Three To Get Ready For Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras' coming and it won't be long. . .so let's get further in the mood right now with some more Mardi Gras Indian-related music. . . .
"Two-Way-Pock-A-Way" (H. Fedison-B. Hawkins-J.Johnson-R. Hawkins)
The Dixie Cups, from Riding High, ABC LP 525, 1966
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New Orleans bandleader, talent scout, producer, promoter, and manager, Joe Jones, brought this trio of young girls fresh out of high school, originally called the Mel-Tones, to New York City in the mid-1960s and got them a record deal with the fledgling Red Bird Records, which was owned by multi-hit-songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Pushed to come up with a catchier name, the girls (sisters Barbara and Rosa Hawkins and their cousin, Joan Johnson) suggested "the Dixie Cups", as a cutesy reference to their Southern home. With backing mainly by New Orleans musicians brought along by Jones, they recorded numerous sides for Red Bird. In all, six singles and two LPs were released, with several scoring substantial hits: "Chapel Of Love" and "People Say" (both written by Jeff Barry and Elle Greenwich) in 1964 and "Iko Iko" in 1965.
Although Barbara Hawkins has long insisted that she and her sister, Rosa, learned the song as children from hearing their grandmother sing it, their "Iko Iko" bears a strong resemblance to James 'Sugar Boy' Crawford's 1954 hit, "Jock-A-Mo", which he based on songs he had heard Mardi Gras Indians sing as they congregated in his neighborhood every Carnival Day. However the Dixie Cups first encountered the song, their spontaneous acapella rendition, accompanied just by their own improvised percussion*, was captured while they were fooling around in a recording studio in New York. Producers Leiber and Stoller heard what they were doing and, intrigued by the exotic sound, recorded it on the spot. The song became their final substantial seller for the label and endures as a favorite Mardi Gras tune.
While Red Bird did fairly well commercially with the Dixie Cups, Jones, was not satisfied with the financial rewards and moved the group to the much bigger ABC label in 1966. "Two-Way-Poc-A-Way", their first release there, seems to have been an attempt to follow-up on the success of "Iko Iko", featuring more Mardi Gras Indian-inspired lyrics, actually much more authentic than the previous tune, sung atop plenty of percussion. Although an interesting homage to the backstreet MG Indian culture. the song lacked an effective melodic hook to give it the immediate appeal of "Iko Iko" and quickly tanked, remaining largely unheard and forgotten, even in their hometown. My copy comes from an ABC 7" 33.3 jukebox LP, which features six of their ABC releases. I think "Two-Way-Poc-A-Way" is well worth rediscovering and should be added to the playlist of recordings that relate to the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, to be especially enjoyed at Carnival time.
Turning in the opposite direction after this song, the group's other ABC sides seemed aimed at giving the girls a more mainstream sound that ultimately did nothing to maintain their popularity, let alone enhance it. Despite hometown tunesmith Lee Diamond writing or co-writing some numbers for them, nothing they did on ABC worked commercially; and, when they parted ways with the label in 1966, their recording career came to an abrupt and premature close, just a few years after it began, although the Dixie Cups have remained a popular live act over the years.
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By the early 1970s, Mac Rebennack was getting tired of the psychedelicized hoodoo conjure man musical persona that had gained him his first big-time, rock-star attention and a following in the late 1960s, after the release of Gris Gris, his first LP as Dr. John on the Atlantic subsidiary, ATCO. After two more trippy, experimental (and sometimes just mental) albums, Mac was looking to stretch his musical legs and run with something else. Then he had a chance meeting with Atlantic producer and honcho Jerry Wexler after a studio session in LA. As they talked, Rebennack was sitting at a piano and began playing a string of R&B and blues classics by Professor Longhair, Huey Smith, Archibald and the like, just off the cuff, which immediately reminded Wexler what a great New Orleans-schooled player Mac was. From that casual encounter, he and Rebennack hatched the concept for Mac's next album: a songbook of authentic Crescent City classics to be called Gumbo. On it, Mac put down the gris gris bag and went back to his musical roots, the formative funk and roll of the 1950s and 1960s that framed the foundation of his piano playing style.
"Iko Iko" (James 'Sugarboy' Crawford)
Dr. John, from Gumbo, ATCO 7006, 1972
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Dr John's version of "Iko Iko" is the first track of the LP; and the funkified Mardi Gras feel of the tune was the perfect choice to kick things off. For the album notes, included on an insert in the gatefold cover, Wexler transcribed recordings he had made of Mac's descriptions and recollections about the tunes. While he was sometimes a bit iffy on the facts, Mac's comments are a great read and demonstrate how sincerely he wanted to give props to the people who wrote and played the music he grew up with, many of whom he either knew personally or heard coming up in his hometown. Talking about "Iko Iko", he said that his take on the song was based on the Sugar Boy (James Crawford) & the Canecutter's record, "Jock-A-Mo", from 1954, rather than the Dixie Cups' later approximation. What he doesn't say, but is obvious if you compare his version to the original, is that Mac built a whole new, sophisticated arrangement around the song, including the huge instrumental hook of the main repeating transitional riff, a much more intense second line (by way of Bo Diddly) feel to the groove, and expanded lyrics. It all makes Crawford's two-verse calypso/rumba/rock hybrid sound distinctly primitive. In fact, Dr. John's version was so compelling that many subsequent covers of this tune essentially cop at least the main elements of his arrangement. In essence, he re-invented the thing, infusing the song with even more of the city's cultural resonance, even though he recorded it far from the source. That hat trick worked because of the players he used on the session.
