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The best books on The Music of New Orleans

recommended by Keith Spera

The author of Groove Interrupted transports us to the world of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair, and tells us how (and where) to sample the city’s unique music culture

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New Orleans is famous for its music, but for those of us who have never been there, can you describe what it is like growing up surrounded by music?

It makes for a different kind of rhythm in your step. It is a very different city from most cities in North America. The joke is that New Orleans is the northernmost city of the Caribbean as opposed to one of the southernmost cities of the United States. I actually grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans, which are not terribly different from the suburbs of any other town. But during Mardi Gras and the festival season the whole city is affected. My family was very enthusiastic in its participation in the carnival and street parade, Mardi Gras. Also my father had a collection of New Orleans rhythm and blues records, which he started as a boy in the 1950s, so I heard a lot of that sort of music in the house growing up.

So it was mainly rhythm and blues you were listening to when you were growing up?

As a young boy, yes. He had all the stuff by Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, as well as Chuck Berry and all the other rock’n’rollers. As I became a teenager I sort of dismissed that music as old man’s music. I was listening to whatever the popular hard rock band was of the day. But now I have come full circle. And now I have written and hung out with people like Fats Domino I realise how hip and cool that music is that my dad was listening to!

He finally gets validation for his choice in music! New Orleans has produced some amazing musical characters – one of them is Ernie K-Doe, who is discussed in your first book choice, by Ben Sandmel.

It is a brand new book and Ben is a journalist as well as a musician. He is the drummer in a band called The Hackberry Ramblers, which was, at one point, the oldest active Cajun band in existence. Its roots date back to the 1930s. Ben is much younger than the other members. He drummed with that band for a long time and he has been working on this K-Doe book for more than a decade.

In a city of characters, Ernie K Doe was unique. He had a couple of rhythm and blues hits in the 1960s, most famously “Mother-in-Law”, one of the songs that was written and introduced by Allen Toussaint. And then he had a couple of other hits. There is one that was a big hit in the UK in 2007 in an advertisement for the drugstore Boots, called “Here Come the Girls”. That is one of their songs from the 1970s.

K-Doe, as with many singers from New Orleans, had a very fertile period in the 1960s and then he fell out of favour after what we call the British invasion, when the Beatles and other groups became popular in the United States. So he became less relevant. But he re-emerged in the 1980s as this strange iconic New Orleans character. He had his own radio show where he proclaimed himself Emperor of the Universe. He would make all kinds of comments like, “I’m cocky but I’m good!”

He reinvented himself as this character and married a woman called Antoinette, who helped get him sober, and they started a club called Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. It became this outpost of weird New Orleans where there was this life-size mannequin of him and people from the underground music scene really took to him. You would go to the club and there would be elderly African Americans from the neighbourhood and young tattooed hipsters from the artsy part of town. It became this really interesting mix of people that hung out around him, and that is how it was for the last few years of his life.

He basically anointed Ben as his biographer one night, telling him that he had to write a book about him, so that is what Ben did! He’s been gathering anecdotes and research for a number of years in order to write the book that captures K-Doe in all his fabulousness.

He sounds like one of the fathers of music in New Orleans. But when he started his career in the 1960s, when New Orleans was still segregated, how difficult was it to break into the white market?

That is one of the things that New Orleans accomplished, to the benefit of the country as a whole. Another character who helped with this is Fats Domino. He really broke down some of the racial barriers. He was one of the first artists to cross over from a strictly rhythm and blues market, which tended to be a black market – there were radio stations and clubs dedicated to this type of music. But Fats also reached a more popular market. He played to mixed audiences much earlier than a lot of other people did. Music was definitely one of the means by which segregation was broken down.

Some people argue that Fats Domino was more influential to rock’n’roll than Elvis Presley. That is certainly one of the themes that Rick Coleman explores in Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ’n’ Roll.

And I think that you can make that argument. If there were ever a Mount Rushmore of rock’n’roll, Fats Domino would certainly be one of the faces up there, along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. He was one of the guys that transitioned rhythm and blues into rock’n’roll. He started out as a rhythm and blues barrelhouse piano player in New Orleans and then he did a record in 1949, produced by Dave Bartholomew, called “The Fat Man”. Depending on who you ask, that could be considered one of the first records that really strayed into rock’n’roll territory.

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The amount of hits that he had in the 1950s was just incredible. They were co-written and produced by Dave Bartholomew so they were arguably one of the most successful writing teams in rock’n’roll history. I have read the statistic that only Elvis sold more records than Fats in the 1950s. So commercially Fats was right up there. His influence on everybody, including Elvis, was pretty pronounced.

You have written about Fats Domino in your recent book Groove Interrupted. What became of him after Hurricane Katrina?

The focus of the chapter on Fats in my book is to get an update on what has happened to him since Rick Coleman wrote his wonderful biography. Fats famously didn’t like to leave New Orleans for any reason and he didn’t evacuate before Katrina. He stayed in his house in the Lower Ninth Ward with some friends and members of his family. Of course that neighbourhood flooded badly once the levees breached on the nearby industrial canal. So he had eight feet of water in his neighbourhood. His family was forced to the second floor of the house and then were rescued by boat a couple of days after the storm.

