Little Richard: Tutti Frutti

Little Richard had entered Cosimo Matassa's recording studio on Rampart Street in New Orleans with hopes of becoming a star, but the slow blues he was performing weren't going well. Richard Penniman was setting himself up for a return ticket back to a day job and dashed dreams. But during a break, Richard sat down at the battered piano at the Dew Drop Inn and let loose with a boisterous semi-nonsense lyric he had honed at rowdy performances across the South. Producer Bumps Blackwell was dumbstruck and (according to one version of the story) enlisted the service of Dorothy Labostrie to clean up the questionable lyrics. "Good booty" was replaced with "all rooty," and a few other changes made "Tutti Frutti" suitable for America's teenagers.

They loved it, and everyone wanted a scoop of "Tutti Frutti." Even Pat Boone had a hit with his cover version, but his "Tutti Frutti" is plain vanilla when compared with Little Richard's tour-de-hoarse rendition. This definitely ranks among the most uninhibited vocals in the history of rock and roll, up there with John Lennon's throat-abrading version of "Twist and Shout" and Roger Daltrey's nightmarish scream in "Won't Get Fooled Again." The future of popular music is prefigured here, but you can also hear the echoes of the past. "Tutti Frutti" belongs to that great tradition of New Orleans pseudo-gibberish party-time songs—from "Heebie Jeebies" to "Iko Iko." It just feels so fine ricocheting off the lips: Womp-bomp-a-loom-op-a-womp-bam-boom! The band plays with as much energy as they can muster, and drummer Earl Palmer pulls out all the stops. But Little Richard is in the zone, and could take it full court one-on-five right to the hoop. Seriously good booty!

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Wild Magnolias: Smoke My Peace Pipe (Smoke It Right)

The tradition of African-Americans dressing up as Indians at Mardi Gras time is a venerable one, and supposedly reflects a gesture of gratitude to Native Americans due to their help in securing freedom for runaway slaves, a historical relationship that cemented ties between these two groups. Also blacks sometimes circumvented discrimination by passing themselves off as members of one or another tribe. The tradition continues today, and in grand ceremonial fashion—it is not uncommon for a Mardi Gras Indian costume to cost several thousand dollars. The visual effect is heightened by singing, chanting, drumming and a general spirit of revelry.

The Wild Magnolias

Enter the Wild Magnolias. My source documents are strangely silent about the so-called "peace pipe" mentioned in this song. Are the Wild Magnolias referring to some time-honored Native American tradition? A powerful medicine? A shamanistic ritual of cosmic proportions? They are sticklers for ritual purity—admonishing the listener to "smoke it right"; but how do they get around all those local anti-smoking restrictions? You can't even light up a cigar in a smoke shop these days without a squad car arriving to take you away in 'cuffs. Of course, the music presents its own puzzle. Could this really be a traditional Native American song? Did they have electric bass back then? The uninitiated might be tempted to describe this track as watered-down 1970s soul music, but that shows how little they know.

In short, your humble music critic has too many unanswered questions. But a few more puffs on this peace pipe, and perhaps things will clear up a bit. Still I wonder: am I smoking it right?

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Hawketts (featuring Art Neville): Mardi Gras Mambo

This classic carnival tune was originally recorded by country artist Jodie Levens in 1953, but his incongruous steel-guitar backed version fell flat. Enter the Hawketts the following year with their light R&B version, enhanced with a bit of Caribbean flavor, and a Mardi Gras classic was born. It's hard to believe that Art Neville was only sixteen when he delivered this confident vocal—he sounds like a full-grown man with many Fat Tuesdays under his belt. But though he may not have been old enough to buy alcohol, his paean to Mardi Gras has inspired lots of drinkin', partyin' and fraternizin' with the opposite sex over the years. There is no bass on this track—drummer Boudreux chalks that up to the Hawketts' inexperience: "We didn't know that a band was supposed to have a bass player." But the horns, piano and drums lock together so perfectly that you may not even notice its absence. With a little more foresight, the Chess label (which originally released this recording) might have built the Hawketts into a big national act. As it turned out, they would lose interest, and Art Neville would move on to success with the Meters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas and the Neville Brothers. Even so, this hot New Orleans band lives on in spirit via this perennial carnival favorite.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sharkey Bonano: Royal Garden Blues

