Crescent City Soul: Sound of New Orleans 47-74 (Capitol)
January 2, 2008
By Gary Tate
The devastation that has befallen New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is horrific: The thousands of dreadful photos recount the dispiriting events far better than any words. As this is written, the authorities and emergency measures people are about to evacuate every single person remaining in that ravaged metropolis. It will take years, if not decades, to rebuild the Crescent City, and it may never again bask in its erstwhile glory. However, the fact that the French Quarter--where so much of the rich cultural life of the city thrived--was left miraculously unscathed, does provide perhaps a few rays of hope.
Perhaps the glorious music that made New Orleans so beloved will once more cause revelry in the streets, and rekindle the mystical allure that beckoned tourists to flock. Everyone knows New Orleans was the birthplace of Jazz, with Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton blending ragtime, marching band celebrations, Blues, and Caribbean rhythms into a deliciously enchanting improvisational potpourri. In a few short years, such goings-on within a few parishes would forever alter the course of popular music. If New Orleans was the crucible of Jazz, its crucial role in the development of Funk is also well known, and as for being the leading progenitor of piano-based Rock ‘n’ Roll there is little doubt. The performers who either came from New Orleans and environs, or else availed themselves of the fertile club scene to advance their craft is a seemingly inexhaustible list.
New Orleans represented the beacon, the promised destination to learn from the very best. Independent labels always sought out the services of the top studios there, especially the legendary Cosimo Mattassa. With a plethora of dazzling musicians to draw upon, artists looking for that missing ingredient would invariable cast their eyes toward those lowlands adjacent to Lake Pontchartrain. That the names of New Orleans and vicinity icons are essential to any sort of meaningful discussion concerning the origins of Rock ‘n’ Roll, as is evident from the following honor roll: Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Alan Toussaint Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Earl King, Ernie K-Doe, Paul Gayten, Sugarboy Crawford, Dr. John, Neville Brothers, Meters, Chris Kenner, Earl Palmer, Grady Gaines, George Porter Jr., Johnny Adams, Louis Prima, Sam Butera, Lee Dorsey, Bobby Charles, Huey “Piano” Smith, Smiley Lewis, Eddy Bo, Bobby Marchan, Irma Thomas, Tommy Ridgely, Lee Allen, Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lloyd Price, Larry Williams, Professor Longhair, Frankie Ford, Shirley & Lee, Johnny Horton--it’s truly endless. There are more current generations of artists with strong links to Down Yonder: Larry Garner, Jon Cleary, Willie DeVille, Mem Shannon, Bryan Lee, Tab Benoit, Johnny Pennino, Dmitri Resnik, Walter “Wolfman” Washington; Randy Newman. Just check this small sampling of artists who, while not actually born in New Orleans, made seminal recordings there: Little Richard, Big Al Downing, Showmen, Guitar Slim, Roy Brown, Joe Turner, Ray Charles. Here are some top-of-the line Jazzers hailing from that fabled Mississippi port: Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Pete Fountain, the Marsalis Family, Al Hirt. And I’ve missed hundreds of others. The adoration has even extended to numerous compositions celebrating that spicy gumbo of cultures and ancient traditions---from Cajun, Creole, African, Spanish, to native Indian. The following artists garnered top 20 Billboard hits with titles mentioning New Orleans: Fats Domino (Walkin’ To New Orleans); Arlo Guthrie (City Of New Orleans); Gary “U.S.” Bonds (New Orleans); Johnny Horton (Battle Of New Orleans); Freddy Cannon (Way Down Yonder In New Orleans). No other city has been so honoured. Beyond acting as an inspirational spring to water musicians’ imaginations, the entire American cultural fabric is indelibly imprinted by the influence of New Orleans. The idea that this heritage might become an artifact is simply inconceivable, not only from a human standpoint, but also owing to much of American and World culture having derived sustenance from this city endowed by a God-given mission to celebrate life and art to the fullest. Let’s pray that the re-construction gets underway--within minutes of recovery of the last body.