How La La Became A Prince
The Prince and his posse
"Gettin' Married Soon" (Charley Julien)
Prince La La, A.F.O., 1962
Gone back to La La Land
Yes, it’s another fractured music business fairytale. As promised in my prior post on Oliver Morgan’s “Who Shot The La La”, here’s one of the precious few sides from Prince La La a/k/a Lawrence Nelson. Released in 1962, “Gettin’ Married Soon” b/w “Come Back To Me” was his second and last single. As I told you, or you may already have known, he died under questionable circumstances the year after its release.
Nelson’s casual, rough and ready voice is similar to several other New Orleans singers of the era: Jessie Hill, Chris Kenner, Alvin Robinson, and Oliver Morgan. Their styles went well with the sauntering popeye tunes of the day. What set La La apart was the high- pitched squeal he would interject from time to time that definitely goosed up his performances, as you can hear. “Gettin’ Married Soon” was written by Charley Julien a/k/a Jimmy Jules a/k/a Pistol, who also recorded several good sides for A.F. O. and other local labels. While the session band is only noted on the single as the “AFO Studio Combo”, we know that they comprised mostly the co-owners of the label, such as Red Tyler on sax, Melvin Lastie on trumpet/cornet, Peter “Chuck” Badie on bass, John Boudreaux on drums, among others. Overseeing the sessions was the head of the label, legendary producer and music director Harold Batiste.
Interestingly, Lawrence Nelson came to record by accident. In 1961, Jessie Hill, to whom he was related, had discovered Barbara George and brought her in for her first session on the new A.F.O.(All For One) label. She was to record one of Nelson’s songs; and Hill was using him to demonstrate it to George. When Batiste and the crew heard Nelson sing, they decided to record him on the song. So, instead, George did one of her own, “I Know”.
The A.F. O. staff developed Nelson’s stage name (using his nickname, La La) and African prince/Mardi Gras costuming (see photo), based on the spirit of another song he recorded written by Hill, the percussive, hypnotic “Need You”, which was not released at the time. In short order, Prince La La’s first A. F. O. session became the label’s first release, “She Put The Hurt On Me” b/w “Don’t You Know Little Girl”, which charted nationally. George’s record did even better, going to #1. The label had burst onto the scene and great things might have been in the cards for La La and A.F. O. But, the singer died in 1963 at age 27; and, strangely, the label, and its At Last subsidiary, went under the same year. Although founded by musicians for musicians to give them a bigger slice of the music business pie, A.F. O. became the victim of a bad distribution deal with Juggy Murray at Sue Records. While he had helped them make “I Know” a big hit, Murray was not a keeper of the All For One faith. He convinced Barbara George to sign with him, did not give Batiste and his fellow musician/owners all their money, then cancelled the distribution agreement. Having lost its two hit makers, funding, and access to national markets, only several more singles were issued before the label folded.
There’s a lot of history wrapped up in just a few recordings by this obscure but influential singer, who for a time became a prince of sorts. Harold Batiste has stated that Prince La La’s costumes and performance of “Need You”, with its evocation of New Orleans’ musical and mystical roots, was carried through into the Dr. John persona that Mac Rebennack created, working with Jessie Hill and Batiste in Los Angeles in the later 1960’s. Rebennack had known La La and worked with A.F. O., as well. You can hear “Need You” and another unreleased Prince La La track, “Things Have Changed”, on the Ace (UK) three CD Gumbo Stew series, which also has many of the sides left in the can after the demise of the label, plus some good stuff Batiste produced later in California. Prince La La’s two A. F. O. releases can be found, ironically, on EMI's The Sue Records Story CD box set, which seems to be out of print.