New Orleans music didn't do as well in the 1960s, a few hits notwithstanding, as it had done. Musicians left town, major labels lost interest, and Motown and Memphis took over the black music charts. Nonetheless, the late Cosimo Matassa, who owned the only recording studio in town, kept busy. Fresh Air rock historian Ed Ward has the story today.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
New Orleans music didn't do as well in the 1960s, a few hits notwithstanding, as it had done in the '50s. Musicians left town, major labels lost interest and Motown in Memphis took over the black music charts. Nonetheless, the late Cosimo Matassa, who owned the only recording studio in town, kept busy. Rock historian Ed Ward has his story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRICK BAG")
EARL KING: (Singing) Twelve o'clock at night, you walk out the door. You told me, baby, you was going to the drugstore. But in my mind, I knew you was lying. The drugstore close at a quarter to nine. I said, I saw you kissin' Willie across the fence. I heard you telling Willie I don't have no sense. The way you been acting is such a drag. You done put me in a trick bag.
ED WARD, BYLINE: Earl King's 1962 record "Trick Bag" is considered a classic these days. The backing, largely by the band known as The Meters, centers around one chord during the verse in a way that sets the stage for funk 10 years later. King's lyrics are bitter and forceful, and he delivers them with conviction. A hit? - not at all. It sold around New Orleans, but it would take another 20 years before more people discovered it. And that's the way it was in the city that had produced Fats Domino, Little Richard, Huey "Piano" Smith and others just a few short years earlier. New Orleans stars were overwhelmingly black with the exception of Pete Fountain and Al Hirt. And black record buyers were either gravitating to church-based Southern sounds or the popular music coming out of Detroit.
Cosimo Matassa, though, wasn't worried. He'd owned J&M and then Cosimo Recording Studios, the only recording studio in town since 1945. And there was always someone who thought they had a hit in them. The thing is, a lot of the music had that indefinable New Orleans flavor to it - not just the music, but the lyrics. Jessie Hill said he wanted to tell us about "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," but what was that? Oliver Morgan asked us "Who Shot The Lala," an actual crime, the murder of a musician and pimp who called himself Prince Lala, but didn't reveal any of the story in his catchy tale. And sometimes, it was just a joke.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JOKE")
REGGIE HALL: (Singing) Now here's a story I'm going to tell. And it's a joke that I know well. They say that Ryder rode a horse, but that's not so. He drove a car. They say that big Cheyenne shot up the land, but he really was a real estate man. They say that Rudolph Valentino was a lover, but that's not so. It was his brother saying Jesse James had a game, but he really had a Ragtime band. They say that...
WARD: Reggie Hall's "The Joke" is wacky and catchy, but the 1962 record has stayed obscure. It's not that there was no soul music being recorded in New Orleans. Matassa played host to Danny White one day when he made his bid for fame.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE")
DANNY WHITE: Tomorrow was our wedding day. But with my own two eyes today I saw you kissing my best friend. Now you can kiss tomorrow goodbye. Today...
WARD: "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" never even got started because the label that put it out was too small. Johnny Adams, for his part, is considered the greatest soul singer New Orleans ever produced.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RELEASE ME")
JOHNNY ADAMS: (Singing) Please release me. Oh, let me go. Oh, yes. You see, I don't love you anymore. No, no. To live, to live a lie is a sin. Oh, release me if you don't need me. If you don't want me, oh baby, why don't you just let me love again? Oh, let me love again.
WARD: "Release me" was already a classic when Adams took it on, but it was a country and Western classic formerly recorded by Ray Price. He'd do better with his version of "Reconsider Me," another country song, but not well enough to make Adams a big star. There were a few hits during the decade. Aaron Neville hit the top spot with "Tell It Like It is" in 1966. Lee Dorsey was a fairly frequent visitor of radio and the charts with his Allen Toussaint-arranged material. And Robert Parker's "Barefootin'" did OK. There was enough great music recorded at Cosimo Recording during the '60s that it would take you a week solid to get through all of it. But most of it never left town.
DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in Austin. The music he played is from the collection "Cracking the Cosimo Code: 60s New Orleans R&B and Soul."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL IT LIKE IT IS")
AARON NEVILLE: (Singing) If you want something to play with, go and find yourself a toy. Baby, my time is too expensive, and I'm not a little boy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.