New Orleans’ music is a jambalaya of jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues

New Orleans’ music is a jambalaya of jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues

July 31, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

He wrote:

Louisiana is well known for its contributions to jazz, Cajun music, and zydeco, but the state’s blues legacy is sometimes overlooked. Of the 119 musicians inducted into the national Blues Hall of Fame, roughly twenty percent are from Louisiana. Among them are Irma Thomas, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, Antoine “Fats” Domino, Walter “Little Walter” Jacobs, George “Buddy” Guy, and Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as “Professor Longhair.” Traditionally associated with African American work songs and field hollers, the blues have evolved over time—like all musical genres—making it difficult to identify qualities or elements common to all blues songs, past and present. Often the blues focus on everyday events ranging from mean bosses to romantic relationships gone awry, and the music generally interacts with, rather than simply accompanies, the vocals—frequently in a call-and-response pattern. Even within Louisiana, however, the term “the blues” encompasses a tremendous variety of sounds and styles.

I headed off to look up some of the early jazz to blues artists, and in the process of doing so found a clip with Louis Armstrong that was a surprise. It was from a 1957 episode of The Dupont Show of the Month, with Rex Harrison.

In the clip, Armstrong says to Harrison “Lizzie Miles … she’s the greatest jazz singer of our day.” Miles then belts out “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey.” I had never heard of her before and was intrigued by her version in which she fluidly shifts from English to Creole; I wanted to learn more. The dependable 64 Parishes site did not let me down:

Lizzie Miles was the stage name of Elizabeth Mary Landreaux, a blues and jazz vocalist whose career spanned the advent of jazz in New Orleans to its post–World War II revival. Nicknamed the “Creole Songbird,” Miles said of her work, “To me I sing love songs—sad songs—torchy songs better. Guess it’s because I had such a hard, sad life from as far back as I can remember, is why.” Though often classified as a blues singer, Miles preferred to be known as a performer of many musical styles. […]

Lizzie Miles was born to a Creole family on March 31, 1895, and raised in the Faubourg Marigny, a neighborhood bordering the Mississippi immediately downriver from the French Quarter. French was her first language, and throughout her career Miles sang both in her native tongue and in English. Considered “light-skinned” at a time when skin tone dictated a person’s social fluidity, Miles performed with bands and before audiences both predominantly black and predominantly white. Her talent was realized early in her life and brought to maturity by her early teens, when she began singing with some of the city’s top bandleaders, including trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory—also a Creole—and cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, mentor to Louis Armstrong.

The New Orleans cultural atmosphere in which Miles made her debut was rich in working-class venues for performers of blues and early jazz. In America at large, and especially in the South, tent shows, traveling circuses, and touring vaudeville and minstrel acts were popular, and many performers who worked those circuits spent the colder winter months in New Orleans. One of those performers was Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, often called the “Mother of the Blues.” Rainey was a friend of King Oliver and may have influenced a young Lizzie Miles. By her late teens, Miles joined the traveling circuits and established a reputation sufficient to warrant her migrating north to Chicago, Illinois, with dozens of other New Orleans musicians—King Oliver included—in the years immediately following the end of World War I.

The Syncopated Times adds a few more details, and has her full discography:

In the late 1930s, Miles returned to New Orleans and left show business until the l950s when she resumed her career performing and recording with the Bob Scobey Band until she retired in 1959. Miles died of a heart attack in 1963. Lizzie Miles was the half sister of Blues singer Edna Hicks and trumpet player Herb Morand. Some of Lizzie Miles’ records were released under the pseudonyms of Mandy Smith and Jane Howard.

I love her singing a traditional creole song “Eh, las bas”—which is about eating.

Listen to her belt out “Salty Dog:”

My name’s Lizzie from New Orleans
And I sure do love my red beans
‘Cause I’m a salty dog, yes, a salty dog

Now, I’ve been east and I’ve been west
But I like New Orleans, is the best
It’s a salty dog, yes, a salty dog

Mardi Gras is a dream
You can meet all those Creole queens
They’re salty dogs, yes, salty dogs.

