New Orleans has long maintained its rightful reputation as one of the all-time great music cities. If the U.S. can claim one genre of music as “ours” then it is most certainly jazz, the foundations of which were laid down in the seedier corners of the Crescent City’s brothels and bar rooms at the turn of the 20th century. Though I have an appreciation for its jazz heritage, I’ve always been more taken by New Orleans’ contribution to R&B and soul that reached a fever pitch in the early 1960s. Artists like Dave Bartholomew, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair deserve a lion’s share of the credit for shaping a sound that would serve as the backbone of rock n’ roll and funk for the decades to follow.
One under-appreciated voice from this golden era of Crescent City soul arrives in the form of June “Curley” Moore. Moore’s contributions can be traced back to a handful of 45s and compilation appearances cut by local labels like Sansu and Hot Line Records. With such a limited catalog, serious vinyl collectors are left to fork over hundreds of dollars on the rare occasion that one of these gems surfaces. Fortunately, for those of us with shallow pockets, a phenomenal compilation Allen Toussaint: Saint of New Orleans was made available in 2009. The disc features two of Curley’s tracks, my favorite of which is featured below. Listen to “Don’t Pity Me” for a taste of Moore at his best. Though wrought with emotion, Moore’s vocal style could be described as thin, occasionally quavering. Regardless of the description, Moore’s is a voice that we can all agree was criminally under-circulated, both then and now.
Written by Rob Peoni
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Ask your average music fan who invented rock n’ roll and you are likely to hear names like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, maybe Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis. All of those answers are worthy of debate. Though I would argue those artists all share a common musical patriarch. Those that know a thing or two turn their ears toward the smoky bar rooms of the Crescent City – New Orleans. For it was here that the gifted fingers, gravelly vocals and twisted mind of Henry Roeland Byrd built the foundation from which rock n’ roll was to build.
Byrd spent the better part of his younger days in the shadowy underbelly of New Orleans, earning his keep in the street as a petty hustler and card shark. It wasn’t until after being discharged from World War II that Byrd, well into his thirties, discovered his knack for slapping a piano line that sent feet shuffling and hips swiveling. A steady, rolling bass. A sauntering, frivolous right hand. A tinge of rhumba. Byrd’s barking vocals howling harsh, blues-driven melodies above it all. Wild and bizarre, yet perfect.
Byrd was a man with as many names as personalities. Known by some as Roy “Bald Head” Byrd, he is most commonly called by his stage name Professor Longhair or “Fess” for short. In late 1949, Byrd laid down four tracks for the Star Talent record label, including what would become his signature “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” He recorded a handful of releases throughout the 1950s for both Atlantic and Mercury, but was never able to achieve substantial commercial success. Meanwhile, younger artists like Domino, and later Dr. John, won critics and fans by honing the best aspects of Byrd’s work and cleaning them up to a more accessible, radio-friendly end.
Professor Longhair’s lone hit of the sixties came with his 1964 rendition of Earl King’s “Big Chief.” By the end of the decade he had slipped into irrelevance, returning to the perils and temptations of the Crescent City streets. Rumors swirled that Byrd had lost his mind. He lost teeth, drank heavily and rarely performed. When he surfaced, it was to perform odd jobs – reduced to sweeping record shop floors, so the story goes. He continued in relative obscurity, playing the occasional impromptu Mardi Gras performance until 1971. That year, Quint Davis, founder of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival placed Byrd at the center of a performance that would revitalize his career.
Professor Longhair served as the highlight of a concert that featured a veritable who’s who of the New Orleans R&B scene that he had helped to create a few years earlier. The Meters, Dr. John, Earl King, Allen Toussaint and others all came together in support of their forlorn forefather. Byrd enjoyed a renaissance of sorts throughout the 1970s, touring Europe extensively and releasing several more albums. He died of a heart attack in January of 1980 at the age of 61. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Listen to Professor Longhair. Listen to the keys. The essence of rock n roll resides within that signature New Orleans bounce.
Written by Rob Peoni
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
Pops plays “The Father of The Blues.” Could it get much better? The answer, immediately apparent in the first three seconds of the album’s opener, “St. Louis Blues”, is found in seven notes from Armstrong’s horn: no, no, absolutely not.
W.C. Handy is a name that has been tossed around a few times in the history of In The Dust. It happens to be a very important one, particularly when concerning the blues. Popularly referred to as “The Father of The Blues,” Handy is most well known not for inventing the blues, but inventing its modern form and building the archetypal framework for cross-genre interpretations of the blues and visa versa. He introduced blues scaling, color and form into jazz music, a marriage that has stood the test of time and grown to become nearly one. Because of this, it is no surprise that Armstrong would select Handy as his subject of interpretation. However, when concerning Armstrong’s own personal history and musical development, it is a tad curious.
