"The Patriotic Flag Waiver" by Dr. John
Before Ozzy was biting heads off bats, Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack Jr.’s mystical, voodoo-rock 1960s stage shows featured people biting the heads off chickens. A decade earlier, he was a sought-out young session musician who played guitar and piano on recordings for Professor Longhair (his longtime idol), Joe Tex, and others. The good Doctor found himself wanted by the New Orleans authorities later in the ’60s, so he set up shop as a session pianist in Los Angeles (a gunshot wound to the hand had prompted him to give up the guitar).
Dr. John quickly grew bored and homesick out West, recording with acts like Sonny & Cher and other artists whose music was a far cry from that of his native New Orleans. He and a group of other New Orleans expats began recording material for 1968’s Gris-Gris, a thematic nod to the melting pot of the Crescent City, replete with Longhair-inspired r&b, incantatory backing vocals, hauntingly funky percussion and guitar, and Rebennack’s warm signature growl. The exotic brew was especially embraced by psychedelic rock fans of the time, and Dr. John’s career took off.
Subsequent stage shows and tours incorporated intricate theatrics meant to emulate New Orleans parades, mores, and culture. Dr. John adapted the costumes, beads, and headdresses of his Mardi Gras Indian friends, keeping the voodoo persona alive for his follow-up album Babylon, which includes “The Patriotic Flag Waiver.” Eventually he moved away from this flamboyant character and proved his worth as one of the great traditional New Orleans pianists, releasing funky r&b numbers like his most famous recording, In the Right Place, backed by The Meters, with Allen Toussaint producing.
Over the next decade, Dr. John released a slew of material showcasing a more traditional brand of New Orleans r&b standards. He continued to record, produce, write, and collaborate with contemporaries like The Rolling Stones, Levon Helm, Neil Diamond, James Taylor, and Van Morrison, occasionally lending his voice and compositions to commercial jingles, TV shows, and films. Dr. John revived his Gris-Gris persona in Locked Down, his most recent album, produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. It’s a spooky, carnal, primal piece of rock & roll that proves Dr. John can still capture the spirit of New Orleans.
“A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” by Robert Pete Williams
Williams (1972). Photo by James LaRocca. Courtesy of Johnnie Allan and the Center for Louisiana Studies, UL Lafayette.
Robert Pete Williams came from a family of sharecroppers in Zachary, Louisiana, a small town east of Baton Rouge whose first census in 1914 (also the year of Williams’s birth) reported a population of only 419. He picked cotton and cut sugar cane over the course of his childhood, and moved on to the lumberyards as a young man, not picking up a guitar until he was twenty. He was sent to Angola Penitentiary for shooting a white man in a bar fight. It was an act of self-defense, but Williams, an illiterate black man in 1955 Louisiana, received a life sentence.
Ethnomusicologists Harry Oster and Richard B. Allen were enthralled by Williams’s music, which they recorded for their album, Angola Prisoners’ Blues. They petitioned the governor on the bluesman’s behalf, just as John and Alan Lomax had done for Leadbelly, who had served time in the very same institution. Williams was paroled in 1959 under the supervision of a local farmer and became a favorite among blues fans. Although he was kept in virtual servitude by his parole, he managed to record Free Again, the album that includes “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.”
Williams’s singing was deeply moving, his guitar stylistically untraceable and beautifully subtle. His playing was distinctly different rhythmically from blues styles of the Delta, Texas, or Georgia, and featured progressions in D minor, a tuning unknown to the blues of the time. Williams enjoyed considerable popularity with the folk revival of the early ’60s, but his style was difficult to replicate and for some was inaccessible, so Williams never claimed as many ardent votaries as bluesmen like Robert Johnson. Only daring artists—Captain Beefheart for one—have tried to cover him. Peter Guralnick writes in Feel Like Going Home that it’s “difficult to approve the banalities of most blues singers after listening to Robert Pete Williams. More than anyone else, he shatters the conventions of the form and refuses to rely upon any of the clichés, either of music or of lyric, which bluesman after bluesman will evoke.”
"The Eyes of Love" by Margie Singleton
Leon Ashley and Margie Singleton (ca. 1980). Courtesy of Margie Singleton.
