March 29, 2009

In Pursuit of Bo-Consciousness

Edwin J. Bocage, a/k/a Spider Bocage, Little Bo, and best known as Eddie Bo, a fascinating, often enigmatic figure on the New Orleans music scene for over half a century, passed away just over a week ago. During his career, he wore many musical hats (including turbans): pianist/organist, vocalist, bandleader, composer (over 200 songs), arranger and producer. His work appeared on a huge assortment of labels, including a few of his own. In fact, his Wikipedia biography claims that, as an artist, he released more singles than anyone else in New Orleans, except Fats Domino. While I haven't done the math, that factoid might be accurate, although Johnny Adams and Lee Dorsey would also be in the running. To put it in perspective, though Eddie made a lot of records, precious few of his own sides were even local hits, as worthy as many of them were. Fats likely sold more on one of his big records than Eddie did on all of his singles and albums combined. Despite never achieving national or worldwide mass appeal, Bo continued to record - he obviously had a passion for it; and, of course, he did not labor in semi-obscurity by design. His intent, at least in his most productive years, was to break out with a hit and reap the financial rewards for his efforts; but the music business was often neither cooperative nor kind. He had better luck as a songwriter, when a few big-selling artists covered this tunes. Yet Eddie persevered both as an entertainer and recording artist, occasionally going back to carpentry or into other business ventures to help make ends meet, and, at least once, "retiring" to go on a spiritual quest. By the time of his passing, while certainly not rich and famous, he was still a popular local performer and had a small but loyal following around the country and abroad. I guess you could say that he achieved an underground legendary status, revered by other musicians, record collectors, and serious New Orleans music fans alike - the Bo-cognoscenti, so to speak.

Of course, because I am one of those fans, Eddie's musical exploits have often been a topic of my random musings here; but even if I weren't, it would be difficult to avoid talking about him, he was so wrapped up in the New Orleans music business for so long. If you're interested, I've listed links to most of my previous posts on Eddie's various recordings below *; and the music for those is in regular rotation on the HOTG webcast. Also, let me again recommend an outstanding site for either casual or serious Bo research from another dedicated fan: Martin Lawrie's incredible, illustrated Eddie Bo Discography at sougeneration . To get a profound sense of just how prolific Eddie was, I encourage you to browse around at Martin's site sometime, many times - it is one awesome resource.

As I mentioned in my previous post on Eddie's passing, Larry Grogan over at Funky 16 Corners and Red Kelly at The "B" Side are also doing some fine special tributes to Bo; and I encourage you to check them out, hear what they have to offer, expand your Bo-consciousness. Over the next month or so, I am going to be taking my own stock of Mr. Bocage's career, starting at the beginning here today. I've been pulling out and will be posting some tracks from the archives that Eddie was involved in both as a performer and producer, and hope to give you a sense of how he began his studio adventures, quickly got into the thick of things, and made important contributions to his hometown's music legacy.


With numerous family members employed both in the building trades and as musicians, plus a mother who reportedly could run some mean, barrelhouse piano a la Professor Longhair, Eddie Bo had the genetics and early influences to develop several skill sets that served him well in life: carpentry, piano playing, and funk. Like many of his contemporaries in the late 1940s, service in the armed forces allowed him to pursue serious musical studies at Grunewald's School of Music once he returned home, which expanded his musical reach. He was drawn to the intricacies of the newly emerging bebop style of jazz and envisioned it as his career path. But, as he began playing professionally around town, he had a practical revelation that diverted him toward popular music. As he told Jeff Hannusch in The Soul Of New Orleans, "I was a turncoat. I started out playing jazz and that's what I really wanted to play. But I switched to rhythm and blues because that's where the money was at the time."

Eddie's story up to this point was typical of many of his fellow music school graduates back then, and one of the reasons why New Orleans became such a great R&B town after World War II. It was full of strong veteran musicians plus up-and-comers who had serious chops and a desire to play jazz but couldn't make financial ends meet doing it. So they took work playing the simpler rhythmic jump music (a/k/a R&B and rock 'n' roll) that most of the club go-ers and kids listening to records wanted to hear and dance to. The complexities of modern jazz, especially bebop, were mostly relegated to late night jam sessions. Bo, like many of the best, put his own local flavor into the popular music he played, setting it apart from the R&B from other areas of the country.