Armstrong grew up in a rough-and-tumble area of New Orleans known as “Back of the Town”. He attended a nearby boys’ school but did not last long. He dropped out at age eleven and joined a boys’ vocal quartet, but the unstructured, latchkey lifestyle led to trouble. Because of periodic delinquency, and firing a gun in a crowded square, Armstrong was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. It is here he learned how to play coronet, joining a military-style brass band with an emphasis on discipline and musicianship. Despite just learning the instrument, Armstrong quickly became bandleader, garnering considerable attention for his command of the instrument at such a young age. Armstrong graduated to playing in city brass bands and fell under the tutelage of the great Joe Oliver, better known as “King”, of King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band.
Armstrong remembers Oliver thusly:
It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. He was a creator in his own right.
Armstrong credits Oliver as a father figure, and the one who taught him nearly everything he knows, joining Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922, the hottest and most popular New Orleans’ jazz band of the time, and playing with him off and on for the rest of Oliver’s career.
It is interesting to note that only three years later, in 1925, after Armstrong had moved to New York, joined Fletcher Henderson’s band and switched from the coronet to the trumpet, he played on Bessie Smith’s rendition of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” a recording that become of the most popular of the 1920’s and garnered Handy, and Smith, widespread fame and considerable pay.
Armstrong continued to revisit Handy’s work for the remainder of his career, and in full on this collection. Perhaps for economic reasons, perhaps for reasons unbeknownst to the author, but, while Oliver’s influence is the one that dominates Armstrong’s sound, it is the work of Handy that dominates his oeuvre. This collection asserts that, maybe, it is because no one but Armstrong can play Handy so beautifully.
“St. Louis Blues,” the song that inspired the foxtrot, also known as “the jazzman’s Hamlet”, opens the record, beginning with a classically beautiful Armstrong fanfare that, despite the year of this album’s recording, 1954, seems right at home snaking over the undulating dance floor of Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom or Cotton Club. The tempo and color when compared to Handy’s 1912 recording is indicative of Armstrong’s recognition of the need to modernize, while retaining the song’s essence and an eye, always, on New Orleans, an impulse that followed him, more or less at times, throughout his career. In his horn and the thick, sultry vocals of Velma Middleton you smell the Pastis and taste the Sazerac as the mixture cascades down upon impossibly slowly, like molasses, until you are encompassed and saturated with joy.
“Yellow Dog Blues,” follows, a lazy-river blues that relieves the tension of the terrifically jubilant, 8:50, “St. Louis Blues,” and sets a deep, upright bass-heavy groove that shines a light on Armstrong’s beautifully quirky and remarkably infectious voice. Drunken horns laugh in the background, cracking blue jokes and downing bourbon with droll, harping clarinets as Armstrong issues references to classic blues lore of the “easy rider,” the “bole weevil”, the “cotton stalk” and even those immortal words W.C. Handy first heard at the Tutwiler Station, waiting for his train, on the infamous day he first heard the blues and the namesake of this song: “goin’ where The Southern cross The Dog”.
“Beale Street Blues,” a true slow-blues standout, opens with soft-lipped clarinets over a fat backbeat, Armstrong singing what is one of the author’s favorite lines in all of music, and, more importantly, the spirit of New Orleans: “You’ll see pretty browns / In beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades / and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men / and pick-pockets skilled / You’ll find that business never closes / Till somebody gets killed.” Armstrong unrolls his trademark vibrato like a red carpet unfurling, flapping and bouncing past drunks, bums, slinking adulterers, and down a gas-lit promenade. “If Beale Street could talk,” he growls, “if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two, who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner / Who sings the Beale Street Blues”. An image echoed in blues from Blind Willie McTell and a host of others to follows in Handy’s footsteps, “Beale Street Blues” is the familiar smell and the feel against your cheek of the cool side of the pillow on your first night back home after a long time away. Perhaps you have never been to Beale Street, or New Orleans, but this Beale Street, and the warm, bright and perpetually breathtaking solos of Armstrong, are there to greet you and assure you that you never really left.
Armstrong selects “Atlanta Blues (Make Me A Pallet On The Floor)” to close out the collection. The tempo, walking bass line and shuffling hi-hat of “Atlanta Blues” makes a sly, joker’s nod-and-wink to the emerging bebop movement before returning to the rapturous, Charleston-ing blues bounce of Armstrong’s New Orleans, “hot” jazz, Dixie sound. Featuring some of his most boisterous and emphatic solos, it is clear that this song, in classic New Orleans style, is Armstrong’s give-it-your-all send-off. “Just make me a pallet on the floor,” Armstrong repeatedly suggests, as playing like that would leave anyone bushed, and a pallet will suit his humble needs just fine.
And in grand style, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars draw their tribute to W.C. Handy to a close, Armstrong repeating, “So please, just make me a pallet on the floor,” for once the listener has concluded the last track in this collection, is it not the end of their time together. The curious timbre and lovable theatricality of Armstrong’s voice, the amazement at his unparalleled virtuosity and his friendly, comforting persona will stay with you, as the most welcomed and celebrated houseguest, for some time.
This is a record not to be missed, with a place in every jazz or blues lover’s collection. Handy first appropriated the blues for jazz in 1912. Louis Armstrong, in 1954, re-appropriates Handy for everyone, and in gratitude, respect and pure love, we devote to them, and their brilliant careers, as much space as they should like.