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.
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.]
Join us today at 5:30pm at the Cabildo on Jackson Square for cocktails, DJs spinning vintage 45s, and a live interview with the legendary Irma Thomas. Admission is free.
The “Soul Queen of New Orleans” began her musical career as a teenager, when Tommy Ridgely discovered her waiting tables at the club where his band was in residency. Thomas auditioned for Joe Banashak’s then-fledgling Minit label in 1960, but was turned down and signed with the Ron label instead, releasing “You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man)” which made it onto the Billboard R&B charts in spring of that year. Thomas left Ron to sign to Minit, for whom she recorded some of her (and New Orleans R&B in general) most beloved signature songs, including “It’s Raining” and “Wish Someone Would Care” with Allen Toussaint as producer.
Thomas’ rich, soulful, often melancholy voice is one of New Orleans music’s finest treasures. Her records garnered her a dedicated cult following among collectors and connoisseurs over the years, but it was not until 2006′s “After The Rain” album on Rounder Records that she earned a much-belated Grammy award.
Tom Waits once described Alex Chilton as “the Thelonius Monk of the rhythm guitar.” He’s damn right. I heard it all for the first time live in 1986 at the 688 Club in Atlanta, Georgia. I was 22 years old; a kid in a band called Green On Red and we were playing on a bill with him that night. We were positively bourgeois; freshly signed to Polygram Records with an extra van and a rag-tag road crew. We were living high on the hog, man (or we thought so, anyway). Alex Chilton pulled up the gravel drive to the back of the joint in an old Buick Skylark spitting plumes of blue smoke. He took off the shirt he was wearing, shoving it into the back of his Fender Super Reverb amp, and pulled out the one he wore for gigs. He donned a harmonica rack and tuned up his guitar to the harp, all the while looking at his bass player and drummer (Rene Coman and Doug Garrison). He stepped up to the mike and clicked his heels four times. That was it. I don’t know who my fragile busted up little psyche’s influences were at the time; Neil Young, Joe Strummer, David Bowie, Tom Verlaine? They all went out the window at that moment; floated up into the ether and stayed put. Alex has remained. I have forgotten many heroes along the way. Put on “Bangkok” and you’ll begin to understand why this man, this rock and roll song and dance man, can’t be tossed aside. Ever.
Dave Bartholomew and Cosimo Matassa were awarded for their contributions to New Orleans music on the 60th anniversary of the historic “Fat Man” Fats Domino recording. The Louisiana State Museum and the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation held the ceremony in New Orleans on the steps of the historic Cabildo on March 6th, 2010.
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.”
Fifty-four years ago today, per Bumps Blackwell’s recommendation, Little Richard Penniman (seen above with Jet Harris, Gene Vincent and Sam Cooke) joined forces with Fats Domino’s band — which included the late Earl Palmer, drummer extraordinaire who performed at the 1st annual Ponderosa Stomp and served as Master of Ceremonies for Stomp #4 — at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio.
Their collective goal was to lay down tracks for Art Rupe’s Specialty label. As legend has it, nothing much happened, though, until the group broke for lunch. Then, in true recording studio mythology (see Elvis’ inaugural Sun session, or the story behind Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’”), Little Richard sat down at the piano and began banging out a high voltage tune that he’d woodshedded in gay bars:
“Tutti Frutti, good booty
If it don’t fit, don’t force it
You can grease it, make it easy.”
Blackwell called in Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up the lyrics, and, after rolling tape for a record 15 minutes, one of the most iconic songs ever recorded in Orleans Parish was complete.
Mac Rebennack just happened to be standing outside J&M when the magic happened — and I got to quiz him about it 50 years later, for an article published in MOJO magazine:
“I was always hanging out there during Specialty sessions, trying to sell Art Rupe some songs. I remember telling my older sister, ‘This guy Little Richard is doing a session at the studio,’ and she replied, ‘Oh, I used to see him at Panama City.’ So Richard was already doing his thing as a solo act. He came out of those revues, where he had to really know his shit. Some people say he bummed his act from Esquerita, but to me, Eskew was more gospel sounding, and Richard was straight up hip. Sure, he sang kinda gospel but he played that ratty shit on the piano, with Earl Palmer following on the cymbals. His style was a revelation, a really good sound that could rock the house without fail.
