I was in my 30’s when I finally understood that the deep depression I experienced every time I moved was related to having left New Orleans when I was a child. Hosting a radio show of New Orleans music has been cathartic. And today’s show marks five years on the air. (you can get the show started and then continue reading this post.)
Joe Lastie’s “New Orleans in Me” speaks to how when you live away from New Orleans (as happened with hundreds of thousands of residents post Hurricane Katrina) , the city stays with you. The song has always resonated for me and it opens this show as a way to honor why I’ve been doing this show for five years.
I was 10 when my family moved away and my heart stayed with the city, aided by frequent visits, until I moved out of the south after I graduated from college. The Northwest was such a good fit for me that over time, I lost touch with my New Orleans feelings — except that sense of loss that would return every time I moved into a new apartment or home.
By the time I returned to visit my sister who had moved back, it had been almost 30 years since I had visited New Orleans. I caught the New Orleans Nightcrawlers at the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival which caused me to have almost a mystical experience. I just loved their sound and quickly learned that there was more to New Orleans music than Dixieland. The Nightcrawlers open the first full set of the show with “Can of Worms.”
I do a funk set with Mem Shannon, Allen Toussaint and Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes. I make sure New Orleans Bounce is represented with the Queen of Bounce Big Freedia doing “Lift Dat Leg Up.”
I try to hint at the diversity of New Orleans music with original songs by Leyla McCalla, Anders Osborne, Kelcy Mae and Lena Prima. I throw in a fun set of Zydeco as well since that is music I would not have learned to love if I had not been doing this show. I hope you have a chance to listen to some of my shows and appreciate the uniquely melting pot American music that emanates from New Orleans
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Today’s show honors African-American History Month (February) with a musical tour through jazz, R&B, funk, Mardi Gras Indian, hip hop and bounce music from New Orleans. Start the show by clicking the arrow below and then read the rest of my show notes.
New Orleans may have been founded by the French, rebuilt by the Spanish and bought by the U.S., but its the African ingredients that make the New Orleans cultural gumbo so rich.
The very short story is that the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean blended with European instruments in New Orleans to create jazz. But it was African-Americans, many who were descendants of slaves, who made the music happen.
The show’s first set features Sidney Bechet who came from a musical middle-class family that lived in the Marigny neighborhood. I follow him up with a quick race to contemporary times with Dr. Michael White and Doreen Ketchens. It’s a strong set of clarinet solos.
The second set kicks off with Louis Armstrong and follows with two of his mentors King Oliver and Kid Ory. Jelly Roll Morton, who started playing the New Orleans brothels at 14, starts off my last set of jazz. Morton is followed by Kid Thomas who was faithful to the New Orleans jazz tradition throughout his career that spanned from the 1920’s to 1970. But 100+ year old Lionel Ferbos wins the longevity award and sings “Pretty Doll/Ugly Child.”
The show moves into R&B with a rollicking three-piano version of Boogie Woogie with Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington and Allen Toussaint. But its Deacon John’s “Jumpin’ in the Morning” that gets your ass shaking. Somewhere in there, I talk about the Dew Drop Inn and include an excerpt from an interview of Kenneth Jackson about his grandpa, Frank Pania who started the Dew Drop Inn and was part of a civil action that ended arrests for racial mixing.
Which made that a good time to play Fats Domino, whose concerts were the site of at least four major riots. Some blame the music, some blame the alcohol but Rick Coleman who wrote a biography of Fats Domino contends that the riots were at least in part incited by racial mixing in a time period when much of our country recognized and practiced “apartheid.”
The show rolls on with only African-American musicians and vocalists, including a set of Black Creole music of South Louisiana, which is often called “Zydeco.” And I closed the show with “Get Lucky” with bounce artist Big Freedia performing with the Soul Rebels.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.