“There is a New Orleans city accent … associated with downtown New Orleans, particularly with the German and Irish Third Ward, that is hard to distinguish from the accent of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Astoria, Long Island, where the Al Smith inflection, extinct in Manhattan, has taken refuge. The reason, as you might expect, is that the same stocks that brought the accent to Manhattan imposed it on New Orleans.” – A.J. Liebling, “The Earl of Louisiana,” the famous quote introducing John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces”
Rumors of the New Orleans Yat’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Despite the best efforts of invasive hipster gentrification and federal levee failures to eradicate this indigenous species from its native habitats like the 9th Ward, the humble Yat survives — but has been driven underground. Some Yats even manage to thrive in this brave new world of HBO caricaturization and Hollywood co-optation – and not just in Bunny Matthews cartoons. In fact, recent sightings even confirm the existence of the now-almost-mythical Yatasaurus Rex.
Should you, fearless explorer, venture out on any moonlit Saturday night to a strip mall near the airport, at Kenner’s Third Rock Tavern at Williams and Veterans boulevards, you might spy not one, but two, of these Yatasaurus Rexes: none other than guitarist Charlie Cuccia and drummer Jeff Hicks — both original members of the locally noted T.Q. and the Topcats, who now hew off beefy slabs of blood-and-guts rock ‘n’ roll as “Da Meat Department” band.
Original Topcats member Charlie "Jake the Snake" Cuccia - still rocking after all these years
Through plumes of thick smoke, in between high-octane libations and corny double-entendre jokes, these Bourbon Street and Jefferson Parish lounge veterans crank out classic-rock covers with a grit and soul you won’t find in some wimpy, miserable politically correct Frenchmen Street outfit. Eschewing most of the traditional New Orleans canon for the likes of Stones, Chuck Berry, and Dylan — sung in sandpaper rasps evoking Howlin’ Wolf and Captain Beefheart — they somehow come off as more authentically New Orleans than any vanilla retro “roots-rock” band.
With snifter of Grand Marnier in hand and rooster-like ducktail in full glory, Cuccia exhorts his Yat minions to “raise your glasses, children of the Williams Boulevard!” before launching into a towering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” while Hicks recalls his days of selling cars for New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson in rhapsodizing about a stripper he used to love at the nearby Downs Lounge in Metry – all to the tune of Bob Seger’s “Main Street.”
Revisit the 1970s and recall, if you dare, the moribund radio soundtrack of the time: the ponderously toxic art-rock sludge of bands like Yes; Genesis; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; and King Crimson. Even Led Zeppelin stooped low enough to invoke “the winds of Thor.” It was to this music — as well as more earthbound acts such as Heart, Skynyrd, Journey, and New Orleans’ own Zebra — that young Yats cruised along Wisner Boulevard in their souped-up Trans-Ams, roaring along Lakeshore Drive past Bart’s restaurant, all the way to the Point at West End for a quick toke before copping a feel off their feather-haired Stevie Nicks-wannabe girlfriends.
Enter Charlie Cuccia and Jeff Hicks, circa 1972. Cuccia and Hicks are proud co-founders of T.Q. and the Topcats, a band that still performs today as the Topcats, though with no original members. Gloriously retro before retro was cool, T.Q. and the Topcats defiantly rocked out old-school-style in the face of the 20-minute, mythology-and-melodrama-infused rock-opera opuses of the day.
T.Q. and the Topcats at Lake Pontchartrain in the 1970s
T.Q. and the Topcats were a Crescent City version of Sha Na Na — on gumbo-laden steroids. According to the Topcats’ Web site : “Originally formed at East Jefferson High School in Metairie, La., with their first practice in a garage on September 28th, 1972, T.Q. & The Topcats were a ’50s and early ’60s show band. The group performed all of the classic songs of the pre-Beatles era of rock and roll. Every song the band did was performed with outrageous choreography or some type of skit with costumes, smoke and special lighting. They also did tributes to Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Everyone in the band sang and did choreography and everyone had a nickname to put across the feeling of a hoodlum gang of the 1950′s.” Cuccia leered under the reptilian alias “Jake the Snake,” while Hicks sported the hirsute handle of “Belch A. Rooney.”
Vintage video of the band in its greaser heyday — including the unbelievable sight of an ax-wielding Cuccia executing dangerously ball-busting splits mid-solo — can be seen herein, on Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and “Roll Over, Beethoven,” as well as on the Gary U.S. Bonds cover “New Orleans,” in which Hicks belts out the lead vocal on a tribute to his native stomping grounds.
