February 09, 2014


With Twelfth Night and the Epiphany already in the rear-view; festivities are kickin’ in for the Crescent City Carnival season (January 6 to Mardi Gras Day, March 4 this year),. By now, King Cake Baby has made the scene at countless parties, with many more to go. In less than a week, the first parades will roll, featuring the ever-insightful and impolitic Krewe du Vieux on the streets of the Faubourg Marigny and French Quarter with fellow wayward travelers, Krewe Delusion, nipping at their heels.

As is my own tradition around here (going on 10 years!!!), I’m throwing down some Mardi Gras flavored music along with commentary for those seeking context with your booty shaking. The first song goes way back to the early days of New Orleans R&B.


Remarkably, smack in the middle of the 20th century at the turn of the decade, two of the greatest Mardi Gras songs appeared in tandem, written and performed separately by two highly influential New Orleans R&B artists.

In the Fall of ‘49 at a Treme neighborhood bar, Professor Longhair (and his Shuffling Hungarians) recorded his “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” along with other tunes for release by the Star Talent label, based in Dallas. Two known 78 rpm singles containing those sides were issued, but had to be withdrawn because the session was non-union. Fess soon re-cut the song at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Service on Rampart Street for Atlantic; and it came out in 1950, likely for Mardi Gras, with his name shown as Roy ‘Baldhead’ Byrd to capitalize on his recent Mercury hit, “Bald Head”. While the new version, which I’ll re-post at a later date, was popular in and around the city, it did not find an audience nationally.

Neither did the potent slice of Mardi Gras served up by Dave Bartholomew and his band around the same time on Imperial Records, also cut at J&M. It’s another classic of the genre, but never seems to get its due.

“Carnival Day” (D. Bartholomew)
Dave Bartholomew, originally on Imperial 5064,1950

As you can tell, this single side is a reissue of the original track which appeared on Imperial in both the 78 and 45 rpm formats, with another Bartholomew classic, “That’s How You Got Killed Before”, on the flip. Any surviving copy is very rare, indeed; and far fewer 45s were pressed back when the medium was still fairly new. I’ve yet to see one of ‘em; so the reasonably priced and fairly easy to find Mambo facsimile [probably sourced from a digital remaster], put out by Jazzman Records in the UK, nicely helps to cover the vinyl void. Bartholomew’s cool “Cat Music” on the back, which I’m not including, first appeared in 1954 on Imperial 5308.

“Carnival Day” is remarkable for many reasons, starting with the band’s performance. Earl Palmer’s elemental funk drumming, predominantly on tom-toms and kick drum laid down a polyrhythmic, Latin-flavored dance groove that drove the band’s syncopated boogie riffing. Of particular note are guitarist Ernest McLean’s proto-rock licks on the intro and Herbert Hardesty’s perfectly phrased, melodically fascinating tenor sax solo. Other musicians on the date included Frank Fields on bass, pianist Salvador Doucette, plus two more fine saxmen, Clarence Hall on tenor and Joe Harris on alto. Members of Dave’s popular stage band, the players were among the founding set of session men who would help create the hits that turned the world on to New Orleans distinctive and highly influential R&B sound.

Lyrically, Dave’s tune offers a rare early window into the African-American cultural experience of the holiday. During the intro, he gives a shout-out to a Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief, even using some of the Indians’ arcane phrases. In the verses he name checks the traditional Carnival royalty of Rex & Zulu, racially separate krewes in the still divided Deep South that paraded different routes on the big day.

Bartholomew had just begun working for California-based Imperial Records in 1949, finding talent and producing sessions for the label, starting with Tommy Ridgley, Jewel King, and the young pianist/vocalist Fats Domino, who Dave and Imperial’s owner, Lew Chudd, had seen at a local club. Fat’s first record, “The Fat Man” (#5058), was a big hit for Imperial by early the next year, the first of many over more than a decade. Busy with producing sessions and touring with Fats, Dave never got to record that much as a featured artist; and what he did put out as not as strongly promoted, thus did not sell especially well. “Carnival Day”, recorded in February of 1950, was his first for the label, and certainly one of his best. Mark it down as an important link in the long chain of grooves that led to what we know as funk; but commercially it seems to have been lost in the busy shuffle of releases that year, and never got picked up as a Mardi Gras standard.

By the way, let’s not forget Joe Lutcher, originally from Lake Charles, LA, who recorded his own raucous, syncopated “Mardi Gras” out on the West Coast a year earlier for the Modern label. I featured it here back in 2007.

Carnival Day” has appeared on a number of CD compilations over the years, and can be downloaded from various sellers, it seems, who I hope offer a larger file than the scant 128k review version here. Always go with the biggest payload you can afford.