If you want to blow your cares away
Just walk on in the Vieux Carré
You’ll find salty dogs, yes, salty dogs

Never had no learning, never went to school
But when it comes to lovin’, I ain’t no fool
I’m a salty dog, yes, a salty dog

Now, sixteen men in love with me
But the man I love ain’t legally free
He’s a salty dog, yes, a salty dog

Say, I believe my man’s got a black cat bone
‘Cause when I leave I’ve got to run back home
He’s a salty dog, yes, a salty dog

 

Moving into the blues, or more accurately “rhythm and blues” accompanied by electric guitar, no story of New Orleans would be complete without paying tribute to the man who styled himself as “Guitar Slim”—Eddie Lee Jones. What is hard to fathom is that though he has been portrayed as an amazing and almost outlandish performer, there is no film footage of him that has ever been discovered. Roger Hahn writes:

Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, on December 10, 1926, Jones grew up in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta around Hollandale, reared by his maternal grandmother, Mollie Edwards, after his mother died when he was five years old. As a teenager he began hanging out in the area’s juke joints, where he occasionally sat in as a singer and attracted notice as a dancer, earning the nicknames “Limber Leg Eddie” and “Rubber Legs.”

He migrated to New Orleans after being discharged from the military during World War I.

Jones initially performed on the streets and for house parties, but eventually he latched on to several bands as he developed an aggressive guitar style influenced to a large extent by Gatemouth Brown. He began recording for Imperial Records at age twenty-four, about the time he started calling himself “Guitar Slim.” At age twenty-eight he made the enduring hit for which he would be best remembered, “The Things That I Used to Do,” on the Specialty label. It became the biggest R&B hit of 1954 and one of the top R&B records of the 1950s, ultimately selling more than a million records. By then he’d developed an overpoweringly flamboyant persona expressed as both a guitar player and a showman.

“He’d hit the stage carried on the shoulders of his personal valet, wearing a bright red suit and red shoes, his hair dyed to match,” Paul Trynka, former editor of the British magazine MOJO, summarized in 2000. “His guitar playing was the noisiest, dirtiest thing to hit the South, cranked to deafening volume by a huge amplifier rig. … After delivering a vocal in the impassioned, heart-rending style [that] Ray Charles would later take as his template, he’d rush into the audience at the end of a 200-foot guitar cord, playing cranked-up solos all over the club—sometimes with his teeth, sometimes behind his back. Sometimes he’d climb up into the rafters, still playing. At least once, he leapt into a waiting car and soloed until he was out of sight, later walking back onstage to rapturous applause.”

Here’s Buddy Guy describing the first time he saw Guitar Slim play in a clip from a program that only says “Year of the Blues” to identify it.

David Remnick tells the same Guy story in The New Yorker:

When Guy was fifteen or sixteen, he bought a fifty-cent ticket to see Slim at the Masonic Temple, in Baton Rouge. He wedged himself close to the stage, hoping to watch the man’s hands, to study his moves. He waited through the opening acts until, finally, the announcer declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, Guitar Slim!” When the band started into “The Things That I Used to Do,” you could hear Slim’s guitar—but where was he? “I thought they were all full of shit and all they were doing was playing the record,” Guy told me. It was only after a while that anyone could see Slim, his hair dyed flaming red to match his suit, being carried forward through the crowd like a toddler by a hulking roadie. Using a three-hundred-foot-long cord to connect his guitar to his amplifier, he played a frenzied solo as his one-man caravan inched him toward the stage. And, once he joined the band, Slim pulled every stunt imaginable, playing with the guitar between his legs, behind his back. He raised it to his face and plucked the strings with his teeth. Many years later, Jimi Hendrix would pull some of the same stunts to dazzle white kids from London to Monterey, but these tricks had been around since the beginning of the Delta blues. As Guy watched Guitar Slim, he made a decision: “I want to play like B. B. King, but I want to act like Guitar Slim.”

The following hour-long audio documentary tells his story through the words of those people who knew him.

Before Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy, before Stevie Ray Vaughn and Albert King, before Earl King and Albert Collins, was a drenched-in-emotion singer and wild guitarist who hit New Orleans from the heart of the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s.

