Ernie K-Doe once gushed to a crowd at the Jazz Fest that he was, “the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans – in all its history.” He wasn’t totally wrong, although other contenders might include fellow New Orleans rhythm and blues performers. Though it maybe should have, R&B did not originate in New Orleans. This city made a contribution to the music surpassed only by its having given birth to jazz. From the late 50s until the British invasion, R&B was far more popular in New Orleans than jazz – which had conquered the world but for which there was scant interest in its hometown. R&B had lyrics about love and passion that appealed to a postwar generation in search of both. Its performers became the celebrities that a generation danced to at sock hops and proms. Its songs have been frozen in time, still heard as golden oldies. They are relics of those groovy days when local artists went to local studios to record songs that would be played on local radio to become local classics.
Jazz belongs to the world, R & B has been the music of New Orleans.
As the sounds of Jazz Fest reverberate around town, here are my choices of the five most talented early R&B performers to come from this city.
5. Irma Thomas. One of her three biggest hits was “It’s Raining.” If the song had been about her career it might have been called, “It’s Reigning.” Easily the Queen of the New Orleans R & B scene, Thomas’ delivery of that song combined the loneliness of a rainy day with the emotion of lost love. Her beautiful versions of “Ruler Of My Heart” and “Wish Someone Would Care” carry out the same theme of looking for love. Her rendition of “Time Is On My Side” was so good that it inspired the Rolling Stones to do their version. Early in her career she tried making it on the West Coast, but eventually came back home where she belongs. A talent and a nice person, Thomas, who is now a Grammy winner, is still singing – and still reigning.
4. Ernie K-Doe. He might not have been the greatest voice that local R&B produced, but he may be the greatest showman – even his wake and jazz funeral in 2001 were part of a week long spectacle. He also had one of local R&B’s biggest hits. K-Doe’s “Mother in Law” was not his best song, but it was one of the few from New Orleans to have made it to Number One (Summer of ‘61) on the national charts. Benny Spellman deserves some credit for the record’s success because of his bass refrains of the words “Mother in Law,” but K-Doe carried all the weight on other songs that made it the national charts, if not to the top: “Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta,” “I Cried My Last Tear,” “A Certain Girl” and “Popeye Joe.” But what does the nation know? To me his unheralded “T’aint It the Truth” was not only his best, but also the best of all New Orleans R&B songs. Sometimes things don't get the recognition they’re due: t’aint it the truth.
3. Aaron Neville. He and his brothers were, for a long time, perennial Jazz Fest performers who would close out the event each year. His 1966 hit “Tell It Like it Is” made it to number two on the national charts. Through the decades, Neville’s voice has been heard in a variety of combinations and octaves, most notably as a teen with the “Hawkettes” in their evergreen hit, “Mardi Gras Mambo,” or with his celebrated family and performing those haunting duets with Linda Ronstadt. Neville’s falsetto is one of the best to ever give goose bumps to audiences.
2. Fats Domino. By far he’s the best-known R&B star from New Orleans and the earliest. Some of his vintage hits predate 1955 when Billboard’s R&B charts were replaced by a national Hot 100 list, combining R&B and Rock and Roll. On the combined lists, Domino had 86 songs that made it nationally. His “Goin’ Home,” made it to Number 1 on the more limited R&B list in 1952 and the song he is best know for, “Blueberry Hill,” reached number four in 1956 on the more demanding Top 100 chart. Many of his songs made it to the top ten.
Domino has been a recluse in his hometown, more so since Katrina, but he can still pack the house wherever he plays. Except for the L.A.-made “Walking To New Orleans” with its slick violin chorus, his records became associated with the New Orleans style – a style that, during Jazz Fest time, has folks rushin’ to New Orleans.
1. Johnnie Adams. His voice was the greatest voice in New Orleans R&B. Adams, who died in 1998, never made it big nationally but not for lack of talent. No one could hit the high note like he could. Adams’ “I Won’t Cry” with its moving falsetto stanzas could make a rock weep. In the late 60s, Adams’ “Release Me” and “Reconsider Me” achieved some national success. A Christmas album by Adams included a version of “Silent Night” with his voice running the range. No recording of that song is as powerful. Raised in New Orleans singing in church choirs, Adams expanded into the fledgling R&B sound. The “tan canary,” as he was affectionately called, spent much of his adult life in Baton Rouge, but his roots and fame were in New Orleans. In his obituary, even Aaron Neville expressed admiration for the range of Adams’ voice. Considering the source, that’s high praise.
Other names important to the story includes the Allen Toussaint, who easily ranks number one as a song writer and who either wrote or produced songs for many stars, including Thomas and K-Doe. Dr.John, the only white guy mentioned on this page, developed his style and techniques from listening to black musicians. Deacon John, whose reputation is as a live performer and who has been doing so for multiple generations and still going strong. Then there’s Lloyd Price, a Kenner native (they even named a street after him) who hit Numbers 1 and 2 respectively with “Stagger Lee” and “Personality,” but who has spent his adult life on the east coast.
He missed an opportunity. Had he stayed, he could have borrowed from K-Doe and laid claim to being the best thing that ever happened to Kenner in all its history.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.