New Orleans 2011: Awesome as always, but a few things ain’t right

21st century machine that reliably takes your salary and transforms it into a spouse's screams

As is customary in all those cheerful betting establishments in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the big Harrah’s casino on Canal Street in New Orleans used to employ blackjack dealers made out of muscle and blood, skin and bones. That was quite a while back, before the hurricane. Now Harrah’s human gaming-industry workers are gone, replaced by computer-generated video images of comely female card-dispensers, cutting and shuffling the deck, snapping off the cards, revealing hints of binary-code décolletage, bending forward on the giant screen to make personal eye-contact with a couple of bored gamblers and some understandably freaked-out passers-by, who may be thinking, “They’ve automated the blackjack tables! And, dude, your keno dealer is a hologram!”

All this would be expected on the recreation deck of the USS Enterprise, but not in the moss-covered, slow-to-adapt Southland. Perhaps this mechanization is one more necessity formed from disaster’s aftermath. Whatever the explanation, the digitally derived dealers are a shock to encounter in New Orleans, where the local women — the word is pronounced as wimmins — usually exhibit corporeal characteristics such as the damp upper lip and the vague funky aroma, in keeping with the tropical latitude. One-dimensional fleshless computer-generated blackjack ‘bots? This is deeply at odds with the ancient promise: “You know that every southern belle is a Mississippi queen; down the Mississippi, down in New Orleans.”

I first heard that song over a Viking radio in the kitchen of my grandmother’s basement apartment, Eddie Hodges doing the adenoidal cub-scout vocal. Even to my child’s ears, it didn’t sound as if he knew what he was talking about, not even remotely, but I filed away a mental note to head down and check things out, just as soon as possible.

Eddie Hodges was the complete purveyor of musical shit, then as now. But many of the tunes on your 1050 CHUM Hit Parade prior to the Beatles’ arrival seemed to be set in the place the songwriters emphasized as New Or-leens (up-to-date Wikipedia list here.) What we distant and mystified babies could not have known was that there was a sombre business war afoot, involving anxious, cigar-puffing adult combatants. Those cats, the music promoters of the Crescent City, were about to enter battle with their opposite numbers in Philadelphia and Detroit and New York City, to determine who would capture the pocket change of America’s record-buying teens. New Orleans had plentiful raw-material resources in the form of Professor Longhair, Eddie Bo, the Dixie Cups, Ernie K-Doe, Frankie Ford, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Lee Dorsey, Roy Brown, Dave Bartholomew, the Meters, some other performers whose fame was restricted to a single parish or city ward — and, of course, one tubby piano god, Antoine “Fats” Domino; this time he’s walking to New Orleans. The promoters in the other places had more money and better mob connections, so they grabbed hold of the national record distribution apparatus, and who would you guess prevailed?

When I first began to visit New Orleans regularly, as a high-school kid sharing seven four-hour shifts behind the wheel of someone’s uncle’s borrowed car, you’d catch some of these pioneers of rock sitting in on stage a couple of nights a week with the old old guys at Preservation Hall, or in one of the ugly little dives far off Bourbon. I recall hearing some guy who sang and played the piano and looked exactly like Fats Domino, but wasn’t. He was Dave “Appletree” Williams, also known as Dave “Fat Man” Williams, and he had scored a giant local hit around the time I was born, with a tune called “I Ate Up the Apple Tree.” Right there on the spot, I bought his album, one of a dozen or so of his past releases being sold in the courtyard of Preservation Hall. It was a killer LP, and it made me wonder how many of these Fats Domino-like characters still eked out a living in the New Orleans music bid’ned. Quite a few, as we were about to see.

Much later, say around 2001, we were hanging around New Orleans over the Christmas season, and I spotted an item in the back of the Times-Picayune, about a benefit concert up in the Bally lakefront casino for another such obscure musician from bygone days, Oliver “Lala” Morgan, who had recently suffered a stroke. We showed up exactly at the advertised hour, and the hall was deserted. Failed to realize the event would run on never-specific New Orleans time, with the organizers and guests wandering in whenever they felt like it.

A very pale, very young couple just off a flight from Copenhagen were the next to arrive, looking entirely tentative. We killed a couple of hours, drinking Coors Light, and waiting for something to happen. A party arrived, escorting an older fellow dressed in an ochre Stacy Adams zoot-suit, with a matching fedora, and the requisite pair of tea-shades. For it was the Lala, looking a little shaky, but undeniably ready to rock and roll.

We thought we knew our way around the local music scene, having spent decades scouting out Tipitina’s, the Maple Leaf Bar and the Rock ‘n’ Bowl, and the other obvious semi-hipster venues nowhere near the Vieux Carré. But we knew nought of “Who Shot the La La,” Oliver’s one claim to fame that was, evidently, a regional smash in ‘64, back when Eddie Hodges was merely a proto-Justin Beiber. Through the course of our long evening at the Lala’s benefit, we learned that his seemingly conventional musical number was a piece of topical song-writing, aimed at raising questions about the death in 1963 of fellow performer and Ninth Ward neighbor Lawrence “Prince La La” Nelson. Never let it be said that New Orleans is not a Caribbean city, nor that Funky Kingston is the only place where crime journalism is set to a ska beat and blared over loudspeakers. Through this recording, Oliver became a local legend, which is not the same thing as being able to earn a living. He paid his family’s stack of bills from the Schwegmann’s grocery by holding down two janitorial jobs. So, let’s not hear about how Bruce Springsteen is the hardest working man in show business.

