February 20, 2006

Throw My Baby Out The Window, Let Those Joints Burn Down!

"Carnival Time" (Johnson - Ruffino)
Al Johson, Ron 967, 196?

Time's up

If you were going to be a one-hit-wonder in New Orleans, then it should have been good to do it like Al Johnson and have your song become a Mardi Gras standard, played religiously throughout Carnival season year after year. But Johnson, not to be confused with a soul singer of the same name, lost the rights to “Carnival Time” when it was first released and spent years in litigation until he finally reclaimed them in 1999. Not surprisingly, the struggle embittered him about the music business and he has not performed or recorded regularly for decades. He attempted a comeback in the late 1970’s and again just a few years ago; but neither came to much, although he was king of the Krewe du Vieux parade last year.

Johnson’s scant three singles were recorded between 1956 and 1960 in New Orleans. As Alvin Johnson, his first, “Old Time Talkin’” b/w “If I’ve Done Wrong”, for Aladdin received limited distribution and sank without a trace. He was still in high school at the time. In 1958 , he recorded “Lena” b/w “You Done Me Wrong” for Ric Records; and the single did fairly well locally. His final, fateful record, “Carnival Time” b/w “Good Lookin’” came out on Ric 967 during the 1960 Carnival season, but was overshadowed by Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”, which was the hot record of the season. It wasn’t until the next year that Johnson’s song caught the public’s attention for the first time; and it remains popular throughout Southern Louisiana this time of year. Unfortunately, by the time it hit, he had gone into the service and didn’t get out until 1964. By then, the British Invasion had begun, his label was no more, the entire New Orleans recording scene was in decline, styles had changed, and Johnson was driving a cab.

I don't know when, but subsequent issues of "Carnival Time", such as the one I have, came out on the imprint of the Ric affiliate label, Ron Records, with the same record number. Both Ric and Ron closed down in 1962 on the death of owner Joe Ruffino. So, I do not know if the Ron issues like mine are old stock from that period or later re-issues/boots. They are of good quality; but, if boots, why not reproduce the original Ric label, which might bring more money? If anyone has a lead on this mystery let me know.

This session had many notable New Orleans players on it. The all sax horn section was Lee Allen, Robert Parker, and James Rivers, who burns on the solos. Edgar Blanchard was on guitar and Placide Adams on bass. Walter Leftie was the drummer. According to Jeff Hannusch in The Soul Of New Orleans, Mac Rebennack played piano on this take, although Johnson was on others. As you might expect from this mostly A-list of musicians, the track is a fantastic slice of rocking New Orleans R&B. Johnson was quoted was saying that the band never quite captured what he had in his head; but, hey, it’s hard to argue with the result. He gives the song a smooth, spirited go, singing the praises of hot, packed city clubs, wine drinking, and just plain having fun. The guy had a decent voice, played piano, and could write. Too bad he didn’t get the chance to do more with his talent. Still, knowing your song will be danced and partied to regularly long after you’re gone must be some kind of satisfaction.
Happy Mardi Gras, Al, wherever you are.

Al having fun at Rock 'n' Bowl

NOTE [4/6/2007]: You can help efforts to re-build Al Johnson's devastated Ninth Ward home. Learn more and donate here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah you right.

8:28 PM, February 20, 2007  

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