By the mid-1950s, he was using the nickname, 'Spider', that he had acquired as a boxer while in the service,and was leading his own band, the Spider Bocage Orchestra, holding down regular club gigs and touring behind various better known artists of the day. His first opportunity to record came from Johnny Vincent, who heard Eddie playing at a club and enlisted him to record for his new label, Ace Records. As pianist, Bo was in the session band backing Al Collins on the very first Ace release (#500) in 1955, "I Got The Blues For You" b/w "Shuckin' Stuff", which did not get airplay because the lyrics were deemed too dirty. Vincent also cut several sides with Eddie on lead vocal, and chose "Baby" and "So Glad" for release as Ace's second single, re-naming him Little Bo for the occasion.

"So Glad" (Bocage)
Little Bo, Ace 501, 1955
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

As you can tell from "So Glad" , Eddie's debut as a featured recording artist was standard R&B fare that did not set the world on fire; but it was a solid performance and at least a start. Vincent did not follow-up right away with any more sessions; and, in the meantime, Eddie got scooped up by the Apollo label out of New York and recorded a single for them in New Orleans. For the A-side, he took Collins' "I've Got the Blues For You" and put a new musical spin on it with fresh, more radio-friendly lyrics, and called the result "I'm Wise". Released in 1956, the song quickly became popular in New Orleans and regionally, but didn't go any farther on its own. Then, later that year Bo managed to make indirect rock 'n' roll history when Little Richard appropriated "I'm Wise" during his seminal hit-making sessions in New Orleans for Specialty Records. Richard messed with the words a little, re-titled it "Slippin' and Slidin' (Peepin' and Hidin')", and kicked up the energy level, assisted by some great New Orleans session men. With the killer "Long Tall Sally" on the other side, the single shot to #1 on the national R&B chart and got into the Top 10 of the pop chart - a sure-fire two-fer hit.

"I'm Wise" (Bocage-Collins-Smith)
Eddie Bo, Apollo 486, 1956
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

Back in 2006, I did a post (linked below) on the morphing of "I've Got The Blues For You" into "I'm Wise", then "Slippin' and Slidin'". I'm re-posting Eddie's version because I think it's such an important record in understanding how on top of his game he was early on and the part he played along with other New Orleans musicians and writers in changing the sound and rhythmic thrust of popular music. Little Richard's raw energy won the day in the marketplace, intensified by Earl Palmer's rolling locomotive drum shuffle; but Bo's song was left mainly intact, with its hipster lyrics and the funky push-pull, latin-tinged rhythms he set up. I don't know who played the lighter, syncopated drum groove on "I'm Wise", sounds a little too restrained to be Palmer; but the sax solo was probably rendered by Lee Allen, who often worked off the melody line. Eddie's jazz leanings showed through in his somewhat dissonant, Monk-like piano solo - maybe too esoteric for early rock 'n' roll, but dope nonetheless. It was just the start of the funk infiltrations and quirky musical proclivities that popped up in his productions more and more as time went by.

When Bo's first Apollo single started selling around town, followed in short order by Little Richard's incendiary take, Johnny Vincent rushed out a single on Bo to try to capitalize. He used "I'm So Tired", a plodding blues from Bo's initial Ace session that had not made his debut single; but Vincent had nothing else by the singer for the other side. Ever the conniver, he put an up-tempo dance track on the flip, "We Like Mambo", that had been recorded by one of his new signees, Huey Smith, and released them as Ace 515 with Eddie Bo shown as the artist. As you might predict, the DJs and record buyers went for "We Like Mambo" and it was popular locally - so much so that Eddie had to add it to his set list - none of which pleased Huey Smith, to be sure.

While on the road with his band, Bo cut more sides for Apollo in New York; and four more singles were released, none successful. So, he tried his luck with Chess records, tracking a number of songs under the direction of their man in New Orleans, Paul Gayten . Out of those, two singles were issued, "Indeed I Do" b/w "Every Day, Every Night" on Checker 877 in 1957 and "My Dearest Darling" b/w "Oh, Oh" on Chess 1698 in 1958. Currently at The "B" Side, you can see label scans, read more on these releases and hear "Oh, Oh", a dangerous rocker for sure, plus "Walk That Walk", an unissued track similar in feel to "I'm Wise". When neither of these singles took off, Eddie parted ways with Chess fairly quickly. Later on, in 1960, Etta James covered "My Dearest Darling" on Chess' Argo label and had a big hit with it. In the meantime, Bo reconnected with Johnny Vincent and recorded his next release in late 1958 or early 1959. Ace was hitting on all cylinders by then with multiple charting records by Huey Smith and the Clowns, Earl King, Frankie Ford, and Jimmy Clanton, to name just a few
; and I'm sure Eddie wanted a piece of that action.

