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Humor at the Keyboard
Sam Adams was a pioneer of local musical parodies
Sam Adams almost didn’t get to keep his own name. “I had this booking agent, Bess Grundman. She thought the name ‘Sonny’ was better than ‘Sam.’” So, it was as “Sonny Adams” that Sam Adams “got into the piano business in the New Orleans area.”
As he explained, “I had a place at 1624 Louisiana Ave.: Sonny’s Mélange – that means mixture. I was playing good music, show tunes, Dixieland – and that’s when I started doing parodies.”
Parodies – taking a familiar song and changing the lyrics to add a different satirical or spicy twist – are Sam Adams’ stock in trade. “The Rose of Lafayette Square,” “Marrero” and “The Sewerage and Water Board Polka” are some of his favorites.
Sonny’s Mélange had a slim budget and family aid arrived in the form of Sam’s brother, who obligingly tended bar, while making sure that his Tulane diploma in Chemical Engineering was posted prominently on the wall over the bottles.
The club attracted a clientele that soon included other aspiring performers. “These guys started hanging around my place – they would copy records—like Lenny Bruce – and do these routines.”
The guys included local comedians Bill Holiday, Walter Perseveaux and D.J. “Butch” Benit. Soon the four of them began putting a topical show together. This would evolve into the review The Fudgeripple Follies: Nobody Likes A Smartass.
Politically incorrect in the extreme, the production nevertheless found an audience. There were even cast recordings (a long playing vinyl album is available on Amazon.com for $65.) The material was controversial even at the time. As fellow pianist and parodist Phil Melancon remembered, “I had a copy of the record and I was living in a condo – I couldn’t get it to play low enough.”
When a fire damaged Sonny’s Mélange, an opportunity arose. “Dan Levy came in, and he had just bought the Absinthe House Bar on Bourbon Street. And he says, ‘how would you like to move in?’” Adams recalls.
“Oh, that was a sweetheart deal. He bought a Yamaha piano, he got theater seating, not individual tables. The place held 90 people. If you had any more, the 91st person was the Fire Marshall.”
It was a typical 1960s-era nightspot. “I’d be sitting behind the piano and you couldn’t see the back of the room for the blue haze of cigarette smoke,” Adams says.
The cast never stayed on script. Holiday “would say anything. He was our leader, then I got to be the bad one,” Adams explains. Perseveaux “was so fast. He called himself Big Pearl. That man was the most clever person in the show, he just couldn’t slow down.”
Benit “took it very seriously, he had his degree in theater from Tulane.”
Holiday went on to perform as a comic on the Playboy Club Circuit, and to local fame for accumulation of an incredible number of parking tickets. He died in 1984. Perseveaux died in 1993 and Benit died in 2005.
The revue ran for 17 years. “It was lucrative. I sent all my girls to Sacred Heart with that show,” Adams says.
Just a few French Quarter blocks away, Adams had another performing opportunity. “When WWL-TV started, they told the Musicians Union they were going to hire some musicians. I think I was the only one.”
As Adams explains, the station decided to use the Bozo the Clown character. When the franchise’s costume arrived, “I was the only one it fit. They tried it on John Pela first.”
Dressed in the clown suit with a starched white collar, and wearing an orange wig with a white scalp, Adams was in his element. “Those other guys just didn’t have the zaniness. I’d do anything. I had six children!”
One of his props was his own microscope, acquired in his year in medical school after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta. “I’d look into the eyepiece, and the director would zoom in the camera.”
“I had a white piano that I played, and a Bozo puppet inside the piano, and he would pop up and have comments about things. And we had all these characters: Lippy the Lion, Wally Gator.” Adams was creative in his approach. “They kept calling me up to the office.”
Another television job was at WDSU-TV. “They put me with Bill Stanley in the morning. I became a character called Professor HowWouldIKnow. I wore some academic robes from Harvard. I borrowed them from a neighbor.”
Adams has taken his musical talent and wit to a host of different stages. From work in a trio on Bourbon Street, when nightclubs offered music and other acts as well as strippers, to a luxurious piano bar in Arizona (“I had an 11-foot rosewood Steinway piano. They had 16 musicians on the payroll”), Adams says that the most fun he had was working with Nancy Staub’s puppets. “The puppeteers were stuck behind scenery. I was there out front. They called me Major Minor. I had my electric piano, I had fun.”
His final take on his career? “I would do it again. I really would. I’d handle it better.”
Need a quick fix of satire and song? Phil Melancon holds forth with a full array of musical offerings at the piano in the Bayou Bar of the Pontchartrain Hotel, 2031 St. Charles Ave., on Friday and Saturday evenings. Melancon waited until he was 30 before beginning at the piano, but his earlier musical career included a stint at Your Father’s Mustache on Bourbon Street back in the 1960s. Besides his own material, Melancon can be counted on to include some of Sam Adams’ songs in his evening’s performance. His audience must be happy: the gig at the Pontchartrain has lasted 20 years.