T.Q. and the Topcats played the New Orleans area and expanded their reach throughout the Southeast, eventually making their way to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. They shared the stage with stars such as Dick Dale, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Billy Joel, while a notable photo from September 1976 records for posterity the band’s meeting with “Bedtime for Bonzo” star Ronald Reagan.
T.Q. and the Topcats with Ronald Reagan
A fascinating piece of black-and-white footage shows T.Q and company interacting with Johnny Carson on the “Stump the Band” segment of “The Tonight Show.” Viewing the video, the linguistic link between New Orleans and New York City has never been clearer. As the slick Dionysus-like Cuccia raps with Carson, I’m not sure if I’m seeing and hearing Vinny Barbarino, John Gotti Jr., or the frontman for T.Q and the Topcats. At any rate, the T.Q. gang — looking like they had just kicked the asses of the Jets from “West Side Story” in a parking-lot rumble — endures Carson’s playful putdowns before launching into an incredibly soulful, handclapping, a capella rendition of “Iko Iko” that would make the harmonizing Valence Street-era lineup of the Neville Brothers proud.
In 1980, capping a flurry of personnel changes and stylistic shifts, Cuccia and Hicks exited the group, which is now known simply as the Topcats. But the duo continued to ply their musical chops in nightclubs from Bourbon Street to Williams Boulevard. Cuccia also has cut a CD on Gary Edwards’ Sound of New Orleans label, featuring top local sidemen such as saxophonist Jerry Jumonville, guitarist Cranston Clements, keyboardist Joe Krown, and drummer Barry Flippen. To purchase or to hear samples, click here.
The rooster-maned Charlie "Jake the Snake" Cuccia - still crazy after all these years (seen here in a natural habitat: the Old Opera House on Bourbon Street, where he often plays with the Old No. 7 Band)
Besides playing Saturday nights at the Third Rock with the “Meat Department” band, Cuccia also leads the Swinging Jewels (sans Hicks) on Thursday nights at Waloo’s on North Causeway Boulevard in Metry. The Jewels comprise drummer Joey Catalanotto from the Wiseguys; grittily soulful singer-songwriter Gary Hirstius (also a former Topcat); and bassist Thomas McDonald, who has probably picked up a riff or two from his legendary neighbor: jazz and R&B bassist Peter “Chuck” Badie of Harold Battiste’s trailblazing AFO Records. A monsterly funky bassist, McDonald also can sing his ass off — as well as slap out a scatlike syncopated melody on his shaved head. His version of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” otherwise known as the national anthem of the state of Louisiana, is as soul-drenched as the original, and his vocal modulations will make your baby’s heart flutter and squeeze you a little bit tighter as you’re slow-dragging together on the dancefloor.
Yes, hearts are fluttering at a Swinging Jewels/Meat Department show, but so is the laughter. These wisecracking clowns are simply hilarious. When you’ve played for decades on Bourbon Street for practically nothing but the sheer love of rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve got to develop a sense of humor. The outrageous jokes and Three Stooges humor run constantly like diarrhea of the mouth as the musicians take verbal shots at the audience and each other.
Coasting on seemingly nine lives, the modern-day incarnation of the Topcats is busier than ever, still playing club dates, school fairs, and festivals. But the heart and the soul of the band once known as T.Q. and the Topcats resides elsewhere, and can usually be found on Williams Boulevard in the unforgettable — and only in New Orleans — form of Charlie Cuccia and Jeff Hicks, brothers for life in their own uniquely hardcore brand of hey-brah groove.
The primal drumming and gut-bucket vocal stylings of original Topcats member Jeff Hicks (aka Belch A. Rooney) are totally out of this world - and totally rock 'n' roll, brah
Synonymous with the CYO, VFW, and Masonic-hall dances that rocked New Orleans in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the Crescent City’s legendary blue-eyed R&B supergroup the Jokers is reuniting for the first time in 11 years at New Orleans’ Rock ‘n’ Bowl this Sunday from 3 to 7 p.m. (though some reports have the show starting at 2). It will mark the band’s first performance since iconic lead singer Roland “Stone” LeBlanc joined them for their last reunion show (on May 15, 1999, at Kenner’s Pontchartrain Center) before his untimely death in December 1999.