The celebrated maestro Arturo Toscanini, according to legend, once invited Sharkey Bonano to a rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic, asked him to play for the orchestra, and afterwards berated his trumpeters because they couldn't get as big and beautiful sound from their horns as the lowly jazz musician. I'm not sure if this ever happened, but Bonano certainly had a full-bodied tone, perfectly suited for New Orleans lead playing, which requires the trumpeter to cut through the layers of counterpoint, both working the melody line and swinging the band at the same time. Fans sometimes dismissed his musicianship because of his on-stage antics and skills as an entertainer. On this live recording, he is clapping and exhorting and setting the festive tone from the bandstand. But he works over "Royal Garden Blues" but good, and clarinetist Bujie Centobie gets in some hot licks too. Good enough for Toscanini; good enough for me.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson: Carnival Time

Fifty years after it was recorded, this song still shows up on the airwaves at Mardi Gras time in New Orleans. It was such a defining hit for Al Johnson that the song became his nickname. "Everybody's having fun," the song proclaims—except for Mr. 'Carnival Time' himself. This classic New Orleans single was long a sore spot for Johnson, who was unable to secure rights to the royalty stream until 1999. Instead, he earned a living as a cab driver while others celebrated with his song playing in the background. Gaining control over his composition hardly signaled a turnaround in Johnson's life, and he lost his house in Hurricane Katrina, was forced to relocate to Houston, and only recently got a Habitat for Humanity home back in his home town (in Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis's "Musicians' Village"). What a contrast between the man and his music. This is a quintessential good time, partyin' tune with a big back beat and an extroverted vocal that is the closest thing to an invitation to a saturnalia allowed on the radio, circa 1960. The recording quality is abysmal, even by standards of the era. But it sounds a little bit better after each bottle of beer.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Professor Longhair: Longhair's Blues-Rhumba

Professor Longhair, born as Henry Roeland Byrd in 1918, influenced a host of New Orleans piano players who sold more records than he ever did. The rap against the Prof is that his music was too strange for the general public. His love songs seemed constructed to inspire celibacy (an example of his lyrics: "Lookie there / She ain't got no hair"), and his piano playing would have resulted in jail time if the keyboard could file charges for battering and physical abuse.

In fact, 'Fess's whole career looks like a joke CV of oddities and eccentricities. He started his professional music-making helping to pitch a patent medicine, then he turned to tap dancing, then guitar, then drums, and finally—almost as an afterthought—he settled on the piano. For a while he was working as Little Lovin' Henry. And when he finally got a recording contract, 'Fess decided to call his band . . . the Shuffling Hungarians?

Don't try to make sense of it, just enjoy it. Here he plays a blues-rhumba, which is his own personal take on American vernacular keyboard music. It's not quite boogie, and it's not quite jazz. You could call it R&B, but it doesn't sound like what any of the other jive pianists were playing at the time. And what about that killin' B natural in the second chorus melody line? Just like so much else from New Orleans, Longhair's music makes up its own rules as it goes along. Yes, there is a band participating, but they are as unnecessary as an overcoat on a Gulf Coast summer day. The sideman were just trying to keep up with the Professor. Strange? Certainly. But make no mistake—this is classic Crescent City piano straight from the source.

August 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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New Orleans Rhythm Kings (with Jelly Roll Morton): Mr. Jelly Lord

Jelly Roll Morton was quick to boast of his achievements. He was a crack shot with a gun; had a winning stroke with a pull cue; he was the first to use brushes (fly-swatters in this instance) on the drums; he was the first master of ceremonies with witty sayings; and, of course, he claimed to have invented jazz. If you give half of Morton's claims some credence, he was a whole Tonight Show—host, band, and guest put together—on his own. I'd even let him do the commercials, given his skills at peddling his own stuff.

But Morton never bragged about participating in this first racially integrated jazz recording session—which left us this track, and a handful of others from a 1923 date in Richmond, Indiana. Yet this is a milestone event, much more important than anything you can do with a fly-swatter. And the music? Two different schools of thought exist about this historic collaboration. The conventional view is that Morton taught these white boys a thing or two, and loosened up their stiff conception of jazz. The opposing camp holds that the New Orleans Rhythm Kings already knew what they were doing, and that Morton was a sideman not a professor at the date.

