When I first met Al Johnson many years ago he pulled up in a taxi. Johnson was riding high that day. A song he had recorded in 1960, “Carnival Time” had recently become a Carnival anthem. He was a local celebrity. What was unusual though was that he was the driver of the taxi.
Johnson’s star had not quite risen so high as to take him away from his day job driving for White Fleet – at the time, one of the city’s chief, primarily black, cab companies. Yet the image of the taxi-driving rhythm and blueser worked well, especially because Johnson’s song was so much about life as seen from the street.
Beginning with a staccato trumpet, next came Johnson as he wailed boldly telling his tale with the now famous lyrics that are at once tragic but irresistible to dance to:
The Green room is smokin’
And the Plaza’s burnin’ down
Throw my baby out the window
And let the joint burn down
And why was all this happening? The song continues…
All because it’s Carnival Ti-i-ime
Whoa, it’s Carnival Time
Oh well, it’s Carnival Time
And everybody’s havin’ fun
When asked, Johnson explained that the Green Room was a joint in the Treme neighborhood that caught fire, probably on Mardi Gras. The window toss of his baby was supposedly a rescue act.
“Carnival Time” was written by Johnson and Joe Ruffino, the operator of a local record label. Through the years there would be some controversy over who maintained controlling interest of the song – supposedly, another performer also got involved, but in the end the song is now listed as being Johnson’s with all other claimants also being tossed out the window.
Still, the question nags. So, what exactly did happened at the Green Room?
A website article a couple of years ago suggested that the reference might not have been to an actual fire but to the demolition that was going on in the N. Claiborne area to make way for the 1-10 expressway. The Green Room and The Plaza were among the razed buildings. Memory of the demolition, which took much out of the joy from the Treme neighborhood, is still a painful part of urban history.
Only problem with this story is that it does not follow chronologically. Johnson’s song was recorded in 1960; the demolition for the expressway began in 1966. Construction of the expressway has often been mentioned as a popular cause for urban ills, but this was not an example. Whatever happened to The Green Room and The Plaza had to happen before the song was released in 1960.
(Side note: Those who remember the cemetery scene from the New Orleans-centered movie “Easy Rider” might recall the vague sound of a pile driver in the background. That was from actual work happening on the nearby expressway. The movie was filmed in 1969.)
It could be that nothing happened at all – that “smokin’” and” burning” were just jive talk for a raucous good time.
Johnson’s reference to throwing his baby out the window was contemporary lingo for saving her. Back then, most places of that ilk were called “joints,” so with his baby rescued, he was OK with letting the joint burn down.
Through the decades, “Carnival Time” survived better than The Green Room or The Plaza. It is still one of the R&B Carnival classics heard annually as spring begins to flower. Al Johnson, who is in his 80s, has yet to have his second big hit – but is still trying and he deserves it. He is an affable man with a big smile who is invited to reign over various Carnival parties including being named Grand Marshall for Life of the Krewe of Red Beans.
Like the song says, “Everybody is Having Fun!” He’s still burnin’.
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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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