Afterwards he lived in Texas for a little while. But as soon as he could he came back to the New Orleans area, not to the Lower Ninth Ward, which was still devastated, but he bought a house in downtown New Orleans in a gated community and he still lives there.

One interesting thing about Fats is that he was going to be the closing act at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. He was on the commemorative poster and it was a big homecoming for Fats, and the morning of the performance he had such terrible performance anxiety that he didn’t feel well enough to perform. He went to the hospital, they checked him out and everything seemed fine, but he just couldn’t do it. And that has been one of the things that has plagued Fats in his recent history. He just gets so anxious about performances and feels that he can’t live up to his reputation.

How old is he now?

He is in his early eighties, so that would explain why. I actually travelled with him to New York in 2007 when he was convinced to go up there to promote a post-Katrina CD that came out. People like Elton John, Nora Jones and Robert Plant all did Fats Domino songs and the proceeds went to the Katrina Foundation, which helped New Orleans musicians. So Fats went to New York for three days to appear on national TV shows and I tagged along with him. And my chapter about him in the book is all about him travelling around New York when he really didn’t want to be anywhere apart from New Orleans.

How do you think that Hurricane Katrina affected the music scene in New Orleans?

The musicians’ community is part of the larger community as a whole. It is difficult to separate them. Music is such a part of everyday life here and musicians are integrated with civilians around town. Whatever effect the storm had on the city as a whole it also had on the music community. So the same percentage of homes that were lost in the general population was lost in the music community. It certainly didn’t discriminate. Fats, one of the most successful musicians in the history of New Orleans, and the incredibly successful Allen Toussaint – they both lost their houses.

But have most of the musicians come back now, because I know there was an issue with lots of properties being boarded up and people deciding not to come back to New Orleans?

The majority have come back. You can be in most parts of the city now and not realise that the storm happened. Most of the neighbourhoods have been rehabilitated fairly successfully, although there are still parts of town where there are boarded-up houses.

Do you see any signs of the music scene rejuvenating itself and maybe even changing direction as a result of everything that happened?

You would be hard pressed to find any sort of permanent mark on the music scene. We have just had the 2012 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the attendance over seven days was 450,000, which is the largest attendance since 2003.

So if anything Hurricane Katrina has reinvigorated the scene?

Yes, it definitely gave locals more of a sense of pride in their own culture and community and it advertised to the world what was in danger of being lost. After the storm everyone wanted to have a New Orleans musician on their television show. Allen Toussaint said that Hurricane Katrina was the best booking agent that he ever had! He had more work after the storm than ever before. You get a lot more people coming down here. Lots of people came as volunteers to help rebuild.

Next up is music critic Alex V Cook’s Louisiana Saturday Night, which looks at some of the many different cultures that make up New Orleans’s musical heritage.

Alex is one of those guys where if you are driving down a little country road and you see a little sign and it advertises some kind of nightclub or dance hall he will have been there. He spent a good amount of time researching all these tiny local dance halls. Some of them are Cajun; some of them are rhythm and blues. Many of them are on the outskirts of New Orleans in south Louisiana. He just immersed himself in this culture, travelling around getting to know the owners and the customers.

He wrote what is essentially a guidebook crossed with a travelogue of these places. Some of them really are like travelling back in time. They hark back to 40 or 50 years ago and they are still there to be enjoyed.

One of the places he mentioned is Teddy’s Juke Joint. What would somewhere like that be like?

Whenever you get juke joint in the name that is a good sign that it will be somewhere interesting. Teddy’s – from what I understand – certainly lives up to the legend of what you expect in a country juke joint.

Which is?

It is going to be a little bit ramshackle for sure. Not a whole lot will have been spent on the sound system or lights, but it will have an owner who is very hands-on and is there to make sure everyone has a good time. There will be a jukebox but they will also have live music on a regular basis. Sometimes the owner will act as the DJ and even though it might look a little scary from the outside it will be a lot of fun once you get in.

Let’s go back a few decades now to explore the music of New Orleans since World War II with the book Up from the Cradle of Jazz by Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones.

This book is considered to be the definitive history of New Orleans music in terms of an overview of the last 50 years. The three people who wrote the book are well-regarded journalists and researchers. Essentially they did this survey of the music of New Orleans from this era and if you want to understand what it consisted of and what it is now in the present this is the best book to read. This edition came out a couple of years ago and it was updated from the original book so they cover a little bit of the hip-hop scene and bring it up to date.

Aside from Fats Domino, what other musicians from the decades after the war have had an enduring influence on the music of New Orleans?

Professor Longhair is one. He was a piano player who first came on the scene in the forties. His real name was Henry Byrd and he is sort of the patron saint of New Orleans music. In fact the club Tipitina’s, which is the flagship New Orleans club, got its name from one of his songs. There is a big banner of his face over the stage. He was the guy that influenced all the piano players that came after him, including Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint. He had this heavy left-hand style where he would play the rhythm parts and then the melody stuff with his right hand. It was just a really interesting synthesis of Caribbean styles, of Latin influences and barrelhouse, and it all came together in the style that was unique to him. He is discussed in the book as well as Allen Toussaint.

