, Biloxi, Ruston, Joplin and more places than Gerry can remember.” The band likely also included Boogie King/White Trash sax player Jon Smith and future Toto singer Bobby Kimball at one time or another. Shinn also has played with Luther Kent, who said of GG: “Always loved singing with GG. We did a few gigs with the Chicken Hawks, also with the Boogie Kings. GG is one of the greatest vocalists I’ve ever heard!!!!!!!”
Shinn “returned to Louisiana in 1986 and opened up a nightclub in Lake Charles,” according to the Chronicle. “He got married and moved north to Monroe, when he opened another club. Now he has a club in Alexandria, which coincidentally is the town where Lacroix was born.”
In 1992, Shinn formed a veritable supergroup with fellow Louisiana legends John Fred Gourrier of “Judy in Disguise” fame and country-music artist Joe Stampley, a north Louisianian whose 1960s group the Uniques scored a regional hit with a cover of the Allen Toussaint composition “All These Things” and landed on “American Bandstand.” Performing as the Louisiana Boys, the trio also recorded a 1997 album of the same name, produced by Howard Cowart, who played the famous bass line on “Judy in Disguise.”
In 2000, Shinn released a great album on Gary Edwards’ Sound of New Orleans label, titled “You Can Never Keep a Good Man Down.” Shinn is joined by an all-star cast of Crescent City R&B masters, including drummer Harry Ravain (a former latter-day Boogie King), pianist Al Farrell, guitarist Allen Poche, and tenor saxist Jerry Jumonville. Standout tracks include the title song as well as a version of “Two Steps From the Blues” that’s a dead ringer for Bobby “Blue” Bland, and a scorching rendition of Danny White’s “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (with blazing guitar work from Poche).
If you’re ever in Alexandria, GG’s nightclub is the hottest spot in town, though one gets the impression that most patrons have little to no idea of the owner’s musical pedigree. Just make sure the legend is performing on the night you go. The club also brings in acts like Cajun accordionist Wayne Toups, soul icon Percy Sledge, swamp-pop singers like Warren Storm and TK Hulin, and country and cover bands, though the focus of the mostly under-40 crowd seems to be on dancing to the DJ’s tunes. While you’re there, pick up a copy of GG’s “Christmas with GG Shinn” CD, in which Shinn breathes brand-new soul into those sometimes-tired holiday standards. You can also catch GG singing around the state and in Texas at festivals and clubs, where he often team ups with TK Hulin to re-create the electric duets of his “King Brothers” days. With Boogie Kings bandleader Ned Theall having died in 2010 after a final Boogie Kings CD that included GG on several tracks, that band’s future is up in the air, though original founder Doug Ardoin is now fronting a new lineup. What’s not up in the air is that GG Shinn remains one of Louisiana’s most powerful singers. If you have any doubts about what blue-eyed soul is all about, catch him at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp. GG will school you.
Today’s Song of the Day is the musical epic that inspired young Cajun-rock revivalists Steve Riley and C.C. Adcock to form the supergroup Lil’ Band o’ Gold in the late 1990s. As regular attendees of swamp-pop elder statesman Warren Storm’s Lafayette lounge performances, the duo was captivated by the singer’s powerhouse interpretation of one song in particular: “Seven Letters,” originally done by Ben E. King of “Stand By Me” fame. Storm had originally made noise around Acadiana with the song in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s midlife of his career, releasing it on his Jin-label album “Heart and Soul,” which was produced in Nashville by Bob Hendricks and Jay Jackson (reportedly with backing by some members of country megagroup Alabama, though this is unverified). After requesting the song from Storm innumerable times, Riley and Adcock decided to form LBOG, with the masterstroke move of getting Storm singing behind the drum kit once more – a duty Storm had forsaken because he was simply tired of lugging the things around at his age.
One of Storm’s most popular vocal tour-de-forces, the version above was video-recorded at New Orleans’ Chickie Wah-Wah club in April 2010, with Storm’s drum kit up close and personal onstage and Adcock’s introduction of “This is the best song in the world right here.”