"I Love To Rock 'N Roll" (E. Bocage)
Eddie Bo, Ace 555, 1959
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)

A swinging mid-tempo rocker, "I Love to Rock 'N Roll" had a very danceable groove and spunky, fun-loving vocal from Eddie. It should have put him up on the national charts with his peers on the Ace roster; but, according to Jeff Hannusch in The Soul Of New Orleans, it too remained a regional seller at best. Very likely, Bo produced this record himself and used drummer Charles 'Hungry' Williams, who was doing a lot of session work for Ace and other local labels, having become the first-call drum man in the city after Earl Palmer moved out to Los Angeles. I consider this number to be a classic example of New Orleans feel-good ensemble playing - with a bounce to it courtesy of Hungry that is just a joy to hear. Neither straight ahead rock nor full second line strutting, it has a flavor all its own, capable of inciting an instant party every time it's played.

Once again, Eddie didn't stay with Ace. Instead, he chose to cast his fortunes with a new company, owned by Joe Ruffino, with two start-up labels, Ric and Ron. Bo signed on with Ric in 1959 as an artist; but Ruffino would soon give him more responsibility and opportunity to shine during his tenure. Eddie not only made some great records on his own, but wrote and produced for some of the city's best young R&B talent on both labels. In the next installment, we'll explore a number of great records Eddie was involved within the few years he worked for Ric and Ron. It was the beginning of a phenomenally productive decade for him.

[Many thanks to Martin for permission to use the two Ace label photos above, taken from his Eddie Bo Discography.]

*Further readings in Bo-consciousness from the HOTG archives:

Heavy Lifting - Al Collins, Eddie Bo, and Little Richard
Strange Fruit
- The Explosions
Hey, Fellas! - Oliver Morgan
How We Roll
- Eddie Bo, unissued (?) Rip Records session
Irma and Eddie Get It Right - Irma Thomas
Home Is Where The Mystery Is - Betty Taylor
As Seen On the Bo Discography - Tommy Ridgley
Four Kings (Part 2) - Tommy Ridgley, Freddy King, and Eddie Bo
Barbara George Remembered
Adams Sings Bo - Johnny Adams
Knowing The Barons. . . - The Barons
From Nookie Boy To The La La Man - Oliver Morgan
Struggles and Bucket Checks: Two Years On - Eddie Bo on Bo-Sound
Art Neville and Two Guys Named Bo
A Case Of Mysterious Musical Alter-Egos - Marie Boubarere
Chuck Carbo
Mary Jane By Any Other Name - Mary Jane Hooper
All Nite Hot Buns...and Hatchets
Eddie, Paul Gayten, Robert Parker, Roger & the Gypsies


Blogger Jukeboxmafia said...

Thanks for this Dan. What a massive loss this is. I ran across another great Eddie Bo tribute posted here:

5:29 PM, March 29, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody in the history of New Orleans music hustled more or put out better product with less material reward that Eddie Bo. Miss him. He used to close OZ piano night and the piano would be levitating and he would be 5 feet off the ground singing "Drown In My Own Tears" and I would be crying, CRYING! with emotions I still haven't figured out.

10:03 AM, March 30, 2009  
Anonymous NOLA tunes said...

We will miss you Eddie!
New Orleans music store - NOLA Tunes

10:23 AM, March 30, 2009  
Blogger Isosceles Diego said...

Thanks from me, too - I'm looking forward to the upcoming installments!

Has anybody heard the record on Checker? I don't think I've seen a copy for sale...Not even an mp3 on soulseek.


3:56 PM, March 30, 2009  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Brilliant, Dan... as always! I didn't realize he went back to Ace before hooking up with Ruffino.

Thanks for expanding my Bo-Consciousness, brother!

7:57 AM, March 31, 2009  
Anonymous Johnny Vandal said...

A Great post on a vital link in the chain of New Orleans sound.

2:25 PM, April 04, 2009  

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