The whole New Orleans R&B record scene was centred around the recording studios of Cosimo Matassa. Apart from isolated sessions in radio stations or on “field” locations, almost every R&B record made in New Orleans from the 1940s until the late 1960s was cut in his studios. Cosimo is mystified when asked why others did not try to establish another studio. “Beats the hell out of me, I don’t know,” he said. “It could be that New Orleans is just like a big small town.”
On Dec. 10, 1999, on the 50th anniversary of the recording of Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” Matassa, Bartholomew, and Domino reunited for a ceremony at 838 N. Rampart St. to designate the site a historic landmark. The event also drew Toussaint, Ford, Ernie K-Doe, and other musicians who recorded there.
Below, watch Bartholomew (who was taught by Louis Armstrong’s trumpet teacher, Peter Davis) blow some notes along with Porgy Jones before giving a shout-out to Matassa and the many legends who made their musical bones at the hit incubator, during a ceremony in September 2010 sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which designated the site a historic Rock and Roll Landmark:
Wardell Quezergue chats with Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack at the Ponderosa Stomp's "Unsung Heroes" exhibit at the Louisiana Cabildo.
The legendary New Orleans arranger and bandleader Wardell Quezergue died at age 81 today at East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie, La. Below is his biography from the Ponderosa Stomp, which he graced so often with his genius presence:
If the greatest measure of a man’s success is a view of what the world might have been like without him, Wardell Quezergue’s presence on God’s Green Earth has to be counted as one of the music world’s greatest blessings. Like his colleagues Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint, Quezergue single-handedly shaped the sound of New Orleans; his arrangements and productions of songs like Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief,” Robert Parker’s “Barefootin,’” Willie Tee’s “Teasin’ You” and the Dixie Cups’ “Ike Iko” define the very essence not only of a city’s music, but its very culture.
Unlike Bartholomew and Toussaint, Quezergue never strove for a singular sound: in 1961 he helmed the Earl King Imperial sessions that produced raw gems like “Trick Bag” and “Always A First Time,” songs that could only have developed in a city where spectacularly attired Mardi Gras Indians and renegade brass bands rule the back streets. Ten years later, his arrangements of King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” split the difference between Memphis and New Orleans and put the sound of those cities’ crossroads—Jackson, Mississippi—on the map. Now considered as essential a stripe of southern soul as Muscle Shoals, Memphis or New Orleans, the Jackson sound existed previously in pieces, but it took the sweeping hand of “the Creole Beethoven” (as Toussaint so memorably refers Quezergue) to drive it into the charts. The fact that both hits were recorded on the same day attests to Wardell’s legendary work ethic, as well as the man’s unquestionable musical genius.
Developing his arranging style in the service using a tuning fork, Quezergue cut his teeth with Dave Bartholomew before forming the Royal Dukes Of Rhythm and Wardell and the Sultans in the late ‘50s. Waxing sides such as “The Original Popeye” (as well as producing the aforementioned Earl King sides) for Imperial, when the company divested from New Orleans, Quezergue had already made his mark with the Watch, Rip and Frisco imprints, with incredible local hits like Danny White’s “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” and the Rouzan Sisters’ “Men of War.” In 1964 he partnered with Clinton Scott and Ulis Gaines to form Nola Records.
Hitting immediately with Robert Parker’s “Barefootin,’” under Quezergue’s watchful stewardship Nola amassed a staggering catalog of soul and R&B—from the obscure Charles “Soul” Brown to the famed Willie Tee—before its untimely demise in 1968. Along with subsidiaries like Bonatemp, Whurley-Burley and Hot Line, Quezergue kept himself busy with productions for smaller labels like A.B.S., Shagg and Mode, always using the same modus operandi: the song itself came first.
“We created songs from scratch,” Quezergue later recalled of his ‘60s apex. “The songs were really what would dictate the sound.”