Comparing and contrasting this live version with the original studio cut above, the listener will marvel at how Storm’s voice has aged with amazing grace, mellowing like the finest Tennessee whiskey in an oaken cask, yet retaining (and even deepening) his trademark stentorian soulfulness. Storm has indeed come a long way since he cut “The Prisoner’s Song” in the late 1950s and walked into Graceland one day to witness his hero Elvis Presley sitting at a piano and launching into the young Cajun’s hit in a Kingly tip of the hat.
Lil’ Band o’ Gold’s studio version of “Seven Letters” also is well-worth a listen, kicking it up a notch with Richard Comeaux’s wailing pedal-steel guitar, soaring like Evangeline’s ghost across the wind-swept Cajun prairie.
Don’t miss Warren Storm at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp – singing and bashing away at the drums in his unique style that is inspired by not only New Orleans’ Earl Palmer but also Cosimo session drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams. For more about Storm’s musical dalliances with the likes of Lily Allen, Robert Plant, and Elvis Costello, click here.
In those halcyon pre-Katrina New Orleans nights of early 2005, a mysterious stranger and his comely companion stepped into the Circle Bar to the country and rockabilly rhythms of Michael Hurtt and the Haunted Hearts. A circle jerk of mutual admiration ensued as the club’s patrons slowly realized that this intense itinerant was no ordinary straggler but none other than the legendary Hunter S. Thompson, and the ailing “Gonzo” journalist himself realized that the country-fried sounds he was drinking in were every bit as soul-satisfying as the glass of Chivas Regal before him.
“We were playing at the Circle Bar in early January, and the bartender came up and told me that Hunter S. Thompson was in the audience and that I should dedicate a song to him,” explains Michael Hurtt, singer and rhythm guitarist for the aptly named Michael Hurtt And His Haunted Hearts. “I assumed he didn’t want anyone to know who he was, but apparently he was introducing himself to everyone. So I said, ‘From a bunch of broke writers and artists to someone who has actually done something with his life, this one’s for you, baby!’ And then we played something salacious and dirty-some screwed up but catchy double entendre.” Thompson was clad in matching red Western-style shirt and pants that night, appropriate dress for the show, according to the rock ‘n’ roll hillbilly band’s front man (and OffBeat contributor), currently cast as an extra in an Elvis movie.
“He was in town, writing something for Playboy about ‘All The Kings Men,’” says Hurtt. ‘He said, ‘West Coast hillbilly music, that’s my thing!’ I had made these hand-drawn fliers for our Christmas show that had snowflakes on them. We ripped one down, and wrote our information on it. He said he could get Sean Penn to cast us in the movie, but we had already auditioned for it. … Well, we went out of town for a few days, and when I got back there was a message on my machine from one of the girls he was with. She said, quote, ‘He’s prone to outbursts. There’s something about that flier and that lettering …’ The flier had become a kind of talisman that had a calming effect on him, enough to get him to focus and to write.” As reported by Hurtt, Thompson had lost the flier (supposedly while engaging in illicit activities with Jude Law and Sean Penn), was tearing apart his hotel room looking for it and needed another one to finish the article. “It was surreal, but somehow it made perfect sense. I was honored that he loved something I hand drew in 20 minutes at my kitchen table, not to mention the music.” … “Of course it sucks that Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide,” explains Hurtt as an addendum to the interview. “But the day after we met Hunter S. Thompson, we were playing in Memphis. Jim Dandy, the lead singer of Black Oak Arkansas, was up front, going nuts in leather chaps. Hopefully we’ll continue to draw a diverse audience.”
“Sometimes he’d be screaming, but there were these mournful, sad, quiet outrages. When he was screaming, you felt that at least there was some life going on there, but he’s get these faraway teary stares. … I saw him three or four times with tears in his eyes for no reason. Suddenly the mission became ‘How do we cheer him up?’ We had only limited success, but there were moments. We went to the Circle Bar in Lee Circle. There was a bluegrass fusion band there, and Hunter loved them. He would sit at the bar, and the bartender knew Hunter’s work and was giving him free drinks and the VIP treatment. We had a wonderful night. He couldn’t walk, but he was dancing in his seat and whooping and doing his Iroquois war cheers in the air.”