He was an unparalleled showman known for walking out in the crowd or climbing the rafters with his 300 foot long guitar cord. He was famous for dyeing his hair and painting his shoes to match his brightly colored suit. He had many great songs and only one hit, “The Things I Used To Do,” which has become a standard of blues music. His name was Eddie Jones, but everyone knew him as GUITAR SLIM. In the words of Atlantic Records owner and producer, Jerry Wexler, “No one has as much soul as Guitar Slim.” Anyone who saw him perform cannot forget him. And then, just as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone, dead in 1959 at age 32. His was a star that burned brightly and quickly and still lives on in the memories of those lucky enough to see him. His story is told in the radio documentary “The Things I Used To Do: The Legend of Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones.” […]

He was born in 1927 in Hollandale, Mississippi on Highway 61, 20 miles south of Greenville. He grew up there working in the cotton press and juking at the local bars at night. Then one day he got paid and took off to New Orleans. There he learned to play music and took on the name Guitar Slim. He started out in the notorious night spots The Dew Drop Inn and the Club Tijuana, and soon he became famous for his impassioned singing, loud, piercing guitar playing, and outrageous stage act. Slim was one of the first performers who would go into the audience, often hanging by his knees from the balcony or playing solos in the ladies’ bathroom. He was signed to Specialty Records where he recorded over 20 sides, including his monster smash, “The Things I Used To Do” (with a young Ray Charles playing piano). This track hit number 1 in 1954, and Slim toured the country for the next several years. He continued recording many classic tracks for both Specialty and later ATCO records, but the rough life of traveling musician took its toll on his health. After a concert in Rochester, New York, in 1959, Slim took sick and died of pneumonia and complications from alcohol abuse. He was 32 years old. As Buddy Guy has said, “There’ll never be another Guitar Slim.”

Slim’s biggest hit:

He was not shy about promoting himself, as displayed in “I’m Guitar Slim”:

Now they call me Guitar Slim, baby
Now I’m come and play in your town
Now they call me Guitar Slim, baby
Now I’m come and play in your town
Now if you don’t like my music
Baby, I will not hang around

I like my pocket full of money, baby
And my whiskey, gin and wine
I like my pocket full of money, baby
And my whiskey, gin and wine
I like to eat a country dinner, baby
And I like to get my loving all the time

Sadly, he liked his whisky, gin, and wine too much. RIP Guitar Slim.

Let’s put the guitar down and switch to the piano, and to another New Orleans musician who was out of the ordinary and whose legacy is still alive to this day. We’ll pay another visit to 64 Parishes, where Ben Sandmel tells his story: 

Henry Roeland Byrd, also known as Professor Longhair, was a New Orleans rhythm and blues (R&B) pianist whose career started in the late 1940s and who came to personify the city’s cultural renaissance of the 1970s. Affectionately known in New Orleans as “Fess,” Longhair had a unique style that incorporated the Afro-Caribbean influences that Jelly Roll Morton described as “the Spanish tinge.” In addition, Longhair played in an idiosyncratic manner that differed from conventional structure, dropping or adding beats at will. This approach is known as “jumping time.”

Longhair’s first public performances were as a tap dancer for tips on the streets of New Orleans, and it could be said that a similarly loose-limbed style imbued his piano playing. He played drums, and then guitar briefly, but settled on piano, partially taught by the noted New Orleans player Isidore “Tuts” Washington. Pianists such as Kid Stormy Weather and Archibald (Leon T. Gross) also influenced Longhair as he hung out, and sometimes played, at the clubs along South Rampart Street. At some point in the late 1940s he acquired his memorable moniker. Since the advent of jazz, many New Orleans keyboardists were known as “piano professors.” The “Longhair” part was supposedly bestowed upon him by the owner of the Caledonia Club, in New Orleans’s Tremé district because, as Byrd succinctly explained, “we had long hair.”  Longhair often gave his band somewhat whimsical names, including The Shuffling Hungarians and later, The Blues Scholars.

Over the years, Byrd used various pseudonyms, partially to avoid detection for violating exclusive recording contracts when he illegally made records for other companies. This was a common practice in an era when recording artists often had trouble collecting royalties. Therefore they would adopt new names when jumping from company to company in search of fresh front money. Accordingly, the list of Longhair’s recordings is a somewhat tangled web of aliases and multiple renditions of the same songs, sometimes with the same title, sometimes not. The crucial fact, however, is that Longhair recorded a great body of classic songs, including “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” “Big Chief,” “Tipitina,” “Bald Head,” “In the Night,” and “Ball the Wall.”

