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Oh What a Nite

Oh What a Nite

Of the myriad songs of night, I do have a favorite. Dr. John’s “Such a Night” is a timeless, magical song I never get tired of. Maybe that’s because, aside from home, New Orleans is the place I’d most like to spend an evening.

It appeared on the 1973 album In the Right Place, which was produced by the great New Orleans music impresario Allen Toussaint. Toussaint also played keyboards, guitars, and percussion; sang and arranged vocals; and arranged and conducted the band. The song is deep, deep New Orleans, with the Bonnaroo Horns lazily answering Dr. John’s vocals, and Toussaint’s piano and The Meters rhythm section reinforcing the whole thing.

dr john

Dr. John’s previous album, Gumbo, is a New Orleans extravaganza I slightly prefer to this album, but “Right Place Wrong Time,” “Life,” and “Such a Night” are gems in the Dr. John (and Allen Toussaint) canon.

One night song is associated, by me and many others, with certain kinds of nights—those spent in the bars. Many a bar band has used the 1952 song “Night Train” as a break song. It’s a nice R&B workout to end a set and a good cue for the audience to do a little mingling, drink-ordering, and relief work. Most people know it as a James Brown song, but his version, with his recitation of cities on his tours, wasn’t issued until 1961.

James "Night Train" Brown

James “Night Train” Brown

It was Jimmy Forrest who first recorded “Night Train,” in ’52. He’s credited as the writer, but it goes back a decade. The Duke Ellington composition “Happy Go Lucky Local” was written in 1946 as part of Duke’s Deep South Suite. “Happy Go Lucky Local” was funked up and expanded upon by Forrest, who had been an Ellington sax player, but it’s recognizably the same song.

duke

But the song goes back even farther than that, and involves another Duke sideman. In 1940, Saxophonist Johnny Hodges had recorded a song called “That’s the Blues, Old Man” with his offshoot band. Mentor Duke, as he was often wont to do, lifted the main riff of the Hodges tune for his own song. Jimmy Forrest, I guess, was saxophonist karma for Duke. Forrest himself got horned-in on by two lyric writers, who wound up with songwriter royalties. A complicated history for such a basic little song!

“Nights When I Am Lonely” is pretty straight and tame for a Boswell Sisters harmony number. It’s an A part repeated four times, and, although the girls go into some Boswellese vocal hijinks on verse three, it’s really just a cute ditty, not a great indicator of the sisterly genius to come. But it is a song of great importance, as one side of the very first Boswell Sisters record, cut in 1925 for the Victor Talking Machine Company. It was backed with “I’m Gonna Cry.” The sisters, all still in their teens, recorded five songs during their first session, all written by oldest sister Martha, but the other three were never issued.

bos legacy

As Vet’s granddaughter Kyla Titus notes in her book The Boswell Legacy, “I’m Gonna Cry” isn’t a typical Boswell Sisters record. They’re all three on it, but kept to special roles. Martha played piano, and evidently didn’t sing a note. Thirteen-year-old Vet did a horn break, using her voice, in the middle, and sister Connie sang the lead in her best Bessie Smith voice. Not typical Boswells, but pretty entertaining, with Connie, at seventeen, already showing strong pipes.

Connie, of course, later emerged as a solo recording artist (as Connee Boswell), thanks to her husband/ manager Harry Leedy, who never was as fond of the trio as the rest of the world was. Once Connie’s sisters got married, Connie and Harry took the opportunity to write them out of the picture, telling the world that Martha and Vet preferred domestic harmony to musical harmony. Martha and Vet privately said otherwise. Of course, it’s the Sisters who are music legends, as a group, all these years later, while solo Connee isn’t heard much at all.

Among my favorite doo-wop numbers is The Dells’ 1956 Vee-Jay recording of “Oh What a Nite.” It was an R&B hit, and Vee-Jay released it again three years later, but it took a re-recording of the song, as “Oh What a Night,” in 1969 to finally make the pop charts, at #10. It’s kind of a freak. It’s been embellished, with a spoken intro and more instrumentation, but it seems like a transplant from the previous decade. I prefer the simple, straight original, but I am impressed by the group’s persistence with this song, and I’m glad they finally had some success with it.

