“Creativity is a drug I cannot live without.”
– Cecile B. DeMille
The book of 300 or so songs written by Richard Rowley that sits on the table in his living room is thick as the New York City Yellow Pages. Between these covers lies the opus magnus of everything that comprises Rowley; the alchemy of peaks and valleys and all the in-betweens that make up a man who creates for a living, or rather, of a man who lives to create.
At first glance, it would be pretty much a given that with titles like “Share My Love” and “Another Chance,” that Rowley is a New Orleans version of the West Virginia coal miners’ son, but upon closer inspection you see that this 63-year-old guy who still shows a hint of rhythm and blues in his toned-down Elvis hairdo is much more than some backwoods wailer.
For openers, Rowley puts in his days as a computer draftsman. And, if you think this kind of responsibility has gone to the head of the guy who loves doing one-night gigs with different bands all over the city – think again.
“I love what I do,” Rowley says, sounding for all the world like an early version of a citified Andy Griffith. “My experience has been mechanical. I’ve done air conditioning and plumbing, electrical and things of that nature … and now I’m learning the civil engineering part. And I love the building I work in. The people are great, the food in the building is wonderful – and there’s free parking.”
Even with “free parking,” Rowley’s daytime job can only rank in third place among the loves of his life. Coming in at a strong No. 2, of course, is his music.
In mid-sentence, Rowley is apt to reach over, pick up his guitar and belt out a new song he’s working on, or one he’s performed a thousand times working with the likes of Gatemouth Brown, Eddie Powers, Bobbie Mitchell, Oliver Morgan, Benny Spellman or the recently deceased Eddie Bo and Ernie K-Doe.
“Lord, I’ve been doing this so long,” Rowley says, “When I was a kid, I started with piano lessons, then clarinet lessons at school. I never could learn anything musical. Then Elvis came along and my dad finally bought me a guitar. I went to Werlein’s [music store] for months and months. Man, I couldn’t learn anything. I put the guitar in the case and up it went, into the closet. It stayed there for about a year until one day a friend of mine came over. We went into that closet looking for a ball and glove. He saw the guitar and took it out and started playing it. I said, ‘wait a minute, if he can play, so can I.’ That night I took out the guitar and I remembered the things he did. I did the same things the same way he did and that’s how I got started. I guess I became pretty good at it.”
Rowley became good enough to hook up with a band called “The Other Guys.” One of those other guys was a lead singer named Aaron Broussard, who came up with a strange idea to add some spice to the stage persona of the group.
“Aaron had this idea to change clothes at the break,” Rowley says. “We’d look one way while we were performing before the break. Then after the break, we’d come out looking another way – like bums. One night we were all sitting around talking about nothing in particular and I asked Aaron what he planned to do with his life. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m thinking about going into politics.’ Just like that. A few years later, I look up and Aaron’s the mayor of Kenner. I guess our gigs worked out pretty good for him.”
As Rowley rattles off the names of the gigs he’s had and his busy present-day schedule, he stops in mid-sentence to show off another of his “creations”: a velcroed wristband mimicking the chords on a guitar.
“Saves a lot of time and wasted effort,” he explains. “When I’m teaching I wear this on my wrist and then I don’t have to pick up the guitar to show my students, then put the guitar down to explain something, then pick it up again. I just show them right from the band on my wrist.”
Next up in the Rowley pantheon of creations is his collection of humorous greeting cards. He pulls out stacks of the cards and goes through them. Most are side-splitting, and all have copyrights dating back to 1985. Rowley glances through them and still guffaws at the lines he wrote. “I sold over 1,000 of these,” he says. “This batch is the second thousand. I have … had high hopes for these. I was going strong with them when…” Rowley’s rubbery face goes from its normal smile to a sadness that’s palpable throughout the room.
It is his thoughts of “Love No.1” in his life that, he says, pain him beyond all comprehension.
“I was working on these cards when it happened,” he says. “My daughter Jamie got into a terrible car accident. She had just turned 16. Her mother and I had divorced and she had remarried and moved to Baton Rouge. I had just taken a great job at Chevron on the West Bank. Well, I quit so I could go to Baton Rouge to be with Jamie. Her life was in jeopardy for so long. She was in a coma. And let me tell you, a coma is not like you’re in one today and tomorrow you simply snap out of it and wake up. That’s only in the movies. Recovery is a slow, gradual, painful thing. It was a very serious wreck. She was brain damaged. It was the worst time of my life… of everybody’s life.
“Many is the night, I slept on the floor of Jamie’s room, right next to her bed. Her recovery took up every thought in my life. I remember her eardrums were punctured and I would talk to her. Her doctors told me they didn’t know if she could hear me. But deep inside, I knew she did. I remember how pessimistic [the doctors] were. We had names for each of them. One we called ‘Dr. Doom.’ He’d come in every day and ask, ‘Do you want to sign over her body parts?’ Can you imagine having a doctor come into the room where your daughter is lying in a coma and asking a question like that day after day?”
As his daughter’s doctors’ hope waned, Rowley says, his own never wavered for a moment .
“I used to go in and hold her hand and tell her to squeeze mine. Nothing. I did that over and over. My hands became numb. But I just knew that she was hearing me and that she would respond. ‘Jamie, squeeze my hand!’ Then one day, it happened. I felt her squeeze. Of course, these doctors told me not to be too optimistic, that in all probability what I was feeling was a muscle spasm. Muscle spasm, my … I knew that she had heard me. I stood there and cried.”
The nights were seemingly endless for Rowley. He hummed tunes to his daughter as he had not done since she had been a baby. Tunes he had written. Tunes others had written. Her favorites. His favorites. He composed tunes to her in his mind as he sat there throughout those long agony-filled nights.
“Jamie’s 38 years old now,” Rowley says of his daughter. “It’s been a long, long painful road. But she’s come back. She still has some problems. But she’s determined. We’re determined! Here, look at this!”
Rowley goes to his computer and opens a link – “Jamie’s page,” with the words:
“Jamie Rowley is a 38-year-old mentally challenged woman who lost her home in Katrina. She is now living in her mother’s garage with her four cats. Jamie renews her hope through every board that she draws. Jamie collects the boards from the debris of destroyed homes (various areas of New Orleans; lower and upper 9th wards, etc.). After cleaning each board, she the turns them into pieces of art …”
“She’s extremely creative,” Rowley says simply of his daughter. He’s knows that says it all.
It may be a Thursday evening or a Sunday afternoon. It may be the House of Blues or it may be a garden soiree. The band may be Art Ryder’s or the Country Cajuns. The only thing for certain is that somewhere near the bandstand, a lady named Jamie will be sitting at a table applauding each set.