Morgus the Magnificent Inspires Friends of Music

Like most communities, New Orleans loves Halloween. Voodoo Music Fest, for instance, is always timed for around October 31. But this story is about Morgus the Magnificent and the music he inspired.

Morgus the Magnificent has been a New Orleans icon for half a century with his quirky experiments and good intentions.

If you ever watched horror movies on television during the last century, chances are you’re familiar with the occupation of “Horror Host” — the sometimes creepy, usually campy personality who introduced the late Friday or Saturday night movie with tongue firmly in cheek.

Pioneered by Vampira, who dressed like Morticia Addams and hosted KABC-TV late night movies in Los Angeles in the 50’s, Shock Hosts proliferated across the country after Screen Gems saw a nifty way to cash in on its aging library of horror films. Classic monster movies like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy were packaged with lesser movies and sent to local stations with the suggestion they air the movies using a costumed host.

One of the stations that took up the idea was WWL-TV in New Orleans and the city hasn’t been the same since.

On a Saturday night in January 1959, Morgus the Magnificent, along with his sidekick Chopsley and a talking skull named Eric, hit the local airwaves. He immediately captured the attention of TV viewers and, six decades later, continues to be a favorite in the hearts, minds and T-shirts of NOLA residents.

Recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in spring of 1959, Morgus and the 3 Ghouls featured Frankie Ford, Jerry Byrne and Mac Rebennak (aka Dr. John).

Within four months of his show’s premiere, Morgus would be memorialized in song. Frankie Ford, Jerry Byrne and Mac Rebennak (the future Dr. John) recorded Morgus and the Three Ghouls at Cosimo Matassa’s studio on Governor Nicholls Street. While never a hit, it plays locally on occasion and showed up on Dr. John’s anthology Mos’ Scocious. In 1962, Morgus became the first Horror Host to have his own movie, The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus.

Morgus wasn’t your typical monster or vampire show host. He was a benevolent, though somewhat high strung, mad scientist working out of his laboratory above the Old City Ice House in the French Quarter. Filled with superhuman self confidence in his genius, he would devise ill-conceived schemes and experiments that had good intentions but would always fail miserably.

Morgus in his laboratory over the Old City Ice House in the French Quarter.

I recollect one show I watched as kid in the 60’s where he created his own weight reduction clinic and during the commercial breaks he demonstrated weight-loss technologies straight out of a Vincent Price movie, including a swinging pendulum (lose weight or else). Needless to say, by the end of the show his clients had lost more than pounds.

Morgus was the creation of Sid Noel Rideau, a native New Orleanian with a wacky imagination. He did a brief stint of Morgus in Detroit where he apparently recorded a surf rock tune called Werewolf under the name of Morgus and the Darringers.

But my favorite song representation of him was done by the band Galactic on their 2010 release Ya-Ka-May. The CD’s first track, Friends of Science, samples a typical opening of one of Morgus’ shows. “Good evening my dear students, and of course friends of science and those of the higher order.” (See the video sampled from.) You’ll find over a dozen New Orleans artists credited in the CD’s liner notes,  including Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Big Freedia and Trombone Shorty. But there’s no mention of Morgus or Rideau.

Morgus is familiar to several generations in New Orleans. Less so elsewhere.

Apparently, Galactic had a hard time getting permission from Rideau but finally did with the condition that it would be uncredited.  In promoting the album to Offbeat magazine, Galactic’s bass player Robert Mercurio pondered “how many people are going to get that one. I think maybe you’d have to be from New Orleans to really get that voice.”

Not necessarily. Not if you catch the distinctive voice of Morgus when he’s played on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, this Monday (show now airs on Thursdays), starting at 10 a.m. Also, if you’ve read this far, perhaps you would like to subscribe by clinking the link in the upper right column.

Postscript: Since this post, this documentary was posted online, focusing on the original run of Morgus.

Focus on Tradition and Youth Ignites a Musical Rebirth

It’s not every retirement that results in a musical revitalization. But that’s what happened when veteran jazz performers Danny and Blue Lu Barker returned to New Orleans in 1965.

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Louise “Blue Lu” and Danny Barker were life partners who performed together as an act. One of their most famous numbers was Don’t You Feel My Leg

I suspect they sought a slower pace after 35 years of performing with Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and a long list of other jazz notables. But retirement for Danny Barker didn’t mean doing nothing.

Danny went to work as an assistant curator for the New Orleans Jazz Museum– gone now but the collection resides in the Old U.S. Mint building.  He also continued his reputation for performing and writing bawdy songs like the one that made him and Blue Lu famous, Don’t You Feel My Leg.

