New Orleans Music

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 20

Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas [Ace Records ACE LP1027, 12″ LP, 198? Reissue, originally released 1962.]

Huey Piano Smith Christmas frontI have a deep affection for the music and culture of New Orleans. That passion goes back to the early 1980s when I moved to the Monterey Peninsula in California and first heard a lot of New Orleans music being played during various blues, rock and jazz programs on radio station KAZU 90.3 FM. My first post on this blog appeared by design on Mardi Gras Day, 2010. When I came across this album sometime in the late 1980s, I was one happy camper. New Orleans music and Christmas music all in one record – how could it get any better?! ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Huey “Piano” Smith is another one of these albums that’s perfect for setting a rockin’ mood at any Christmas celebration. (This will likely be the last of the more rowdy Christmas records I’ll feature during this project; the winter solstice is fast upon us tomorrow on Day 21 and I’ll focus on the mellower side of things as we lead up to Christmas Day.)

Huey Piano Smith Christmas back

Click on an image to enlarge it.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was first issued by Ace Records in 1962. Somewhat atypical for a Christmas album is that six of the ten tracks on here are originals written by Smith himself. They all feature his trademark rollicking, boogie-woogie piano style with Christmas-themed lyrics. One other track was written by Earl King and only three tracks are traditional Christmas tunes. I like the whole album, but my favorite song on here is probably “Almost Time for Santa” with its really snappy groove. As the cover of my 1980s reissue album states, Dr. John appears on the recording as well, although the original cover did not include this information. At the time the album was made, he had not yet adopted that moniker and would have gone under his real name, Mac Rebennack, but I assume the record company wanted to add his name on there to help push sales of the reissue.

Huey Piano Smith Christmas labelUpon its initial release in 1962, the album received some very negative publicity due to people thinking it was rather sacrilegious. New Orleans music and culture writer Alex Rawls gives more background on this in a story entitled “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith Deemed ‘Naughty’ in 1962,” which was posted at his website, My Spilt Milk, earlier this December. Definitely give that a read. Whether you think it’s naughty or nice, I think there’s no argument that this is one merry Christmas album!

You can listen to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in its entirety on YouTube. Once again, there’s a playlist with the whole album on it, and it appears to have been uploaded by whomever holds the license to these recordings at this time. (As with other playlists like this, be aware that ads may play between tracks; you can usually skip them after a few seconds.)

Do the Santa Claus!

Another Mardi Gras Party Playlist: My Love Affair with the Music of New Orleans, Vol. 3

A delicious King Cake from Merritt's Bakery, midtown Tulsa.

A delicious King Cake from Merritt’s Bakery, midtown Tulsa.

Happy Mardi Gras Day 2013, you all! Here’s a continuation of the great Mardi Gras party music that I started last year. You can listen to this playlist right here in the 8Tracks player below. I also had the pleasure of being the guest on the  Studio Tulsa radio show today, talking about the varied traditions of Mardi Gras music with host Rich Fisher. You can listen to the episode online and as a podcast once it is archived at the show’s page: Studio Tulsa on KWGS 89.5 FM – Public Radio Tulsa. Thanks to Rich Fisher, show producer Scott Gregory and Public Radio Tulsa for featuring this incredible musical heritage. I’m hoping to get a good bowl of gumbo sometime today and keep on snacking on the tasty King Cake you see in the photo here. Let the good times roll, friends!

From my one brief visit to New Orleans in 1998. We were there a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras Day and caught one of the early, small parades that was going by outside our hotel one night.

From my one brief visit to New Orleans in 1998. We were there a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras Day and caught one of the early, small parades that was going by outside our hotel one night.

And here’s a listing of what’s on the playlist:

Mardi Gras Party Vol 2 playlist

Click on the playlist photo for easier reading…

A Mardi Gras Party Playlist: My Love Affair with the Music of New Orleans, Vol. 2

Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo: the greatest album of New Orleans music ever? (image courtesy of Sunnyside Records.com)

Wow, Fat Tuesday really caught me by surprise this year. Although it’s a bit late, here’s a mix of New Orleans and Louisiana music to help you celebrate Mardi Gras in style. This mix features brass bands, piano boogie and some zydeco, all with a bit of funk on the side – good for listening to at any time of the year. It’s 78 minutes of tunes that’ll get any party started and keep it goin’! I chose these songs because I think they capture the spirit of Mardi Gras with their swingin’ grooves and all of the performers are deeply rooted in the musical heritage of NOLA. Listening to these tunes is sure to bring a smile to your face and some boogie to your feet. I swear, every time I hear Professor Longhair’s version of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” from the album Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo, it makes me feel good.

