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"Hail, Hail, New Orleans!!"-A Short Blue Collar Appreciation
By Mick Polich - 03/13/2008 - 10:30 AM EDT

All hail the Creole King – New Orleans, once and future home of rock and roll!

First, I defy ANYONE not to shake the ol’ boo-tay when listening to any source –jazz, Cajun, swamp, funk, and rock music from the Crescent City (if you don’t , you probably don’t qualify as an organism on the planet….). So, why do I make this outrageous statement? Well, got to thinking on this matter – actually been thinking about it for about 20 years (no, no the brain’s not hurting….). My first thought when Cleveland was awarded the site for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame was, “Well, why? Why not Memphis?” Look at the ’lawyer’ presentation – Sun Records (obvious), Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, plus Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash (second motion), THEN the blues folk on Sun before all those guys -  Howlin’ Wolf, Jackie Brenston (sax player with Ike Turner’s band, who recorded arguably what’s considered the first rock and roll recording, “Rocket 88”…). So, politics aside, Memphis shoulda had first dibs on the Rock Hall. But, kind suhs and mah - dums, let me present a case for the Big Easy  - it’s place not only in rock history, but helping with defining moments in the American civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

As early as the late 1940’s, iconic threads of the music called rock and roll were being weaved through recordings on hundreds of little record labels all throughout America. With the advent of the electric guitar, guitarists had the ability to cut thru big band arrangements with biting tube - type amplification – most African- American, blues - based bands were not afraid to over drive the amps for El Maxo Distortion at the time, allowing country/jazz blues licks to enter a new, sonic territory. Couple that with unison, harmony –driven horn sections and a flare for showmanship – palie, I think it’s beginning to look a lot like rhythm and blues!

There are many recordings that pre-date the famous ‘Sun Sessions’ with Elvis, Jerry Lee, and the gang that give credence to the argument of what’s considered the iconic beginnings of rock and roll: New Orleans was right there in the mix. Consider Fats Domino  - influential writer/vocalist/pianist: “Aint That A Shame”, “Blueberry Hill”, and countless hits thru the 1950’s into the 1960’s.  Domino’s hits came out Presley’s, (in fact, Elvis claimed Fats as a huge influence) and showed the triplet – rhythmed, barrelhouse fusion of rhythm and blues, New Orleans style of boogie that open the door to what most of the populi knows as ‘rock and roll’. Consider Little Richard, ”The Georgia Peach” – listening to “Tutti Fruiti” and “Long Tall Sally”, there’s a big-time New Orleans influx there. Unfortunately, segregation was still in full stride at the height of both Fats and Richards’ glory years –the 1950’s, basically – so the scrubbed up images of Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson covering Domino and Richard songs is what most Americans were left with (dunno, though – I see Little Richard getting rock and roll props – yes, even those stupid car commercials – while Pat Boone feeds off maybe Vegas, the state fair scene, and the occasional oddball recording – heavy metal, Pat - style, anyone? Now that was a ‘Spinal Tap’ moment!).

Consider the musical melting pot that is New Orleans – French, Indian, and African notes, rhythms, sound – mixed like the beloved gumbo, ah, lessez les bon temps roulez! Where else in America would you have gotten hundreds of years of cultural mixing and clashing? Throw in voodoo rituals from the African side and the Catholic Church, and it’s a culture that’s as complex and spicy. Sure, we’ve got cultural pots all over America, and the world, but nothin’ quite like Naw O’ leans……

So, take that music gumbo and cultivate some artists – Fats Domino, Little Richard (via Georgia), Frankie Ford (“Sea Cruise” fame –thanks for the rhythm hook on that one, Fats!), Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Eddie Floyd, Robert Parker, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K. Doe  – the early list of one–hit-to-several-hit rock and roll wonders from N.O. is quite impressive. Plus, it builds on the case for New Orleans as a forerunner to the rock n’ roll sound and style……

I have two expansive CD box sets on early electric ‘jook joint’ blues and electric jump blues/ r n’ b bands, both put out by JSP Records in London. Listening to those songs - all by obscure artists across the U.S., and spanning the late 1940’s to mid 1950’s – it’s fairly easy to make a case for the roots of rock having an earlier start than what ‘general’ rock history realizes. A overdriven guitar amp, brimming with shredding distorted harmonic overtones, raspy tenor and baritone saxophonists honking, bleating like some crazed, musical goat - man, creating harmony horn lines that were turning away from convention, vocalists shouting with fire and brimstone, yelling about parties, sexual politics, using a “Saturday night fish fry” as a metaphor for racial segregation and disruption, and more shuffles than swing: the dangerous, cultural – splitting, divide of the new aesthetic of rock. Underneath it all swam the big-pot stirrings of New Orleans and all the wonderful mixtures of heritage and music. 

Given the evidence – historical facts and critical listening – I would give New Orleans the front - runner status as a rock and roll birth area. And if you wanna split hairs, well, o.k., fine – throw the bones to Memphis and N.O. (sorry Cleveland, I know Alan Freed was important, but look at all the folks who MADE the music!). But, if you do the math, listen to the cuts, and look at the dates of creation, I think you could make a viable case for News Orleans as a hub for the creation of rock and roll.

Why did I get on this jag? Just finished a great bio on the Fat Man called “Blue Monday: Fats Domino And The Lost Dawn Of Rock And Roll” by Rick Coleman – excellent read, true believers, excellent read! Not only do we get the bio of Fats’ incredible life, but Mr. Coleman draws several parallels to the beginnings of the civil rights movement in the U.S. AND some pretty convincing arguments on why Fats and his New Orleans brethren

could be the legit heirs to the development of rock and roll. I could connect-the-dots before this book, anyway – always some revisionism going on to muck up the proceedings. I’ll give Elvis his due in helping to make rock popular, but INVENTING it?

Come on, Joe, I knows it ain’t so! Documented in the book are, again, numerous occasions where E tells the press-at-large that Fats should be getting the credit for getting the ol’ King into ’boogie woogie’ music (along with a cast that’s mostly left in the dustbin of music history, save for wonderful fellows like Mr. Coleman to get some facts straight…).

As ol’ Joe Friday would said, just the facts ma’am, and it seems there are ALWAYS uncredited and unheralded heroes that a movement, especially in music. Given the didactic nature of the history of recorded music, it seems there were a lot of records – 45 singles, mostly, because that was the quickest and easiest way to make a mark on the radio in those days – but yeah, there were a lot of records from all across the country, during this time period, showing signs of the new vision of the rock and roll movement.

Looking and listening to the mix of cultural rhythms, sights, and sounds, I think a viable case for the Big Ol’ Easy as a rock n’ roll epicenter can be validated. Theoretically, it could take more chapters than this, but y’all have understood that – just like people understand crawfish and gumbo in front of them on a hot plate –it just IS, my peeples!

Check it out, on-line, at your local indie music shop (or the Borders/ Barnes and Noble thing would work, too…), in print, and talking to some musicians ‘in the know’ – I think the evidence is credible: all hail, the Big Easy, the queen city of rock and roll!




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