I began writing this music column in 1994 and now present personal episodes for the anniversary issue. My fossil record in these pages actually began the year before Nixon resigned as president. On that fateful night in August ’74, I was living in the Irish Channel. Went to Parasol’s after the speech. Fats Domino on the jukebox. At the bar a grizzled sophist declared: “So, he’s a crook! How come he didn’t burn the [expletive] tapes? Because a smart crook – ya hear what I’m saying? – don’t leave no trail!” No one spoke. “Ain’t that a shame!” ran Fats’s honeyed baritone. “My tears fell like rain!”
Music is memory, an anchor to moments great and small.
One thick summer night in 1975, James Rivers on a sizzling flute, “Fever,” getting everybody up on their feet in a little club called Mel’s Lounge in Marigny. Like a pied piper Rivers marches outside, trailed by dancing people waving handkerchiefs – his private second-line. Back in Mel’s, mopping his brow, Rivers smiles: “Always cool at Mel’s Lounge.”
Carnival 1979. Mayor Dutch Morial in pugilist mode with a Teamsters-led NOPD union. The cops go on strike. The National Guard arrives. The Rex parade cancels. Fat Tuesday 8 a.m.
Wild Tchoupitoulas braves, who don’t like cops, march happily into a hole-in-the-wall – Dot’s Bar. I watch an anchorman of past vintage (charity bestirs me to omit his name) stick a microphone under the jaw of a Trail Chief in royal blue feathers: “Chief, with the police out, can you keep your people in line?” In line. Ouch! A Pall Mall dangling from his lips, Trail Chief says: “We try.”
A freezing February day, 1980, 5,000 people are densely packed outside Majestic Mortuary on Dryades Street for the funeral of Professor Longhair, aka Henry Roeland Byrd. Two brass bands go in opposite directions to part the crowd so pallbearers can get the coffin into the hearse. Aaron Neville was serene: “The body is dead, but Byrd’s still here.”
December 1981, on the Steamboat Natchez. A lavish party hosted by the Rolling Stones, their gal-pals in Southern Belle dresses. Entertainment by a line-up of Crescent City stars.
Thanks to a Neville Brothers’ promoter, I’m seated with Frogman Henry. He just sang “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and is happy with a plate of étouffée. I say, “That looks pretty good.” Frogman: “Baby, you can’t beat this alligator!”
Early 1990s. A rain-soaked Jazz Fest. Ben E. King on the Gentilly Stage. Standing with my daughter, Simonette, then 9. Sun slicing through dark clouds, words floating from King’s voice of pure magic:
“When the night has come,
And the land is dark,
And the moon is the only light we’ll see,
No I won’t be afraid … Just as long as you stand – stand by me.”
A mild night in 2002. Gatemouth Brown, the swinging vocalist-and-string-man, outside Tipitina’s telling a sideman: “His problem – maybe no one spoke into his ear – is that no song should go more than three minutes long! You think Elvis padded the fat like he does? Puh!”
September 2005. Evacuated in Lafayette to the home of friends with several other dazed-in-Katrina exiles. Glued to a Wynton Marsalis telethon with local musicians. Will we have a city again?
Mardi Gras morning, 2006, in Tremé. Skeleton leader Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes raises a cry to Congo Nation Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. A life force is returning.
July 5, 2015. City Park. The reception hall above Morning Call. Festive people at tables, others dancing to the James Rivers Movement. Rivers, burning away on “Fever.” The dancing bride, who stood next to me as a girl watching Ben E. King at Jazz Fest all those years ago, wasn’t yet born when Rivers rocked the fans at Mel’s Lounge. He is still rocking, a prince of the city. Has it really been that long? The groom, Dave Whatley, is smiling. So is everybody else.