Danny continued to perform with his guitar and banjo regularly around town, even maintaining a weekly spot with the band at the Palm Court Jazz Café until near his death in 1994.   (The gig inspired his song Palm Court Strut. See it performed at Seattle’s Fremont Solstice Parade.)

But it was volunteer work organizing a youth band for his 7th Ward neighborhood church at the request of his pastor that would leave a lasting impact on New Orleans music.

When Barker began recruiting young musicians for the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band in 1970, brass bands were the province of old men. There was some concern whether the tradition would get carried forward. Fortunately, there were plenty of young musicians developing through the public school’s music system. All they needed was some guidance.

Leroy Jones, who lived only an Archie Manning pass away from the church, was one of the first to get recruited. Danny found the future member of the New Orleans Jazz Hall of Fame practicing in his parent’s garage. Years later, Jones described his initial impressions of Barker this way to Offbeat Magazine:

“We didn’t really know who Danny was in terms of his status. I just thought he was a cool guy. He wore a nice hat and these slick, creased pants and Stacy Adams shoes. He had a cool, hip walk. He was the epitome of coolness. These guys today have nothing on Danny Barker.” (Hear Leroy Jones describe his meeting with Barker on this WWOZ podcast.)

The list of band members that Barker assembled makes it clear he had eye for talent because it reads like a “whose who” of New Orleans musicians: Wynton Marsalis, Gregg Stafford, Herlin Riley, Michael White, Lucien Barbarin, Kirk Joseph, Alton “Big Al” Carson,  and Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, among others.

The Fairview Band played for about four years before Barker had to quit the project because of concerns raised by the local music union. But the band continued, evolving into the Hurricane Brass Band and then Tornado Brass Band–names suggestive of the power produced by these young lungs.

use of union issues, Danny Barker had to stop leading the church band which was renamed Hurricane Brass Band. Here the young band members are marching on St. Denis toward the church.

Three of the band members, Gregory Davis, Kirk Joseph, and Kevin Harris, would form the the Dirty Dozen Brass Band which captured the attention of music lovers all over the world by blending traditional brass sounds with funk, bepop and R&B.  The band was a major inspiration for the founding members of the Rebirth Brass Band and other brass bands that followed. Without Danny Barker’s efforts with Fairview, the brass band scene in New Orleans would not be as robust as it is today.

Also, many of the Fairview band members such as Jones, Stafford and White, would carry on the tradition of New Orleans jazz, helping to sustain and grow the city’s reputation as the birthplace of jazz.

In reading the many articles about the Fairview Brass Band and Barker’s influence (a good example), I’m struck by how a string musician could affect so dramatically brass band music. He did it by teaching these young players the history and tradition of jazz. particularly New Orleans jazz. He demonstrated the importance of showing up on time, dressing appropriately and being prepared to perform–what workforce professionals now call the “soft skills.” In short, he taught kids who had musical talent how to be professional musicians.

You’ll hear some of Danny’s proteges in this week’s edition of Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.  See you on the radio.

Community Stations like KAOS; WWOZ make a difference

Picture yourself at Tipitina’s in the early 80’s preparing to catch some funk by Zigaboo Modeliste and George Porter, Jr., and just as the band is about to begin, a microphone descends from the ceiling.

In the early years of WWOZ, Tipitina’s was the home of the station.

You would have been witnessing an early, glorious moment in community radio. Located in the beer storage room above the uptown New Orleans night club was the nascent community radio station, WWOZ. With that simple, low-tech approach, the station was able to broadcast a live performance–launching a 30-year tradition of supporting local music.

WWOZ has come a long way from that beer closet and now is readily recognized as the “Guardian of the Groove” in New Orleans.

While serving a smaller market, KAOS has a similar reputation for supporting the often overshadowed music scene in Olympia.

With the KAOS Fall Member Drive and the WWOZ Fall Member Drive, I thought it timely to talk about my two favorite radio stations and why financial support is essential to both.

Like many, I listen to more than one station. But I only pledge to KAOS and WWOZ.  I pledge to KAOS because its my default station that I listen to the most, providing a wide range of music and programming. I pledge to WWOZ because I love New Orleans and its music. Listening to the station connects me, albeit remotely, to the city I was born in. Without WWOZ, I would not have had the confidence to launch Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa – a show that wouldn’t exist without KAOS.

Here are the features I like about these stations.  They both are non-commercial, community radio stations. They both invite and train members of the community to volunteer as on-air hosts (deejays). While being “volunteer powered” means they’re not as slick as some commercial radio stations, the hosts convey an authentic, honest voice, portraying Olympia and New Orleans in a way that gives me a deeper understanding. These deejays work in the same community, walk the same sidewalks,  drink at the same bars (you get the idea.).