In this way he differed from Bartholomew and Toussaint, whose styles often framed a song’s success. But it was this free-wheeling approach that would serve him well in Jackson during the coming decade. After the double-barrelled success of “Groove Me” and “Mr. Big Stuff,” the big boys came calling, and an avalanche of Quezergue productions surfaced on labels like Chimneyville, Atlantic and Cotillion: aside from powerful cuts by Irma Thomas, Tami Lynn, Johnny Adams and the Unemployed (a funk group headed up by Quezergue’s sons!) Wardell soon reached back to New Orleans to form his own imprints, Pelican and Movin,’ issuing such funky masterpieces as Curtis Johnson’s “Sho ‘Nuff The Real Thing” and Chuck Simmons’ “Lay It On Me.”
Despite Malaco Studio’s proven track record with Floyd and Knight, Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue,” christened with a beautiful arrangement courtesy of Wardell, was too far of a stretch for Atlantic. Faced with bankruptcy, Malaco released it themselves in 1975 and Quezergue racked up one of his biggest successes: the song hit number three on the pop charts and redefined the southern soul sound just as disco was beginning to steamroll it.
A quiet giant, Quezergue continues to work in New Orleans, content to do what he’s always done: unassumingly make music history. For more on Quezergue, read here.
With a tropical weather system churning in the Gulf of Mexico and drenching south Louisiana for the weekend, what better Song of the Day than the unofficial national anthem of the state of Louisiana, “It’s Raining,” sung by national treasure Irma Thomas and written by Allen Toussaint, who produced the song for Minit and played piano. Toussaint is making his official debut at this month’s 10th annual Ponderosa Stomp, though he has been spotted in the audience at previous Stomp-related events. The Thomas-Toussaint partnership included several other major songs, such as “Ruler of My Heart,” which was later reinterpreted by Otis Redding as “Pain In My Heart.” Imperial Records acquired Minit in 1963, and a string of successful releases followed. These included “Wish Someone Would Care” (her biggest national hit), its B-side “Break-a-Way” (later covered by Tracey Ullman among others), “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” (co-written by the young Randy Newman), and “Time Is on My Side” (a song previously recorded by Kai Winding, and later by the Rolling Stones).
In a preview of this year’s Ponderosa Stomp, ringmaster Dr. Ike revealed on WWOZ-FM radio last night that that living embodiment of New Orleans music, Allen Toussaint, would be reprising some of the tunes from his first solo album, named “The Wild Sound of New Orleans” by “Al Tousan,” recorded in two days in February 1958. The all-instrumental album featured the song “Java,” with which New Orleans trumpet giant Al “Jumbo” Hirt made national waves. The only thing missing from Toussaint’s Stomp performance will be the cream-of-the-crop Cosimo studio players that graced his record, such as saxophonists Alvin “Red” Tyler and Nat Perrilliat, trumpeter Melvin Lastie, guitarists Justin Adams and Roy Montrell, and drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams, to name just a few.
And here’s Hirt performing “Java” on the “Ed Sullivan Show”:
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.
It’s not quite TGIF yet, and it’s not quite Mardi Gras yet, but this song should get you in the mood for both. Drink in the rich, testosterone-filled sounds (and flamboyant sight) of a purple-garbed Frankie Ford‘s romping rendition of Fats Domino’s classic “Whiskey Heaven.” Watch as Ford pounds the keys just like Huey “Piano” Smith and Clarence “Frogman” Henry taught him to all those years ago, during the halcyon days of New Orleans R&B. Sneak a peak at the orgasmic grimace Ford makes at minute 2:18 during longtime Allen Toussaint sideman and Chocolate Milk member Amadee Castenell‘s masterful tenor solo, which Ford introduces with the phrase “Now we gonna play one for your hangover.” Apparently, Castenell’s sax had the cure for Ford’s aches and pains.
Ooo-wee, baby — can’t wait! Gretna’s favorite and possibly most famous son is cruising over from the West Bank to the Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans’ Warehouse District for his first appearance at the Ponderosa Stomp this year. Find yourself a designated driver and come.
Of the unfortunate dwindling number of 1960s and ’70s New Orleans R&B recording artists, thankfully we still have Wallace Johnson to appreciate. He never had much more than a handful of neighborhood hits, but his small clutch of singles – and one great CD – were some of the best local R&B of the era.
Johnson was born Oct. 8, 1937, in Napoleonville, La., 65 miles southwest of New Orleans on Bayou Lafourche.