By the time the crowd arrived, the temperature in the room increased into near-triple digits and the Coors Light wasn’t doing the trick. First to take the stage, when the moment came, was the master of ceremonies, a skinny old cat named George “Tex” Stephens, who was evidently some kind of preserved-in-amber AM-radio legend, a Crescent City equivalent of Cousin Brucie or Murray the K or Dave Mickey. Tex had the finger-popping, rhyming grandeloquence of a different time – “Without hesitation, this is a celebration for the nation of syncopation!” – but took his orders in a resigned way from a large, maternal-looking woman we first took to be his missus. Wrong-o. That was no significant other, that was Jean Knight, still cashing royalty checks from her 1971 chart-topper, “Mr. Big Stuff.”  Five weeks at the top of the soul charts would be enough to inflate anyone’s head, but Jean seemed to take it as a permit to hen-peck the put-upon Texan.
Click here to hear the 2005 version “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight.

Tex Stephens with Louis Armstrong in 1952

I wandered to the back of the casino, to clear out some of the bladder-load of Coors Light, and found myself at a urinal right next to the master of ceremonies, who was smoking a Kool and facing the porcelain. The door to the mens’ restroom abruptly sprang open. Jean Knight’s face seemed to fill the entire doorway. She bellowed, in her huge voice made familiar through hundreds of thousands of playings of her hit: “Tex! Time to get your ass back on stage!” Tex turned to face me and offered a pained expression, through the Kool swirls.

He narrowed his eyes, and seemed a bit less of the elder statesmen when he said: “Wimmins!” Then he zipped up, and hustled back to the microphone, to introduce the Dixie Cups, who performed “Iko Iko” and closed with “Chapel of Love.” As you would expect. Tex, his professorial manner restored, summarized: “These are our world-traveling Dixie Cups.”

They were followed by the extant legends of the New Orleans music scene. To the right of the stage, Frankie Ford cracked wise with Ernie K-Doe, and Al ‘Carnival Time’ Johnson got ready to sing “It’s Carnival Time”, another regional hit, and there was speculation about the pending arrival of the crowned heads, Antoine Domino and Allen Toussaint. The audience was disappointed to learn that “Mr. Domino” was suffering dyspepsia, or some other health issue, and could not leave his residence, but had provided a check for the Lala, and I half-recall that the amount was $300. We applauded. We were also instructed, by Tex, that “Mr. Toussaint” had arrived, and that his Rolls-Royce was being carefully parked by a lot attendant at that very moment. We applauded some more.

Caught up in the moment, Tex exhorted New Orleans to get behind her local musicians. He evidently pined for a re-match of the juke-box wars of four decades prior. “They say there’s a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio,” he said, and affecting an expression of disgust. “But this…. tonight. This is the real, living Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame you see here tonight. It’s time we supported our young musicians, the way they do in other cities, like Detroit.” He looked to be revolted anew at the sound of the word Detroit.

The young local musicians he was describing were pushing three-score-and-ten as he praised them, and some began dropping off only a few weeks after the gathering. Ernie K-Doe was the first to fall. At the Lala’s benefit he had performed a blazing version of “A Certain Girl” (“What’s her name? I cain’t tell ya”), backed by the enthusiastic drum-work of his 30-something son, who came down from Chicago for Christmas. Ernie said of himself, “Ernie K-Doe don’t record nothin’ but million-sellers,” and introducing his band, Ernie said of his son, “He just whomps them drums.” Tex died a few months after Ernie, which was when the world discovered that the ageless DJ really did have an age, and it was 80. It also emerged that he wasn’t really from Texas, either. He merely dug the look of the Stetson hats sold at Meyer the Hatter, down on St. Charles Avenue.

We left Bally’s after midnight, tasting stale beer and covered in bayou sweat. We paused to admire the Louisiana license plates on Mr. Toussaint’s ride, PIANO. He had yet to take the stage when we left the building. “Twilight of the gods,” I slurred. Several years later, Hurricane Katrina would famously make a mess of things, and many New-Orleanais would die. Oliver Morgan, however, would live through his illness and through the flood and through the destruction of his Ninth Ward home. The Lala relocated to Atlanta, where he lasted until 2007.

Business took me back to New Orleans last week, and it was a bittersweet return after nearly 10 years. In the rental Chevy Aveo I set the radio dial on WWOZ-FM, and absorbed a striking blues number about chicken-fighting, during the short crossing on the car-ferry from Algiers. The town looks much the same as before, that is, kinda rough. The people seem to have changed. The place used to be known as The City That Care Forgot. Now the residents seem markedly less carefree, perhaps indomitable or something, and, understandably, many appear to remain wounded. “Are you enjoying your visit here?” I’d hear again and again. It would never have occurred to anyone to ask, previously.

Stacy Adams lid: Too cool for school

The department stores and office towers in the former Central Business District are all hotels now, converted for visiting European and Asian aristotrash. The former Warehouse District is filled with conventioneers, art galleries, and waddling cultists from the cable TV Food Network. Some neighborhoods seem to be abandoned, while the former Canal Street shopping strip has the uptight feel of a Saturday night punch-up about to happen a couple of days early. There’s a shuttle bus that runs regularly, to ease the out-of-towners directly from the casino to a well-policed mall in the suburbs. I saw no point in taking it, but later wondered if the driver, like the blackjack dealers, might have been a robot.

I ambled back and forth on Canal Street, looking into the window of a menswear store that displayed Stacy Adams hats, two-tone shoes and pimp outfits hung on mannequins. It was one of only a handful of open retailers on the once-thriving retail Mecca, and I suddenly thought it would be a smashing idea to own a souvenir pimp suit and chapeau, preferably in a becoming lime or orange hue, that I might wear around Toronto this winter season. I found myself staring in the shop window much longer than I’d intended, but in the end couldn’t summon the motivation to go in for a fitting. I regret that inaction, now that I’m back in my under-heated house, on a tedious day in a cold city, where I continue to look upstairs and downstairs for my misplaced Dave Williams LP, one more soulful thing that appears to have gone missing.


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