Excerpt from Louisiana chapter of Music USA

The 1950s: The Heyday of New Orleans R&B

The Mardi Gras Indians and others provide evidence that there were primeval elements of R&B before World War II, but it wasn't until after the war that the New Orleans R&B scene got started in earnest. A big factor was the establishment of a local studio, J&M Recording, run by engineer Cosimo Matassa, where classic sides by numerous early New Orleans giants were recorded in a ten-by-twelve-foot room. Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Professor Longhair were just some of the most famous, though almost everything of note from New Orleans in the 1950s was cut in Matassa's facilities (at either J&M or the larger Cosimo Recording Studio that he opened in the mid-1950s). The resume's about as enviable as that of the more famous Sun Studios in Memphis, although Matassa's approach was even more basic than Sun's, simply striving to capture the best performance with a minimum of technology and fuss.

    J&M could not have been a powerhouse, however, without a deep well of local musicians. The first New Orleans R&B performer of note was Roy Brown, the ebullient jump blues singer whose late-1940s hit, "Good Rockin' Tonight," was a blueprint for rock'n'roll, and indeed covered on Elvis Presley's second single. Far more idiosyncratic, and representative of the New Orleans tradition, was pianist Professor Longhair, whose irregular, rumba-influenced tempos, punctuated by jubilant whistling, defied imitation. Longhair would only have one national R&B hit, 1950's "Bald Head," although he also gave the Crescent City one of its first R&B anthems, "Mardi Gras in New Orleans." By 1970 he was forgotten, but he was hauled out onto the festival circuit and launched a successful comeback before his death in 1980.

    Professor Longhair lacked the crossover appeal of Fats Domino, the city's biggest rock star, and indeed one of the most successful recording artists anywhere in the 1950s and early 1960s. Domino's first single, "The Fat Man" (recorded in 1949), is often cited as one of the very first rock'n'roll records, with its murky piano boogie rumble and unforgettable wordless falsetto scat wails between the verses. Domino was not the most innovative, and certainly not the raunchiest or most charismatic, of the New Orleans stars. The key to his pop success was that no one sounded more comfortable, whether singing in a Creole-inflected drawl or pounding out basic boogie-woogie patterns. It took a while for Fats to reach the pop charts, but once he did -- with "Ain't That a Shame" in 1955, and the far more massive "Blueberry Hill" the following year -- he couldn't be stopped, rolling out 35 Top Forty singles between 1955 and 1963, mostly in the same relaxed, midtempo, good-natured fashion.

    Another key to Domino's success was trumpeter Dave Bartholomew, who produced and co-wrote (with Domino) the pianist's big hits. As an A&R man for the Imperial label, Bartholomew organized the house band on dozens of classic New Orleans recordings. Session musicians like saxophonists Alvin "Red" Tyler and Lee Allen were also instrumental in giving the New Orleans groove an identifiable full-toned stamp. Also crucial was drummer Earl Palmer, whose powerful backbeat on Little Richard and Fats Domino hits helped defined the brash rhythm of rock'n'roll (as opposed to its closely related R&B cousin); he would go on to become a top session man in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

    Far wilder than Fats Domino was Little Richard, a Georgian native who, while not based in New Orleans, cut his greatest work with Palmer, Tyler, and Allen at J&M studios, including "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," and "Good Golly, Miss Molly." Though Richard was not strictly speaking a New Orleans artist, it makes sense to identify him as an exponent of the city's sound. He was a rather run-of-the-mill jump blues singer before the 1955 J&M session that yielded "Tutti Frutti"; with New Orleans musicians kicking him forward, he was transformed into a wildman whose manic tempos and gospel-derived hollers were early rock at its most outrageous. This would not be the only time that out-of-towners traveled to the Crescent City to record in search of a special sound; bluesmen Joe Turner, Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, and Lowell Fulson also utilized Matassa's facilities at times, and in the mid-1970s Patti LaBelle, leading the group LaBelle, made her #1 hit "Lady Marmalade" in New Orleans.

