The early sound still rocks on
NEW ORLEANS — "Well the blues had a baby, and they named the baby rock 'n' roll." - Muddy Waters
In the 1950s and '60s New Orleans was the axis of the rock and roll universe. Cosimo Matassa's famous studios were churning out hit after hit for artists such as Fats Domino, Earl King, Tommy Ridgley, and Guitar Slim.
Producers such as Allen Toussaint were making household names out of guys like Jessie Hill, Lee Dorsey, and Ernie K-Doe. And local joints, including the Dew Drop Inn and Club Tijuana, were playing host to headliners Little Richard, Dinah Washington, and Huey "Piano" Smith. Musicians were cutting records by day and taking part at night in sweaty jam sessions that pitted the cream of New Orleans's studio players against one another in showdowns called cuttin' contests.
The city was awash in groundbreaking music, and even though locals didn't realize it at the time, New Orleans was helping give birth to that baby known as rock 'n' roll.Or, at the very least, was certainly conceiving it there.
A secret society known as the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau set out last year to re-create those halcyon days of early rock 'n' roll, when blues music was courting R&B and both got left behind.
In response to what they saw as a lack of attention and respect paid to many of the architects of rock 'n' roll, the Mystic Knights launched the Ponderosa Stomp in 2002, a three-day showcase of some of the giants and geniuses in the birth of rock 'n' roll. It was packed in between the two weekends of the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Rather than feature an all-star lineup of marquee artists, the Ponderosa Stomp was designed to pay homage to "the true unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll," says chief Mystic Knight, Dr. Ike. These are the studio musicians who performed the yeoman's work behind such revered labels as Chess, Excello, Specialty, Aladdin, Sun, and Imperial.
"They were the building blocks of rock 'n' roll," Ike says. "They did stuff that was so far ahead of their time that people never gave them credit for it. And their influence was so long-lasting that people forgot about it."
The 2002 Stomp featured renowned sidemen like Howlin' Wolf alumni Hubert Sumlin, Henry Gray, and Jody Williams; career members of Elvis's band D.J. Fontana and Scotty Moore; swamp rocker Tony Joe White; guitar demon and former Ornette Coleman sideman James "Blood" Ulmer; powerhouse New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer; R&B legends Earl King, King Lloyd, and Eddie Bo; James Burton, bandleader for Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis; rockabilly original Paul Burlison, accidental inventor of the fuzztone guitar; Chicago bluesman Magic Slim and a reunion of his Teardrops; and the incomparable New Orleans bandleader/songwriter Dave Bartholomew.
And that list only scratches the surface.
The inaugural Ponderosa Stomp played to rave reviews and returned for an encore performance this year, in April. Most of the artists returned, too. The venue was moved to the funky second-story Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, and the already-burgeoning lineup just kept getting bigger and better: one-time John Lee Hooker sideman and scorching blues guitarist Eddie Kirkland; the astounding Sun Ra Arkestraperforming all three nights; heavy-duty south Louisiana swamp poppers Johnny Allen, Warren Storm, and CC Adcock; John Fred, singing "Lucy In Disguise"; Charles "Skip" Pitts, slaying 'em with his trademark wah-wah intro to the "Theme From Shaft"; Fred Wesley and his funky trombone; Phil Phillips doing his classic "Sea of Love" - twice; and theWooly Bully man himself, Sam the Sham, replete with Hula-Hoop dancers.
"We tried to build the bands as they originally appeared, [to] get the people who played on the original hit records," says Ike. "Reuniting Dale Hawkins and James Burton, D.J. Fontana and Scotty Moore, trying to put people together like that. We went out of our way to get as many of Cosimo Matassa's studio musicians as we could.... Everybody liked the concept and when they got there, it just blew 'em away."
It blew away audiences, too. Each night the Ponderosa Stomp focused on a different flavor of early rock 'n' roll and R&B: blues, rockabilly and swamp blues, and New Orleans.
With the amount of top-shelf talent in the house every night, some spontaneous musical combustion was bound to occur - and it did.
"On a gig like this, there is no headliner because all these guys are deserving of being a headliner," says Ike. Musicians shuffled on and off stage every few songs, mingled with the crowd, and posed for photos. It had all the feel of a gritty Mississippi Delta juke joint for one set, a South Side Chicago blues joint for the next, and a New Orleans after-hours club the next.
Legends and originals mixed it up as if they'd been playing together all their lives, when in fact some of them had just met.
"If you rehearse it too much, it loses some of the spark," says Ike. "I mean, D.J. Fontana had never met Earl Palmer before. And watching pictures being taken of Dave Bartholomew with Ernest McLean and Herb Hardesty, and Earl Palmer and Henry Gray. They didn't all know each other," he says, describing the first Stomp. "It was just a scene, and when they weren't playing, they would come hang out."
The Ponderosa Stomp takes advantage of the throngs of music lovers who swarmtoNew Orleans for Jazz Fest. At the same time, it serves a mission that some feel Jazz Fest itself is veering away from.
"This is all done for the love of the music," says Ike.
"We wanted to present this music because there was a real trend away from the old stuff at Jazz Fest," he says. "They've tended to go more commercial, with less emphasis on the obscure. We wanted people to see guys like Hubert Sumlin, who sometimes doesn't get the full credit of how much of Howlin' Wolf's sound he was. Or Jody Williams, who played a lot of the great Chess guitar parts, and was a big influence on Buddy Guy's Cobra stuff and on Ike Turner."
Also, Ike concedes, "There's some urgency to get the recognition for what they did. The roster is getting smaller."
The Mystic Knights are keeping the flame lit between Stomps with a stellar run of shows called the Congo Mombo series. Next up are fiery Detroit soul singer Nathaniel Meyer Nov. 14 at the Circle Bar, James "Blood" Ulmer Nov. 15 at Rock 'n' Bowl, and rockabilly ace Ray Sharpe with Deke Dickerson Dec. 13 at Rock 'n' Bowl.
The retro attitude of Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl is a great fit for the Knights of the Mau Mau productions. It long has been home to some of New Orleans's finest R&B and blues. And where else can you roll 10 frames while listening to the best of rock 'n' roll? This year's Stomp featured three nights of music, from 5 p.m. till nearly dawn, so be prepared to pace yourself.
• Details on the third annual Ponderosa Stomp, April 27-29, 2004, will be available at the Mystic Knights website: www.knights-maumau.com.