Mardi Gras Music Missing Link: Bobby's Bounce
Twelfth Nigh has just passed last week. Carnival season is upon us. King cakes are in the stores. The parties have started. Costumes are being put together. The rolling krewes are making their final parade preps. And the Indians are practicing their music and moves in corner bars, and sewing feverishly to finish their new suits. As thoughts turn more and more to February 24, 2009, what better time to pull out my battered copy of a record that I think is a significant, but overlooked example of New Orleans' finest seasonal music, produced by a one-of-a-kind local wonder, Eddie Bo.
From his earliest days in the music business, Eddie Bo, has often been a creative provocateur: hip, innovative, crafty, surprising, funny, willing to take chances, hard to figure, and at least a little wacko - in varying combinations or sometimes all at once. Having cut countless recording projects on himself and others, he has been a fascinating and essential contributor to the scene in New Orleans for over 50 years and counting. Despite his best efforts to make hit records, he has been a bit too eccentric for the mainstream and has pretty much operated on the fringe, limited by slim-to-none budgets and and various business ventures gone bust. In the face of it all, he has insisted on following his often unique musical and rhythmic instincts, and had faith in his own ears. Despite the spotty commercial track record, from the beginning Eddie has been a driving force in bringing what we now call funk into the popular local music of his day. It's just how he heard things, the musicians (particularly the drummers) he used on sessions, and the way he naturally expressed himself. He wasn't on a mission - he was just trying to make a few bucks in the popular music business with his impressive talents. The rhythms of the mean and festive city streets evolved into funk and filtered into popular New Orleans music from various sources over time; but Bo really did help channel it at key points in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s - and I hope he ain't done yet. If you've been reading and listening here or the webcast stream for a while, or if you do a search through my posts, you'll know how much I enjoy and respect what the impish Mr. Bocage has wrought, even though his ways are mysterious at times.
Consider the following remarkable 45 Bo helped to birth. It's a hard to categorize hybrid, offering a groundbreaking representation, for the day, of another side of Carnival time, the seldom seen or heard shadow Mardi Gras. In neighborhoods not on the regular parade routes or near any tourist spots, African-American men have elaborately masked as Indians year after year, taking their ritual celebrations and confrontations out onto pavement battlegrounds to the beating of drums, tambourines, cowbells and bottles, their call and response songs in a strange tongue inducing both fright and delight in uninitiated bystanders.
"Boogaloo Mardi Gras, Part 2" (L. Clark - P. Boudreaux - R. Williams)
The Bobby Willams Group, Capitol 2201, 1968
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"Boogaloo Mardi Gras, Part 1"
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I always played like that, I had a lot of criticism 'cause I didn't keep a straight backbeat, I just dealt with the New Orleans feel - the bouncy beat. - Bobby Williams, from an interview with Rick Coleman and Dr. Daddy-O for WYLD AM New Orleans, as quoted by Martin Lawrie on the soulgeneration Eddie Bo Discography.
There is a line of recorded songs through the last century that have incorporated bits of the Mardi Gras Indians' musical culture for the sake of novelty and/or local fascination with the once elusive phenomenon. In his essential web article, "Mardi Gras Indian Recordings", roots historian and writer John Sinclair traces the earliest such record as far back as 1927. In the mid-1940s, guitarist/vocalist Danny Barker set Indian chants heard on the streets to syncopated creole jazz accompaniment, with just guitar, piano, bass, and drums instrumentation. I'm not sure if his songs were ever commercially issued at the time - though Sinclair says Barker tried unsuccessfully to put them onto jukeboxes in the 1950s in New Orleans. I first heard the recordings tacked onto a 2000 GHB CD, Jazz A'La Creole, of music by the Baby Dodds Trio (though Dodds was not the drummer on the four Indian-inspired numbers!). Next came Dave Bartholomew's classic "Carnival Day" done for Imperial in February, 1950, highly percussive, thanks to Earl Palmer's primal foot and stick work, with Dave spouting various Indian words and phrases for effect as he attempted to capture the Mardi Gras atmosphere. Probably one of the best known R&B songs of the genre is "Jock-A-Mo" by Sugarboy (James Crawford) and his Cane Cutters , released during the 1954 Carnival season on Checker Records, and more commonly called "Iko Iko ", a variant of which (just voices and percussion) was done by the Dixie Cups in 1965 for Red Bird , by Dr. John on his 1972 Gumbo LP, and by countless cover bands. Let's also not forget Huey 'Piano' Smith and the Clowns' fun-loving party romp, "Don't You Know Yockomo", from 1958 on Ace, or Earl King and Professor Longhair on the wonderfully polyrhythmic and idiosyncratic 1964 novelty item, "Big Chief", and, of course, the Meters' highly funkified "Hey Pocky A-Way" from their 1974 Reprise LP, Rejuvenation. Some of these are perennial Carnival favorites; and all are attempts to capture a little bit of the Mardi Gras Indian magic in a popular song.
