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.
Mac Rebennack conceived of the “Dr. John” persona circa 1967 with the idea that his West Bank runnin’ pardner Ronnie Barron from Algiers Point would play the role of a tripped-out hoodoo man. However, Barron’s contract with RCA prohibited him from taking on the role, so Rebennack eventually morphed into Dr. John.
Born Ronald Raymond Barrosse in 1943, Barron worked with Rebennack during his early days as an A&R man for Specialty and Ace records in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Rebennack produced Barron’s first single, “Bad Neighborhood,” which was credited to Ronnie and the Delinquents. The pair later recorded “Talk That Talk” under the name “Drits and Dravey” for Harold Battiste‘s AFO label. Barron also served some time in a group called the Prime Ministers, featuring fellow New Orleanians Freddie Staehle (drums), Bobby Lonero (guitar), Eddie Zip (bass), Jerry Jumonville (tenor sax), and Wayne DeVilliere (organ).
After moving to California and declining the Dr. John role, Barron worked for Louie Prima for several years and concocted his own mystical stage persona, “Reverend Ether,” recording an album by that name for Decca.
By the 1970s, Barron had moved to Woodstock, N.Y., where he worked again with Rebennack as well as fellow Louisiana expatriate Bobby Charles, joining harmonica wizard Paul Butterfield’s Better Days group. This group cut a couple of standout albums – “Better Days” and “It All Comes Back” – featuring Charles and Barron compositions like “Small Town Talk” and “Louisiana Flood,” as well as great vocal performances from Barron. Besides doing some acting, Barron worked with BB King, Ry Cooder, John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Turner, Canned Heat, and Tom Waits. He died in 1997 of heart-related ailments.
As lagniappe, the video below is from Tom Waits’ “Heart Attack and Vine” album, which features Barron on piano and the late, great drummer “Big” Johnny Thomassie from the West Bank. Barron and Thomassie fuel this savage, swaggering exercise in total New Orleans junko blues, “Mr. Siegal.” Waits of course has worked with a range of other New Orleans sidemen, including Earl Palmer and Plas Johnson.
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.
“The third night of the inaugural Lincoln Center edition of the Ponderosa Stomp — the annual spring resurrection of forgotten roots-rock and R&B heroes and heroines, founded and held in New Orleans — was an oddly formal affair, compared to the outdoor soul and rockabilly shows presented earlier in the week. ‘Everybody get on your feet/You make me nervous when you’re in your seat,’ Robert Parker sang on Sunday night in a well-preserved voice at the start of his 1966 hit ‘Barefootin’,’ one of the many Crescent City R&B classics associated with the evening’s honoree, producer-arranger-songwriter Wardell Quezergue. But sitting down is where the otherwise delighted audience at Alice Tully Hall stayed during most of the two-hour revue. In New Orleans, when a song like that is in the air, anything short of a shimmy is against the law.
But Quezergue, who turns 80 this year, deserves the lofty setting. In the Sixties and Seventies, he earned the nickname ‘The Creole Beethoven’ for his masterful blend of New Orleans rhythms and commercial wisdom in bedrock soul recordings such as Earl King’s ‘Trick Bag’ (1962), Professor Longhair”s ‘Big Chief’ (1964) and King Floyd’s ‘Groove Me’ (1970), then on mainstream collaborations with Paul Simon and Willie Nelson. At Lincoln Center, Quezergue conducted a ten-piece band from a chair as more than half a dozen of his original charges, including Dr. John, the Dixie Cups, Jean Knight and Tammy Lynn, recreated their biggest hits with him.”
And Jon Pareles covered the event for the New York Times, writing in part that, “the Dixie Cups, the New Orleans girl group, had distributed napkins before the concert, to be waved over the New Orleans second-line parade beat, and they got the audience up and dancing for ‘Iko Iko,’ which they turned into a medley of Mardi Gras songs and ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ After their segment, Rosa Hawkins of the Dixie Cups turned to Mr. Quezergue and said, ‘Thanks for the hits.’”