22 (MAKE THAT 25) GOOD REASONS TO LOVE NEW ORLEANS MUSIC
All These Things ⎯ Art Neville
Art is the eldest of the famous brothers (and the father of television journalist Arthel Neville). His career spans close to fifty years, and would have been considered complete if he had never cut another record after “All These Things.” It’s a great slow-dance love song.
Big Chief ⎯ Professor Longhair
Henry Roeland Byrd a/k/a Professor Longhair was called “the Bach of Rock,” partly because of the intricacy of his piano playing, and partly because of the influence he had on what developed into rock-n-roll. He pioneered a rhumba-flavored blues style of piano playing that came to shape the New Orleans style. “Big Chief” is one of many songs that echoes the chants of the Mardi Gras Indians, groups of African Americans who take to the streets on Fat Tuesday morning in elaborate costumes. Greta versions of this song were also released by Dr. John and the subdudes.
Burgundy Street Blues ⎯ George Lewis
I’m not including very much traditional jazz on this list, mainly because it would lengthen it by at least a hundred tunes to include just the essentials. But this little-known gem is just too good to omit. George Lewis was, in my humble opinion, the greatest clarinet player New Orleans ever produced. “Burgundy Street Blues” was one of the few tunes he actually wrote. It has a bittersweet feel to it; you just can’t help but close your eyes and smile wistfully while listening to it.
Cissy Strut ⎯ The Meters
The original Meters consisted of Art Neville on keyboards, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, the incomparable George Porter, Jr. on bass, and the irrepressible Zigaboo Modeliste on drums. They served as the house band at legendary Sea-Saint Studios, where they backed up the likes of Dr. John, Robert Palmer, and Paul McCartney. They also cut some amazing albums of their own. Most of the early records were instrumentals, including this classic that redefined the meaning of “funk.” After years of legal disputes and petty squabbling that kept them apart, the original four Meters regrouped for last year’s Jazzfest. They had so much fun, they did some more dates, and they are back on the jazzfest schedule for the end of this month.
Fiyo on th’ Byo (Fire on the Bayou) ⎯ The Neville Brothers
This tune was originally recorded by the Meters, during a period when Cyrill Neville was part of the group. When Art and Cyrill left the Meters, they formed the now-legendary act with their brothers Charles and Aaron. This is one of the Meters’ tunes that made it into the new group’s catalog, and the Nevillized version is nothing short of amazing.
Gonzo ⎯ James Booker
Before the weird blue Muppet, and even before anyone decided to give the name to Hunter S. Thompson, James Carroll Booker, III was Gonzo. He took Professor Longhair’s syncopated rhythms and took music to places no musician had gone before or has gone since. Among the odder chapters of his life story was that this genius who was known to disobey a few laws in his life, took the young son of the local district attorney under his wing, and showed him a thing or two on piano. A few cynics thought Booker was using the kid as his get-out-jail-free card, but it turns out the kid had a few chops and Booker seemed to genuinely like him. The kid was a 12-year old Harry Connick, Jr., who seems to have found some measure of success. It is ironic that Booker, who was known as “the piano prince of New Orleans,” recorded his best known song, “Gonzo,” on organ.
Hey Pocky Way ⎯ The Meters
This classic vocal track from the Meters is adapted from a Mardi Gras Indian chant. The Neville Brothers also perform this song, but the Meters’ version is definitive Fat Tuesday funk.
Iko Iko ⎯ Dr. John
This is another one that started out as an Indian chant. It is the mark of pride in new Orleanians that we actually understand the lyrics to this one. A better known version was released by the Dixie Cups, but the doctor’s recording can’t be beat.
I’m Walkin’ ⎯ Fats Domino
When Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, one of the stubborn folks who refused to leave was Antoine “Fats” Domino. His rescue from his Ninth Ward house made headlines, and resulted in a collective sigh of relief around the world. He’s not only playing at this year’s Jazzfest, he’s on the poster. A lot of his songs could have made this list, but I chose my favorite.
It’s Raining ⎯ Irma Thomas
Irma Thomas is rightfully called the “soul queen of New Orleans.” She makes any song sound good. This is a classic tune of having the blues in the rain.