From the New York Post:
January 15, 2005 — HUNTER S. Thompson is 67, but he still throws some pretty wild parties. Sean Penn, Jude Law and Johnny Knoxville attended a debauched bash in Thompson’s New Orleans hotel suite, where lines of cocaine, piles of pot and bottles of Chivas Regal were laid out on Thompson’s coffee table. Penn and Law are in the Big Easy filming “All The King’s Men,” a political drama inspired by the life of demagogic Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long. We’re told that Penn flew in his pal Thompson to write a piece about the movie for Playboy and that attendees took turns reading passages from Thompson’s work aloud to stir his creative juices.
His last visit was just about a month ago, and he was in good spirits. He reportedly was covering the filming of “All the King’s Men,” but he also found time to head down to Magazine Street to buy a shave at Aidan Gill for Men and a seersucker suit at Perlis Clothing. One night at the Circle Bar, he happened upon a set by Mike Hurtt & the Haunted Hearts and the band’s set of hillbilly rock and country made him ecstatic — so much so that he took a copy of the band’s flyer and promised Hurtt to try to get his music into “All the King’s Men.”
“He’s got that Kentucky blood in him,” [Doug] Brinkley says. “If you put on Earl Scruggs or Bill Monroe, Hunter would get physically all up. He loved that sound.”
If you’d like to get a taste of the sound that captured the savage heart of Hunter S. Thompson in those dark days before his own bizarre, untimely death, come catch Michael Hurtt and his Haunted Hearts as they back Jay Chevalier and other music legends at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp. P.S. To learn how New Orleans piano genius James Booker’s organ-driven opus “Gonzo” reportedly inspired Thompson to name his style of journalism “Gonzo,” click here and here.
Swamp-pop pioneer Ernie Suarez, otherwise known as Roy “Boogie Boy” Perkins, makes a triumphant return to the 2011 Ponderosa Stomp after several years’ absence. No doubt he won’t get away without rendering his Meladee-label tear-jerking dirge, “You’re on My Mind,” one of the earliest swamp-pop records.
But as today’s Song of the Day – “Ba Da” – attests, Perkins could do a lot more than just cry in his beer. As a bass player with Bobby Page and the Riff-Raffs, Perkins and gang, which also featured sax players Jimmy “Scatman” Patin and Harry Simoneaux, recorded for Mira Smith’s Shreveport-based Ram label under various aliases. The stellar reissue of this material on the UK’s Ace label allows the modern-day listener to enjoy pounding rockers like “Red Beans & Rice,” “Hippy-Ti-Yo,” and “Drop Top” (the latter of which recently surfaced in the background of a Yoplait yogurt commercial), as well as swampy ballads like “Just Another Lie” and “That’s What the Mailman Had to Say,” which evoke Perkins’”You’re On My Mind.”
The ashes of “Last Chance” singer Allen Collay made their long journey home to The Max lounge in Metry one Sunday afternoon in 2010, housed in a silver urn etched with a piano’s image, set onstage next to an unopened bottle of his beloved Heineken beer. Collay died – appropriately enough for a New Orleans R&B legend – on Fat Tuesday but – unlike kindred spirit Antoinette K-Doe a year earlier – 800 miles north in illness-imposed exile.
Numerous former bandmates of the soulful St. Bernard Parish singer-pianist turned out to pay tribute at the Woodlawn Avenue lounge, site of Collay’s last musical stand before deteriorating health forced his move to the remote town of Mexico, Mo., in 2000. Joining in the festivities — which served as the jazz funeral Collay always wanted — were legions of admirers who could probably remember Collay from any number of contexts: his childhood Sunday-afternoon singing stints in the 1950s with Dixieland clarinetist Tony Almerico’s band at the Parisian Room; his 1959 smash tearjerker, “Last Chance”; his 1980s flirtation with stardom as a member of gold-record country-rock supergroup Atlanta; and his eventual return home to Louisiana after decades of exile, where he mesmerized nightclub crowds from the French Quarter (in spots such as Jaeger’s House of Seafood and the Al Hirt-owned Jelly Roll’s) to Metairie (at the original Chalet, later replaced by Mo’s Chalet after a fire).
