With strong piano and horn sections, plus complex, syncopated second line rhythms, New Orleans R&B is its own genre that’s a part of your repertoire.
That was how I was raised. In this city, my next door neighbor was Fats Domino. When you hear people like Fats Domino, Danny Barker, Al Hirt, and grew up with people like that, you hear those kind of people and you know pretty much what you’re going to be doing with your life. People like Ernie K-Doe, gosh, I can name you musicians forever that were in this kitchen that influenced everybody in the world. Even though people may not recognize those names nowadays, they were the ones who made this music and made it become the hot thing.
What genre would I unexpectedly hear if I walked into your house to have some red beans and rice?
Country is the one music that if you walked into my house you’d hear, other than jazz, blues, R&B. My very first paying gig was at a rodeo with (Grammy lifetime achievement recipient) Miss Kitty Wells when I was 8 or 9 years old. She asked if anybody in the audience wanted to sing with her. I knew all her music and sang with her. She hired me to sing at the next rodeo down the road and paid me $50, the most money I’d ever seen in my life. I’ve always loved country because it tells you a story.
What’s in your background that no one knows about you?
To this day there’s one animal I’m afraid of, a goose. The reason why the goose attacked is because I started it. He didn’t like me, but I’m not going to lie, I tried to grab him and take feathers. See, I thought he’d give me a feather to practice writing with a quill, but with his six-foot wingspread, he chased me down the street. I still have a scar on my arm where he bit me.
You also have a scary story about touring on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
While on the road on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the club guy said he wasn’t going to pay us for a gig we’d just finished, then the police came and told us we’d stole all the equipment, that it wasn’t ours, made us take it out of the van, and threatened to hang us in the trees. Talking about “run-fast-in-Mississippi.” I never forgot that feeling of being afraid of the white man.
You’ve performed around the world. Is there any one place you could play AND live there?
I love New Orleans and I have lived in many places and enjoyed living in each one of them; each was special, wonderful and beautiful, but they couldn’t cook! So, I think, through and through, I’m a New Orleanian, but there are only two places that, if I left New Orleans, I could live there: New Zealand and Italy.
If you could go back anytime to another musical era, when would that be?
There’s so much good music throughout history. I’m going to say in the ‘20s and ‘30s because it was a new kind of music—the beginning of the emergence of jazz when people realized it didn’t matter what you were playing, you could improvise and it would turn into something completely different. There was Ella Fitzgerald, Big Momma Thornton, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, then Pete Fountain, Al Hirt. I could name people forever.