When it finally turns what passes for cold down here, people start saying that it’s good gumbo weather. Of course, gumbo is cooked and eaten in these parts all year long, but, as my delicious dinner (Jeanne’s gumbo’s da best!) last night proved, it is especially welcome when there’s enough of a cutting north wind outside to make the mosquitoes lethargic, and us start to shiver a little as we try to see if our breath condenses in the night air. So, in the spirit of the seasonal cold fronts that briefly invade the Deep South, I’m serving up two good gumbo songs from the pen of Dave Bartholomew.
"Shrimp and Gumbo" (Dave Bartholomew)
Dave Batholomew, Imperial, 1955
We begin with a multi-gumbo mambo featuring Bartholomew himself* on lead vocal and trumpet with several members of his legendary studio band on percussion, including Earl Palmer on trap drums, and an uncredited sax doubling the trumpet’s lead line. Recorded in November of 1955 and issued as the flip side of “An Old Cowhand From A Blues Band” in 1956 on Imperial 5373, “Shrimp and Gumbo” has an infectious latino groove with a very basic structure. The lyrics are nothing more than the bandleader calling out a number of gumbo variations. It’s an unusual tune to spring up in the midst of all the rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll emanating from the Cosimo Matassa’s studio during that decade under Bartholomew’s production supervision; and I don’t recall ever hearing anything else quite like it from this period in New Orleans. So, exactly what audience was he going for here? Maybe “Shrimp And Gumbo” was just a hip, playful studio jam. Whatever the intension, the song’s a little offhand delight from Bartholomew, the dominant force in New Orleans popular music from the late 1940s into the early 1960s. It makes our mouths water and hips move, and gives us a quick reminder of the musical and culinary roots of the city’s Caribbean and, ultimately, African cultural connections.
"Gumbo Blues" (Dave Bartholomew)
Smiley Lewis, Imperial, 1952
Now, if you’re in New Orleans and it’s really cold,
if you’ve got no chick to warm you, put some gumbo in your soul.
Amen to dat. This second serving comes via a Smiley Lewis session produced by Bartholomew in 1952, released that year on Imperial 5208 as “Gumbo Blues” b/w
“It’s So Peaceful”. This relaxed blues shuffle is lent a little something extra by the always inspiring drumming of Earl Palmer, a nice walking bass line by Frank Fields, and the keyboard running of ‘Tuts’ Washington (Smiley’s bandmate). “Gumbo Blues” not only makes the case for using gumbo as a temporary substitute for female companionship but also reveals yet another nickname for the city, the Ol’ Gumbo.
The others playing on this session were also some of Bartholomew’s A-list studio regulars at the time: Ernest McLean, guitar; Lee Allen and/or Clarence Hall, tenor sax; and Joe Harris, alto sax.
Lewis (given name, Overton Lemons) grew up in the same New Orleans neighborhood as Bartholomew; so, Dave was familiar with his strong voice from an early age. When he began doing A&R and production for Imperial, starting with his discoveries of Tommy Ridgley and Antoine Domino in 1949, Bartholomew had in mind to record Smiley Lewis, too, bringing him into Cos’ studio for sessions starting early in 1950. At the time, Lewis was a blues shouter leading a trio in local clubs, singing in the manner of Roy Brown, whose powerful voice could be heard without amplification above a band.
Although his vocal style never caught on with record buyers in a big way when he moved into the rhythm and blues market, Lewis was successful enough to stay with Imperial though the 1950s, cutting many great sides**, most written by Bartholomew. Unfortunately, several of the classic tunes he first recorded are now linked to the artists who covered them, rather to Lewis. Such is the music business. As one of the greatest of the many forgotten, or nearly so, recording artists from the Ol’ Gumbo, Smiley deserves to be heard and appreciated.
*Hear Dave Bartholomew's solo outings for Imperial on this CD.
**You can find most of Smiley Lewis' best Imperial output on the Gumbo Blues and Down Yonder CDs; or, for you completists, there's a Bear Family box.