New Orleans rhythm & blues is a strange and marvelous, wild-eyed world where grown men cluck like hens, groan like frogs, bray like mules and shout things like "Goobah, goobah, goobah." And EMI's "Crescent City Soul" chronicles this world exhaustively and lovingly. This four-CD box, which by no means confines itself to hits, digs as deeply into an American pop-music genre as any box set you're likely to find.
Culturally and politically, New Orleans is a separate republic. Because of its roots as a commercial crossroads, its neighborhoods add up to an ethnic checkerboard, each square bleeding into the next. Until the rise of Miami, New Orleans was America's biggest tropical city, as strongly stamped by Caribbean culture as by the stern Protestant ethic to the north. Musically, this translated into a singular mix of parade band rhythms, what Jelly Roll Morton called "the Spanish tinge," hot jazz and deep-Southern blues.
While rhythm & blues, of course, turned into rock 'n' roll, with performers like Chuck Berry managing to tap rock's huge new market, white teenagers, only one New Orleans act -- Fats Domino -- crossed over emphatically into the mainstream. Crescent City r&b was too idiosyncratic to appeal more than occasionally to America's teens. It remained a self-contained musical culture, yet a fertile and influential one.
Behind the flood of New Orleans r&b, there were really only a few essential characters, the two most essential being record producers Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint. Of "Crescent City Soul's'' 119 tracks, Bartholomew supervised (by my count) more than 50, Toussaint almost 40.
In the late '40s, trumpeter/vocalist/arranger Bartholomew led the best dance band in town. Hired by Lew Chudd, owner of L.A.-based Imperial Records, to scout and record local talent, Bartholomew came up with shy young boogie-woogie pianist Antoine Domino.
The Bartholomew era was bookended by Domino's "The Fat Man" (1949) and Fats' early-'60s songs like "Let the Four Winds Blow." "Crescent City Soul" has 11 Fats songs, the compilers sagely omitting a chestnut or two like "My Blue Heaven" for the sake of lesser-known ones like "Detroit City Blues." More amply represented than usual (also to EMI's credit) is Smiley Lewis, the wonderful blues shouter. Smiley sang like the big tough grown man he was, in contrast to the kids whose barely adolescent voices would soon define the era's sound, like Shirley and Lee (whose "Let the Good Times Roll" sounds great, even though neither could carry a tune).
But Bartholomew was an older-generation cat in a rock 'n' roll world. His clout, moreover, rested on Domino's success, and waned when Fats' hits stopped coming. Willingly or not, as the '50s ended
Bartholomew passed the baton to Allen Toussaint, 18 years his junior.
Hired in 1959 by two local white guys, Joe Banashak and Larry
McKinley, as house producer/arranger/bandleader for their new Minit Records, Toussaint cut a hit right away, Jessie Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," a classic piece of New Orleans goofball fun. Toussaint had a light touch and a slyer, more oblique sense of humor than Bartholomew. A classic Toussaint production like Lee Dorsey's "Workin' in a Coal Mine" is trickily arranged and cleverly syncopated; voices and horns punch in and out, crisply punctuating the flow.
If Toussaint's music wasn't as earthy as Bartholomew's, it remains just as satisfying. Irma Thomas' "Time Is On My Side" and "I Wish Someone Would Care" aren't on "Crescent City Soul," but the beautiful "Ruler of My Heart" (later to become Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart") is. Six years before Aaron Neville sang "Tell It Like It Is" (don't worry, it's here), Toussaint produced Neville's first single, the sultry, vaguely threatening "Over You" (1960), also collected here.
By the late '60s, the big boys were beckoning Toussaint. He wrote "Southern Nights" for Glen Campbell, produced Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" (which ends Disc 1) and co-founded Sea-Saint Studios, an early-'70s magnet for the likes of Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. By the mid-'70s, Toussaint was creatively tapped out and rhythm & blues had long since turned into "soul music," a much slicker product marketed by major labels and muscular, Motown-style independents.
Rock was big business now, a processor of merchandise, and New Orleans musicians were never much good at making Cheez-Wiz. Between Dr. John's 's early-'70s hits, which were a sort of last gasp of the heroic era, and Aaron Neville's recent, long-overdue rise to stardom, New Orleans fell almost completely out of the mainstream.
But as any visitor quickly learns, vernacular music percolates as merrily as ever in '90s New Orleans, home to the Neville Brothers and the Meters, as well as second-generation Nevilles like Aaron's son Ivan, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and rock 'n' rolling immigrants like the Subdudes. In a town where 12-year-olds can imitate the drumming styles of Earl Palmer or Charles "Hungry" Williams, rock 'n' roll, or rhythm & blues, or roots/pop, or whatever you want to call dance music with a funky backbeat, will never die.