August 12, 2005

How La La Became A Prince

The Prince and his posse

"Gettin' Married Soon" (Charley Julien)
Prince La La, A.F.O., 1962

Gone back to La La Land

Yes, it’s another fractured music business fairytale. As promised in my prior post on Oliver Morgan’s “Who Shot The La La”, here’s one of the precious few sides from Prince La La a/k/a Lawrence Nelson. Released in 1962, “Gettin’ Married Soon” b/w “Come Back To Me” was his second and last single. As I told you, or you may already have known, he died under questionable circumstances the year after its release.

Nelson’s casual, rough and ready voice is similar to several other New Orleans singers of the era: Jessie Hill, Chris Kenner, Alvin Robinson, and Oliver Morgan. Their styles went well with the sauntering popeye tunes of the day. What set La La apart was the high- pitched squeal he would interject from time to time that definitely goosed up his performances, as you can hear. “Gettin’ Married Soon” was written by Charley Julien a/k/a Jimmy Jules a/k/a Pistol, who also recorded several good sides for A.F. O. and other local labels. While the session band is only noted on the single as the “AFO Studio Combo”, we know that they comprised mostly the co-owners of the label, such as Red Tyler on sax, Melvin Lastie on trumpet/cornet, Peter “Chuck” Badie on bass, John Boudreaux on drums, among others. Overseeing the sessions was the head of the label, legendary producer and music director Harold Batiste.

Interestingly, Lawrence Nelson came to record by accident. In 1961, Jessie Hill, to whom he was related, had discovered Barbara George and brought her in for her first session on the new A.F.O.(All For One) label. She was to record one of Nelson’s songs; and Hill was using him to demonstrate it to George. When Batiste and the crew heard Nelson sing, they decided to record him on the song. So, instead, George did one of her own, “I Know”.

The A.F. O. staff developed Nelson’s stage name (using his nickname, La La) and African prince/Mardi Gras costuming (see photo), based on the spirit of another song he recorded written by Hill, the percussive, hypnotic “Need You”, which was not released at the time. In short order, Prince La La’s first A. F. O. session became the label’s first release, “She Put The Hurt On Me” b/w “Don’t You Know Little Girl”, which charted nationally. George’s record did even better, going to #1. The label had burst onto the scene and great things might have been in the cards for La La and A.F. O. But, the singer died in 1963 at age 27; and, strangely, the label, and its At Last subsidiary, went under the same year. Although founded by musicians for musicians to give them a bigger slice of the music business pie, A.F. O. became the victim of a bad distribution deal with Juggy Murray at Sue Records. While he had helped them make “I Know” a big hit, Murray was not a keeper of the All For One faith. He convinced Barbara George to sign with him, did not give Batiste and his fellow musician/owners all their money, then cancelled the distribution agreement. Having lost its two hit makers, funding, and access to national markets, only several more singles were issued before the label folded.

There’s a lot of history wrapped up in just a few recordings by this obscure but influential singer, who for a time became a prince of sorts. Harold Batiste has stated that Prince La La’s costumes and performance of “Need You”, with its evocation of New Orleans’ musical and mystical roots, was carried through into the Dr. John persona that Mac Rebennack created, working with Jessie Hill and Batiste in Los Angeles in the later 1960’s. Rebennack had known La La and worked with A.F. O., as well. You can hear “Need You” and another unreleased Prince La La track, “Things Have Changed”, on the Ace (UK) three CD
Gumbo Stew series, which also has many of the sides left in the can after the demise of the label, plus some good stuff Batiste produced later in California. Prince La La’s two A. F. O. releases can be found, ironically, on EMI's The Sue Records Story CD box set, which seems to be out of print.


Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Spam once again creeps into the comments.

8:17 PM, August 15, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

This is a test comment. Is this thing on?

10:49 PM, August 18, 2005  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have managed to find 5 of Lala's sides, can't seem to find the flip of his first single. He's truly a rare find, obviously influenced many after him.

12:06 PM, September 04, 2010  
Anonymous Sam said...

Interesting. You say he died under mysterious circumstances but most say OD. Can you tell me what else you've heard and the various places the info on this has been found? Many thanks for this piece, btw.

2:36 PM, April 16, 2012  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Hey, thanks , Sam, for asking. Yes, a heroin overdose killed Lawrence 'La La' Nelson, that much is known. But the means and method of delivery are in question.

The main information I have on his demise comes from Jeff Hannusch's segment on him in The Soul of New Orleans, where he refers to the circumstance of La La's death as "tragic and mysterious". He pulled the basic details from a Louisiana Weekly report that stated La La stopped by his siter's rooming house to watch TV one evening, while they went out. When they returned about 2:00 AM, they found him unconscious; and he couldn't be revived.

His brother, 'Papoose' Nelson, the legendary guitarist and known junker, had died of an overdose the prior year; but La La wasn't known to have had a serious habit. Hannusch suggests from information provided by various unnamed sources who were around at the time that La La was dosed by someone else with a particularly potent batch of H.

To increase the mystery, Mac Rebennck (Dr John) said in a 1972 interview with John Broven that he always suspected that someone he knew did La La in out of "jealousy or resentment" [you can hear that clip at KnowLA]. Oddly, Mac did not say much at all about La La in his own book, Under A Hoodoo Moon.

Anyway, I did this post quite a while back, and was doing the writing more on the fly that I do today (for better or worse). I need to update and clarify what I said - and also need to do a post on La La's first record, which I finally picked up a few years back. It's on the list....

10:55 PM, April 16, 2012  
Anonymous sam said...

Thanks so much! I was considering something like a "hotshot" being the possible meaning of "I know it was a .44." Big gun. Big shot. It occurred to me that that was what he meant. I was also curious about the line in Morgan's song where he mentions three people he thought might be capable of it. Apparently there's some disagreement on the last name he mentions. To me it sounds like "my brother John" but I've seen other interpretations. No idea if Oliver had a brother named John or if brother is a looser term in that context.

I did find the Dr. John interview you mentioned. I found it the day I wrote the comment here. I was surprised by it. Had to really listen hard but it was certainly there.

What a find this blog is. Evidently all my other music geek friends already knew of you, but I lucked into finding ya! Thanks so very much for your response. Can't wait to pass it on to them.

5:00 PM, April 18, 2012  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Glad you and your friends dig da blog, Sam.

I'm not sure if Mr. Morgan's great song quite rises to investigative reporting status, as he could well have made up those names. Singing even the nicknames of real-life possible murder suspects in your song getting radio play might not have been a recipe for longevity! Still, "Who Shot The La La" has kept the story and main question going all these years. Quite a feat.

Hope to hear from you again. Gotta get over to the St. Roch Tavern!

6:59 PM, April 18, 2012  
Blogger granzombi said...

Sam, glad you made it here... Mr. Dan does a great job and is often playing in the background when I have office work, if only I had a computer radio in the shop and car thanks Home of the Groove!

7:00 PM, April 18, 2012  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Dave, thanks for your comment. Sorry for getting it up here late. Not sure how I missed it. Not even sure why I'm not sure! Onward through the fog.....

7:47 AM, April 25, 2012  

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