    The roll call of New Orleans R&B and rock'n'roll stars of the 1950s is extensive, and though none had as much of an impact as Little Richard and Fats Domino, several made wonderful records. Lloyd Price made one of the first rock'n'roll singles, the compelling piano-driven "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," re-emerging with Top Ten hits in the late 1950s that had more of a pop big band sound. Shirley & Lee had one of the definitive New Orleans rock hits, "Let the Good Times Roll," anchored by a stuttering piano riff and Shirley Goodman's uniquely piercing, off-key vocals. Pianist Smiley Lewis made some saucy blues-influenced classics; he was too black in his approach to gain the crossover success of Fats Domino, but several of his songs were covered for big hits, including "I Hear You Knocking" (a worldwide monster for Dave Edmunds in the early 1970s), "One Night of Sin" (modified into the less blatant, though still down'n'dirty, "One Night" by Elvis Presley), "Shame, Shame, Shame" (an off-the-wall disco-flavored smash for Shirley & Co, led by Shirley Goodman of Shirley and Lee, in the 1970s), and "Blue Monday" (retooled by Fats Domino himself).

    Huey "Piano" Smith presented New Orleans rock at its most fun-loving and noveltyish with "Don't You Just Know It" and the standard "Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu." Clarence "Frogman" Henry had an unforgettable hit in 1956 with "Ain't Got No Home," sung in both a girly-imitation voice and a froggy croak; he re-emerged in the early 1960s with the more conventionally Fats Domino-type hits "I Don't Know Why (But I Do)" and "You Always Hurt the One You Love," and even got to tour with the Beatles. When Little Richard left rock'n'roll for the ministry, his label, Specialty Records, promoted a decent New Orleans-born Little Richard soundalike, Larry Williams, whose "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," "Bad Boy," and "Slow Down" were covered by the Beatles. Plenty of other great N.O. tunes never made it into regular oldies rotation, like Lee Allen's struttin' sax instrumental "Walkin' with Mr. Lee" and Sugar Boy Crawford's "Jock-A Mo" (a variation of "Iko Iko").

    Although New Orleans popular music was dominated by African-Americans -- and although segregation remained in force here in the 1950s -- the town has produced some excellent white R&B singers, beginning with Bobby Charles, whose incessantly catchy "Later Alligator" was covered (as "See You Later Alligator") for a Top Ten hit by Bill Haley & the Comets in 1956. The city also bred its own white teen idol, Jimmy Clanton, some of whose hits weren't half bad, like the languid "Just a Dream" and the charging "Go Jimmy Go," which was pushed along by soulful female backup vocals.  Far more talented than Clanton was Frankie Ford, whose big hit, "Sea Cruise," was perhaps the greatest of all early New Orleans rock smashes (in the face of mighty competition), with its compulsive boogie piano riffs and bleating foghorn effects. Originally cut by Huey "Piano" Smith, the vocal was wiped and replaced by Ford's, although charges of whitewashing are irrelevant; Ford was a fine vocalist who sounded black on the radio, pacing a track on which, as Langdon Winner wrote in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, "the New Orleans horns finally cook like their lives depend on it."

Essential Recordings:

Fats Domino, My Blue Heaven: The Best of Fats Domino (EMI). On-the-money 20-track compilation of an artist who can become enervating in larger doses, including his most famous tunes: "The Fat Man," "Ain't That a Shame," "Blueberry Hill," and "Blue Monday," for starters.

Little Richard, The Georgia Peach (Specialty). Although he would eventually return to the entertainment business, Little Richard never matched the fever pitch of his 1955-57 recordings. This is a 25-track retrospective that focuses on the best material from that era, including all the well-known hits.

Various Artists, Crescent City Soul: The Sound of New Orleans 1947-1974 (EMI). Magnificent four-CD, 119-track set that not only touches major bases of the pre-1960 R&B scene, but reaches well into the early and mid-'60s for classic performances that helped bridge R&B/rock with soul, adding a few stray post-1965 hits by the Meters, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, and LaBelle. Most of the major New Orleans performers are represented by their most famous tracks -- Domino, Richard, Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Shirley & Lee. There are also numerous little-known treasures by the likes of Smiley Lewis, the Showmen, and Benny Spellman; obscure original versions of songs made famous by others (two earlier versions of the song that Chuck Berry would turn into "My Ding-a-Ling"); and cuts by non-Crescent City performers that were recorded in New Orleans. A bunch of hits are missing, like "Sea Cruise" and Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," but those are largely taken care of by Rhino's =History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues= series (see below).