Since Morton takes no solo here, he may seem to be playing a minor role. But his comping behind Roppolo (whose name is often misspelled as 'Rappolo") is excellent, and clearly inspires this under-appreciated clarinetist to some heartfelt playing. This interlude is followed by an inspired burst of ensemble double-time playing, where one can clearly hear Morton driving the band. These ten seconds are the most energized and cohesive part of the performance.

My verdict: This band didn't need Jelly Roll to teach them about jazz melody lines, which they understood and played lucidly, but he definitely enhanced the rhythmic flow of their work. Too bad this was just a one-time collaboration in the studio. They might have shaken up the jazz scene—and, of course, the general public in that segregated era—if they had taken their show on the road.

August 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: King Porter Stomp

This track—and this entire CD—deserve to be far better known. But Wynton has recorded prolifically, and by the time he delivered this end-of-the-millennium tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, the idea of "Marsalis does New Orleans" was old hat and few were paying close attention. Yet this music makes my short list of the best traditional jazz performances of the modern era.

In 1924, Jelly Roll Morton teamed up with King Oliver for a duet performance of this same song. Can any duo today surpass the "inventors" of New Orleans jazz at "King Porter Stomp"? Ah, Marsalis and Lewis do just that. Both are absolutely true to the inner meaning and spirit of Morton's classic tune, yet also are absolutely true to themselves—not an easy combination given the tendency to treat these old New Orleans songs like venerable relics from a golden age. You hear this and you can't help concluding that the golden age is right now, when an artist of this statue can take on the mantle of past masters and bring their music so vividly to life.

August 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nicholas Payton: When the Saints Go Marching In

Contrary to what you might think, Dixieland bands hate playing this tune. Back in the 1960s, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band demanded a five dollar tip before they would even consider performing it, but would only require one buck for "Clarinet Marmalade." One solution for jaded trad players is to banish it from the repertoire—send those saints marching out—but the other approach is to follow Payton's formula. Change the chords and rhythms so that it becomes an entirely new song. Nothing remains of the original progression on this recording. You won't hear any trad band try this kind of reharmonization, and along with the eight-to-the-bar long count feel of the pulse, the result is a version of "Saints" that sounds more at home in Rio than the French Quarter. Payton's trumpet work is big, brassy and beautiful, and stands in marked contrast to the work of those horn players who think that you need to run roughshod over a tune if you want to play it in real N'awlins style. But this artist is a big enough talent to reinvent the tradition and refract it through his own personal aesthetic, as he demonstrates once again on this track.

August 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Neville Brothers: Shake Your Tambourine

In 1981, the same year the Columbia discovered the Marsalis brothers, the folks at A&M signed another group of New Orleans siblings. The Neville Brothers were unlikely to become the next teenage sensation—Art (born in 1937) was older than Wynton and Branford put together—but that didn't stop them from attracting a younger audience with their fervent mixture of R&B, funk, reggae, rock and Louisiana swamp sounds. On this live track, the Nevilles bring a little bit of New Orleans on the road, and successfully translate their street party sound on to the big stage. The band is tight and the vocals blend with that appealing consonance that is a characteristic of vocal groups made up of siblings. And it is always better to experience this type of music in performance rather than in the sterility of the studio. New Orleans has been honored with many admirable musical ambassadors over the years, but few have done more to expose the city's distinctive sounds to more people than these talented brothers.

August 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Papa Mutt Carey: Ostrich Walk

With two Papas (Papa Mutt Carey and Pops Foster) and a Baby (Dodds) on hand—each of them a New Orleans pioneer of the music—you will either get plenty of family feeling or a nasty paternity suit. Fortunately no DNA testing is required here. Carey runs the band with a light touch, and gives ample solo space and plenty of breaks to his colleagues. Clarinetist Albert Nicholas is especially impressive, both for his lovely tone and his coherent improvisation. Carey thrives on the New Orleans counterpoint, although you can also hear the influence of the Swing Era aesthetic on this track. But make no mistake: unlike other trad jazz wannabes of the era, these fellows were there at the start. Carey was working with Kid Ory long before the first jazz recordings were made, and was a participant at the first session to feature African-Americans playing jazz music. But you don't need a history book in hand to enjoy this track. And, youngsters, you could learn a thing or two about phrasing if you supplemented your daily dose of Coltrane with at least a taste of this sweet ol' music.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band: Panama

I wouldn't want to suggest for one minute that the venerated Preservation Hall Jazz Band, put together by Sweet Emma Barrett's around the time of this recording, was a marketing-driven concept targeted at tourists and other people who know nothing about the real history of New Orleans jazz. I will merely point out that, the year before this record was made, Sweet Emma was performing at Disneyland. Hell, you know it has to be authentic if Walt and his Anaheim brain trust approved of it. Then there is the building, the famous Preservation Hall, which was 214 years old when this music was made (in Minneapolis; shhh, don't tell anyone)—an edifice that had no connection with this jazz ensemble for 211 of those years. But if those walls could only speak...they would at least demand a cut of the action.

