Music: Second Thoughts on the British Invasion

How New Orleans and the Island nurtured each other

It is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It’s like no kind of music that I’ve ever heard. And ever since I was a very small boy, it is the sounds of that city that have just thrilled me like no other.”

Thus did the actor who portrays the eponymous misanthropic doctor in the television series, “House,” explain his New Orleans fascination to the Los Angeles Daily News in the late September run-up to the PBS Great Performances show, “Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk.”

Laurie is an Englishman who trained in Shakespearian drama before vaulting to TV celebrity in the wilds of Los Angeles; his flattened American accent is a nice fit for Dr. House. Within Laurie’s take on New Orleans as a musical lodestone lies a complex tale of the ironies of cultural commerce.

Many white teenagers back in the circa-1950s U.K. heard a new world in the rocking rhythms and vocal surges from the American southland home of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and other black artists. Among those who paid homage to the influence that blues and R&B had on their early years, count John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney, whose idol as a 15-year-old was Little Richard. The wild, manic energy Richard poured into “Tutti Frutti” – as recorded with the Fats Domino rhythm section at the Cosimo Matassa studio on Rampart Street – is famous for the shouting peals of whooo that came echoing back a decade later with the Beatles’ whooooo on “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

John Broven explains his fascination in Record Makers and Breakers:

“My introduction to the wonderful world of records began in England when my father, Jack, hauled a Bush radiogram into our Polegate, Sussex, home in 1956.

The first 78-rpm records that he placed on the Garrard auto-changer were ‘Rock Around the Clock’ by Bill Haley and the Comets (U.K. Brunswick), ‘Blueberry Hill’ by Fats Domino, and ‘Only You (and You Alone)’ by the Hilltoppers ... My personal voyage of discovery into the record makers’ universe had begun.”

Broven began an obsession with southern soul and the town where jazz began just as Hugh Laurie would a few years later. In 1973, on the basis of two trips here for interviews, Broven published the first history of New Orleans R&B. At the time, many local artists were struggling to restart careers swept aside by the British invasion of the ’60s. The Beatles and Rolling Stones took down-home R&B to a hard rocking threshold, gaining enormous audiences and record sales in the process. The British rockers gave more than credit to the early inspirations. The Beatles used Clarence “Frogman” Henry as the opening act in their ’64 concert at City Park in Tad Gormley Stadium. Paul McCartney paid tribute to Frogman in several interviews over the years.

In 1975, when McCartney recorded his Venus and Mars LP, produced by Allen Toussaint at SeaSaint Studio, he spent time with Frogman and Professor Longhair. McCartney hired Fess to play the party in Los Angeles that celebrated the mix, from which came the ’78 Longhair album Live on the Queen Mary.
The Beatles recorded three songs by local rhythm-and-bluesman Larry Williams of “Boney Marony” fame: “Slow Down,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Bad Boy,” which generated serious composer royalties.

The Rolling Stones recorded “Fortune Teller” from the Toussaint songbook. In 1981, when the Stones played to 87,000 fans in the Superdome, they threw a party on a riverboat with music by a retinue of locals and cuisine by the usual suspects in restaurant catering. I sat next to Frogman Henry, who had crooned “You Always Hurt the One You Love” a million times on Bourbon Street. Beloved by McCartney and the Stones, Frogman looked up from his etouffée with the grin of a winner at the track: “I like that alligator, baby.”

The same grand songster who punctuated his Jazz Fest gigs with shout-outs to friends from the Desire housing projects and low-scale workers at Charity Hospital moved easily among rock royalty that night, one of many New Orleans musicians invited, not all of whom sang for the supper. One could say sentimentally that the superstars were giving back, but they were having a stomp-down good time too. Gal-pals of the Stones wore Southern belle hoop dresses, adding a surreal flair to the evening.

The long reach from New Orleans to U.K. and back again hit a new level after Hurricane Katrina, when the city as a place of culture became a salvation story, surging across the media grid. How far we have come since, as still we discover where we live.

“I believe that rock ’n’ roll is the work of another master, not Jesus Christ. Now, it was a steppin’ stone for me to be famous, and God spared my life and had mercy on me. But God didn’t tell me to write ‘Tutti Frutti, oh-rootee’. I didn’t even know any Tutti. He didn’t tell me to write ‘Long Tall Sally.’ The Sally I knew was short. ... But after the fame and fortune, after I ’wakened out of the dream, God said, Richard, let’s come down to reality.”

– Little Richard with Tom Snyder on “The Tomorrow Show,” NBC, 1981.

The Beatles and Rolling Stones took down-home R&B to a hard rocking threshold, gaining enormous audiences and record sales in the process.

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