Various Artists, A History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues Vol. 1 (1950-1958) (Rhino). Although some of these show up on the Crescent City Soul box (see above), this is an excellent compilation in its own right, with a bunch of goodies not on the Crescent City anthology, like Professor Longhair's "Bald Head," Lloyd Price's "Just Because," and Huey Lewis' "Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu." Two further volumes in the series document the 1959-70 era (see reviews in "New Orleans Soul" section below), and volume two includes "Sea Cruise," one of the greatest 1950s New Orleans rockers of all.

New Orleans Soul

The transition from the classic boogie-and-sax-driven New Orleans rock'n'roll of the 1950s to the more soul-based, funkier, emotional sound of the 1960s was a gradual one. Although the early 1960s did not see any consistent hitmakers on the level of Fats Domino or Little Richard, there were numerous minor classics and one-shot artists who made enduring contributions. While uptempo dance novelty tunes were still in vogue, the echoes of New Orleans' brass band tradition grew fainter as the charts became slicker and the production a little more sophisticated, although the quality suffered not in the least.

     The key figure of early-1960s New Orleans pop was producer Allen Toussaint, also a gifted songwriter and keyboard player. Working for several New Orleans labels, most notably Minit, Toussaint had a major hand in records by the best of the city's next generation of performers, like Chris Kenner, Benny Spellman, Aaron Neville, and Irma Thomas. As both songwriter and arranger, Toussaint had an ear for pop hooks, dressing up the tunes with attention-getting horn riffs and piano tinkles that interjected at various points instead of bleating hard and heavy. Jesse Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," boasting some of the most bizarre lyrics ever heard in a rock'n'roll hit -- as well as call-and-response vocals harkening back to field hollers -- was Toussaint's first production to make it big.

     The early 1960s were dotted with Crescent City performers who didn't make a solid album's worth of material, but managed to come up with memorable, at times unique hits that have endured to the present. Ernie K-Doe made #1 with "Mother-in-Law," the definitive word on the subject, the title phrase uttered periodically in comically low tones. Benny Spellman cut the hypnotic "Fortune Teller," one of the first songs recorded by the Rolling Stones, as well as the witty, swinging "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)." The Showmen cut one of the best anthems to the greatness of rock'n'roll itself, "It Will Stand"; Chris Kenner made the instantly catchy dance classics "I Like It Like That" and "Land of a Thousand Dances." Female impersonator Bobby Marchan (lead singer for Huey Smith & the Clowns) cut a one-of-a-kind R&B chart-topper, "There's Something On Your Mind," that predated "Go girl!" raps by thirty years with its mostly spoken recitation of a classically tragic love melodrama. Barbara George made the Top Ten with the irresistibly chirpy "I Know." And Toussaint was also working on records with Art Neville and Aaron Neville, then unknown outside of the region.

     It may be that the songs, and not the singers, are what most people remember of New Orleans music from this period, but there were a few talents who crafted identities and careers that could not be exhausted over the course of a few singles. Lee Dorsey oozed playful funk with his 1961 hit "Ya Ya," a cheerfully nonsensical tune that is one of several contenders for the song which most epitomizes New Orleans rock. Dorsey was also one of the few stars of the early 1960s to maintain some level of success throughout the decade, working in a somewhat more mainline soul groove on the mid-sixties charters "Working in a Coal Mine" and 'Ride Your Pony." Although Barbara Lynn was Texan, she recorded her bluesy hit "You'll Lose a Good Thing" in New Orleans. Her "Oh! Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin')" was yet another song covered to good effect by the early Rolling Stones, but Lynn, a talented guitarist and songwriter with an appealingly assertive voice, never got much national exposure after her first hit.