It was at the Chalet in particular that Collay’s music had burned into the brain cells of many a local music lover. Hang out long enough at any Metairie watering hole catering to the older crowd and soon one gray-haired sentimentalist or another will start rhapsodizing about Collay’s sizzling sets at the Chalet’s late-night jam sessions. The line of brass players and other walk-ons would be stretched out the door waiting for a chance to join Collay and his R&B runnin’ pardners, like Roland “Stone” LeBlanc, Bobby Lonero, and Roy “Big Daddy” Wagner.
A cousin of swamp-pop legend Joe “Barry” Barrios, Collay was born Allen Callais in 1943 and grew up “down the road” from New Orleans in Violet. Starting out as a guitarist, he formed the Satellites, which cut his most well-known song, the teenage lover’s lament “Last Chance,” at Cosimo’s studio in 1959. Released on Sho-Biz records, the single hit #82 on the national pop charts, backed by the guitar-driven “Little Girl Next Door,” which writer Michael Hurtt calls “a raving rocker that has since become a cult classic on the underground rockabilly scene.”
According to New Orleans pianist Al Farrell of the Midnight Streetcar band, “Last Chance” was recorded on a particularly memorable night in Louisiana history: Halloween 1959. Collay had just split with the Satellites to enlist with Farrell’s Counts and was due to join them at a club that night. But before he could make that gig, he had a song to wax – a job he had promised to the Satellites. After the session, when Collay finally showed up to play with the Counts, a roar exploded from the crowd. Farrell assumed the audience was excited to see Collay. In short, no: Turns out Billy Cannon had just returned his legendary punt for 89 yards against Ole Miss at Tiger Stadium, breaking seven tackles to lead #1 LSU to a 7-3 victory over the #3 Rebels and an eventual national championship – a gridiron milestone immortalized by Ponderosa Stomp favorite Jay Chevalier in his rockabilly opus “Billy Cannon.”
In all, Collay released several 45s produced by Allen Toussaint and Mac Rebennack for ShoBiz, Instant, and Ace. “Nice eight-piece arrangements,” Collay told pianist Tom McDermott in a 1997 profile. “I think they still hold up.”
By the 1960s, fate swept Collay to Atlanta, where he stayed for 30 years, during which time he made the self-taught switch from guitar to piano. In the ’80s he hit a career peak in joining the nine-piece band Atlanta, which he described as “country-rock with Four Freshmen-style harmonies, which got the big push … before music industry wrangling tore the band apart.” The group made two albums on MCA and scored gold records via tunes such as “Sweet Country Music,”“Atlanta Burned Again Last Night,” and “Dixie Dreaming.”
By the early 1990s Collay had returned to the New Orleans area, living for a time on a St. Bernard relative’s houseboat at Delacroix Island, and resumed playing in the place where his career had begun – only this time as a “piano professor” in the Mac Rebennack/Ronnie Barron/Skip Easterling mold.
Allen Collay tinkles the keys at Andrew Jaeger's now-defunct House of Seafood in the French Quarter
By 1997, Collay was the featured entertainer at Andrew Jaeger’s House of Seafood in the French Quarter, playing up to five nights a week in a trio with longtime Dr. John drummer Freddie Staehle and bassist Paul Walter, supplemented by sit-in visitors such as trumpeters Jack Fine and Charlie Miller, and saxophonist Jerry Jumonville. Collay’s repertoire, described by profiler McDermott, was “Ray Charles meets New Orleans, with big helpings of Brother Ray and Mac and lesser portions of James Booker, Oscar Peterson and Nat Cole.”
But Collay was in his element playing to Metairie’s “late-night” subculture at the Critic’s Choice lounge in a gig that would run weekend nights from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. A hut-like dive with its particle-board walls and high-school graduation photos adorning the back room, Critic’s Choice was a magnet for a stunning array of old-school characters who were still young enough to ramble all night long on their steady diets of nicotine, booze, and music: The toupéed Frankie from Frankie and Johnnie’s furniture store (“Go see the Special Man”); longtime Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop pianist Johnny Gordon; the trumpet-playing Irish cut-up Al McCrossen; and former flamboyant Metairie nightclub owner/singer Frankie Brent, then in the grips of a musculoskeletal disorder that seemed to have twisted his body in perpetual pain – yet he still occasionally took the mike to sing a hair-raising version of “These Arms of Mine.” Any number of musicians – whether pros or merely amateurs with one or two standards to sing – would show up to jam till the sun came up, with Collay cracking jokes or crying out “Play some Dixie!” to egg the guest soloist on.