Poster from Le Vieux Carre (the "old quarter," a.k.a. the French Quarter) that hangs in my office/music library.

I created this playlist at 8tracks.com and you can listen to it right here in the player below. There are limitations: it only lists the song playing at the moment, and you can skip forward to the next song but not back to previous songs. One nice thing is that there’s an iTunes “Buy” button to take you directly to the songs for purchase. (This embedded player does not work on certain mobile devices. Try going directly to the playlist at 8tracks.com) I’ve also listed the tracks in order below the player. Laissez les bon temps rouler, you all!

Oh, and Happy Second Birthday to Jukebox Delirium…

If you’re a Rhapsody digital jukebox subscriber, you can also listen to this playlist on my Rhapsody page.

Mardi Gras Party 2012! (A Jukebox Delirium Playlist)

Artist / Song /  Album / Year

  1. Rebirth Brass Band: When the Saints Go Marchin’ In. Do Watcha Wanna, 1997.
  2. Dr. John: Iko Iko. Dr. John’s Gumbo, 1972.
  3. Professor Longhair: Mardi Gras In New Orleans. Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo, 1977.
  4. Buckwheat Zydeco: Ma ‘Tit Fille. Menagerie: The Essential Zydeco Collection, 1993.
  5. Dave Bartholomew & Maryland Jazz Band of Cologne: New Second Line. New Orleans ‘Yea Yea’ Breakdown, 1995.
  6. The Neville Brothers: Hey Pocky Way. Fiyo On The Bayou, 1981.
  7. Professor Longhair: Big Chief. Crawfish Fiesta, 1980.
  8. Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band: Mardi Gras Boogie. In New Orleans, 1978.
  9. Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Kidd Jordan’s Second Line. The New Orleans Album, 1989.
  10. Dr. John: Let The Good Times Roll. Dr. John’s Gumbo, 1972.
  11. Charmaine Neville Band: carnival time. Queen of the Mardi Gras, 1998.
  12. Buckwheat Zydeco: Hot Tamale Baby. Menagerie: The Essential Zydeco Collection, 1993.
  13. Earl King: Street Parade. Street Parade, 1981.
  14. The New Birth Brass Band: Li’l Liza Jane. D-Boy, 1997.
  15. BeauSoleil: Zydeco Gris Gris. Bayou Boogie, 1987.
  16. Rebirth Brass Band: Do Whatcha Wanna. Do Watcha Wanna, 1997.
  17. Irvin Mayfield: Old Time Indians Meeting of the Chiefs (Los Hombres Calientes With Cyril Neville, Donald Harrison Jr. & Big Chief Bo Dollis Sr.) A Love Letter to New Orleans, 2011.

'Fess doing his thing. (image courtesy of Sunnyside Records.com)

FURTHER EXPLORATION

Biography of Professor Longhair at Sunnyside Records website

Let the Good Times Roll! My Love Affair with the Music of New Orleans, Vol. 1 – The post that launched Jukebox Delirium on Mardi Gras Day, 2010.

Let the Good Times Roll! My Love Affair with the Music of New Orleans, Vol. 1

by Denis McGilvray

“New Orleans culture has cast a spell over the nation and the world for nearly a hundred years. But it is the music – more than Mardi Gras, more than the French Quarter, more than a streetcar (now a bus) named Desire, more than beignets for breakfast – that has always been at the heart of our fascination with New Orleans. No other place has contributed a richer heritage of pop music to the rest of the United States, from Dixieland to rock ’n’ roll to contemporary jazz, from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, from Fats Domino to Dr. John, from Mahalia Jackson to Harry Connick, Jr.”
—  from Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans by Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner

I had originally planned on launching this blogazine on January 1, 2010, a nice way to start the new year. When that date came and I was nowhere near ready to get it going, I started to think of another date to use as my goal for publication. When I looked at the calendar, I knew immediately that Mardi Gras would be the perfect birthday for Jukebox Delirium since it had such strong musical and celebratory connections for me (and it was just far enough away that I figured I could get the writing done…)