     Aside from Toussaint, the most pivotal link between New Orleans rock and soul was Irma Thomas, who had her first R&B hit in 1960, while still in her teens. Although Thomas could handle uptempo tunes capably, her real forte was heart-on-the-sleeve ballads with a more serious frame of mind, and richer emotional content, than the typically happy-go-lucky New Orleans platter. Thomas made some great discs for Minit under Toussaint's tutelage, such as "Ruler of My Heart" (later adapted into "Pain in My Heart" by Otis Redding). When Toussaint was drafted into the army and Irma's contract sold to Imperial, she cut some great discs in Los Angeles that, although more pop-oriented than her earliest work, was if anything even better. "Wish Someone Would Care" became her lone Top Twenty hit, but her "Time Is On My Side" was made into a Top Ten hit by -- who else -- the Rolling Stones (who certainly had good taste in picking the cream of the crop of New Orleans treasures). Thomas was never able to truly break out nationally, although she became a local icon with constant New Orleans performances and successful comeback albums.

     In hindsight, one of the reasons that New Orleans never rivaled Detroit, Memphis, or Chicago as a soul center was the city's inability to develop powerful local record companies. Memphis had its Stax, Detroit had Motown, but there were no counterparts in the Big Easy, although New Orleans probably had just as much in the way of performing and production talent. Toussaint did try to form his own label, AFO, in partnership with arranger Harold Battiste and others; it was the only black-owned label in New Orleans at the time, but failed to stay in business after producing just one hit (Barbara George's "I Know"). The interruption of Toussaint's career in 1963 when he was drafted certainly didn't help, and Minit was on its last legs by the time he got out of the service. Another blow was the defection of leading New Orleans session men and arrangers to Los Angeles, where they could find more steady work; Battiste, Earl Palmer, and Mac Rebennack, soon to become known as Dr. John, would all move west for this reason.

     The last half of the 1960s nonetheless did see some New Orleans soul classics, even if these were unleashed more sporadically than they were just a few years earlier. Robert Parker had a great one-shot soul dance classic with "Barefootin'" in 1966, with some of the best slicing guitar work to be found on a New Orleans record. The Dixie Cups made some great girl group records, especially "Chapel of Love," although aside from their Mardi Gras-inspired "Iko Iko," they were more a product of New York producer-songwriting teams than a regional New Orleans sound. Aaron Neville largely toiled in obscurity in the 1960s, but made some of his finest records for Minit during this time. He scored an off-the-wall #2 hit in with "Tell It Like It Is," an amazingly aching ballad that sounded more like a 1962 recording than a 1966 one, which detracted from its timelessness not a whit.

     Neville, and Irma Thomas, were among the very best soul singers around, and could certainly have been big stars with more consistent material and promotion. The tragedy was that, due to the rather disorganized state of the New Orleans music business, they never got the proper chance to build momentum, and at times even had trouble finding recording contracts. Even local recognition was a long time in coming. But as the city became more cognizant of its heritage as the New Orleans Jazz Fest became a major event, they and others, such as journeyman soul singer Johnny Adams, were able to resume modestly successful careers built more around live performance than record sales.

     Finally, it should be noted that although New Orleans' white rock heritage is fairly meager, there were a few R&B-influenced white rock bands of note in Louisiana in the 1960s. The Uniques, led by future country star Joe Stampley, offered a fairly strong if schizophrenic assortment of recordings ranging from quality white soul with an Aaron Neville-ish feel, believe it or not, to basic Rolling Stones-ish garage rock and country-pop hybrids. More consistent were John Fred & the Playboys, remembered by most only for their excellent psychedelic horn rock chart-topper "Judy in Disguise." Fred, however, was a fine blue-eyed soul singer, sometimes in the mold of Eric Burdon of the Animals, with several cool non-hits to his credit that drew from blues, pop, and hard R&B.

Essential Recordings:

John Fred & the Playboys, The History of John Fred & the Playboys (Paula). Fred was from nearby Baton Rouge, not New Orleans, but no matter -- this is the best white Louisiana rock of the 1960s, the 26 tracks including "Judy in Disguise" and his much less celebrated outings into straighter blue-eyed soul (his version of Dan Penn's "Out of Left Field" is great), blues-rock, and odd poppy tunes.