“Why Don’t Y’all Go To New Orleans” (Margie Baird)
Papa Albert French & His Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, Capricorn 101, ca 1969

"Bald Headed Beulah" (Margie Baird)
featuring Blanche Thomas

I found this single at a record show last year and picked it up, even though I don’t collect much traditional jazz. For one thing, the unknown label intrigued me. Plus, ‘Papa’ French was the father of New Orleans drummer Bob French, and bassist and exceptional vocalist, George. Furthermore, B-side vocalist Blanche Thomas had cut a record for Imperial with Dave Bartholomew in the 1950s, and sang in his band for a while back then. So the record has connections.

When I bought it, I didn’t know the release date; but I’ve narrowed it down. My first clue came from the matrix numbers on it, 133-4009 and 4010, which relate it to Cosimo Matassa, who developed his own unique two-part coding system for the records he was involved in recording and/or issuing. It’s now known as the Cosimo Code through the ongoing work of John Broven, Red Kelly and other expert researchers in the field. The first part of the number was assigned to a particular client label. In this case, 133 turns out to have been a catch-all used for a large number of smaller labels. The second part is a sequential number assigned to each song recorded between 1960 and the early 1970s. While 4009 and 4010 on this record fall in the range of the year 1969, according to the Cosimo Code website, neither side is currently listed there. So, I’ll be updating them. As far as I know, this was the only release on the Capricorn label out of New Orleans, which had no ties to Phil Walden’s label of the same name that was starting up over in Georgia around this time.

I’ve found just one other reference to this single, in an article written in 2003 by Per Oldaeus for the Jazz Archivist, a newsletter of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University in New Orleans. In his fine overview of the career of Blanche Thomas, he mentions the record and dates it as “from the early 1970s”; but 1969 makes more sense, with Cosimo involved in the recording. The session may have been done at his newly opened Jazz City Studio which was fronted by his assistant engineer, Skip Godwin, as Cos’ humble recording and distribution empire had all come crashing down the previous year after his run-in with the IRS, taking out almost all of the local labels that relied on his services. In the wake of that, this single didn’t have a chance of finding its audience.

As the single label states, that’s ‘Papa’ French himself doing the top side vocal. He took over leadership of the Tuxedo Jazz Band in 1958, following the death of the famed Papa Celestin, who founded the group in 1910. The lyrics are rather boilerplate Board of Tourism material; and his singing no more than serviceable. But the track is upbeat and fun to hear with the band blowing in the full-tilt traditional style of the early jazz that began in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century. To this day, it’s what many people identify as New Orleans jazz, or Dixieland. Oldaeus lists the lineup of the band at the time of this recording as French/banjo, Frank Fields/bass, Louis Barbarin/drums, Jeanette Kimball/piano, Jack Willis/trumpet, ‘Cornbread’ Thomas/clarinet, and Homer Eugene/trombone.

On the other side, Blanche Thomas delivered the quirky lyrics to “Bald Headed Beulah” in her distinctive lower register. If you like her on this novelty tune, I recommend “You Ain’t So Such A Much”, the overlooked R&B rocker she cut some 15 years earlier for Imperial, which Bartholomew produced to put her in the Big Mama Thornton bag.


“The Second Line, Part 2” (Bill Synegal [sic]-H. Hines)
James Rivers, J.B.’s 136, 1978

Back in 2011, I featured the original version of this tune, done by Bill Sinigal and the Skyliners for Cosimo’s White Cliff’s label, and noted that James Rivers played sax on the session and was a regular member of the band at the time. As also stated there, Sinigal put the song together using elements from at least two earlier works. The attention grabbing intro riff had been used by trumpeter Dave Bartholomew on his 1950s recording of “Good Jax Boogie”, but was borrowed from the much earlier jazz number, “Whoopin’ Blues” The main body of the song was based on another classic jazz nugget, “Joe Avery’s Blues”, part of the standard street-parading brass band repertoire,

None of the songs, including Sinigal’s, were directly intended to be Mardi Gras music; but his caught on with the brass bands of the day and with Carnival revelers to become a standard of its own. After the shutdown of Cosimo’s operations put and end to the availability of the record in the late 1960s, producer and label owner Senator Jones, paid saxman Alvin Thomas to put a session together and re-cut it. The result was issued on Jones’ J.B.’s label in 1974. That version of “The Second Line” with the players called Stop , Inc. is still heard on Carnival playlists to this day.