Margaret Louis Ebey was born in 1935 in Coushatta, Louisiana, and was only thirteen when she married Shelby Singleton. Early in their marriage, the couple worked in a munitions plant outside Shreveport that supplied the Korean War effort. After Singleton gave birth to their first son in 1950, she began to toil away at her guitar, writing songs. Both Singletons became deeply involved in the area’s vibrant music industry, with Margie performing and recording while Shelby established himself as a tenacious A&R man and record label executive.
Margie cut her first songs in 1957, and made her radio debut on the Louisiana Hayride later that year. Broadcasting at fifty thousand watts from Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium, the Louisiana Hayride was able to transmit premier country and rockabilly acts across twenty-eight states, reaching cities as far west as Los Angeles and as far north as Chicago. Credited with jump-starting the careers of musicians like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and such Louisiana greats as Webb Pierce and Faron Young, the Hayride in some respects rivaled the Grand Ole Opry during the 1950s. The show folded as television made inroads into the region, but Margie’s career began just in time to ride the Hayride’s coattails. “The Eyes of Love” reached Billboard’s Top 20 for country and western in 1959. Margie and Shelby divorced, and he eventually bought Sun Records from Sam Phillips. Margie Singleton’s later hits included duets with George Jones and Faron Young, and a version of “Ode to Billie Joe.”
“Gator Bait” by The Gaturs
The Gaturs (1973). Photo by Michael P. Smith. Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.
The Gaturs was a short-lived, jazz-infused funk outfit that released only a handful of singles in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but the group’s legacy still commands a sizable cult following, and you’d be hard-pressed not to find them on a quality New Orleans funk compilation. The band was essentially a collaboration between two cousins, Ulis Gaines and the late, great Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton—hence the name “Ga-Turs.” Many would argue that their music is just as important to the New Orleans funk idiom as that of The Meters.
Willie Tee had already made a considerable splash on the music scene in the 1960s, with Top 20 r&b hits like “Teasin’ You” and “Thank You John,” both released by Atlantic. Aside from The Gaturs, Willie Tee released a solo LP titled I’m Only A Man. But perhaps his greatest contribution to New Orleans funk came in 1974, when he began co-writing and producing material for the legendary Mardi Gras Indian group The Wild Magnolias. The Wild Magnolias was partially the brainchild of Quint Davis, one of the founders of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, who hooked up the ritualistic crew led by Big Chief Bo Dollis with an all-star r&b contingent consisting of Willie Tee, his brother Earl Turbinton, Jr. (who was also in The Gaturs), guitar whiz Snooks Eaglin, and a hot rhythm section.
The Wild Magnolias’ self-titled LP was wildly popular, with a potent mix of funk and New Orleans tradition. It led to the subsequent They Call Us Wildalbum. Willie Tee continued to write, produce, release, and play music, collaborating with artists such as Dr. John and serving as artist-in-residence at Princeton after being temporarily uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. He died of colon cancer in 2007 at the age of sixty-three, just weeks after his brother Earl’s death. None of the original Gaturs are alive today, but their legacy lives on in the hearts of New Orleans funk fans. Much of Willie Tee’s work has also been sampled by the likes of Lil Wayne, Houston’s Geto Boys, and Sean Combs, who borrowed some of the riffs and beats from The Gaturs’ “Concentrate” for his 1997 album No Way Out.
"Shirley" by John Fred and the Playboys
John Fred (top left) and bandmates (1959). Courtesy of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
John Fred Gourrier was a tall, gangly teen from Baton Rouge, who wowed local audiences at rec hall and high-school dances with his lively vocals. Influenced by both the burgeoning rock & roll scene and r&b greats like Fats Domino, John Fred suddenly found himself in Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio in New Orleans cutting “Shirley,” his first recording, at age sixteen. Fats Domino had just recorded “Whole Lotta Loving,” and his backing band stuck around to play on the session.