So what if the Preservation Hall Jazz Band came after "So What." It's the spirit that counts. And occasionally a bit of that spirit rises to the fore here. William Tyers's "Panama" is much beloved by fans of ragtime and early jazz, and it is played fast and loose for the Lake Wobegon crowd on this recording, with lots of hot New Orleans counterpoint. The horns are convincing in their anachronistic stylings. The weakest point is the bandleader. I'm not sure how Sweet Emma got her nickname, but it certainly didn't come from the touch her fingers display at the keyboard—they are about as subtle as ten falling bowling pins. But the band reaches the end of the song without any noticeable casualties, and lives to swing another day. There is, of course, no truth to the rumor that Jimmy Carter tried to give this version of "Panama" back with the canal, only to have Torrijos reject the offer.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Preservation Hall Jazz Band: Shake It and Break It

The resurgence of interest in early New Orleans jazz by scholars and their attempts to recreate the early sounds of the music started some four decades before this track was recorded. By the time we get to this 1981 recording, the opening song on an album for the dominant multinational music corporation of its day, even the revivalists needed some reviving. For my part, I refuse to believe that Columbia's advocacy of this ensemble had anything to do with their success with the 1981 debut of a prominent young New Orleans trumpeter whose initials are W.M., and the label's coincidental signing of a whole roster of other artists from the Big Easy. Those folks in the big offices just love the music....

Well, this song will at least get grandpa perking up his ears, and maybe even out of his easy chair. If Percy Humphrey's vocal were any grittier, you could sand down at least two of the exterior walls of Preservation Hall with it. And brother Willie's clarinet solo is fine and fluttery, with bird-call like figures, friendly patterns, and even a few phrases that might have been improvised. Jazz purists will have little patience for the 1960s-era institution masquerading as an authentic piece of early New Orleans history, but only a sourpuss would denounce all this lighthearted fun. And it was probably better that the tourists spent their money at Preservation Hall than down at Big Daddy's Gentlemen's Club.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Wild Tchoupitoulas: Big Chief Got a Golden Crown

The tradition of Mardi Gras Indians - revelers, organized into tribes, who wear elaborate costumes inspired by Native American ceremonial attire - predates the arrival of jazz and blues on the local scene. But all traditions are susceptible to updating, and this one is no exception. Today women are allowed into these previously men-only groups, and the songs borrow from contemporary stylings. This track is that odd hybrid: a New Orleans reggae tune. Makes you wonder whether these Indians come from the West Indies. A catchy call-and-response is made all the tastier by the presence of a very hot back-up band. Of course, this Big Chief (George Landry) had a distinct advantage over his rivals: his nephews are the Neville Brothers. The positive critical response to this recording played an important role in spurring them to form their eponymous band.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Dirty Dozen Brass Band (with Dr. John): It's All Over Now

The Rolling Stones

We all know that the Rolling Stones can "borrow" music from New Orleans. So why can't New Orleans musicians do the same in return? Here the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, joined by Dr. John, delivers a spirited rendition of "It's All Over Now," which served as the British rockers' first number one single back in '64. Of course, the Stones had picked it up from the Womack brothers, so this song has crossed the Big Pond enough times to earn frequent flyer miles and a free upgrade.

The tradition of New Orleans brass bands is a venerable one, and the Dirty Dozen are the most celebrated practitioners of the modern era. They are not afraid to update the sound, and add a full rhythm section when necessary, although everyone here except the good Doctor is playing an instrument that can be held in two hands and carried down Canal Street. Besides, who needs a stinkin' electric bass when a sousaphone is lying around? The funky march beat is a New Orleans trademark, and no one does it better than this ensemble. Dr. John is in top form, and proves that he is one of the few singers who can take a song from Mick Jagger and make it sound even grittier and more lowdown. Parade music meets dance hall funk, and everyone is a winner.

August 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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