Joining Rebennack on "Iko Iko" and the LP in general, were many of his fellow New Orleans expatriate musicians who had migrated to the West Coast over the years. On drums he used Freddie Staehle, whose older brother, Paul, had played with Mac early on. The younger Staehle had strong New Orleans chops, great creativity and high musicianship, which is why Mac had him in his band for many years. Compounding the polyrhythms was percussionist Richard 'Didimus ' Washington, plus Jimmy Calhoun on bass. Mac's old running partner, Ronnie Barron backed him up on organ and electric piano; and Ken Kimak and Alvin 'Shine' Robinson were on guitars. The horn arrangement was by Harold Batiste, who co-produced the LP with Wexler and played sax, as well, along with Lee Allen, Sidney George, David Lastie, and Moe Benchamin, plus Melvin Lastie on cornet. With Mac rippin' and runnin ' in his finest professorial style on piano, and the funky spirit of New Orleans in the hearts and souls of these players, this "Iko Iko" should remain a part of everybody's Mardi Gras celebrations in perpetuity.
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Last and nowhere near least we have one from the Mardi Gras Indians themselves, the Wild Magnolias in this case, who blazed a new musical trail, upping their profile in New Orleans and the world at large by recording with Willie Tee and other funk musicians at the start of the 1970s, issuing several obscure 45s**, two seminal major label LPs, and numerous more recent CDs in the past 40 years or so. Their leader, Big Chief Bo Dollis received a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Best of the Beat Awards, put on by Offbeat magazine in New Orleans, and certainly deserves the overdue recognition. Although in extremely frail health these days, backed by a fine pick-up band and with the help of fellow chiefs Monk Boudreaux (Golden Eagles) and Donald Harrison (Congo Nation), and his son, Bo, Jr., Dollis stood his ground and and held forth on several MG Indian classics. His voice still cuts through the mix like a razor; and hearing it was a fresh reminder of how he brought the MG Indian culture from the backstreets onto stages and into music collections all over the world.
Bead-work by Joseph 'Monk' Boudreaux
"(Somebody Got) Soul, Soul, Soul" (The Wild Magnolias)
from The Wild Magnolias, Polydor 6026, 1974
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Taken from that first LP, The Wild Magnolias, recorded at Studio In the County, Bogalusa, LA, in 1973 and originally released in France on the Barclay label in 1974 and then in the US by Polydor later that year, "(Somebody Got) Soul, Soul, Soul" begins with a deceptively slow and bluesy lead-in from guitarist Snooks Eaglin and keyboardist Willie Tee, who also arranged all the music, and wrote several of the tunes. Once the intro fades, the bass and percussion establish the groove before the song breaks into a fully funk-infested, unrelenting run downtown and all around. It is to the credit of Tee and Dollis that the spirit of the MG Indians' traditional percussion and vocal music could be integrated so well with the full instrumentation of a funk ensemble, creating a compelling new hybrid that changed and enriched the local musical language and still influences it to this day. And they made it seem easy. Props, too, to the musicians Tee assembled, who the Wild Magnolias' manager, Quint Davis, dubbed the New Orleans Project - a name Tee did not especially appreciate. The hometown players were totally down with the concept of the sessions and provided incredible support, as evidenced on "Soul, Soul, Soul". Listen to drummer Larry Panna, who played with Tee in the Gaturs, and main conga man, Alfred 'Uganda' Roberts, and the interwoven polyrhythmic energy they establish along with the many MG Indian percussionists on tambourines, cowbells, and drums of their own. Bassist Julius Farmer's increasingly intricate runs are simultaneously in-the-pocket and wild. Tee layers in his organ and clavinet for flavor and rhythmic reinforcement, while the legendary Snooks Eaglin propulsively chops on wa-wah rhythm guitar and burns through some intense soloing. It all makes for an intoxicating combination.
As related in the notes to the exemplary 2007 CD re-issue of the two Wild Magnolia LPs which were originally produced by Philippe Rault, "Soul, Soul, Soul" was derived from an earlier Indian song, ("Somebody Got To) Sew, Sew, Sew", which referred to the Indians' yearlong creation and preparation of their resplendent Mardi Gras regalia, sewing in intricate, elaborate bead-work, feather-craft and the like. From the beginning, Bo Dollis has been wise and savvy in his ability to popularize the Wild Magnolias for commercial consumption while saving at least some of their bedrock authenticity for showdowns on hometown streets come Carnival Day and Super Sunday, around St. Joseph's Day. With the compositional help of Willie Tee , he had fresh MG Indian songs and re-interpretations of old ones for public performance with, as one song put it, "a new kinda groove". Yet, the Wild Magnolias did not break into popular culture overnight, by any means. It took until the early 1990s with a comeback CD for Rounder Records, I'm Back...At Carnival Time, and then the first CD re-issue of their LPs in 1994 for things to really start to come around for them, allowing them to tour and record more. Outside of New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indians are still not widely appreciated or understood. But it's safe to say that the influence of the early Wild Magnolias recordings on the local music scene was immediate, profound, and long-lasting. What Dollis and his collaborators have contributed to the soul and celebration of Mardi Gras and New Orleans music in general cannot be denied. So, this one's for them.
* Charles 'Honeyman' Otis has claimed that he contributed percussion to this track as well.
** For more about the Wild Magnolias 45s, see my posts on "Handa Wanda", "Fire Water", and "New Suit".