My first exposure to the wild revelry that is Mardi Gras came through the fantastic musical heritage of New Orleans and Lousiana as I was exposed to it in the recordings of the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Lee Dorsey, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Michael Doucet & Beausoleil, Buckwheat Zydeco and others. I was already into jazz music at this time and knew that the melting pot of New Orleans, with its confluence of Afro-Carribbean rhythms and European band music, had been an integral part of the formation of jazz music, but I wasn’t as familiar with the rest of the New Orleans musical heritage. While volunteering as a music programmer at public radio station KAZU-90.3 FM in Pacific Grove, California during the ’80s, I was turned on to the great New Orleans musical tradition by several other programmers at the station who were aficionados and played many of those musicians on their shows. I remember one woman in particular who was immersed in the music, and may have been from or lived in New Orleans for a time; she went by the name Mama Roux and she always played some very groovy tunes on her weekly show, “Bon Temp Blues.”  I was hosting a late night rock show called “Not Fade Away” – named after the classic Buddy Holly tune (hear a sample) that I first became familiar with through the Grateful Dead’s souped-up cover version (see it).  I played different versions of the song as the opener of the show each Friday night (there are a bunch of them – including a great one by the Rolling Stones (see it) and after a while, my DJ friend Art O’Sullivan and I noticed that the staccato beat that was so prominent in “Not Fade Away” was also present in many other rock tunes. We knew it was similar to the famous Bo Diddley beat and we also heard it most prominently in the Mardi Gras song “Iko Iko,” as we’d heard it covered by Dr. John (see video below) and again by the Grateful Dead. We decided to do a whole show dedicated to playing as many songs that had that distinctive beat as we could find. I don’t remember now exactly what we came up with, but I think it must’ve been a couple dozen different songs. As we were musing on the air about the connection of that beat to so many different songs, Mama Roux called up and started telling me about how that beat was connected to second line parading in New Orleans, primarily in connection with traditional New Orleans jazz funerals. She described it as an elemental beat that was commonly heard in the streets of New Orleans, and she also talked a bit about how it had been taken from the streets into popular music.

After doing a little research into the history of this beat, I’ve found that it seems to have been first adapted into pop culture in the song “Jock-A-Mo” written and recorded by New Orleans musician James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in 1953, who says he wrote the song based on some rhythms and chants he heard during Mardi Gras parades. From there it was incorporated into many other songs right up to this day. “Jock-A-Mo” was most famously recorded by the Dixie Cups under the title “Iko Iko,” and that’s the way it is most commonly known today.

Check out this nice example of the beat and a discussion of it as played by Dr. John himself:


(He is such a wonderful player; I marvel at how his left hand is playing the incredible bass line and his right is playing the intricate melody.)

Since that first exposure to it almost 25 years ago, I have come to love the music of Mardi Gras and New Orleans with a passion. It’s easy to do. The music is so rhythmically infectious that you can’t help but move to the groove; the melodies are so free and catchy that they just breeze through your head and lift you up. For me, it’s the sound of pure joy and celebration and life. It doesn’t hurt that Mardi Gras is also accompanied by great food and drink. If you’ve ever had a really good gumbo or jambalaya or the amazing beignets at Café du Monde, then you know what I’m talking about. The food is like the music, a wild combination of many flavors that blend perfectly together to make something new.

There is also the spiritual side of Mardi Gras to consider – and yes, it has a spiritual side! Taking place on the day before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent — the season of purification leading up to Easter Sunday) is no accident. For many centuries there has been a wild celebration on the Tuesday before Lent starts, allowing the faithful one last time of revelry and excess before the call to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which culminates on Easter Sunday. The ancient Roman calendar had a wild festival which typically took place in mid-February, and when the Church came to Rome it absorbed this festival into its own calendar partly to help assimilate the pagan converts more easily. There has been a Carnival-like celebration before Lent for centuries, with regional variations around the world. Mardi Gras is one of those. I like the idea of this sanctioned craziness, of communal lunacy, of letting our wild side loose for a time, not forever, but long enough to perhaps keep our spirit nicely balanced throughout the year. We need such things.

And I have to rave about the city of New Orleans itself. I’ve visited there once, in the late ’90s, very briefly, and really loved it. It has played such a vital role in the creation of so many good things: jazz, great rhythm & blues music, delectable food, and Mardi Gras itself. The unique blend of cultures and people that made all this possible can be found in no other place. No one could have imagined what great new things would be birthed in this city. Hurricane Katrina certainly put a serious dent in the soul of the city, but I’m so grateful that it did not break it. New Orleans continues to rise from the floodwaters and thrive again, as it has done for several centuries. The spectacular victory by the New Orleans Saints in this year’s Super Bowl was perhaps one of the most emotional sporting wins I’ve witnessed in a long time. I know of no other city that would feel a championship on such a deeply emotional level. Even the World Series win by the Boston Red Sox in 2004, after an 86 year championship drought, did not resonate on quite the same level as the Saints victory for New Orleans. The whole city of New Orleans was lifted by the Saints, and it was so fun to watch.

WEBSITES
A discussion of Mardi Gras music by the creators of Mardi Gras Unmasked
A history of Mardi Gras online at Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide
An interesting web page that talks about how Mardi Gras grew out of the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia

BOOKS
Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans by Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner (W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.) Out of print, but available from used book sellers.