According to disc jockey Poppa Stoppa’s liner notes from the band’s 1992 retrospective CD: “It all started in the summer of 1957 when the JOKERS appeared on the nationally televised Jerry Lewis Telethon. From that moment on, the JOKERS were a dominant force in the New Orleans Music Sound. Their tight, driving musical renditions of popular rhythm & blues songs rocked and rolled people everywhere. What made their show exciting was the introduction of wild stage antics and dancing amongst the crowd during their songs. They were consistent Battle-of-the-Bands contest winners, probably because of this revolutionary approach to entertaining.Anyone who attended one of the JOKERS’ dances will tell you what I’m talking about, but don’t take my word for it…listen for yourself. As you play this CD, featuring the various lead singers of the JOKERS, spend a few minutes reliving that fabulous era. If you were lucky enough to have seen the JOKERS perform, each song will bring back some special memory. Thank you JOKERS, for giving all of us memories we will never forget…and that’s the reason why NEW ORLEANS WILL NEVER FORGET THE JOKERS!”
The roster of lead singers that have passed through the band’s ranks reads like a who’s who of New Orleans R&B: Roland Stone, 1957-1959; Chuck Cavet, 1959-60; Mike Ancona, 1960-65; Stark Whiteman, 1961-65; Art “Sir” Van, 1965-67; and Harvey Jesus, 1967-75. Led by drummer Edwin “Eddie” Roth throughout its history, the band also featured a strong supporting cast of musicians, including bassist Cullen Landry, now the leader of R&B band Midnight Streetcar; pianist Richie Ladner; and horn players Herman Gilmore, Iggy Campisi, Gene Joubert, and Tommy Alfortish, to name just a few.
Don’t miss this ultra-rare reunion show – and the roll call of hits that have imprinted themselves on the brains and booties of countless New Orleanians who remember those halcyon days of the nascent, still-burgeoning art form of rock ‘n’ roll: “Just a Moment of Your Time,” “There’s Got to Be a Girl,” “Bells In My Heart,” “To Tease and to Please,” “Graduation Day,” “Don’t Break Your Promise to Me,” “I Wish I Knew,” and many more. This type of oldies show used to be more common when the New Orleans Musicians’ Alumni Association was in full swing, but those days are gone. Sunday at Rock ‘n’ Bowl with the legendary Jokers – be there or be square. [For a fuller history of the Jokers, see Bob Walker's tribute site here.]
Metairie is a place often disparaged by those “not from here.” It is especially disparaged by those not from here who seek to cloak themselves and where they came from in all things New Orleans. By disparaging our hinterlands, they strive to make themselves all the more genuinely New Orleans. Ironically, these self-appointed New Orleans experts miss the “tout ensemble” for the trees (or maybe the lack thereof). They fail to discern that there is often more New Orleans buried amid the neon-and-concrete trappings of seemingly bland suburbia than in the city itself these days. Especially musically.
Mo’s Chalet is just such an under-the-radar den of down-home blues. Impresario Morell “Mo” Crane is an important patron of local music, particularly the classic styles such as jazz, rhythm and blues, and swamp pop. Mo brought in his old friend, sax titan Sam Butera, years before the New Orleans JazzFest ever sat up and took notice that the supercharged turbine behind Louie Prima was still jumping, jiving, and wailing like never before, well into his 70s.
But Mo doesn’t just hire the well-known entertainers. Super-talented rank-and-file artists who somehow got lost in the shuffle but are still cranking it out in the musical trenches can find a welcome stage at Mo’s Chalet. Names such as Bobby Lonero, Earl Stanley, Skip Easterling, Eddie Powers, Art SirVan, Allen Collay, Al McCrossen, and Billy Bell. These are just the sort of hidden gems that the Ponderosa Stomp strives to spotlight. And such a roster fits in with Mo’s motto: “GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT.”
And “the people,” in Mo’s case, fit a certain demographic. They are either members of “the Greatest Generation” or hail from the immediately younger age groups. These are the people who grew up in a still-vibrant New Orleans, attended its grammar and high schools, and bore witness to not only the jazz revival of the late 1940s and early ’50s, but also the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. These are the people who remember Butera and Prima blazing away on Bourbon Street and at the Beverly Club. These are the people who saw Pete Fountain and Al “Jumbo” Hirt trading lightning-bolt licks at Lenfant’s on the lakefront. These are the people who when they hear the name “Dukes of Dixieland” immediately think “Assunto brothers”—you know, those nice neighborhood Italian boys from around the French Market who just happen to have a red-hot family band. These are the people who grew up buying Fats Domino 45s and swaying to Jerry Raines’ “Our Teenage Love” at the CYO dances. They remember serving detention-hall stints with Roland “Stone” LeBlanc at Warren Easton High, or eating cheeseburgers next to a teenage Frankie Ford at Da Wabbit in Gretna after a sock hop at the McDonoghville VFW. These are New Orleans’ salt of the earth, and those who still make it out to Mo’s Chalet are the silver-fox survivors. They’re still boogieing down and drinking up well into their 60s, 70s, and 80s.
