Danny Barker (1909-1994) was a guitarist, banjoist, singer, writer, composer, raconteur, and jazz archivist from New Orleans. He was probably best known among casual jazz fans for his seven-year stint anchoring the rhythm section of Cab Calloway’s big band in the late thirties and forties. But when he moved from New York back to New Orleans in 1965, he was all over the city’s jazz scene, as a performer, teacher, and as the first curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
Among his other talents, Barker was one of the great rhythm guitarists in jazz. His style was somewhat different from that of Freddie Green, who is often held up as the best rhythm guitarist of all time. Danny tended to use richer chords than Green (who had kind of a minimalist approach) and his beat was strong and springy, often interspersed with triplets and syncopations. His Save the Bones album, recorded late in his life, is a great illustration of his rhythm style, as well as being a very entertaining record. Barker made hundreds of other recordings; particularly interesting is the series he did in the thirties and forties backing up his wife, singer Blue Lu Barker, in a series of sometimes risqué, bluesy songs, usually of his own composition. The most famous of these is “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” which was a hit for Maria Mauldaur back in the seventies. He also wrote “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” which sold lots of records for Nat King Cole and the Pointer Sisters. He recorded with both Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker – one of the few musicians to do so. And, although he is not generally credited as such, I consider him to be the father of New Orleans R & B – hear his 1945 recordings of “Indian Red” and “Chocko Mo Feendo Hey.”
Every time I visit New Orleans, I make it a point to stroll to the end of Chartres Street in the French Quarter and look for the plaque marking Danny’s birthplace. It’s on a typical French Quarter townhouse built in the early nineteenth century. His mother was a Barbarin – any fan of New Orleans jazz will recognize that name.
This is all background to my Danny Barker story. I’ve told this story a few times, but here it is with all the details:
It starts around 1990; I had just visited New Orleans for the first time, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band had just issued their New Orleans Album, with several Crescent City guest stars. One of the tunes on the album was “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” with Danny Barker playing guitar and singing. It’s a great version of the song, with a hilarious spoken intro by Danny. Well, my ex-wife and I were driving around with The New Orleans Album in the tape player, and she was very taken with that song. So I had a plan: take her back to New Orleans and surprise her with a visit to the Palm Court to hear Danny Barker.
During that period Danny played every Sunday night at the Palm Court with his Jazz Hounds. I booked us a room in the Quarter over Memorial Day weekend of 1992, when neither of us had to work on Monday. A week before the trip, I called the Palm Court, “Danny Barker is playing there on Sunday, right?” “Yes, Danny plays here every Sunday.” Well, we had a nice trip, ate some great food, and had a good time. Then we headed to the Palm Court on Sunday night. As we got close, we could hear music, but it didn’t sound like what I was expecting. When we got to the door, I could see a young band on the stage playing bebop. I asked about Danny and was told that he was visiting relatives in Chicago.
As you can imagine, we were pretty disappointed. We didn’t stay to hear the band, and we left town the next day. But before we left, I took a look in the phone book, and sure enough, there was a listing for Danny Barker on Sere Street. I copied down the number and put it in my wallet.
That summer, I screwed up my courage, dialed the number, and explained the situation to Danny, offering to pay him for a gig if he would play a little private concert for us when we returned to New Orleans. He was very gracious, and said sure, just give him a call. So we went back over Thanksgiving of 1992 and rented a house on Dumaine Street for a couple of days. It was the coldest I’ve ever been in New Orleans; I don’t think I was really warm for three days. When I called Danny, he asked directions and said he’d come to our place. I didn’t want to put him to any trouble, so I said we could come to his house. He agreed and gave me directions to a small bungalow up past the Fairgrounds.
We rang the bell about 10:00 in the morning and were given a warm greeting by Danny and Blue Lu. After some small talk, he pulled out his guitar and played and sang “The Second Line” by his uncle, Paul Barbarin. For the next hour and a half, we were given an incredible private concert – it was just amazing.
Without meaning to, we put Blue Lu into a bit of a bad mood – we had been talking about how much we enjoyed Danny’s music while forgetting that Blue Lu was a performer herself, although she had not sung professionally for several years. I quickly picked up some hints from Danny, and asked Lu to sing. She refused at first, but soon forgot the slight and was singing along with Danny. I remember “Basin Street Blues,” “Save the Bones,” and, of course, “Don’t You Feel Me Leg.”
After they had played and sung for awhile, Danny reached behind an end table and pulled out a Mosaic Records box set – the Blue Note recordings of Herbie Nichols – and started talking about what a genius Nichols was. I took the opportunity to clear up a discographical mystery – the guitar player on Nichols’ first session as leader (for Savoy) is always given as “probably Danny Barker.” I asked, “Didn’t you record with him?” Danny looked puzzled and said no. When I got home I listened to the session more carefully, and it is obviously not Danny on guitar.
Before we left Danny and Blue Lu each autographed a publicity picture for us – Lu’s was from her Capitol Records days (c. 1950), while Danny’s was more recent. They invited us to stay for lunch, but we didn’t want to wear out our welcome. It was one of the great days of my life. I have always regretted not being able to attend Danny’s funeral a couple of years later.
Footnote: My friend Scott Hooker, the great traditional jazz pianist, is a frighteningly good voice mimic. He heard enough of Danny Barker’s voice from recordings to have it down. About two or three years after Danny’s death, I was living alone in an apartment in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. One evening my phone rang; when I picked it up and said hello, a voice said, “Hi, Jeff; this is Danny Barker.” Every hair on my body stood up – it was uncanny. Since I was unable to speak, Scott let me know it was him. His imitation was so perfect that it was Danny Barker on the phone – there was no doubt in my mind.