By 1978, when Rivers recorded his own take on the tune for J.B.’s at Sea-Saint Studios, the song was well-known and played by all sorts of bands all over town. What he brought to the party was consummate horn blowing skill, an amalgam of his traditional and contemporary jazz and R&B influences and experience. I picked Part 2, because ¾ of it is just Rivers' energetic inventive riffing over the changes. A celebratory workout!

For more on his background, refer to my 2006 post on another of Rivers’ fine R&B/jazz fusion records for the label.


“Big Chief” (Gaines - Quezergue)
The Neville Brothers, from the Black Top LP, Neville-ization, 1984

Professor Longhair first recorded this tune, written by Earl King (under his mother’s maiden name), who also sang it, and produced/arranged by Wardell Quezergue, for the Watch label (#1900) in 1964. Since then, it has become another standard of the Carnival canon, covered by numerous artists from solo pianists to brass bands and other funksters. Longhair’s definitively intricate keyboard fingerings, extremely difficult to reproduce, make his version unbeatable; but since my radio days I’ve loved to feature other takes on the tune.

This version by the Neville Brothers comes from their first live LP, Neville-ization, on the hometown Black Top label. It was recorded at Tipitina’s on September 24, 1982 and released in 1984. Since forming the group in 1978, the Neville family had released two prior studio albums for major labels with different approaches; but neither were successful at breaking the band nationally. The live LP dispensed with that notion and simply aimed to please their strong fan base both local and developed around the country through touring. It is a fine documentation of what their live shows were like during the period, with their signature sound evident but still in its formative stages.

The core of the band, of course were the brothers, Art on keyboards and vocals, Aaron on vocals and percussion, Cyril on congas and vocals, and Charles on sax and percussion, with Aaron’s son, Ivan, also on keyboards and vocals. Backing them were drummer ‘Mean’ Willie Green, bassist Darryl Johnson, and Brian Stolz on guitar. The group had recently undergone a significant personnel shake-up that brought in Green, Johnson and Stolz to replace the previous rhythm section, a/k/a Blackmale, which included Gerald ‘Professor Shorthair’ Tillman.

Around 1981, Tillman formed the Uptown Allstars with several other members of Blackmale, plus, Ivan Neville, Willie Green, bassist/vocalist Nick Daniels. and another vocalist, Reggie Cummings.That band performed locally when the Neville Brothers weren’t gigging. But, in 1983, Ivan left both groups to go to Los Angeles to record with the band Rufus on their album, Seal In Red, and decided to stay there and pursue his career. For more on Tillman and that period, refer to the post I did last year on him.

Cyril handled the lead vocal on this track. His fervent singing has always been my favorite method of delivery for this song’s Mardi Gras Indian-inspired lyrics, through all his years with the family band. He also did a killer funk version with the Uptown Allstars (which he took over following Tillamn’s death in 1986), on their CD, The Fire This Time.


“[Big Chief Like Plenty Of] Fire Water” (Wild Magnolias - Wilson Turbinton)
Wild Magnolias, Treehouse 801B, 1975

It’s been many moons since I featured the 45 version of “Fire Water” by the Wild Magnolias with instrumental backing from Wilson ‘Willie Tee’ Turbinton and the Gaturs. The sessions were recorded at Studio In The Country in Bogalusa, LA for the second of the group’s LPs, They Call Us Wild, produced by Philippe Rault for the French Barclay label in 1975. Due to the inadequate sales of their first, The Wild Magnolias, produced by Rault and issued by Polydor in the US the previous year, They Call Us Wild was released only in Europe. So Rault and Quint ‘ Cosmic Q’ Davis conspired to put out a single from it on the one-off Treehouse label for New Orleans consumption.

Back in 1970, these groups participated in a spontaneous jam during a music festival Davis put on at Tulane University where he was a student; and hearing it switched on the proverbial lightbulb in his head. From that followed his historic production of the first known collaboration between a Mardi Gras Indian gang and funk musicians, a recording which became the Wild Magnolias’ debut single, the two-part “Handa Wanda”, on the Cresent label, with Tee, bassist George French, and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste backing the definitely wild sounding vocals and percussion.

None of the later album tracks ever quite matched that fire, but some came close; and all were heavily atmospheric, funky and fresh. Big Chief Bo Dollis’ vocal on “Fire Water” was one of his more subdued performances; but the track rumbles with tons of low end jungle funk while projecting a stutter-stepping street-strut groove perfect for heading out on the holiday. Hey la hey!

I’ll get to the A-side, “New Suit”, in the next round. Here’s hoping at least a few of these numbers will aid and abet your revelry.


Blogger Red Kelly said...

Great as always, Dan... think that's Snooks on guitar on 'Fire Water'? Indians Comin'!!

4:01 PM, February 13, 2014  

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