On the first warm Saturday in March I made a pilgrimage to the Louisiana Music Factory, an emporium of vinyl and compact discs in its new, sunlit location on Frenchman Street, a stone’s throw from the State Museum at the Mint.
To those of you who sit at the computer to search for music, cyberspace has its kicks, but the old world is a ton more fun. St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ Half the City is front-and-center on the display rack as I enter. I know immediately I will pay the $14.99 for these guys and take it in my hands.
“You’re the third person bought that today,” says the guy behind the counter. “Who are those guys?”
“White boy sounds like Otis Redding,” I report. “The band’s from Birmingham, Ala. NPR did a feature yesterday on Morning Edition.”
“People are listening.”
White boy’s name is Paul Janeway. He grew up singing Pentecostal music. Voice to stop a train.
Cruising down a blues aisle and what do I see? Lipstick Traces: Lillian Boutté meets Christian Willisohn. This album is on the Blues Beacon label from 1991; Willisohn is Boutté’s pianist. Mmm, I see little brother John Boutté listed as a back-up vocalist. John Boutté is now famous from his cameos in the “Tremé” series. The title cut is credited to B. Spellman – the late great Benny Spellman. But it was Allen Toussaint who composed the song. The city doesn’t investigate. Lillian Boutté is a grand chanteuse; equal parts rhythm and blues and smoky jazz.
I make a detour to the traditional jazz racks, and as I ritually do in this venerable place, start digging for Henry “Red” Allen. I have two of his CDs on the Chronological label, another on American Music and a fourth that I cannot pinpoint on account of shelving issues. Here is Allen looking about 30, lean and svelte on the Acrobat label. “Feeling Drowsy” was cut in 1929, some seven years after he left Algiers, while the last cut “The Crawl” is from ’46 when he had put on some weight. You can never go wrong buying a Red Allen record. Especially on sale at $9.
I gather a Buckwheat Zydeco Best of Rounder Records with a version of “Ya Ya” I recall hearing on WWOZ. Buckwheat takes the Toussaint-Dorsey arrangement and uses the accordion like a bouncing piano, dropping lines, playing with the words; yes, I must have this one and it’s not bad at $12.
But then I see that Nicholas Payton has done his own version of the Miles Davis classic, “Sketches of Spain.” Go ahead, Payton. I am not aware of anyone since Miles trying to do “Sketches of Spain” (but, disclosure: I’m fallible). I put this one in the stack, easing toward the used jazz rack and lo, Caliente! by Gato Barbieri, the master saxophonist from Colombia, is there for a mere $7.99. This, too, must be mine. But now I see Django Reinhardt’s Swingin’ With Django, and that gypsy guitarist with so much soul, on the Pro-Art Digital label, reduced to $8. I add it to the stack.
But wait! Mavis Staples’ Have A Little Faith beckons, and I’ll never pass up Staples, especially her comforting tune of cosmic security, “God Is Not Sleeping.” Every atheist in America should listen to this song before bed at night. Agnostics, too. So I add Staples to my stack – which I find, somehow, is getting unwieldy. I add more.
It gets difficult now that a Nat King Cole double-boxed set can be had for $12. And then, as I stagger from the back in the direction of the counter, I hear Johnny Adams singing extravagant pain. “I won’t cry/I won’t shed a tear/I’ll keep on lovin’ you, year after year.” As I waver toward the R&B section, lulled by that voice that stops me every time I hear it (Adams always seems to be searching for something, just what I’m not sure), a new voice arises, that of Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, prancing out of his 20s, singing hard, “You done me wrong!”
“You have Johnny Adams and Al Johnson on the same CD,” I announce, in more of a question than declarative statement.
“Compilation from the Ric & Ron records,” says my authority at the counter.
Ric &Ron, of course. One of the glory labels of Crescent City R&B – Eddie Bo, Professor Longhair, Tommy Ridgley, Chris Kenner, Irma Thomas – so many of the stars in that firmament. This album – You Talk Too Much: The Ric & Ron Story, Volume 1 – is fresh in from England, where half of old blues and R&B ends up getting bought to be sold back to us. It is priced to cover the freight; I stand at the register, realizing my total will likely exceed the pay threshold of celebrity journalism.
The guy at the counter is toting up the sale.
“Take out Nat King Cole,” I say. “I love him, but a two CD-set …”
“Not today,” he says sympathetically.
I am holding my wallet and ATM card. “Give me the subtotal first.”
“You’re at a $116.”
Angst hits my arm like a dagger jabbing. I know I’ll be coming back. “OK, hold off Nicholas and ‘Sketches of Spain.’”
“You’re at $95 and change.”
I hand him my plastic money card.
Nicholas, forgive me. “Sketches of Spain,” next time