But the book also discusses the brass band tradition. It goes back a hundred-plus years and it grew out of the jazz funeral tradition as well as from the influence of European brass bands in the early days in New Orleans. This is why New Orleans is seen as the place where jazz came from.

Yes, I always thought it was better known for jazz than rock’n’roll.

And that is the thing. There are all these different musical influences mixed together. New Orleans from its founding was a synthesis of different cultures. You had French, Spanish and African influences. African was there in the form of the slaves that were brought here. It was that melting-pot scenario that really gave birth to the music.

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Jazz grew out of a combination of African rhythm and European brass instruments. In New Orleans you had these brass bands that accompanied funeral processions through the city from the church to the cemetery. There would be a brass band that would play slowly for the first part of the march to communicate the sadness and then they would pick up the tempo and play faster to represent when the person’s spirit was being set free.

That brass band tradition has over the decades morphed into something else, where you have these younger brass bands that play funk and hip hop and even rock songs but with brass instruments. And that is one of the real definitive sounds of the city now. There is nowhere else in the country or the world that has a similar tradition.

I know you are a big fan of the HBO series Treme. What has that taught you about the music scene in New Orleans?

As far as Treme goes there is no better depiction of the contemporary music scene in New Orleans than what you see on the show. David Simon, the co-creator, is very well regarded. His series The Wire was also highly acclaimed and he has been coming to New Orleans for 20 years. Eric Overmyer, his co-creator of Treme, has had a house here for over two decades, so both these guys know New Orleans’s music culture. They talked HBO into letting them set a series in the world of New Orleans music after Katrina. Technically it is a fictionalised show but they use a lot of musicians playing themselves in the show.

So it is a good showcase for the music?

Absolutely – they have a lot of live performances in the show. The soundtrack CDs are all live performances from the show so it is the most authentic representation of contemporary music in New Orleans that has ever been. The amount of money and research that these people have invested to make it really is pretty impressive.

It sounds like one to watch. And what about your final book choice, The Brothers, which is an autobiography by the Neville brothers?

This is the autobiography of Art, Cyril, Charles and Aaron who are the four brothers who make up the Neville Brothers band. It was co-written with David Ritz. The Neville Brothers for many years were the standard bearer of New Orleans music. They were a classic story of a family up from the streets. They had some early success individually. Art Neville, the oldest brother, did a song called Mardi Gras Mambo back in the fifties that is still one of the songs that you hear every year at carnival time. It is one of the four or five songs that will be played at Mardi Gras forever.

Aaron Neville is famous for his high fluttering voice and he had a hit in the early sixties called Tell It Like It Is. And then he fell on hard times, so the brothers came together in the late seventies and the early eighties and came to define New Orleans funk and rhythm and blues. They did a record called Yellow Moon, which is a beautiful evocative spooky record that really broke them on a national level. For over 15 years they have played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They didn’t do it for a couple of years after Katrina, which is why Fats Domino was booked for that spot. For many people, when they think of a band from New Orleans the Neville Brothers are the ones that spring to mind.

You have mentioned the Heritage Festival a couple of times. If someone is going to New Orleans purely to hear the music, which is better, the Jazz and Heritage Festival or Mardi Gras?

You can pop into New Orleans just about any time and there will be great music going on in the clubs. I would say that on a nightly basis we have better music than any other city in the United States. Jazz Fest is when everything is essentially on steroids. There is so much more crammed into the clubs. There will be shows that start at 2 and 3 am and go until sun-up. And then at the horse racing track where the festival is held, you have got 12 stages going from 11 am to 7 pm. In recent years they have added popular acts not from New Orleans. So this year there was Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Eagles and Florence and the Machine.

How does that compare with Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras is more of a spectacle and a street party, although there is, of course, music. It is more about the parade and being out on the streets. It is well worth checking out, but the Jazz Fest is definitely more about the music.

What is your perfect night out in New Orleans?

It would start off on Frenchmen Street, which is a series of nightclubs just outside the French Quarter. There are probably half a dozen clubs which are free and you can wander in and hear people early in the evening and get a bite to eat and a drink. Then eventually I like to make it to Tipitina’s for the late show that goes on well past midnight. That is kind of the arc that I would take. So I would start with something mellow earlier on – maybe a jazz band and then move on to the funkier blues band.

May 17, 2012

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Keith Spera

Keith Spera

Keith Spera is a journalist and writer, born and raised in New Orleans. In addition to his work at The Times-Picayune, he has contributed to Rolling Stone, Vibe, Blender and LA Weekly. His book Groove Interrupted explores the lives of some of New Orleans’s most famous musicians since Hurricane Katrina

Keith Spera

Keith Spera

Keith Spera is a journalist and writer, born and raised in New Orleans. In addition to his work at The Times-Picayune, he has contributed to Rolling Stone, Vibe, Blender and LA Weekly. His book Groove Interrupted explores the lives of some of New Orleans’s most famous musicians since Hurricane Katrina