Since the 1990’s, I have seen music specials on television that purport to honor either an artist or a particular genre of music that follow a certain pattern. They include one performer who has a connection to the artist or genre being featured. However, the balance of the performers are either current darlings of the music snobs or the flavor of the month: Think Mumford and Sons in a tribute to Miles Davis (just kidding).
I just finished watching a video of the PBS show Soundstage which shows just how good a properly curated music show can be. It is titled DR. JOHN/ PROFESSOR LONGHAIR/ EARL KING/ METERS: SWAMP 1974 and the link is here:
Watch it while you can.
What makes this show great, apart from the fine performances, is that every one of the artists knew one another and had performed together in the past. Moreover, they all had a share in shaping the art form known as American roots music (or just plain Rock and Roll).
Professor Longhair made his debut in 1949 with Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Fats Domino, among others, was influenced by him. His last hit was Big Chief, written by Earl King and released ten years before the show was filmed.
Earl King, a protegé of Guitar Slim (Things I Used To Do), had his first hit in 1955 with Those Lonely, Lonely Nights (which Frank Zappa picked as his opener for the historic Toronto Rock and Roll Festival of 1969). He also penned Come On (parts 1 & 2), which was covered by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Trick Bag later recorded by the Meters. He had an even bigger comeback in the late 1980’s and 1990’s and recorded some fine albums during that time.
The Meters gained recognition on their own with a string of R&B hits in the late 1960’s. Nevertheless, they had been the house band for seminal New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint since the early 1960’s. Toussaint produced hits at the time for such artists as Irma Thomas (Time is On My Side, Ruler of My Heart) , Art and Aaron Neville (Tell It LIke It Is), Lee Dorsey (Ya-Ya) and Ernie K Doe (Mother-in-Law). By the way, Art Neville is who you will see playing organ for The Meters and the good doctor.
Finally, Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), was a session musician in New Orleans since the late 1950’s. Originally a guitarist until he sustained a gunshot wound to his hand while defending a band mate, he grew up in the gritty third ward and through the connections of his father who owned a record shop, was able to gain access to recording sessions of Guitar Slim and Little Richard. He then went on to perform with Professor Longhair. He next was hired as a producer and worked with Earl King. His debut album was Gris Gris in 1968. There was nothing quite like it before or since. It contained Creole mythology, African style chants, funky soul and general weirdness. Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler didn’t want to release it and was heard to exclaim “What is this boogie Sh*t?
The one quibble I have with this show is that Dr. John’s set is so raucous and raw (and perhaps, so loud) that it kind of gets away from the sound engineers. This also happens during Earl King’s set when his guitar isn’t as distinct as it should be. However, the immediacy and raw energy can be appealing in its own way.
I am thankful that I have had the pleasure of seeing Earl King and Doctor John live, as well as Art and Cyril Neville of the Meters when they appeared as part of the Neville Brothers.
You can see the camaraderie and admiration that these musicians have for one another. You can sense their connection to one another without even knowing the back story. What’s more, you can sense their connection to the deep roots of American music. This is so much more enjoyable and important than, say, Henry Rollins and Moe Rocca explaining 1970’s loft jazz to Ken Burns, or some other such nonsense. Finally, notice that the finale doesn’t suck. Wow. is that a novelty or what?