In addition to their unusual record three-peat, The Dells had another distinction. According to Jay Warner’s Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, they sang as a backup group on more than sixty records by other artists. On Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” Warner says, they could’ve received co-billing. “Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby”—yep, that’s The Dells.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: Another “Oh What a Night”—actually “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”—is on my least-favorite list. The Four Seasons had a late #1 pop hit with this disco stew that doesn’t evoke 1963, or the great Four Seasons of that year. Even people who like disco can’t think this is a good song. They should’ve at least gotten The Dells to sing the “doo-da-doo-doo-t-doo-doot-doo” part.

Dream Jukebox: A great candidate would be the Dells’ 1956 “Oh What a Nite.” And Dr. John’s “Such a Night” would have to be on hand for just such a night that calls for it.

Best Song Intro: When Lenny and Squiggy perform “Night After Night” on Happy Days, Squiggy introduces the song this way: “This song is called ‘Night After Night,’ and it’s about two nights in a row.”

Which songs of night are your favorites?

Walking to New Orleans

Walking to New Orleans

My most vivid memory from all of my visits to New Orleans is that of my wife Sweets sitting on the window ledge of a French Quarter building 23 years ago, cradling our one-year-old in her lap. Sweets is slurping from an upended bottle of beer, while upending a baby bottle of milk for Li’l Sweets. Nice slice of American family tourist life. The wife and I just got back from a return trip to New Orleans for our 25th anniversary, and we stayed in the same guest house, The Lamothe House on Esplanade Avenue. It seemed not to have changed at all. (But we’ve changed; for one thing, the wife no longer drinks beer.)

It’s believed that the actual family name of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton was Lamothe. I’d like to think he may somehow be connected to the place we stayed. (Well, he was born a few blocks up Esplanade.) Jelly Roll was the first great composer-performer of New Orleans, and he knew it. He always said it was he who invented jazz. Whatever his role, his music is the sound of New Orleans—the place to start—from “Wolverine Blues” to “Grandpa’s Spells.”

The music-related highlights of our recent trip:

  • seeing Fats Domino’s totaled piano in the Katrina exhibit
  • seeing another Fats piano, restored with financial help from Sir Paul McCartney, in the U.S. Mint Building
  • seeing Fats’ restored house in the Ninth Ward
  • happening upon a Boswell Sisters exhibit, full of memorabilia from their heyday, in the French Quarter
  • staying in a landmark possibly associated with Jelly Roll Morton (well, it is possible)

Jelly Roll, Fats, and the Boswells—NOLA royalty.

fats 1

Fats piano ruined

fats 3

Fats piano restored

There is an abundance of music from and about New Orleans. I love all of the genres that have come out of the place. Producer/writer/singer/pianist/impresario Allen Toussaint seemed to have had a hand in them all: soul, R&B, jazz, and hybrids (and he wrote C&W hit “Southern Nights”). On one trip in the ‘90s, I tracked down Toussaint’s Gentilly studio, Sea-Saint. I drove up to the small building nestled in a residential neighborhood. Seeing that there was a car parked near the front door, I approached to knock, but didn’t. I stood for a while, thinking about all of the wonderful music committed to tape in that place, and then got in the car and left. I didn’t want to be a pesty tourist, but I still wonder whether Mr. Toussaint himself was inside, maybe wanting a little company to show around.

tchoups

One masterpiece recorded at Sea-Saint in the ‘80s is The Wild Tchoupitoulas, an album featuring a group of Mardi Gras Indians, the ones who dress in the brightly colored, elaborately feathered costumes and parade through their neighborhoods to celebrate the holiday. Big Chief George Landry and his entourage did the singing/chanting of their street songs, accompanied by members of the local funk hotshot band The Meters, and the combination is magic. The rough-edged voices and tambourine jangles of the paraders could have clashed with the tight groove of The Meters, but instead a nice mix of solid feel and loose spirit merge and stick through a perfectly chosen song list, with “Indian Red” a showcase. I don’t know whose idea it was, but the result must’ve been beyond anyone’s dreams. My favorite New Orleans album.

