May 13, 2005

Swamp Side from the Big Easy

Some guy and a mod John Fred

"Shirley" John Fred (T. Bryan, J. Fred) Montel, 1958

RIP, John Fred

We were driving through Baton Rogue a few weeks ago, listening to a local university station, when I heard the DJ say that John Fred (Gourrier) had passed away. So, I made a mental note to make him the subject of my next Swamp Side. Probably best known around the planet for his 1968 single, “Judy In Disguise”, which became an international hit, going to #1 on the pop charts in the US, the Baton Rouge native started his recording career a decade earlier at the age of 17 in Cosimo Matassa’s famous New Orleans studio, cutting his own song, “Shirley”, for the Montel label. On that track, he was backed famously by Dave Bartholomew’s house band, who had just finished laying down “Whole Lotta Loving” and some other tunes with Fats Domino.

“Shirley” got into the top 100 in 1959; and John Fred did a little touring, forming a band with friends from high school doing mostly r&b and early rock ‘n roll cover tunes they dug, which at that time was still considered unusual, if not dangerous, in the Deep South. They continued performing and recording into the 1960’s without much chart action, until their danceable, wry, Louisiana send-up of Beatles-style record making brought them brief fame and a multi-million seller on the Shreveport-based Paula label. After a few albums and declining sales, John Fred became a fairly successful record producer in his hometown, and continued to record on his own up until a few years ago.

He certainly doesn’t sound 17 or out of his element on his first single; and he was blessed with smoking studio backing: Charles “Hungry” Williams on drums, Frank Fields on bass, Ernest McLean or Walter Nelson on guitar, and Warren Bell and Clarence Ford on saxes. Hungry’s perfectly in the pocket propulsive shuffle simultaneously rocks and swings the song. Recording at the end of another session, for a label with limited resources, the band probably learned the tune, worked up a head arrangement (no charts) and tossed it off all in short order, testifying to the efficient, highly talented, hit-making work done regularly in the Home of the Groove. What an incredible introduction to the record business for John Fred!

Not far from Baton Rouge. . .


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