Goin To New Orleans

12:12 a.m. July 31

I just returned from a fabulously intimate Dr. John set at the Black Orchid supper club on the North Side of Chicago. The hot summer evening was dedicated to Wardell Quezergue (pronounced ‘quiz-air’), a cool breeze from the Crescent City.

The event took me straight to New Orleans.

You remember New Orleans, right? You’ll hear about it again around Labor Day when the media goes Mardi Gras with all the 1 year anniversary stories on Hurricane Katrina, before moving on to other subjects. We in the media love anniversary stories. But the better stories are in the shadows.

Wardell is one of the behind-the-scenes cats whose arrangements defined hits like “Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups, “Trick Bag” by Earl King and Aaron Neville’s righteous version of “Mona Lisa.” He threw the feisty horns behind the Robert Parker classic “Barefootin’ [recently reworked by Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson for the “Hoot” soundtrack] and put the Caribbean rhythms in the Dixie Cups smash “Iko Iko.” Wardell, 76, flew to Chicago with his daughter Helen for the event. In a rare solo performance, Dr. John looked at Wardell from behind his piano and said,

“He changed the course of music…….”

Sitting in the front row, Wardell bowed his head. He is a gentle man. He is legally blind. He lost everything to Hurricane Katrina, including the sheet music and arrangements from the mid-1950s when he was leader of the Royal Dukes of Rhythm. Dr. John suggested he also might have lost the 1992 Grammy he received for the horn charts on Dr. John’s “Goin’ Back To New Orleans,” —that is if someone sent him a Grammy in the first place. When Wardell was doing his most prolific studio work in the the 1960s, he received no royalties.

Proceeds from the evening’s $95 ticket went to Wardell and other displaced New Orleans musicians. The elegant club was fairly full, a success considering that it was a busy musical weekend in Chicago. Former dBs bass player Jeff Beninato and the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund [NOMRF} put the show together with Chicago’s Jam Productions and the Black Orchid, which donated the space.

NOMRF is giving Wardell monthly grants for living expenses. He and his daughter barely made it out of New Orleans during the floods. Wardell cannot swim. He was rescued from his home in New Orleans East, taken to Kenner, Louisiana, bused to the Astrodome in Houston where the bus was turned away towards Fort Worth.

Here is something important to know if you are a fan of New Orleans music: many musicians are now being evicted as landlords renovate and raise rent. Beninato told me, “More than one musician has called on the verge of being thrown out onto the street. This is the second wave of the disaster. Its hard to get that across to the public with Katrina Fatigue setting in, but imagine the fatigue of being in New Orleans trying to survive.”

On Sunday night Mac Rebennack/Dr. John was in a benevolent mood. He looked a bit like Tennesee Williams in a light brown suit and Panama hat. He took requests from the audience (“Such a Night”), told vintage studio stories about working with Wardell on Joe Tex sessions and dipped way back into Wardell’s trick bag by covering New Orleans bandleader Paul Gayten (who recorded for Chess Records in Chicago). The warm vibe had the feeling of a private house concert.

Dr. John spoke of a 1964 Professor Longhair session where he played guitar and Smokey Johnson was on drums. Wardell did the horn charts. “It was way too hip,” Dr. John recalled. “I tried to stay out of the way of everything.” He then played the Longhair classic “Big Chief,” right down to replicating the spy boy whistle (done on record by Earl King). I looked over at Wardell. His eyes were closed and a smile danced across his face. I wondered how long it has been since he smiled like that.

Wardell knows a thing or two about road trips. During the early 1970s he borrowed a school bus to transport players to participate in a marathon session at the Malaco Records studio in Jackson, Miss. Two of the biggest soul hits of that era came out of that session: King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.” Wardell did the arrangements.

The opening act for Dr. John’s tribute to Wardell was no small potatoes. The New Orleans based band consisted of James Andrews (vocals, trumpet), Craig Klein of Bonerama and Harry Connick fame (trombone), former Dirty Dozen member Kirk Joseph on tuba, Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, Cranston Clements on guitar and Dr. John’s own saxophonist Alonzo Bowens, who didn’t even know his bandleader would be in the house until he arrived in Chicago. Mike Mills of REM sat in on bass.

In a spur of the moment decision, the band joined Dr. John at the end of his set for a rousing version of Cousin Joe’s “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come Around),”— horn charts done by Wardel — and the 1960 Jessie Hill classic “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Andrews is the grandson of the late New Orleans rhythm and blues singer who was a product of the Lower 9th Ward. For a spell, Hill was also a member of Dr. John’s Night Tripper band. Before the storm, Andrews recorded for Allen Toussaint’s NYNO label and his 1997 “Satchmo of the Ghetto” disc features Dr. John, Toussaint and a great version of “Its Only A Paper Moon.”

Throughout the night, Dr. John spoke as if he was casting notes on a postcard. He talked of his fears of singing “Chicago” at a Holiday Inn and recalled the long gone musical strips of New Orleans along Canal Street and Jackson Avenue. “This gig is my gig for Wardell and the people in New Orleans,” he said. “This ain’t coming from the government. This is people caring about people.”

Since Hurricane Katrina only 10 % of New Orleans musicians have returned home. Last week I asked Wardell why he came back. He said New Orleans is home, it is where he belongs. On one summer night in Chicago Wardell Quezergue belonged to us. We heard how the heart arranges music. And because of that all we are enriched for our next visit to New Orleans.

Later on this week visit my FAVORITE LINKS to learn more about New Orleans.

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