The recording of “Iko Iko” by The Dixie Cups sounds spontaneous and incomplete, like an inadvertently captured moment that became documented and preserved. Well, as a matter of fact, the recording was impromptu happenstance. Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson had recently come out of New Orleans (and out of nowhere) with a Ronettes reject, “The Chapel of Love,” which ended up knocking The Beatles out of the top spot on the charts. Their producers, the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had been trying to match that initial success with follow-ups.

One day, the sisters sat in the recording studio, reminiscing about their grandma’s Indian chants, and, with cousin Joan Marie, started tapping on ashtrays and folding chairs and whatever else was on hand. The trio began singing variations on Sugar Boy Crawford’s “Jock-A-Mo.” The sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love” were now in street-parader mode. A stand-up bassist began to add some bottom. Leiber and Stoller, in the right place at the right time (the studio board), got it all on tape, and the resulting single, retitled “Iko Iko,” is perfect New Orleans-heritage pop—made in New York City. It only got to #20, but is a far more distinctive record than “Chapel of Love.”

iko iko

“Iko Iko” appears on another top-shelf document of New Orleans, the 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo. Dr. John not only delivers a revved up, horn-driven version of The Dixie Cups’ song, landing a single of it on the charts again, but pulls out a potpourri of other New Orleans gems, from “Little Liza Jane” to Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” to a medley of Huey “Piano” Smith hits. It’s seamlessly entertaining, and it’s 100% New Orleans. And our man Allen Toussaint pops up as producer, writer, and performer on Dr. John’s follow-up, his most popular album, In the Right Place.

Allen Toussaint also managed to put some New Orleans into a Thelonious Monk song. I doubt Monk had New Orleans in mind when he wrote “Bright Mississippi,” but I do believe he was thinking about the river Mississippi and not the state. It’s a light, swingin’ number based on the chord changes of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” another of the Monk-composed favorites of bands who played 52nd Street in New York. But Toussaint brings it south, with help from clarinetist Don Byron, and turns Monk’s tune into a second-line parade song, perfectly suited to the streets of Treme at Mardi Gras time.

Toussaint’s reworking of the Monk tune is one of many favorites in the song category I call “Monk by Others.” You see, in addition to more than thirty LPs of Monk doing Monk, I have almost forty CDs and LPs of artists’ tributes to the music of Thelonious, and numerous other albums that contain a cover of a Monk tune.

But we’re talking New Orleans, so I’ll wrap up with one of the best-known songs about the city.

In 1947, after accompanying Billie Holiday on the song in the film New Orleans, native son Louis Armstrong delivered a wistful vocal rendition of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and made it the go-to song to counter the party-time “laissez le bon temps rouler” debauchery-and-devilment songs. It’s sedate and poignant, but oh-so New Orleanian, and was used as the theme song of the best TV show ever canceled after one season, Frank’s Place. Tom Waits tried to capture the feel and the sentiment in his song “I Wish I Was in New Orleans.” It’s a nice song, but, after all, Waits is a Californian. He just can’t match the Satchmo classic; his voice sounds so close and yet so far from the tonal quality of Armstrong’s, and not nearly as listenable. It’s nice to imagine Satch singing the Waits song, but nicer just to play the ol’ chestnut.

swingy

Honorable Mentions: Native son Sidney Bechet plays a mean clarinet on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” It’s not about New Orleans, but it is New Orleans through and through.

Like The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which charges ten bucks (maybe more now) for requests of it, I’ve had my fill of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Dream Jukebox Candidates: “Iko Iko” by The Dixie Cups and “Iko Iko” by Dr. John both qualify. I wouldn’t at all mind having Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans” either.

Reading Matter: I’m looking forward to the October publication of a book by Gary Krist about Storyville. Its jam-packed title is Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. Satchmo and Jelly Roll each play a part in the story (the jazz part, I’m thinking).

What are your favorite songs about New Orleans?  Who are your favorite New Orleans artists?

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