Professor Longhair’s style has been described as a rhumba crossed with a blues shuffle.In an interview with Peter Stone Brown not long before he died in 1980, he said:
” I was around a lot of honky-tonk musicians, barrelhouse musicians, blues musicians, and bebop musicians, jazz musicians. I just got a little bit from everybody and used it with what my mother taught me. She played a lot of ragtime music. . . I just mix my ideas up and call it a gumbo. There’s no certain thing at all. It’s just rockin’ rhythm.”
Fess was there at the beginning of the New Orleans Rock and Roll era in New Orleans, cutting his first singles in the J&M Studio (Cosimo Matassa) in 1949. And in November 1953 with Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lee Allen, Earl Palmer, and Edgar Blanchard backing him up, he recorded “Tipitina” for the first time.
“Girl you hear me calling you. Well you’re three times seven, baby. Knows what you want to do.”
Born in Bogalusa but raised in New Orleans, Professor Longhair never made the hit parade and never really experienced financial success. By the late 60’s, his career had folded and he was living in poverty. In 1970, Quint Davis and Alison Minor sought him out with the intention of getting him to perform at their fledgling music festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Who they found was a frail, weak man who didn’t seem capable of pounding out his trademark rhythms. But with the help of Davis and Minor, he recovered enough to perform at the second JazzFest in 1971 and demonstrate that, if anything, his playing had gotten better. His hometown and the world embraced him and his career flourished. Until his death in 1980, he recorded and performed, including at the nightclub created for the purpose of providing him and other aging R&B artists a place to play, named appropriately Tipitina’s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Meet Ernie K-Doe, a New Orleans performer and a character in a city of characters. He is now officially designated: Patron Saint of this Blog.
I have no idea what the criterion is to be a blog’s patron saint or even if this is a good idea. I suspect for someone who called himself Emperor of the World, Ernie might consider this gig slumming. Then again, from what I’ve read, he was a generous and warm fellow despite his boastful swagger.
Ernie K-Doe’s claim to fame is the song Mother-in-Law (written by Allen Toussaint) which became the best-selling record in America in May 1961, topping the pop chart for one week and the R&B chart for five weeks. No other New Orleans artist has ever reached the top with a song recorded in New Orleans. Fats Domino sold a mountain of records but never had a number one hit.
And Ernie K-Doe never let you forget his claim to fame. Not in his performances nor in his outrageous stints as a volunteer deejay for community radio stations WWOZ and WTUL–where his code phrase was “Burn K-Doe Burn.” He would say there are only two songs that will stand the test of time: Star Spangled Banner and Mother-in-Law.
Ernie’s turning point was meeting Antoinette Dorsey Fox–a woman with many talents including her ability to sew outlandish outfits to match his personality and to provide love and focus to a man who had taken the textbook life crash of a one-hit wonder.
Antoinette opened the Mother-in-Law Lounge at 1500 N. Claiborne Street in the shadow of Interstate 10 where K-Doe could perform as well as tend bar. The lounge became a kitschy memorial to his career, including outsized murals of K-Doe and a jukebox that played his hit every 20 minutes — sometimes accompanied by the real-time K-Doe who kept a wired microphone nearby.
Not that death stopped him. A local sculptor was able to adapt a mannequin into a life-size and lifelike rendition of Ernie. For a few years after his death, Antoinette dressed and brought the statute to gatherings around town, including a fundraiser for the benefit of New Orleans cemeteries. In 2002, the benefit was held at Saint Alphonsus Catholic Church where I once subbed as an altar boy in the 60’s. Apparently the church was also used by Anne Rice as a setting in her novel The Witching Hour.
Sandmel takes the story from here:
“Although decommissioned as a place of worship and then reinvented as an arts center, Saint Alphonsus kept its full array of Catholic statuary in place. This holy horde looked on as the Madame Tussaud-esque K-Doe was plunked down in its sacred midst. A bodyguard named Cisco accompanied Ernie’s effigy. He stood stock-still by his charge’s side lest anyone should feel prone to K-Doe kleptomania. But almost everyone else at the church was in frenetic motion. A zydeco band set up in front of the altar and cranked out upbeat two-steps and slow, low-down blues. This irresistibly danceable blend inspired the cemeteries’ more extroverted friends to twirl, bump and grind by the baptismal font, with their Lestat costumes and Goth garb all a-flutter. At evening’s end Antoinette disassembled and packed up the statue like all mannequins, it is sectional–with the disarming comment, ‘I’m working poor Ernie to death!’”
Poor Ernie. Now you gotta be my patron saint as well. I’ll be playing Ernie’s Certain Girl — a New Orleans favorite on the September 15th show on KAOS starting at 10 a.m.
POST SCRIPT: And I’ll honor his birthday on the February 23rd show.
I’m Tim Sweeney and this blog is to support a radio show I’m starting on Monday called Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa. I’m incredibly excited as well as nervous. Nothing like getting what I want and then freaking out about whether I can do it right.
After retiring from a 30-year stint as State of Washington employee on Halloween 2013, I signed up for and took the KAOS deejay training class –which qualified me, upon completion, to host programs on one of the best known and regarded community radio stations in the country. KAOS has been on the air since January 1, 1973 and is located on the campus of The Evergreen State College. The station uses trained volunteer deejays from the college and the community and offers a diverse free-form radio format.
From the start, I’ve wanted to do a show that would allow me to pursue my love for New Orleans and its music. I was born in New Orleans and lived there until I was 10. I went back frequently until I moved to the Northwest 35 years ago and didn’t return until the first Jazzfest after Katrina (April 2006). I’ve been back several times since, always to catch as much music (and food) as possible.
Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa premieres on KAOS, 89.3 FM (www.kaosradio.org) at 10 a.m. (PST). The two-hour live program will air every Monday after that. The show will feature music from and about New Orleans, including blues, jazz, R&B, hip hop, folk, cajun/zydeco, Mardi Gras Indian, rock, and everything in between-new and old.
I’m hoping you’ll catch all or part of the show as you can and let me know what you think. I’ll be using this blog to support that show, provide more details, photos, links etc.
See you on the radio. (POST NOTE: My show later moved to Thursdays and on March 10, 2022 – I did my last episode after 7 and half years of weekly programs.)