Collay’s local performance schedule peaked in the late 1990s with an appearance at the French Quarter Festival. Chef Jaeger also opened a supper club a block away from his restaurant and featured Collay leading a “history of New Orleans music” revue with players such as Staehle, chanteuse Ellen Smith, bassists David Lee Watson and Al Arthur, and guitarist Cranston Clements. But by then Collay’s health began to sour, dogged by diabetes and mini-strokes. The Max lounge in Metairie was the site of Collay’s final regular music residency, a weekend graveyard shift with a tight jazzy trio featuring Staehle on drums and Ray Shall on Hammond organ.
Numerous guests dropped in on Collay’s late-night sessions, but one illustrious visitor stands out in particular. His former producer, Allen Toussaint, happened to be attending an anniversary showing of Stevenson Palfi’s film “Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together” at the New Orleans Museum of Art. This writer approached Toussaint – aware that the funk master had produced Collay’s early singles – and floated Collay’s name. His eyes leapt. “Where is he playing?” Toussaint asked, looking around almost frantically to borrow a pen for directions to The Max. When I finally showed up there hours later, I heard from awed witnesses that Toussaint had indeed just left the building after checking out his former protégé’s first set.
Allen Collay with WWOZ DJ Billy Delle at Collay's 2004 benefit
The ailing Collay then moved north to Missouri with his girlfriend, and soon his health problems reached a new low when both legs had to be amputated. Collay returned to New Orleans in August 2004 for a benefit to help defray his expenses. A who’s who of New Orleans musicians showed up to take the stage at the Harahan Lions Club, led by Frankie Ford and Skip Easterling. Now gone, Collay is truly an unsung hero of New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll, and “one that got away” from the Ponderosa Stomp.
For Michael Hurtt’s Offbeat magazine profile of Allen Collay, click here.
Ponderosa Stomp fans know that the most magical sounds often emanate from the most primitive of conditions. Take, for instance, the flood of hits that flowed from the legendary 15-by-16-foot hole in the wall that comprised Cosimo Matassa’s original J&M recording studio on Rampart Street. The same with Eddie Shuler’s tiny Goldband studio, which he opened in the rear of his TV repair shop in Lake Charles. The landmark songs recorded in just those two Looziana incubators – like Antoine Domino’s “The Fat Man,” Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do,” and Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” – mesmerize listeners almost because of their technical limitations, not in spite of them.
Jivin' Gene Bourgeois
Likewise, Jivin’ Gene, aka Gene Bourgeois, of Port Arthur, Texas, began his ascent to swamp-pop immortality by singing in the toilet. Not his greatest hit, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” but rather the equally swampy “Going Out With the Tide,” later covered by another Meaux protégé, Freddy Fender (here in a duet with Tommy McLain).
“He walked in with blue jeans and bare feet and kinda like Clark Kent’s version of Superman, with horn-rimmed glasses. And he wanted me to record his rock ‘n’ roll band. I told him I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but if he wanted to bring his band in, let’s get down to it. In the KPAC studio there was an old Magnecord in mono – you never heard of stereo in those days – and two pots and a toilet in the corner of the room. And he had to sing in the toilet. I had a big old RCA ribbon mike, a diamond-shaped thing, and I hung it up on the boom and put my amplifiers in a horseshoe shape. The drums had to be way back. I thought I was gonna have to put them out in the street before it was over ‘cause it was getting too loud. I called [Ville Platte’s Jin label owner] Floyd [Soileau], saying, ‘I think this guy has potential.’”
Soileau would release “Going Out With the Tide” as Jin 109 (backed with “Up, Up, and Away”), and it became a regional hit. Bourgeois confirms the story, but with a different twist. “Yeah, I really did sing in the shitter. But it was because I was so shy, I didn’t want anyone looking at me when I sang,” he told the 30 Days Out blogger.