Aaron Neville, Show Me the Way (Charly). This doesn't have "Tell It Like It Is" (which shows up on many various-artist anthologies), but does have more than 20 earlier recordings from the early 1960s, which he has not outdone over the course of his lengthy career. New Orleans R&B at its moodiest and most melodic.

Irma Thomas, Time Is On My Side: The Best of Irma Thomas (EMI). Super 23-song collection of her early and mid-1960s work, from both her New Orleans and LA sessions, including "Wish Someone Would Care," "Time Is On My Side," and the classic Allen Toussaint-penned ballads "Ruler of My Heart," "It's Raining," and "Gone." Razor & Tie's =Sweet Soul Queen of New Orleans= covers the same era and offers many of the same tracks, although the selection is a hair weaker.

Various Artists, A History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues Vol. 2 (1959-1962) (Rhino). All killer, no filler here, with hits like Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise," Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-In-Law," Jessie Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," Bobby Marchan's "There's Something On Your Mind," Chris Kenner's "I Like It Like That," Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," and the Showmen's "It Will Stand." Some good obscurities too, like Aaron Neville's "Over You," Art Neville's "All These Things," Benny Spellman's "Fortune Teller," and K-Doe's "A Certain Girl" (covered by both the Yardbirds and Warren Zevon).

Various Artists, A History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues Vol. 3 (1962-1970) (Rhino). More wall-to-wall quality on this series' final volume.  Hits include Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is," Irma Thomas' "Wish Someone Would Care" and "Time Is On My Side," Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose a Good Thing," Robert Parker's "Barefootin'," Lee Dorsey's "Working in the Coal Mine," and the Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko." Less renowned goodies are Dorsey's "Get Out of My Life, Woman," Benny Spellman's "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)," and Alvin Robinson's "Down Home Girl" -- the latter yet another New Orleans classic covered by the Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s.

Sidebar Special Feature

Irma Thomas: Soul Queen of New Orleans

In a town that has produced so much rhythm and blues talent since the 1950s, it may come as a surprise to find that the artist called "Soul Queen of New Orleans" only had one Top Twenty single -- and that was recorded in Los Angeles, not the Crescent City. No one, however, questions that Irma Thomas has earned her title fairly. As a vocalist she is not only without peer in the town; she is living soul music history, having worked in the studio with Allen Toussaint, Louisiana rocker John Fred, and all-around soul eccentric Swamp Dogg, as well as making excursions into Muscle Shoals studios with Chess Records. An institution at local festivals, as well as at her own club, The Lion's Den, she's also one of the few soul artists of any sort to maintain a credible career into the 1980s and 1990s with new material, although she's also a walking jukebox of all her old recordings in concert.

     Thomas' first recordings, mostly done for the Minit label in the early 1960s, reflected New Orleans R&B's transition to a more pop-oriented sound. Ballads like "It's Raining" and "Ruler of My Heart," with their accent on poignant hurt and beautiful melodies, were no more than regional hits, but are still standards in Louisiana today. It is no accident that in his film Down By Law, director Jim Jarmusch picked "It's Raining" for the scene in which an escaped convict, on the run through the Louisiana swamps, does a slow dance with his new sweetheart.

     "When I got with Minit, the music scene was learning more towards ballads and medium-tempo songs, even from male artists," she explains, sitting in front of the small stage in The Lion's Den. "Prior to that it was more blues. Ironically -- I say this smiling, and I don't mean it in a negative way -- for months, when 'It's Raining' and 'Ruler of My Heart' came out, no one knew I was black other than the people who were around me. The black DJs knew, but the white DJS were [also] playing the record like mad. It was quite a shock to them to find out that I wasn't that little white girl that they thought I was. But it wasn't a negative reaction. I crossed over to the white market very early. My voice didn't sound 'colored,' as they used to say, and it never has, really."