Richard was a totally original cat – everything about him was off the hook. He was a little flamboyant, sure, but it went with that turf. Seeing him and Eskew hanging out wearing men’s suits, topped off with lipstick, that high hair, and women’s shades, would catch people off guard – they’d give them the once over two or three times, even though in New Orleans, we were used to the drag queen revues and traditions like that.
This is what made Richard special: As Fats Domino told me, ‘I couldn’t tell you what’s the difference between rock and roll and R&B.’ But Richard changed something in the New Orleans groove. Instead of a shuffle, he could play that eighth note thing on the piano, which set him apart from the rest of us. He used it from that first record on, and a lot of other people started using that shit. They still use it in rock and roll today.”
As Cosimo explained to writer Todd Mouton in the pages of Offbeat a while back, “If you transmit an emotion to the listener, it’s a good record. It’s gonna be a successful record. Now, having said that, how you measure it, I don’t know. How you predict it, I have not a clue. Because it happens, and everybody’s aware of it, you know, it’s fundamental. And yet totally evasive.”
Rebennack: “Back then, though, we didn’t really appreciate it. Everybody in New Orleans had so much to do, so many sessions to play on, that Tutti Frutti was just a little chunk of their lives. They didn’t have time to think much about it. I remember someone asking Red Tyler and Earl Palmer, ‘What do you remember about playing on it?’ and they both said, without batting an eye, ‘Very little.’”
Of course, like any million-selling single, there’s been an argument over the songwriting credits ever since.
LaBostrie, from Jeff Hannusch’s I Hear You Knocking: The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues:
“Little Richard didn’t write none ‘Tutti Fruitti.’ I’ll tell you exactly how I came to write that. I used to live on Galvez Street and my girlfriend and I liked to go down to the drug store and buy ice cream. One day we went in and saw this new flavor, Tutti Fruitti. Right away I thought, ‘Boy, that’s a great idea for a song.’ So I kept it in the back of my mind until I got to the studio that day. I also wrote the flip side of ‘Tutti Fruitti,’ ‘I’m Just a Lonely Guy,’ and a spiritual, ‘Blessed Mother,’ all in the same day.”
Blackwell, quoted in Charles White’s biography of Little Richard:
“I Knew that the lyrics were too lewd and suggestive to record. It would never have got played on air. So I got hold of Dorothy La Bostrie, who had come over to see how the recording of her song [I'm Just A Lonely Guy?] was going. I brought her to the Dew Drop. I said to her: ‘Look. You come and write some lyrics to this, ’cause I can’t use the lyrics Richard’s got.’ Richard turned to face the wall and sang the song two ot three times and Dorothy listened. Break time was over, and we went back to the studio to finish the session, leaving Dorothy to write the words. Fifteen minutes before the session was to end, the chick comes in and puts these little trite lyrics in front of me.”
And Penniman himself, again from White’s book:
“I’d been singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ for years, but it never struck me as a song you’d record. I didn’t go to New Orleans to record no ‘Tutti Frutti.’ Sure, it used to crack the crowds up when I sang it in the clubs, with those risqué lyrics. But I never thought it would be a hit, even with the lyrics cleaned up.”
I’ll let Mac close it out:
“Of course, the idea for Tutti Frutti was probably already floating around New Orleans. I bet Richard heard something like it from Eddie Bo. Considering who actually wrote this sucker – Dorothy LaBostrie, who wrote Johnny Adams’ and Irma Thomas’ first hit records – I’m sure the song came straight up out of the dozens. ‘A gal named Sue/She knows just what to do’ – that shit was nasty! Some New Orleans songs, like Tee-Nah-Nah, are Creole. You know, your tee-nah-nah is your ass cheeks, and your tee-nah-noo is your asshole. But Tutti Frutti isn’t Creole, and I don’t think it went with the ice cream flavor. You know what a fruit is, right? I think it had more to do with that shit. But did you ever hear Pat fucking Boone singing that crap? I don’t know if he got it and fucked it up, or if he didn’t get it, and fucked it up. Either way, it was pretty fucked up, but we didn’t pay no attention to that crap!”
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.