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Dancing in the Street

Dancing in the Street

There have been many lively, colorful streets lauded in popular song. I’ve walked a few of them, including Beale Street and Basin Street, mentioned below; New York’s Broadway; and San Francisco’s Haight & Ashbury.

“Kansas City” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote “Kansas City” for Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, but it was in 1959 that Wilbert Harrison made it a huge hit. It’s his version that has lasted, although many have recorded it since (and every bar band in America has had it in their repertoire for more than fifty years).

Alas, Kansas City’s landmark 12th Street and Vine is only marked by a lonely street sign. It has been subsumed by a housing development. The music hub was actually 18th and Vine, a recognized jazz destination for years. It is now mostly museums.

beale

“Beale Street Blues” W.C. Handy was not so much a songwriter as a translator of black culture, a synthesizer of others’ music and words into hit songs like “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” that resonated with Americans, black and white, in St. Louis and Memphis or in New York or Phoenix. His world was the black community entered around Memphis’s Beale Street, a place Preston Lauterbach, in his book Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, describes as “a nexus of black culture and power…unlike anyplace else in the world.”

Handy extracted the music for “Beale Street Blues” from the sounds he overheard, walking on Beale Street, of a saloon’s pianist playing away on his twelve-hour shift. He crafted the lyrics by pulling from the language he heard on Beale Street corners, and in its bars, boarding houses, and shops.

He extols this landmark Memphis street above all others: “I’ve seen the lights of gay Broadway / Old Market Street down by the Frisco Bay / I’ve strolled the Prado, gambled on the Bourse / But take my advice, friends, and see Beale Street first.”

handy satch

Louis Armstrong recorded a W.C. Handy tribute album shortly before Handy’s death, and it’s this album’s version of “Beale Street Blues,” played and sung with affection by a New Orleanian, that I love best.

“Basin Street Blues” Armstrong also covered, many times, this song of a notable street in his hometown. Written in 1926 by Spencer Williams, it was recorded two years later by Satch, and has been recorded thousands of times since, by Dixieland bands, pop vocalists, and mainstream jazzers.

jelly

Basin Street was the nexus of New Orleans’ red light district, Storyville. I look at the photographs of Storyville whores taken in the early 20th century by E.J. Bellocq and try to imagine what daily (or nightly) life was like there and then. Reading about Jelly Roll Morton in Mister Jelly Roll, I imagine myself leaning over the piano as he entertains the habitués of the brothel, the working girls and the rough and tough characters who provided them with a living.

On visits to New Orleans over the years, I’ve walked around the area that Storyville occupied. It is long gone, but nearly everywhere in the heart of that city there had still been some traces of the past in the brightly painted shotgun houses and the corner package stores. But I’m afraid that may not continue to be the case. In all of the ten-years-after-Katrina stories I’ve read, the prevailing observation is that the neighborhoods of New Orleans, from Treme to Bywater, are being gentrified. The “City that Care Forgot” is now a magnet for tech dot-com developers and hipster chic boutiquers. It’s giving me the Basin Street blues.

beat

“Dancing in the Street” A whole book about one pop song? It’s happened before, with the delightful book Louie, Louie. Mark Kurlansky devoted a volume called Ready for a Brand New Beat to the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit “Dancing in the Street.” It is as worthy of being the subject of a book as any pop song. It’s got a relentless “brand new beat,” it features Martha’s glistening vocals, and it signifies a time of change. It has a strong but unmenacing message that the younger generation is movin’ in.

My original, well-worn copy

My original, well-worn copy

“Street Fighting Man” The Stones take up the message where Martha and the Vandellas left off. No more dancing—it’s time for fighting in the streets. This is one song that blew my young mind when I first heard it. I was a Rolling Stones fan, but leaned toward The Beatles. And then I bought the Beggar’s Banquet album and my mind was opened up to the rough stuff. Keith Richards’ ringing guitar and Mick Jagger’s stinging vocals cut right through me. And it was a protest song I could belt along with, kidding myself that I was in some way a part of this big societal change taking place. I was just a kid in the suburbs. I wasn’t fighting or dancing in my street. I was playing tag and singing four-part harmony in my street. And in the house early on school nights.

bruce

Honorable Mentions: The Lonely Street of “Heartbreak Hotel”; the slinky harpsichorded mystery of Jim Morrison and The Doors’ “Love Street”; the many Bruce Springsteen song-stories of New Jersey streets, most notably “Born to Run”; the cowboy classic “Streets of Laredo,” with the parody verse: “You can see by my outfit that I am a cowboy / If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.”

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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