NEW ORLEANS' ROLE IN ROCK:
HALL OF FAME EMBRACES CRESCENT CITY
IN BLACK HISTORY MONTH SERIES
Earl Palmer, Cosimo Matassa, Dr. John and Deacon John
Speak, Perform at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, located on America's "North Coast" in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, is a futuristic looking structure teetering on the vast, cool sheen of Lake Erie. Designed by I.M. Pei, it is architecturally and geographically separate from the crumbling buildings on New Orleans' North Rampart Street where important early rock and roll recordings were made. But a new executive at the Rock Hall, as it is called here, is working to bring the two closer together.
Warren Zanes began serving as the Rock Hall's Vice President of Education on November 1, and has been vocal about his mission. In a Cleveland Free Times article (12-2-03), he stated he would "like to be able to give a sense that behind the stars there's this machinery" and "to give a sense of the whole community behind a hit record." Alongside myriad job duties he plans to spotlight the roles of sidemen, producers, songwriters, record company executives and others without whom big stars may never have enjoyed acclaim. Putting his money where his mouth is, the first program under Zanes' watch was a three-day series championing some of the Crescent City's finest unsung heroes of rock-n-roll.
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DO YOU WANNA JUMP CHILDREN?
The series kicked off February 10 with the Cleveland premiere of "Deacon John's Jump Blues," the award-winning concert movie featuring Deacon John Moore, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Davell Crawford, Tricia Boutte, and other outstanding New Orleans entertainers. In addressing the audience of 15-20 people who braved high winds and icy temperatures, Zanes gave the film an intro befitting a Sundance Film Festival darling, zealously asserting that "New Orleans is the capital of American music."
Shown in the Rock Hall's spacious but intimate-feeling theatre, the film was well received. There was audible foot tapping during a rollicking rendition of Dave Bartholomew's "Someday," and a palpable reaction to the late great Johnny Adams' ballad, "Losing Battle." The audience especially got a kick out of Deacon John's fancy footwork, laughing out loud as he pulled out some dated dirty dance moves during the Spiders' classic, "I Didn't Want To Do It." Three older women down in front sang along to all three verses of "Stagger Lee." Incredibly, the entire audience stayed until the very end of the film reading every last credit, a fact Zanes pointedly mentioned when addressing the audience the following night.
COSIMO'S 'SWEET SPOT'
Day Two featured "An Evening With Earl Palmer with Special Guest Cosimo Matassa" in the same theatre, with New Orleans writer Jeff Hannusch serving as moderator. (Earlier in the day Zanes and 2000 Hall of Fame Inductee Palmer were interviewed on the local NPR-affiliate WCPN, with Dr. John joining them by telephone). Before bringing out the guests of honor to the talk show-type set, Zanes again made a point of emphasizing New Orleans' impact on American music and more specifically, rock and roll. He declared Palmer and Matassa "national treasures," and stressed just how lucky attendees should feel to be in the midst of these cultural heroes.
Before an audience numbering about 60 attentive souls Palmer and Matassa embarked on a two-hour session accented with unabashed mutual admiration. In his smooth gentleman's drawl, Earl explained how he was born in New Orleans' Charity Hospital in a "town of drummers and trumpeters" and the ABCs of his early childhood, including tap dancing on Bourbon Street at age four, memories of working with his mother and aunt in vaudeville, and of course, the food.
Cosimo and Earl discussed many uniquely Orleanian subjects, including the Grunewald School of Music at St. Charles and Louisiana Avenues, which they portrayed as a "musician factory," and the old "Black Hand" crime syndicate which intimidated with the phrase pronounced, "Mas-ee-NO," Italian for "if you don't!" They also mentioned their "work cheap, work often" ethic, revealing the paltry sums they were paid for backing what became smash hit sensations such as Fats Domino and Little Richard. Union scale earned Earl $41.25 for a four-song session. The famed J&M Studios, with Cos on hand for engineering, went for $15 per hour.
Hannusch tossed out the names of some successful New Orleans musicians that both men had worked with at the hit making J&M and asked them to comment.
On 1986 Inductee Fats Domino: Both men agreed that if the extremely shy Fat Man hadn't had someone pushing him the world would have never known about him.
On Smiley Lewis Cos commented, "It was a fitting name. Super nice guy. Smiley's problem was white artists kept doing his stuff and getting hits. Elvis did that to him twice."
On Lloyd Price, a 1998 Inductee, they related an (unconfirmed) tale of the singer conducting business with a shady partner that led to an unfortunate confrontation with New York City gangsters. Cos: "He never made another record after that."
On achieving a recording technique that became associated with the sound of early rock and roll records Cos cited "OJT" (On the Job Training) which often meant literally stumbling into successful processes. "We were always looking for that 'sweet spot' in the studio where it would all come together," he recalled with a chuckle. The following night Dr. John would mention how Cosimo always "made it plain" to studio personnel. "If a guy wanted to hear more saxophone in the mix," he said, "Cos would say the simplest things: 'Play louder.' 'Stand closer to the microphone.' 'Turn the knob up.' Nobody else even thought of that stuff!"
FROM THE DEW DROP TO THE ONE STOP
Apparently the multi-handled Night Tripper carries some weight in these parts as "An Evening with Dr. John with Special Guest Deacon John Moore" was sold out to a diverse crowd well in advance. Before the presentation, vintage New Orleans rock and rhythm & blues played over the P.A. and an expectant party vibe prevailed. With another glowing introduction from Zanes, the artists were brought out to whoops and hollers. Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack coolly made his way out, dressed in a dark gray suit, the only concessions to his trippy stage image being his K&B purple shirt and his ever present gris gris'd walking stick. Deacon John was natty from his hat to his two tones in a snazzy navy, powder blue and cream ensemble and played peek-a-boo with the amused audience before finally strutting to the chair behind his microphone.