“Shirley” broke Billboard’s Hot 100, too, landing a spot at No. 82 in 1958. Gourrier was suddenly a rising star, traveling to New York to appear on Alan Freed’s radio show, but he declined an invitation from American Bandstand, opting instead to help his team win a state basketball championship. Gourrier, whose father played baseball for the Detroit Tigers, attended college on an athletic scholarship and continued to make music with his band. In 1968, recording as John Fred and His Playboy Band, he released “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),” a soulful, poppy parody of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The song was a hit and knocked the Fab Four’s “Hello, Goodbye” off its perch at the top of the Hot 100 chart.
"Real Live Living Hurtin' Man" by Johnny Adams
Text by Geoffery Himes
Johnny Adams (ca. 1994). Photo by Rick Oliver.
Aaron Neville has been the face of New Orleans soul for the past fifty years. For most of those years, Johnny Adams was every bit Neville’s equal. They were very different: Neville was built like a linebacker; Adams was more like a wide receiver, tall and thin with long arms. Neville prefers sleeveless T-shirts, while Adams dressed in a three-piece suit and tie with a matching handkerchief. Neville is a high tenor specializing in creamy ballads, while Adams was a low tenor adept at raspy blues. When Neville leaps into his falsetto, he seems to be swooning. Adams’s falsetto squealed with nervous excitement.
In the ’60s, each man recorded a batch of Southern soul singles on tiny regional labels, and each had a fluke hit. Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is” from 1966 went to No. 2, while Adams’s 1969 “Reconsider Me” made it to No. 28 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Adams recorded “Reconsider Me” for SSS International, a subsidiary of Sun Records after the legendary label was bought by Shelby Singleton and moved to Nashville. The song, an odd 6/8 r&b take on a twangy country ballad, was written by Mira Smith and Margaret Lewis (Lewis’s rarely heard version is on this issue’s CD). He followed it with three more Top 40 r&b hits on SSS, then “Real Live Living Hurtin’ Man,” also written by Smith and Lewis. That song didn’t chart, but it’s a terrific showcase for Adams.
He begins calmly, declaring, “I’m not a bridge, made out of steel / That you can cross over, back and forth, just as you feel.” By the end of that couplet, his agitation shows as he edges ahead of the relaxed groove. When he belts out the chorus in a gospel wail, he’s way out in front of the beat, insisting that his feelings be taken seriously, demanding that he be recognized as a “real live living hurtin’ man.” He calms down for each verse, slipping back into the groove, only to lose his cool again on each chorus. He’s singing to a woman who has done him wrong, but he’s also singing to a Jim Crow South and to a music industry that never gave him his due. “I’m a man,” he asserts in his manic falsetto. “I’m a man.”
By the mid-’70s, Adams was living in the New Orleans projects and singing with whatever band he could pull together. In 1984, he was signed by Rounder Records for nine consistently fine albums overseen by producer Scott Billington. The Massachusetts roots-music indie label was in no position to deliver radio hits, but they did get Adams on the international festival and nightclub circuit and into record chains everywhere.
“When I met him,” Billington says, “he was at the tail end of a successful career. His main gig was midnight to five at this dive, Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge, but his voice was still amazing. He was a gospel singer and a jazz singer. He’d play the dives, but he could also do scat trombone solos at Snug Harbor, New Orleans’s top jazz club. There was a lot more to Johnny than what he had shown.”
Billington supplied Adams with good material and terrific New Orleans musicians, and trusted the singer’s instincts to make the most of the opportunity. Adams found the drama in every song, often presenting a cool character who melts under pressure. “At the end of his life,” Billington declares, “Johnny stopped thinking of his voice as a hustle and it dawned on him that maybe he was an artist. If I can cite one thing I’m proud of out of all my years at Rounder, that would be it: Johnny’s eventual awareness of himself as an artist.”
Adams recorded his final Rounder album, Man of My Word, in 1998 while losing a fight with prostate cancer. That album climaxed with an a cappella hymn, “Never Alone,” featuring Adams singing with his longtime friend and rival, Aaron Neville. The cancer finally conquered Adams on September 14, 1998, and Neville sang at the funeral in New Orleans. “He was the baddest dude in the world,” Neville told the Times-Picayune. “I told him that to his face. Johnny would be hitting notes that there was no way in the world I would try; I think he reached up to the sky to get them.”