In a separate post, 30 Days Out writes about the sonic effects of the commode in creating the plaintive swamp-pop sound (though apparently confusing “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” with “Going Out With the Tide”):
“My favorite Gene story was about the time they recorded ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’ at KPAC radio studios in Port Arthur. Gene used to get stage fright when he sang, even when the audience was only his band and a producer. So Huey stuck Gene in the men’s room along with a microphone and turned out the lights. The great echo you hear on the song came from that location – and it became a trademark of the great Texas-Meets-Louisiana swamp rock sound. Every time I think of Port Arthur, that tune begins to play in my brain: ‘Breaking up is hard to doooooooo/Making up is the thing to doooooooo.’”
Meaux and Soileau then booked a recording session for Jivin’ Gene at Jay Miller’s storied studio in Crowley, La., and it was there that Gene cut the definitive version of his most famous tune, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” which hit #69 on the Billboard charts in 1959. According to Soileau:
“It was about Gene’s wife problems. We did a Fats Domino-type thing and put the record out. Right away Huey started getting airplay on it in East Texas, and I got airplay on it down in this area, and things started happening. And Bill Hall still had his eyes open, and we made a deal with him to get it in on Mercury Records. And as a result his Big Bopper Music got the publishing on the original sides and that was his compensation. And Huey managed the artist and I had the record label and the record company, so I had my compensation. We had a three-way thing going there for a while, and Mercury took on with Jivin’ Gene and did fairly well with him.”
Gene went on to do further recording for Mercury, mostly in Nashville, even redoing a version of “Going Out With the Tide” – cum violins – that made The Cash Box listings in 1960. However, somewhere in the process the “swamp” got taken out of the swamp pop. As Warren Storm, whose own Nashville recordings sound slightly castrated compared with his Louisiana-recorded oeuvre, would tell Shane Bernard in “Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues” about his Music City studio experience:
“Oh yeah. It wasn’t swamp pop. It was more pop than anything else. … It was the Nashville sound, that’s where it was. Nashville. … It was mechanical because it was the Nashville sound. All the records that came out of there, it was the same music background.”
(Apparently Nashville producers found little need to turn to the outhouse as an acoustical accoutrement, what with Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, and Chet Atkins in house at any given time.)
Bourgeois would later record for Chess, Hall-Way, and TCF-Hall into the 1960s before dropping out of music for almost 20 years and working as an insulator – reportedly even plying his trade on the Alaskan pipeline like so many other Cajuns who have found work around the globe in the petroleum industry both on- and offshore. [See author Woody Falgoux's "Rise of the Cajun Mariners."]
By the 1980s, nostalgia for the past took hold, and the accolades began to pour in. Gene was inducted in 1993 into the Louisiana Hall of Fame (Lou Gabus’ precursor to the current hall) and the Museum of the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame in 1995, and he received the Louisiana Hall of Fame Living Legend Award in June 2003.
Jivin' Gene Bourgeois sings at a 2004 benefit at Pat's in Henderson, La.
In recent years Gene has joined forces with fellow East Texan Ken Marvel, a keyboardist and singer whose working band provides able backing for Bourgeois on his semi-regular gigs. However, as a bandleader in his own right, Marvel is not content, like so many other groups, to merely recycle the golden swamp-pop oldies in letter-perfect, note-for-note renditions. Yes, he pays tribute to the masters, but on his two CDs (“Mr. Swamp Pop” and “Swamp Pop Music”) Marvel has actually written numerous well-crafted original songs with mature themes, sung with passion and earnestness. And it doesn’t hurt that he uses a crack coonass band for his recording sessions (including Warren Storm, Wayne Toups, Jon Smith, Pat Breaux, Jason Parfait, Steve Grisaffe, Tony Ardoin, and Mike Burch, among others). Be sure to catch Marvel playing around East Texas’ Golden Triangle area or else at his occasional Louisiana appearances.
No longer reliant on the porcelain gods for acoustical succor, Jivin’ Gene has reunited with Floyd Soileau’s Jin label with a new CD, “It’s Never Too Late,” recorded at David Rachou’s La Louisianne studio in Lafayette and released in 2009. Gene wrote or co-wrote nearly every cut on the 14-song CD and is backed by Warren Storm on drums and rubboard, Ken Marvel on keys, and Rick Folse (son of legendary Vin Bruce band alumnus Pott Folse) on sax, among others.