By the 1960s he would fade away from the music scene. And then something happened to bring him back into the spotlight. Dave Ankers writes for NOLA.com:

In 1971, Jazz Fest founders George Wein, Quint Davis, and Allison Miner sat down at a bar in Uptown New Orleans, waiting to see a Mardi Gras Indian practice. A song came on the jukebox.

“Who’s that?” Wein asked.

“Oh, that’s just a song that comes on at Carnival time,” was the answer.

“That’s somebody who should be at the festival. Go find him,” said Wein.

The song was “Go To The Mardi Gras,” and the musician was piano player Professor Longhair, born Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd. He had a career from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, and he was well-known to New Orleans R&B musicians. But his star had faded in recent years.

So, Davis and Miner went looking. They had to do a little hunting, because Professor Longhair had kept a low profile, to say the least. He wasn’t recording, and he wasn’t performing much. Longhair was hiding in plain sight, though, working as a janitor at a record store. Eventually, they tracked him down and persuaded him to come perform at the second year of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

He agreed to perform for all three days, at the outdoor Heritage Fair.

The rest was history. After that performance he was a star, and a fixture at the festival until he died.

Fess was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, a lumber town about seventy-five miles northeast of New Orleans. (It was named after a Choctaw phrase that translates as “dark water.”) In 1902, the Great Southern Lumber Company, which had already bought up thousands of acres of virgin pine forest in Louisiana, opened a sawmill there; it was a company town in the purest sense. (For more than fifteen years, the manager of the plant, William H. Sullivan, was elected and then reëlected mayor.) In 1920, Fess moved with his single mother from Bogalusa to New Orleans. Per the reigning lore, he learned how to play on a piano that had been abandoned in an alley. (It was, he later said, missing a few keys, which was part of the reason he played with such a syncopated style.) He started recording in 1949, and in 1950 Mercury Records released his one and only hit, “Bald Head,” a goofy song about loving a woman who, inexplicably but not discouragingly, “got no hair.”

For a long time, this was the closest Fess would get to commercial success, though his acolytes—Fats Domino, Dr. John, Toussaint—did eventually find purchase on the charts. You can’t blame Fess for getting frustrated. He periodically quit music, sometimes in a huff; for a while, he worked as a janitor, and gambled. But by the time Palfi came around with his video camera, Fess’s career was in the midst of a much-deserved renaissance. In 1971, he’d been invited to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, killed it, and was asked to close the festival every year thereafter. Celebrities were dropping his name in interviews. He was preparing for a tour with the Clash. The world beyond New Orleans finally seemed ready to gobble up Fess’s “mambo-rumba-boogie,” as Toussaint once called it.

That Fess didn’t live to see his inventions fully revered and canonized still feels cruel. The restoration of “Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together” is a small boon against that sorrow. “Originally, this started out to be a music performance by three gifted New Orleans pianists who influenced each other’s music, featuring each executing his individual style, and culminating with all three playing a number together,” Palfi explains in a voice-over. “It evolved, however, into a more interesting and complex story.” I won’t ruin the movie by recounting all my favorite bits, but in its latter half Fess becomes the session’s de-facto leader, corralling Washington and Toussaint, deftly braiding their narratives. I can barely follow his instructions—he’s speaking in a musical shorthand that I presume is only legible to pianists of his calibre—but whatever happens next, when the three of them start playing together, is so excellent it actually makes me laugh. What a gift, to be alive on the same planet these three men once occupied!

She mentions the documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together and I’ll close with this special treat (thanks, YouTube) described by Johnny Harper in RADIATIN’ THE 88s:

The legendary 1982 documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together (which has been nearly impossible to find for many years) celebrates four important New Orleans artists. Three of them are great blues/jazz/R&B piano players: Isidore “Tuts” Washington (1907-1984); Henry Roeland Byrd (1918-1980), better known as Professor Longhair, or “Fess” to his many fans; and Allen Toussaint (1938-2015). The fourth artist is the visionary director Stevenson J. Palfi (1952-2005), who was inspired to make a documentary showcasing all three players and their connections to each other – and who had the artistry to weave these men and their music into a compelling, joyful, unified work of art spanning three generations of glorious New Orleans R&B.

I’ll be exploring Allen Toussaint and other NOLA musicians in upcoming Sunday stories and there’s lots more to listen to in the comments section below. Jambalaya’s on the menu today, so join me for a mix of food for the spirit, too!



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