One recent Sunday I stopped in to hear vocalist Duke Duplantis front his RBT combo. What a gentleman Duke is—a total man’s man, whose specialty is singing Sinatra and other Rat Pack standards with the perfect measure of gravitas and testosterone. I don’t know who I’d be more afraid to piss off backstage in Vegas in a fight over some mob bimbo: Duke himself, or Ole Blue Eyes backed up by a gang of sycophantic “associates.” Of course, Duke—after setting you straight—would probably suggest a round of 18 holes at the local golf course and even pick up the greens fees just to show you what a stand-up guy he is.
And serving as the smiling bandleader with just a hint of an Elvis sneer to his lip, Richie Ladner brings decades of professional experience to the table, having been a latter-day member of New Orleans’ legendary Jokers. Playing with an almost pornographic joy, he is both a stellar pianist and vocalist, and his baritony rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” melded into a gospel medley still sends chills down my spine. When not amazing you with his melodiousness, Ladner will slay you with his hysterically ribald humor and impeccable comic timing.
A book could be written about saxophonist Johnny Pennino (http://www.johnnypennino.com), but luckily for the local music scene, his story is not yet over. Music aficionadoes have heard of the legendary Papa Joe’s nightclub on Bourbon Street, whose 1960s-era band featured luminaries such as Freddy Fender, Joe Barry, and Skip Easterling. Though not as well-known, Pennino made his musical bones at Papa Joe’s and was in fact that band’s longest-serving member. Fender once said of Pennino: “He blows a tenor sax in such a sweet, pleasant and unforgettable way. Nobody else can come up with anything so unique. Johnny’s sound is romantic. It is magical.” So magical that when Duke Ellington was brought to hear the young Italian stallion play on Bourbon Street in the 1960s, the Duke offered Pennino a job, asking: “Do you read music, son?”
But New Orleans’ pull was too strong on Pennino, and he stayed put, carrying the torches of Jumbo and Butera and continuing to play with an otherworldly fire-and-brimstone ferocity, yet with utter lyricism and beauty on tour-de-force power ballads such as “Europa.” Pennino’s voice on saxophone is completely unique, but then so is his shamefully undershowcased singing. His vocal rendition of Dean Martin’s “Return to Me” is incredibly sensuous, and his Elvis interpretations must have the King himself sitting up in his crypt and taking notice. But Pennino ultimately is a horn player who makes anyone’s band sound better, as evidenced by swamp-pop legend Johnnie Allan turning to me one night at a West Bank hideaway and asking in bewilderment: “WHO IS THAT GUY?” The Cajun icon was simply blown away by Pennino, who had just accompanied Allan on his own set—walking on totally unrehearsed and never having before met.
Injecting some intangible Mo-jo to the mix was John Dauenhauer on baritone sax, who is always a welcome sight wielding that bazooka-like piece of brass, which was key to the classic 1950s riffing ensemble horn sound, but which is rarely employed today—and sadly so. The titanic instrument’s notes are almost imperceptibly heard at first—hitting your gut and injecting a fat-bottomed groove to the wailing sound of the tenor above it. Thanks to Our Lady of Prompt Succor for the presence of John Dauenhauer on bari sax. He’s like a flambeaux carrier in a Mardi Gras parade: Just when you thought the tradition had died out, there he is with his big flame-throwing rig, bringing it all back home again.
Drummer Wally Rabalais is another unsung local veteran, having set a splendidly percussive tone with countless bands and frontmen like Bobby Lonero; Al Dressel and the Fugowees; and Midnight Streetcar. Rabalais is a rock-solid timekeeper but also surprises audiences with his own singing voice. For one second at Mo’s I thought Clarence “Frogman” Henry was in the house, exclaiming out of nowhere that he sang like a frog and had no home. Turns out it was Rabalais doing his dead-on Frogman impression from behind the drum kit. The legendary Frogman was hopefully enjoying some well-deserved relaxation on his front porch in Algiers, content to let his disciples do the singing.
