AL Carnival Time Johnson

There are exactly four songs that cannot be avoided during Carnival season in New Orleans. Fortunately, none of them are of the maddeningly irritating ilk that often curse perennial favorites. In fact, Professor Longhair's double whammy of "Go To The Mardi Gras" and "Big Chief," the Hawkettes' "Mardi Gras Mambo" and Al Johnson's "Carnival Time" are some of the most stellar examples of rocking, red-hot Crescent City R&B in the city's history. Picking favorites might be pointless, but "Carnival Time" is definitely up there. The song is so uniquely arranged that it took years for its author to come up with a satisfactory recording of it because the studio musicians kept complaining that the timing was wrong! As Johnson recalled to Jeff Hannusch: "I was always told that to be great, you had to be different. Well, 'Carnival Time' was so different that the musicians had a hard time playing it. I still don't think we got it one hundred percent right!"

It's safe to say that whatever might be wrong with the song just served to make it all the more right. The end result is a masterwork in the annals of party music; a throbbing sax section laying down the solid New Orleans' groove for Johnson's crazed lyrics—which make sense only to those intimately familiar with the strange phenomenon of Mardi Gras: "The Green Room is smokin' and the Plaza's burnin' down, throw my baby out the window and let the joint burn down, all because it's Carvival Time…Claiborne Street is rocking from one side to the other, the joints are jamming packed and I'm about to smother…all because it's Carnival Time…"

Alvin Johnson grew up in New Orleans' Ninth Ward playing trumpet and piano, quickly falling under the spell of local geniuses Sugar Boy Crawford, Smiley Lewis and Fats Domino. After winning countless talent shows with his well-loved rendition of Sugar Boy's "I Cried," he cut his first record, "Ole Time Talkin'"/ "If I've Done Wrong" for Aladdin in 1956 at the age of sixteen. Two days after high school graduation in 1958 he returned to the studio, this time for Joe Ruffino's Ron imprint, for whom he cut the rocking "Lena"/ "You Done Me Wrong."

After Johnson's friend Frankie Milller came up with the lyrics about the Plaza and the Green Room, Johnson pieced the rest of "Carnival Time" together with the help of his in-laws. As noted previously, it took quite a few takes to nail it, some of them with Johnson on piano, others with Mac Rebennack. In December, 1959, they finally had a finished product, garnished with a wailing tenor solo courtesy of saxophonist James Rivers. The record was unceremoniously buried in 1960 by Jessie Hill's "Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo," which deservedly became the Carnival record of that year. Disappointed, Johnson was drafted into the Army and stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas. One year later, he began to hear rumblings from his family and friends that "Carnival Time" was, in Johnson's words, "Tearing it up in New Orleans." And it's been tearing it up ever since. Being gone through 1964, Johnson not only missed the opportunity to see his handiwork take off firsthand, but when he returned to his hometown following the aftermath of Beatlemania, he found the music scene in ruins. Ruffino had died while Johnson was in the Army, leading to a long fight for royalties that understandably soured him further on music as a profession. However, in 1999, Johnson was awarded the full rights to his hit, began performing and recording again and even reigned as the King Of The Krewe Du Vieux in 2005. Long live "Carnival Time," both the song and the man!

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