     As for the magic surrounding many of Toussaint's early-'60s productions, Thomas recalls, "Back in the early sixties, a lot of split sessions were done -- two different artists taking up a three-hour time span to record. Rather than having one artist bear the brunt of the whole session, they would split the difference. In order to make that work, he would rehearse stuff in his living room at home. So we knew exactly what we were going to be doing on record before we hit the studio. All he had to do when he got to the studio was rehearse the musicians, and go for it. We literally knew the song without even reading it prior to going into the studio, whereas now you're lucky to have four or five days to prepare for a recording session.

     "It made it a lot easier for us as artists to not have so many takes, because when you made a mistake back then, you had to do the whole song all over again. It required a lot of genius on his part to do that, by rehearsing us in advance of the recording session." Toussaint also had the advantage of using some soloists, including Thomas, as backup singers on other discs by people in the Toussaint stable, which included such luminaries as Aaron Neville and Lee Dorsey. "It was good to have entertainers who were vocally able to do backup work as well as be lead singer. Most lead singers cannot do background. Their voices stick out. And of course, mine did on several people's records. Cosmo [Matissa's] studio at that time was like a large warehouse. I would literally be standing against the wall, and you could still hear my part and hear my voice sticking out. But it worked; [Allen] was able to make it work."

     When Toussaint was drafted Thomas' services were retained by Imperial (the LA-based label distributing Minit), and Irma found herself recording in Los Angeles. Her own "Wish Someone Would Care" became her biggest hit, and her repertoire (formerly dominated by Toussaint songs) widened to include pop tunes by such up-and-coming California songwriters as Randy Newman and Jackie DeShannon. "Break-A-Way" (co-written by DeShannon) would become a huge hit for TV star Tracey Ullman in the 1980s; "if you put the two records on and started them at the same time, everything was done exactly the way I did it," Thomas points out. But her most noted Imperial recording, "Time Is On My Side," was originally buried on a 1964 B-side, though the Rolling Stones would steal her thunder by covering it to land their first big US hit.

     "After they did 'Time Is On My Side' and got such a big hit, I stopped listening to the Rolling Stones for a l-o-n-g time," Thomas laughs today. "I didn't care what they recorded! They sung it, not that great, but it caught on, and they went on to better things. I got a little upset, a little more hurt than upset, when they decided to do that Stateside tour. Rather than giving me an opportunity to open for them, they got Tina Turner, which helped her career a lot. I'm elated for her, but I'm still wondering why, since they took one of my songs, and got their foot in the door in the States, why didn't they try to find me to do the opening act for them, give me a break or return the favor in some way? But they didn't."

     Thomas was dropped by Imperial a couple of years later, beginning a period of about a decade in which she sought vainly to get momentum on her side again. A brief deal with Chess took her to Muscle Shoals for some recording in 1967, but Thomas wasn't happy with the organization and the liaison came to a quick close. At a brief trial with Atlantic, she says by way of illustration, "They took me to Detroit and wanted me to sing like Diana Ross. I flat-footedly refused. [The producers] told the company I didn't have it anymore, whatever 'it' was that they were looking for. I didn't want to be another Diana Ross; I wanted to be Irma Thomas. Why should I want to go to Detroit and want to become Diana Ross?"

     Given her inability to fit into pop trends, it was for the best that Thomas moved back to New Orleans in the mid-1970s, where she could count on a local following glad to hear her sing New Orleans R&B of the old school. She never stopped recording, though, and expanded her audience with a series of critically acclaimed albums for Rounder in the 1980s and 1990s.  These found her willing to both compose and tackle new material -- she co-composed some of her recent songs with legendary soul songwriter Dan Penn -- although they sold not to a pop audience, but the specialized roots music audience that listens to public radio far more than commercial stations. "I still record live the way I did back then. It's just that I'm not getting customized material like I used to when I was on Minit. Allen would custom-do songs for me; I don't have that advantage anymore."

    She's content, however, to mix her new material and old standards for loyal audiences in town, accommodating fans' requests to the point of re-learning unreleased tracks from the 1960s that weren't issued until the 1990s, even putting on special performances from visiting tour groups who specifically want to see an Irma Thomas show while they're in town. "There are very few songs that I've recorded in my career that I would not sing again. I usually choose the song, keeping in mind that it's something that I want to be able to live with and sing the rest of my career. Because I have no intentions of retiring anytime soon."