Both stations are cheerleaders for local music, regularly announcing live music events, hosting studio performances and interviewing musicians and other performers. This boosterism can matter.  In 1987, KAOS hosted the the first radio broadcast of Nirvana and this summer, Seattle’s Vaudeville Etiquette was written up by the music tracker CMJ because of airplay it received on KAOS.

Just last week, local musician Greg Black stopped by the KAOS table at Arts Walk and offered the station his new CD, recorded two blocks away at Dub Narcotic Studio. You’ll hear it, along with other local music, on KAOS.

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Ernie K-Doe, New Orleans singer and lounge owner, was a deejay with New Orleans community radio station WWOZ.

And like WWOZ whose shows have been hosted by musicians like James Booker, David Torkanowsky and Ernie K-Doe (this blog’s patron saint), many of the KAOS on-air hosts are musicians themselves.

Both stations offer more than music. WWOZ , owned by the same folks who bring us Jazz Fest, focuses on programs that delve into the music and culture of New Orleans. KAOS has a broader mission, providing alternative perspectives such as National Native News, Counter Spin and Workers Independent News. as well as locally produced public affairs programs like Parallel University, Speaking of Wellness and the one I contribute to, Community Connections Report.

Strong listener support for these stations are crucial. The additional funding helps enrich the quality of the programming. But it also demonstrates to underwriters and funders that the station is a valued resource worthy of their support. Please take the time to pledge to KAOS and pledge to WWOZ this week or whenever you read this.

Street music can be magical if you let yourself enjoy it

There is an element of excitement when listening to a street performer–it creates an unplanned moment that forces me to choose between carrying on with whatever I was doing or allow for the aural equivalent of “stop and smell the roses.”

The moment can be magical or quite painful depending on the quality of busker. The beauty of a street performance is you can vote with your feet but if your feet don’t move, you should definitely vote with your wallet.

On Monday’s show, I’ll feature musicians who have played on the streets of New Orleans.

Artesian Rumble Arkestra creates street music magic for Olympia.

But before I go there, let me say that I’ve had many wonderful moments, listening to musicians on sidewalks and parks in Seattle and Olympia. A favorite street event is HonkFest West which has featured one of Olympia’s finest purveyors of street magic, Artesian Rumble Arkestra.

But it’s hard to compete with a 300-year-old city that gave birth to Jazz. New Orleans has a rich tradition of buskers which attracts musicians from all over the world. The city even seems to have its own apprenticeship program.

The wandering Alynda Lee Segarra had not played an instrument until she found a discarded washboard in New Orleans and settled into a routine of playing with street performers. She found her niche, learned banjo and guitar, started singing and wrote her own songs. Now with four major release albums, the singer/songwriter of Hurray for the Riff Raff is playing in venues all over the world.

Alynda Lee Segarra began her music career on the streets of New Orleans. As part of Hurray for the Riff Raff, she now plays larger venues.

Tuba Skinny, a band that plays rag time and traditional jazz, is touring Australia right now but when home, the band often plays on Royal Street.

Meschiya Lake also played with various street bands including Loose Marbles but moved to the night clubs when she formed The Little Big Horns Jazz Band.  You can usually catch her amazing act live at Chickie Wah Wah on Canal Street on Wednesday nights.

The most widely known street performers of New Orleans are the brass bands. With a long tradition of parades, second lines and musical funeral processions, the city has developed a very strong community of brass musicians and bands.  Treme Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Bands tour the world but can still be found on occasion playing on the streets of New Orleans. The street provides a great place for budding musicians to learn their craft and over time achieve success as evidenced by the Baby Boyz Brass Band and TBC Brass Band.

Grandpa Elliott (Elliott Small) and Stony B (Michael Stone) performing at a corner on Royal Street.
Grandpa Elliott (Elliott Small) and Stony B (Michael Stone) performing at a corner on Royal Street.

One of my favorite street music moments occurred when I was walking along Royal Street in April 2006. The guitarist sounded a little like Robert Cray and the harmonica player had a deep bass voice and looked distinctive in his thick grey beard, farmer overalls, straw hat and sunglasses with one lens punched out.  I listened for several songs and talked with them between songs. I bought their CD and had them sign it—a practice I still do with street performers I enjoy.  Stoney B, the guitarist, has since moved to San Diego where he and his band play regularly at festivals and night clubs. Grandpa Elliott, the harmonica player, became famous as a regular with the Playing For Change band and recordings.

It’s easy to find street musicians while in New Orleans. But you don’t have to visit NOLA, to hear them. I’ll be featuring several sets of music from NOLA street performers, Monday, October 6, starting at 10 a.m. on KAOS, 89.3 FM.  We stream.