“When I was 13, I saw Roy Brown at a little town called Bertrandville.” said Johnson in 1998. “I stood in the front row and focused on nothing but him. This was when he had (big) records out like ‘Cadillac Baby,’ ‘Brown Angel’ and ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight.’
“I went in the service in 1954. I was stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington. One day at the service club, a guy asked me if I sang. I didn’t, but the next thing I knew, we had a five-member group. This was during the doo-wop era. We performed at talent shows and usually won.”
Johnson got married while in the service. After being discharged, he and his growing family moved to New Orleans, where he had several relatives. Still interested in music, Johnson enrolled at Houston’s School of Music under the G.I. Bill. He unsuccessfully auditioned for Dave Bartholomew at Imperial Records and later for Harold Battiste at Specialty. Battiste expressed interest, but Johnson was told Specialty was winding down its New Orleans activities. However, Batiste revealed he had another project in the works.
“Harold was going to start his own label, AFO. He said it was time for New Orleans musicians that make the music to make the money – not out-of-town companies that came here to record. That’s how I wound up on AFO.”
Johnson debuted on AFO in 1962 with “Clap Your Hands” / “Peace of Mind.” It was a great release, but Johnson got caught in a record-business trick bag. AFO briefly had a national distrubutor, Sue Records, that helped catapult Barbara George’s “I Know” to the top of the charts. Sue and AFO had an bitter split – in a nutshell – over George’s contract and services. That meant Johnson’s single had only local distribution, which meant limited sales and promotion.
“We cut that session at a little studio built behind Ric Records office on Baronne Street,” said Johnson. “That was the first time I met Allen Toussaint, but he couldn’t play on the session because he had a contract with Minit Records. But the rest of the AFO combo played on the record. I cut the session and moved back to Napoleonville after I broke my ankle. Later I found out the label folded and the AFO cats moved out to the West Coast. Then I started seeing Harold on the ‘Sonny and Cher’ show every week.”
Johnson began working weekends at the clubs along Bayou Lafourche. His marquee gig was opening shows for national acts like Ile and Tina Turner and Bobby “Blue” Bland at the Sugar Bowl in Thibodaux. Johnson moved back to New Orleans in 1965 and ran into Toussaint again.
“Allen had just got out of the service and became partners with Marshall Sehorn. This was right after Allen produced Lee Dorsey’s ‘Ride Your Pony.’ I wound up doing several singles with Allen.”
Johnson’s initial Toussaint-produced single – “Something To Remember You By” / “If You Leave Me” – appeared on Sansu and was distributed by Bell. Though it begged to break nationally, it stayed a local record, largely overlooked by the sudden explosion of British music in America. The follow-up, “I’m Grown” / “Baby Go Head,” was also distinctive, but it met a similar fate.
“None of those records were cut live,” recalled Johnson. “Allen would have the musicians record a backing track and then I’d come in and do the vocals. I thought ‘Something to Remember You By’ was pretty good. ‘I’m Grown’ was pretty arrogant song that told a different story. The last single I did with Allen was on RCA (in 1973). ‘I Miss You Girl’ and ‘On My Way Back’ were cut in Atlanta.”
The RCA single didn’t do much, and Johnson returned to Napoleonville, where he drove trucks and worked in a lumber yard to support his family. After his wife died and children grew up, Johnson moved back to New Orleans and worked for company that laid sewer lines. In the mid-1990s, Johnson re-encountered Toussaint and saw a revival of his music career.
“At the time I used to go by Allen’s house to shoot pool,” Johnson said. “I asked him what he thought of me cutting a demo. He said, ‘Go ahead.’ He said, ‘Get the musicians and you can use the studio (Sea-Saint) anytime.’ I met some guys that played with Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., and we did four songs.
“Allen heard the demo and came by my house a couple weeks later. He said, ‘I have some friends in New York are interested in starting a label’ and would I be interested in being involved? Of course I was. I wound up doing a CD ‘Whoever’s Thrilling You’ that came out on NYNO in 1996.”
The release set off a brief firestorm of activity, but Johnson eventually returned to driving a truck for a living. NYNO fizzled, and in 2000, Johnson moved to Atlanta to live with his daughter. His appearance at the 2010 Ponderosa Stomp this Saturday night will mark his first return to New Orleans in a decade.