Sidebar Special Feature

The Rolling Stones-Louisiana Connection

"Back in the [old] days, when we were recording in Chicago and Los Angeles, we used to go down to the local record stores, buy up a whole bunch of soul singles, sit down by the record player and learn 'em. Things like 'Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin')' and Otis Redding stuff and then we'd do 'em as quickly as possible." -- Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record

What's the point in listening to us doing 'I'm a King Bee' when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it? -- Mick Jagger, Rolling Stone,1968

Before their songwriting skills matured on a series of stunning 1965 singles like "Satisfaction," the Rolling Stones' repertoire consisted largely of R&B covers. The sound of Chicago -- especially that of Chess Records artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters -- has long been properly hailed as the group's biggest influence. Much less heralded are the numerous New Orleans/Louisiana R&B artists that the Stones also covered in their early days, with one such venture leading to their first Stateside Top Ten single, "Time Is on My Side."

     As far back as 1963, the Stones recorded New Orleans singer Benny Spellman's mysterious "Fortune Teller" for a planned second single. It was scrapped in favor of a cover of the Beatles' "I Wanna Be Your Man," but did show up on an obscure early 1964 compilation, Saturday Club. Spellman's version is a jovial tale of falling in love with his own fortune teller, with infectious clicking percussion and syncopated "hey-hey" grunts in the background. The Stones' cover is altogether more menacing, stressing chunky descending guitar chords, eerie echoed, wordless background vocals and harmonica wailing. Thus the template was set for the Rolling Stones' R&B/blues interpretations: a heavier guitar sound, accelerated tempos, and Mick Jagger's vocals, which often added a layer of insouciance absent from the originals. And whatever one thought of white boys tackling songs by black Louisianans, one had to admire their taste and fanaticism -- the songs they dug up were not even hits in the US, let alone the UK, where some were only available as hard-to-find imports.

     On their debut album, the Stones covered Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee" almost note-for-note. Harpo was a big favorite of the British Invasion groups; the Yardbirds and Kinks did his "Got Love If You Want It," Them did "Don't Start Crying Now," and the Pretty Things covered Slim's "Rainin' In My Heart." His influence on the Stones extended to the group's approach as a whole. Early Stones originals like "Heart of Stone," "Tell Me," and "Play With Fire" recall the sparse, spooky atmosphere of the sides Harpo laid down at Jay Miller's Crowley, Louisiana studio in their harshly amplified, reverberant guitar and harmonica lines. Oddly, the Stones would raid the Harpo catalog again in 1972 for a fairly straight version of "Shake Your Hips" on their Exile on Main Street album, although by that time the group was writing virtually all their own material.

     The most obscure Louisiana artist covered by the Stones was Alvin Robinson, whose bouncy, saucy "Down Home Girl" was, it must be said, completely outclassed by the Stones' rendition, with its leering Jagger vocal and stuttering guitar figures. The group was still including this in their set in 1969, when they performed it at their famous concert in London's Hyde Park a few days after Brian Jones' death. Another little-known cover from the mid-1960s was Barbara Lynn's "Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin')." Lynn, though hailing from Texas, was something of a Crescent City artist by association, recording much of her material in New Orleans. Again the Stones come out winners here, replacing the brass and tentative singing of the original with a classic circular guitar line and a far more assertive lead vocal. Of all the songs the Stones covered in the 1960s, this may be the hardest to track down in its original incarnation; it's available on the Barbara Lynn compilation You'll Lose a Good Thing on the German Bear Family label.

     The Stones did something of a New Orleans-cover-by-association when they did Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart"; Redding had changed around the lyrics to Irma Thomas' great ballad "Ruler of My Heart." The Stones went right to the source, however, for "Time Is on My Side." Thomas' 1964 original, a B-side known only to a few, has a more pronounced gospel feel than the Stones' cover, which was introduced by Keith Richards' classic spiky, bluesy opening guitar lead (missing entirely from Thomas' arrangement). Both versions have strong merits, but it would be the Stones who reaped the commercial rewards in the US, where it became their first hit single.

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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