Don’t miss Jivin’ Gene at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp. To buy tickets, click here. To learn more about this swamp-pop legend, read this and this.
Jivin' Gene's 2009 release on the Jin label, featuring his original songs and drumming by Warren Storm
Superstar Lily Allen celebrated her new lil' band o' gold (or was it a big blue diamond?) by hiring Lafayette supergroup Lil' Band o' Gold to play at her wedding June 11 in England
Being not quite our cup of tea musically, Allen won’t be gracing the Stomp lineup anytime soon, but her unabashed ardor for LBOG isn’t the first time the swampy ensemble has mesmerized Brit popsters. Several years ago Led Zeppelin vocal banshee Robert Plant joined LBOG to record two tracks (“It Keeps Rainin’” and “I’ve Been Around”) for the Fats Domino tribute CD “Goin’ Home,” capped by a live performance at Tipitina’s preceded by a storied soundcheck at which the Fat Man himself joined in with a microphone while nursing a few beers at the bar.
Then, in 2010, Elvis Costello took the stage with LBOG for a Bobby Charles tribute performance at the House of Blues’ Parish Room, singing “Big Boys Cry” and “Before I Grow Too Old,” joined on the latter by swamp-pop legend Tommy McLain.
How did a relative youngster like Allen, who wasn’t even old enough to buy a Guinness when LBOG released their first CD in 1999, hear of the group? According to the London Telegraph:
For the pop singer Lily Allen, it was while listening to the mix CDs that her fiancé Sam Cooper made her when they first dated a few summers back. “You can hear the experience they have in their amazing voices,” she says. Allen jokes that they have spent half their budget flying out all eight members of the group to play at their wedding. “It will be worth it,” she says. “They are already classic and it will be a good way of feeling like Tarka [Cordell, Sam's half-brother and the band's late producer] is there.”
Indeed, Allen apparently couldn’t contain her groupie-like excitement about the band’s impending arrival, tweeting: “Lil’ Band of Gold are coming to london !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Joined by Tommy McLain, the group made their London debut at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on June 14, screening their documentary film “The Promised Land: A Swamp-Pop Journey,” followed by a live performance showcasing songs from their newish CD of the same name on the Room 609 label.
How did the thick Cajun musical gumbo go down at the celebrity-filled reception at Allen’s Gloucestershire estate? Allen tweeted June 13: “I had the most amazing wedding, thank you to everyone who went to such extraordinary efforts to make it that way. Lil Band Of Gold were incredible and they’re playing Shepherd’s Bush Empire tomorrow, I urge you all to go go. And watch them.” She even went so far as to post a link so her fans could buy tickets to the London show.
Though we quibble with his mild criticism of “plodding instead of pounding,” writer Rick Pearson of This Is London scrawled this glowing review about LBOG’s performance in a piece titled “Lil’ Band O’ Gold are fabulous company”:
Say what you will about Lily Allen, but she has impeccable taste in wedding bands.
Lil’ Band O’ Gold, an eight-headed swamp-pop monster from deep Louisiana, played at the singer’s wedding on the weekend and last night came to west London for a rare live showing.
Their recent album, “The Promised Land”, is only their second in 11 years, and had you brought a cat with you to a far-from-full O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, there would easily have been room to swing it.
However, those that were in attendance – mostly men of a certain vintage – were first treated to a film of the band and then a triumphant, two-hour performance.
Songs turned over at a rapid pace, pinballing from raucous rhythm ‘n’ blues (“Teardrops”) to quivering country-rock (“I Don’t Wanna Know”). Vocal duties were shared, although drummer Warren Storm had the best pipes.
And the group were joined by crooner-cum-Catholic minister Tommy McLain, whose gravelly turn on “Jukebox Songs” was almost as striking as his sparkly gold jacket and mighty beard.
Not to be outdone, David Egan channelled his inner Randy Newman on the rambling piano ballad “Dreamer,” before Steve Riley put his accordion through its paces on the 12-bar blues of “Ain’t No Child No More.”
There were too many mid-tempo, momentum-sapping ballads to make this a truly great gig: Lil’ Band Of Gold have a tendency to plod when they should pound.
For the most part, though, they were fabulous company. And let’s hope it doesn’t take another celebrity wedding before they’re back with us again.