How To Do It Up Fine And Not Spend A Dime
For a historical, rather than hysterical, slant on Carnival songs, here are the back stories on two songs than don't get all that much attention:
"At The Mardi Gras" (Huey P Smith - Moore)
Huey & Curley, Ace 671, 1963
Here’s one I had ripped to mp3 and never gotten around to posting. From 1963, this Mardi Gras song never broke out into widespread seasonal popularity in New Orleans and environs; and I think you can hear why. It doesn’t have the high octane energy of Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time”, or the indigenous funk of Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” and “Big Chief”. Instead, “At The Mardi Gras” just lopes along with a lighthearted insouciance and sing-song, good-timing lyrics, not really going much of anywhere, but still recognizable as the work of the city’s best novelty and party song writer, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith.
While this is essentially a recording by Smith and his band, the Clowns, it is credited to Huey & Curley, the latter being lead singer, co-writer Curley Moore. By this time, the group was far past it’s “sell-by” date in the record business, their run of popularity and heavy record sales having been from 1956 to1959. Back then, the rollicking aggregation was both a recording group and showband fronted by outrageous lead singer, Bobby Marchan, who ran the band on the road, while Smith stayed behind, writing the songs and supervising their recording sessions for Ace Records. Around 1960, Marchan was off on a solo career; and Smith moved the group to Imperial to work with producer, Dave Bartholomew, hoping for better business terms from the label. But, Imperial was on a slippery downward slope at the time; and, when the recordings with Moore and various other lead singers went nowhere, Smith came back to Ace, which essentially went out of business itself by 1963. As far as I can tell, the last song credited to Huey Smith & the Clowns on Ace was #649, “Popeye” b/w “Scald Dog”. After “At the Mardi Gras” didn’t click, their remaining handful of records for Ace were credited just to Smith himself. The group was history.
Huey remained active in the New Orleans recording scene throughout the decade, working for Instant Records on production projects for the Hueys and the Pitter Pats, vocal groups he developed, and for solo artists such as Lee Bates and Skip Easterling. In the late 1960s, he cut some singles for the label under his own name again, even reviving the Huey Smith & the Clowns moniker on one; but none of them packed much commercial punch. Plagued by drinking problems, Huey dropped out of the business, got religion, and eventually moved to Baton Rouge.
I have no session details for “At The Mardi Gras”; but, since Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams was the primary drummer on the Clowns sessions for Ace, I am guessing, with little actual certainty, he’s laying down the groove here Even though it’s a fairly laid back take, it sounds like his stuff to me.
"Mardi Gras" (Joe Lutcher)
Joe Lutcher and His Orchestra, Modern 20-672, 1949
Joe Lutcher’s “Mardi Gras”, recorded in Los Angeles for Modern in February of 1949, (shortly before I was born!) fascinates me for several reasons. Mainly it’s that groove: a mixture of second line, mambo/rhumba, and straight jump (proto rock ‘n’ roll) drumming and percussion. Making the song even more remarkable is the fact that Lutcher, while he had Louisiana roots, was not from New Orleans. A blazing tenor sax player (ever hear “Stratocruiser”?) who doesn’t solo on this cut, he’s a rather underwhelming vocalist, but manages to get the story across: a travelogue set in the Crescent City on Fat Tuesday that hits the high points - Creole women, King Zulu, marching in the parade on Rampart “Avenue” (sic – it’s a street, y’all), and having a ball for free. Allowing the rhythm to predominate, Lutcher clearly understands much about the essentials of New Orleans music. Another strong plus for me on this tune is the raucous guitar intro. Grabs me every time.
Further fascination and enlightenment ensued when I realized that this tune predates Professor Longhair’s first recording of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans”, which was done for the Star Talent label in October, 1949. Lutcher’s “Mardi Gras” became popular in the New Orleans area soon after its spring release and ascended into the top 20 of the national R&B charts by fall. Although it is unclear exactly when Fess composed his tune, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Lutcher might have provided some inspiration, or that, just maybe, on an earlier trip to New Orleans, Lutcher heard Fess gigging at the Caldonia Club an took some of that with him. Idle speculation, I guess. In any case, Fess’ first record did not make it far, as it was withdrawn because the session was non-union. A re-recording of it for Atlantic soon thereafter was not released until 1950. Besides Longhair’s tune, I think it’s safe to say that Dave Bartholomew’s recording of “Carnival Day” on Imperial in 1950 was also heavily influenced by Lutcher’s “Mardi Gras”. While I don’t know this for a fact, it seems probable that somewhere along the line Lutcher had first hand experience that helped develop a genuine feel for the city’s street beats.
Having grown up in Lake Charles, LA, Joe Lutcher took the lead of his older sister, Nellie, who was making a name for herself in Los Angeles as a singer, songwriter and pianist, and followed her to the West Coast in the early 1940s. He played sax in numerous bands there, including as stint backing Nat King Cole, then formed his own outfit and began recording for Specialty records. Sister Nellie, who was recording hits for Capitol Records in the late 1940s (“Fine Brown Frame”, etc), got him a deal with the label, which released numerous instrumental jazz and jump sides from him and his band. But, by 1949, the saxman had moved on to Modern, which was more focused on the territorial jukebox market. It’s through this route that “Mardi Gras”, only his second release for the label, first got into the ears of the locals in New Orleans. But, by 1951, his promising career was cut short when Lutcher gave it all up for the call of the church. Following that, his biggest musical claim to fame (or infamy) was the role he played in convincing Little Richard to forsake rock ‘n’ roll for religion at the height of his popularity.
If any of you know more about Joe Lutcher’s early career and anything that links him to New Orleans, please let me know.