As far as I am concerned, "Boogaloo Mardi Gras" should always be included in that number. Even though it is decidedly less familiar than most of the others, even to locals, this two-parter from 1968 stands apart as one of the best of the breed. Neither quite funk, R&B, rock, nor even boogaloo, Williams' energy-infused perpetual groove machine rolls, tumbles and syncopates like a hyper-kinetic marching drumline done gone native, with bass and guitar furiously pumping and chopping to keep up. Half the song is sweetened by horns that start out sounding vaguely tribal, and further enlivened by 16 bars of very convincing Indian-style singing, capturing the feel of their fire and spirit, instead of just copping some random references to their language or culture. I don't know for sure who did the vocals; but I assume it was the members of the Bobby Williams' Group. Were some of them also part of an Indian gang? Who knows. What's for sure is that this is one of the most full-tilt, drum-heavy songs to ever invoke the Mardi Gras Indians, and the wildest Carnival record up to that point. A few years later, in 1970, the game would be changed forever, when Quint Davis first put the Wild Magnolias together with Wilie Tee and the Gaturs. From there, Big Chief Bo Dollis and his gang soon became recording artists, collaborating with Tee and other local musicians to fully and forever fuse Mardi Gras Indian music and funk. But, as usual, I get ahead of myself. . . .
According to Martin Lawrie on his Eddie Bo Discography, which is based on his vast Bo-related vinyl holdings and numerous discussions with the man himself, Eddie used the Bobby Williams Group as a rhythm section frequently when he was working as a producer, arranger, songwriter, talent scout and recording artist for Joe Banashak's Seven B label in the mid-1960s. Williams played drums, Louis 'June' Clark was on guitar, and Paul Boudreaux was the bassist. Probably their best known work was backing Bo on "Lover And A Friend" from Seven B single 7017, his duet with Inez Cheatham (one of the members of the Triple Souls background trio) . A compelling dance record on the strength of Williams' exceptionally funky beats, "Lover And A Friend" became a hit locally in 1968 and has become a favorite on the UK Northern Soul Scene since, having been compiled numerous times over the years. It's success in the New Orleans area drew the attention of Capitol Records, which negotiated to lease the single from Banashak and issued it nationally that year, where it surprisingly failed to garner similar response in other markets.
As part of the deal with Capitol, Banashak also got them to take the next Seven B single (7018) released after "Lover And A Friend", which was "Boogaloo Mardi Gras" by Williams and his band. As much as I love this record, I don't know what Capitol thought they would do with it - they must have really, really wanted the Bo/Cheatham single. Maybe they were told that Mardi Gras-related records could sell well locally during Carnival, and do repeat business in succeeding years, like classics such as "Mardi Gras Mambo", "Carnival Time", and "Big Chief". Whatever the reason, Capitol re-released it, too, as evidenced by this stock copy, though it obviously did not become the hot-selling party record of that or any season, as there were several things working against it.
First of all, both the Seven B and Capitol issues of "Boogaloo Mardi Gras" were sequenced incorrectly. The bare-bones purely instrumental second segment of the song was labeled "Part 1", instead of the full production initial segment with horns and vocals, which wound up on the back side, shown as "Part 2". It's obvious when you listen to "Part 2" that it was the beginning of the song, as it has an introductory riff and ends with a fade-out, while "Part 1" begins with a fade-up where the other part ended. Secondly, Eddie Bo had the "Part 1" arrangement break down to just drums, bass and guitar, continuing their frenzied playing alone for two minutes and thirty seconds, save for one lone horn note that pops in for a beat out of nowhere along the way. A full A-side of that breakdown - just the rollicking rhythm section having at it - no horn riffs, no singing - surely confused and/or put off DJs and anyone else who heard it back then. Many likely didn't even bother to check the other side and tossed it toward the nearest receptacle or open window. But even if the release had come out in the "correct" order, as I have set it up, I wonder if the public of 1968, even in New Orleans, was ready for this much getdown topped off by Indian-style singing. After all, it was still the stuff of the backstreets on Fat Tuesday and St. Joseph's Day only and took some getting used to.
Whichever way you play it, hearing "Boogaloo Mardi Gras" now, when the Indians' music is so well-documented, available, and familiar to more people, you can see what a great thing Eddie Bo did in getting the record cut and released back then. What a brilliant, adventurous, if oddball, producer he was. By allowing the Bobby Williams Group to freely get down in the groove, Bo, no stranger to rhythmic resourcefulness, captured an intense approximation of the Mardi Gras Indians' feel in the studio. Remember, this was several years before the Wild Magnolias cut "Handa Wanda", their first rave-up on 45. Depending of how many people actually heard it at the time (anybody besides E. B. Lewis, whose name written is on my copy?), "Boogaloo Mardi Gras" may have even encouraged the real Indians to record. To my mind, that's why this all but forgotten record deserves serious attention and its participants props, plus the fact that it is so much damn fun to listen to.
The only compilation I am aware of that has re-issued the song - actually just "Part 1" - is In The Pocket With Eddie Bo on Vampi Soul, which came out last year (didn't get around to reviewing that one, either!). Reading the notes for the LP version, I have found comments credited to Bo which state that he often used saxmen James Rivers and David Lastie, as well trumpeter Melvin Lastie on sessions in the Seven B days. So, they would be good candidates for the horn section on this single. As prodigious as the Bobby Williams Group were as musicians, I don't think they ever recorded again under the name; and though there are a number of Bobby Williams' in the discographies of various labels, they are likely not this natural, feel-good Crescent City drummer. I found a reference to him doing session work into the 1990s, as he is listed as playing on a Mighty Sam McClain CD done for Orleans Records. If you have more information on Bobby, let me/us know.
At this point, the evidence is right here: the percussive bliss of Williams' amazing. . . bounciness, which impressed Bo enough to record just the drums, bass and guitar alone on one entire side of this single to further focus in on Bobby's beats. It's almost as if he knew that the world then wasn't quite ready for what he was hearing, and it needed to be preserved for future groovers to one day unearth and lock into. Mission accomplished.