Deacon John, who we learned took his name from Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight," was born to be in front of an audience. Never one to camouflage his high-voltage personality, his speech punctuated the presentation like fireworks as the men discussed their colorful careers. With prompting from Hannusch, again serving as moderator, Mac spoke of his 3rd ward childhood where "music was a way of life." Moore, reared in a house with 13 children, related boyhood memories of listening to legendary WLAC-Nashville nightly on a forbidden transistor radio, fueling a burning desire to perform.
At times Moore upstaged the cool, laid back Mac as he related stories in the manner of a vaudeville comedian with perfect punch line timing. The standing room only crowd roared with laughter but it remained uncertain if they understood these were scenes snatched from real life or thought they were playing along with the conjures of a wild imagination, like when Deacon John spoke of opening for Bobby "Blue" Bland at the Dew Drop and for kicks, played all of Bland's hits before the headliner had the chance.
When Mac complained that legendary Dew Drop sensation Patsy Vidalia "made off with quite a number of my girlfriends," the audience howled though it was evident they didn't know that Patsy was a cross dressing male. Of course, it didn't exactly matter. All stories were related in a vivid fashion and peppered with gravelly Mac-isms such as "Yes, I weren't!" and "I was homeless before it was fashionable." On his boyhood meeting of his idol Professor Longhair he told how he and his father "rolled up on the man as he was sittin' on a log, burnin' up. My pa said 'sit in the car' and I didn't."
The presentation did more than entertain however, it also informed. Much light was shed upon Deacon John's origins, his work as a session man and as a live performer.
Both spoke of hustling gigs at a young age, from playing live in nightclubs to getting on records. "From the Dew Drop to the One Stop" [Record Store] was that goal's mantra.
They also discussed the imbroglios spawned from dealing with segregated musicians' unions, of performers who inspired them and of the man who was unwittingly making history, Cosimo Matassa.
"Cos knew everything that went on in his studio," declared an animated Mac when sharing teenage memories of living and breathing J&M, where he came through the ranks first as a muffaletta sandwich runner and finally, a songwriter and A&R man. "I wouldn't have been no record producer unless I'd been hanging out at Cos,'" he said. As for nostalgia buffs bemoaning technical progress in studio recording since those days, he shrugged. "You can't go back."
TWO WAY POCKY WAY
But after much fun telling, it was time to show. The stage was set with a gleaming black grand piano and three guitars, an acoustic, an Epiphone and a Stratocaster. Though Deac and Mac have known each other for decades they rarely find an opportunity to share a stage but like all seasoned New Orleans cats, the two played together like they'd always been doing it.
Like a spy boy and a wild man they called out to the ancestors and a New Orleans gang arrived in full supernatural force. The two performers, trading on and off, invoked the spirits of Paul Gayten, Professor Longhair, Champion Jack Dupree, Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones, James "Sugarboy" Crawford, James Booker, Earl King, Chris Kenner, Alvin "Shine" Robinson, Walter "Papoose" Nelson, Edgar Blanchard and, for good measure, Doc Pomus. As they proudly paraded these musical geniuses through discussion and performances, they also brought along Huey "Piano" Smith, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Snooks Eaglin, Harold Battiste, and Henry Butler (who received a hearty amount of applause upon the mention of his name).
Dr. John performed "Tipitina," a Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns medley straight off of "Gumbo," and the Earl King classic "Let The Good Times Roll." When it came to demonstrating James Booker, Mac started several times on different tunes then stopped to explain, "Booker had too many things going to pin a style on him."
Deacon John performed the Frogman Henry hit "I Ain't Got No Home" (with Mac accompanying), a string of Chris Kenner hits, Guitar Slim's "The Things I Used To Do" and a spirited medley of Earl King numbers.
No doubt the ancestors were as pleased as the audience. Toward the end of the two-hour presentation, there was a rushed Q&A segment. The first question asked was, "Do you know any more songs?"
Deacon John laughed along with everyone else and invited one and all down to Louisiana to see for themselves: "In New Orleans we do it all night long! We never close!" he wildly enthused. The crowd cheered. These guys should work for the Chamber of Commerce.
WHO'S GONNA HELP BROTHER GET FURTHER?
New Orleans music and culture is sought after and enjoyed beyond Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and lost weekends in the French Quarter. The music sparks divine flashbacks for anyone who has experienced it first hand. During the Rock Hall programs one could feel its presence, beckoning to join in the frolic. Traditionally, through neglect by the same mainstream that has benefited from the seeds planted here, the very essence of New Orleans music culture - these "national treasures-" has been obscured. Our musicians must not continue to fall prey to the same deterioration by neglect that Rampart Street architecture has suffered, only to be propped up and painted far past their prime. That said, it is encouraging to see a "corporate" institution like the Rock Hall demonstrate proper and ample reverence to what hopefully will no longer be well-kept secrets of an elite hipster set.
New Orleans has a sincere ally in Warren Zanes. He is obviously smitten by the music that comes from this magical place but also understands its place in history for shaping American music and thus, American culture. He is in a position to place the spotlight where it is so richly deserved and the city is high on his "to do" list. Let's hope he finds people to cooperate in making this vision a reality, and that this is only the first step in making our artists household names. Future efforts should be cheerfully supported. It can only mean good for everyone who lives and plays in the "Capital of American Music."
And maybe we'll finally see Cosimo Matassa inducted!
Nita Ketner is a freelance writer living in Cleveland, OH. During her 13+ years in New Orleans she was a WWOZ-FM programmer, manager of the ReBirth Brass Band and music writer. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.