The band entertained that Sunday with every genre of music, from cocktail-lounge warhorses to country two-steps, from Smiley Lewis’ “Someday” to Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee,” from Roland Stone’s “Just a Moment” to the classic 1950s doo-wop “We Belong Together.” And in true New Orleans fashion, a second-line erupted. Not a stomping parade of gator-popping buck-jumpers, but a procession of guest singers who stepped up to add their own unique spices to the mix. Owner Mo Crane’s brother Rene—a kindly venerable figure with billowy snow-white hair and a blood-red guayabera shirt—took a turn at a couple of chestnuts, and then Mo himself—a man whose infectious lust for life is positively Viagra-like—stepped up to the microphone, shucking and jiving to Al Jolson and a totally romping version of “Gentle On My Mind.”
Mo’s Chalet: A musical oasis in Metairie that really delivers on its promise to “give the people what they want.”
The scene: An historic crossroads in Chalmette, where St. Bernard Highway meets Paris Road, under the unearthly, Mordor-like glow of the Chalmette Refinery, in a parish where so many ghosts still tiptoe on the fringes of our consciousness: French land barons. West African slaves. Canary Island fishermen. Creole dandies. Kaintuck riflemen. Bloodied British invaders. Sicilian truck farmers. Mobbed-up political bosses. At this crossroads sits a roadhouse that has operated under numerous names, in myriad incarnations: now called Old Brad’s Nite Life. It was there last Sunday evening that I took an unforgettable musical ride on a runaway R&B freight train: the Midnight Streetcar.
Led by an original Joker, bassist Cullen Landry, the Midnight Streetcar is firing on all cylinders in its mission to keep classic New Orleans rock and roll alive and kicking. This night featured a double-barreled vocal attack: St. Bernard native son Phat 2′sDay, a jump-blues specialist whose booming bellow shines on Big Joe Turner and Smiley Lewis shouters; and then Laurin Munsch, possibly the closest thing we have left to the “Tan Canary,” Mr. Johnny Adams.
Munsch sings in a rich tenor that suddenly and effortlessly swoops and flutters heavenward into a spine-tingling upper register that breaks the sound barrier to nail his versions of Tan Canary classics such as “I Won’t Cry” and “Reconsider Me.” Sonic celestial orgasm, and then diving back down to the terra firma of his sweet tenor voice. It is simply criminal that a vocal talent like Munsch’s is not playing the Ritz-Carlton or the Blue Room. And Munsch is a seasoned showman, wandering amid the packed dancefloor and tables with a cordless microphone and coaxing out sing-alongs. But then, this man is a pure professional, having honed his natural talent over many years in mainstay Metairie nightclubs like Chesterfield’s and Critic’s Choice.
And as if that weren’t enough, the band featured a third big-time vocalist in the form of its electric pianist, Al Farrell. A star in his own right, this man can play and sing Ray Charles in his sleep, delighting the audience with his muscular tenor on “What I’d Say” and “Georgia.” A true towering talent. James Booker is dead, Huey Smith is dormant, but New Orleans has not yet run out of piano professors while Al Farrell continues to tinkle the ivories.
And throughout this musical journey stood the Streetcar conductor, the wiry visionary Cullen Landry, silently plucking away at his standup bass, his silver hair and ruddy face shrouded in shadow but clearly transported to another realm by the music of his youth as he anchored down the groove of his musical henchmen.
The band was fleshed out by other solid, standout players such as Larry Simpson on saxophone, Willie Panker on drums, and Nat Montalbano on guitar. Who else would you want to have cranking out all the New Orleans classics? And it was a magical night filled with a hit parade of New Orleans’ rich musical tapestry of the 1950s and ’60s.
Later that evening, I thought back to the classic Preservation Hall band lineups of the 1960s and ’70s. The musicians in those bands—like clarinetist George Lewis, trombonist Jim Robinson, and trumpeter Percy Humphrey—were children playing at the feet of the jazz originators (Bolden, Armstrong, Morton, Bechet) when they created that earth-shaking sound in the early 1900s. And we know that band today as the real deal. Likewise, Cullen Landry and his cohorts were once pimply teenagers playing at the feet of the rock originators—the heroes of their youth like Guitar Slim, Fats Domino, and Lloyd Price—at the CYO dances at St. Anthony’s, St. Dominic, and Germania Hall. Today we know Midnight Streetcar as the real deal in New Orleans R&B. Go see them.
Yat raconteur and one of the last great WWOZ dj’s – Billy Delle, recently counted down his top ten Swamp Pop records on his radio show. I grabbed a stack of post its and commenced to a writing.
Starting it off with his own freewheeling scat interpretations of iconic New Orleans R&B hits Delle segued into what defined the Swamp Pop sound and what the genre and each song meant to him personally. The following is his list: