In Search of Shoo Rah
What or who is Shoo Rah (aka Shu Ra or Shoo-rah)? I have yet to find out. It appears in at least five songs by New Orleans artists, four of which we’ll hear in this and the next few posts. The Crescent City has always been a fertile source of novelty tunes, nonsense lyrics, and secret languages (the Mardi Gras Indian songs and chants, for example). I don’t think Shoo Rah has MG Indian origins; and it may just be euphonious nonsense used to spice up a few songs. Or is something else going on? If you couldn’t care less about that, these tunes, of course, can be enjoyed at face value without delving into their more mysterious charms.
"Shu Rah" (A. Domino - D. Bartholomew)
Fats Domino, Imperial 5734, 1961
We begin with the earliest example I’ve found, "Shu Rah", written by the Fat Man and Dave Bartholomew. They turn the song out as kind of a rockin’ square dance. It’s a simple tune with repetitive lyrics and definite reminders of a child’s game song. And perhaps that’s where Shoo Rah started. Years ago, my ex-wife, a music educator, heard me playing some of these songs and commented that they sounded like some children’s playground chants that she had studied. She never could pin the song lyrics down to a specific chant; but she guessed that it could have been one peculiar to New Orleans kids at one time and filtered into the city’s popular music that way. Since it appeals mainly to the young, pop music has often co-opted the words and/or melodies of children’s songs, nursery rhymes and the like, so her idea makes sense to me. Or, as this song suggests, was Shu Ra a local dance fad that never caught on anywhere else. Maybe a HOTG native can confirm or shoot down this theory some day.
Fats Domino should need no introduction. He is still a cultural icon, even though his heyday as a rock 'n' roll progenitor with enormous record sales (in excess of 40 million by 1958) ended fairly soon after this record was released. With his thick Creole accent, it is surprising that he connected so well with a mass audience; but thatwarm, friendly voice, combined with great songs, a simple, but powerful piano style, and backup by Dave Bartholomew’s cast of top notch session players, gave him an immediately identifiable, attention-grabbing sound that people still love to hear.
Recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans in 1960, the song features Lee Allen on the sax solo. Cornelius “Tenoo” Coleman’s on drums, and guitarist Roy Montrell.
"Shoo Rah" (Tessie Mae Marshall)
Chris Kenner, Instant 3283, 1967
Recorded six years later, our second “Shoo Rah” comes from Chris Kenner and is one of his final sides for the Instant label, probably produced by Sax Kari. I thank Larry Grogan of the Funky 16 Corners webzine and associated blog for that factoid. He’s got a nice piece on another Chris Kenner Instant side on the latest installment of his ‘zine. Talking about it with him jogged my memory about this song and all the others.
Kenner’s lyrics here have some similarity to Domino’s version, but with a bit more mature subject matter - more a mating call than a dance call; but there is still a sing-songish quality to it. With its tom-tom heavy, modified Bo Diddly beat, the music is funkier, too. Maybe Chris just made some changes to that older Fats song in order to claim it as his own; or they both may have been mining the same childhood source. Anyway, the prolific songwriter used his wife’s maiden name for the writing credit, probably to get around sharing potential royalties with Domino, to whom he was contractually obligated.
God love him, Chris Kenner wrote and sang some great songs in his day: “Sick and Tired” (covered by Fats), “I Like It Like That”, “Something You Got”, and “Land Of A Thousand Dances”, to name just his most widely known. But he really wasn’t much of singer, often sounding like he’d had a few too many, probably because he had. Much of the time, he seems to have lived on or near the streets, squandering any royalties he got and surely getting screwed out of many more; but he was a truly gifted wino who somehow contributed significantly to the music of his hometown in spite of his demons.
In my next installment, we’ll hear Allen Toussaint’s radical transformation of Shoo Rah into something totally uplifting and wholly his own, but no less danceable and mysterious. So check back. . . .