Lipstick Traces ⎯ Benny Spellman
This was the only nationally known hit by Spellman, affine New Orleans singer. The song’s imagry shows why Allen Toussaint is so revered among songwriters:
On a cigarette
Every memory of you
Mardi Gras in New Orleans ⎯ Professor Longhair
This is a rollicking good time of a song with incredible piano work and the world’s funkiest whistling.
Mother in Law ⎯ Ernie K-Doe
Ernest Kador was a unique character who was born to entertain. It’s hard to say he had a great voice, but every song he sang was infused with personality. His best known song was another Allen Toussaint gem, with references to the stereotypical mother-in-law having been “sent from down below.” For anyone who has had a mother-in-law who “thinks her advice is a contribution, but if she would leave would be a solution,” this song is an anthem. In his last marriage, ol’ Ernie finally found a mother-in-law he loved, but he never talked about the ones who came before. I can relate.
St. James Infirmary ⎯ Louis Armstrong
It seems odd to only have one song by Satchmo on the list, but it’s another case of keeping it manageable. “St. James Infirmary,” also known as “The Gambler’s Blues” was a New Orleans variant in “The Unfortunate Rake” cycle of folk songs (okay, that’s a bit more information than you really wanted). Armstrong recorded it at the peak of his career, and he’s at his best on both trumpet and vocals.
Such a Night ⎯ Dr. John
Mac Rebennack’s most commercially successful album was ‘Right Place, Wrong Time,” on which he was backed up by the Meters. Of all the great songs on the album, “Such a Night” is standing the test of time quite well. It’s hard not to crack a little smile at the rationalization of the refrain: “If I don’t do it, y’know somebody else will.”
‘Taint it the Truth ⎯ Ernie K-Doe
Another great performance from K-Doe, in one of those “she’s left me” songs.
Time Is On My Side ⎯ Irma Thomas
Most people are familiar with this song as being one of the early hits of the Rolling Stones. Ms. Thomas recorded the original, and her vocal puts Mick to shame.
Tipitina ⎯ Professor Longhair
Never has random nonsense sounded so good. Dancing to this is as much fun as is humanly possible. The famous New Orleans nightclub, Tipitina’s, is named after this song, and a statue of the professor stands in the neutral ground (“median” for you yankees) of adjacent Napoleon Avenue.
Tell It Like It Is ⎯ Aaron Neville
Is there anyone out there that really hasn’t heard this one?
Who Shot the Lala ⎯ Oliver Morgan
Before Sym and I got married, one of our more memorable dates was to see the legendary Tommy Ridgley (who we eventually hired to play our wedding) perform at a suburban club. Sitting in for a set was none other than the great Oliver Morgan. As it turned out, we were one of only two couples in the place, but Tommy and Oliver didn’t seem to care. They put on a great show. I will never forget seeing Oliver Morgan look down from the stage to the dance floor where I was twirling my Sym around, and he asked “You love that woman, boy?” I surely do Mr. Morgan. “Who Shot the Lala” is Oliver Morgan’s best-known song, and is, without doubt, the world’s most fun song about a killing.
Workin’ in a Coal Mine ⎯ Lee Dorsey
This was reworked in the ‘80s by Devo, but it just wasn’t the same. It’s yet another Allen Toussaint song, and has the absolute greatest bass line of all time.
You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man) ⎯ Irma Thomas
When you get right down to it, the name pretty much says it all.
There it is, a short list of songs that can turn any party into a N’Awlins second line. But there’s a lot more where those came from. Anyone with internet access can get a free lesson in New Orleans every day by listening in on the world’s greatest radio station. So c’mon, everybody get funky!
* * * * * * * * *
After posting this, I realized I left off three of the great ones.
Barefootin’ ⎯ Robert Parker
This has to be one of the greatest dance songs of all time.
Ooh Poo Pah Doo ⎯ Jessie Hill
Another bit of irresistible nonsense.
You Talk Too Much ⎯ Joe Jones
And really, haven’t we all wanted to say that to someone sometime. Some people say something similar in the comments to this blog on a regular basis.
So now we have a full 25 songs on our New Orleans list. NOW GET FUNKY!