The song comes at you like a smiling freight train, bravura saxophones and the lyrics a sweet roar by the “Carnival Time” man himself, Al Johnson:
The Green Room is smoking And the Plaza’s burning down Throw my baby out the window Let those joints burn down All because – It’s Carnival time!
This month marks the 50th anniversary of “Carnival Time,” a half-century in which the lines have rippled out of countless jukeboxes and radio stations behind those blasting, rat-a-tat-a-tat tenor sax guards. Mardi Gras without “Carnival Time” is like a parade without food. “My folks used to always say ‘Carnival’ instead of Mardi Gras,” says Johnson. “I felt the song would fit right in with ‘Mardi Gras Mambo’” – the song Art Neville recorded in 1954 with a band called the Hawkettes.
But where did the words for “Carnival Time” come from?
“Back in the 50s there were two clubs right by each other on Orleans Avenue at North Claiborne, where the upramp is today,” Johnson explains. “We used to go there. Tony’s Green Room and Joe Prop’s Plaza. They used to be jumping and hot. One was smoking and ...well, I wasn’t going to let my baby burn up, so I got her out the window. Ya see what I’m saying?”
Sure. When the action’s too hot, you get your baby out and make sure you stick real close to her, right? “That’s right,” smiles Johnson. The song went through several recording sessions in 1959 before the final cut was released in ’60. “We did it so many times, I don’t know exactly who is on each [of the instruments],” says Johnson. “Popee [Walter Lastie] told me he’s on drums, but it could have been [the cut with] Hungry Williams.”
He says that Placide Adams handled bass. George Davis is also thought to have been on bass for the sessions out of which the song finally came, according to a savant of recording history who spoke on strict assurances of anonymity, a standard this column has long honored. The charging tenor sax players consisted of James Rivers, Robert Parker – yep, the same guy who romped through the vocals on “Barefootin” – and the inimitable Lee Allen. Justin Adams was on guitar. Mac Rebennack handled keyboard, though in his many public appearances over the years, Johnson has sat on thousands of piano benches in belting out his signature song. It is all in the pipes – the ever-youthful sound, the history, the tradition.
For many years Johnson failed to receive much in the way of payment. Released as a 45 rpm on the Ron label under Joe Ruffino, the song caught on locally but, says Johnson, he never earned much off the recurrent airplay. “Mechanicals” is the industry term for financial rights that an artist is due for a song’s use in jukeboxes, radio play and any partial use for jingles or spots. Mechanicals can be much more lucrative than actual unit sales. In the 1980s Ruffino died. A hard-charging producer named Joe Jones – the same Joe Jones who sang “You Talk Too Much” – obtained the rights, and in a tangled skein of conflict, ended up suing Al Johnson for the ownership to his own song.
“He sued me saying it was his music and I stole it from him,” says Johnson. As the bizarre legal saga played out, Johnson prevailed, securing his rights to the song. He has been receiving checks from the use of the song for some time now. Jones passed away two years ago.
Al Johnson lived in the Lower 9th Ward and for 37 years had a day job as a cab driver. He lost his house in Hurricane Katrina and ended up in an apartment complex near Houston. He recently moved into a Habitat for Humanity house in the Upper 9th Ward’s Musicians’ Village. He likes it there, though at 69 he grouses about having to cut the grass.
This month, Al Johnson will take another bow: the Louisiana Lottery’s marketing campaign for scratch-off tickets features “Carnival Time” as the song of the season. Johnson had recorded a radio spot, and IS warming to a new round of media attention.
“Carnival Time,” says Johnson, “is a fantastic accomplishment. For a song to be 50 years old and people love it as well as they do, it makes me real proud to be a part of something like that.”