Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Last Watusi of The Radiators

Big ones eat the little ones;
The little ones got to be fast.
That's the law of the fish now, mother -
You got to move your ass.

-"Law of the Fish" by The Radiators

Well, I'm late to the party, as usual. Last week I finally attended a show by The Radiators, the band that has forgotten more songs than most bands ever knew - exactly two months before their final performance at Tipitina's.

I listen to jazz, blues, classical music, klezmer, African music - but not much rock. The last few years, the only rock CDs I pull off the shelves with any regularity are by The Allman Brothers, Darryl Rhoades, and especially The Radiators. I became aware of the great New Orleans rock band about 15 years ago when I bought an intriguing cassette compilation at the Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans. The tape contained, among other great Louisiana music, a reissue of the Rad's first single, their 1978 anthem to crawfish, fellatio, or both, "Suck the Head (and Squeeze the Tip)." I loved the New Orleans groove and the sound of the band, but for some reason I didn't follow up and explore The Radiators' other recordings.

But about five years ago, I came across a cheap copy of Law of the Fish, the Rads' first major-label release. I loved about half of it right away, and the other half grew on me. I started checking out their albums, and was drawn further into the Radiators' world, until I became a full-fledged Fishhead, as Radiators fans are called.

I visit New Orleans once a year, so I assumed that I would be able to hear them at Tip's or The Maple Leaf one of these days. But it never happened, and late last year Ed Volker, aka Zeke Fishhead, announced that he would be leaving the band this summer. Volker is the main songwriter for the band, one of its two lead singers, and the group's guiding light. It's a truism among Fishheads that you have to hear the band live to really appreciate them, so I looked at their schedule and found that their closest remaining show was in Orlando. I didn't mind the 400 mile drive at all.

It was an exciting show. The Rads played for two hours and 15 minutes, performing a mixture of originals and a bewildering variety of cover tunes, including "I Walk on Gilded Splinters," "Paint It Black," "The Pusher," "St. James Infirmary," the old ballad "Little Sadie," several old blues and spirituals, and more. Their recordings feature songs by Bob Dylan, Clarence Carter, Muddy Waters, The Meters, etc. All these cover tunes support the Radiators reputation as the world's best bar band - a reputation that's kind of accurate, as far as it goes.

But their originals, particularly Volker's, are the songs that get to me. Volker's songs are pretty conventional in terms of harmony and structure - they use the same three or four chords that have been used since the beginnings of rock and roll. But Volker writes catchy melodies and interesting lyrics. The latter are sometimes predictable, but more often enigmatic, and at times probably half-baked. In any case, I love "Doctor, Doctor" (yes, I know that Volker was not the first to use that title), "Hard Time Train," "Let's Radiate," "Crazy Mona," "Hard Rock Kid," "I Want to Go Where the Green Arrow Goes," etc.

And then there's the band itself. If you imagine a triangle whose points are The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and The Meters, The Radiators are situated approximately in the middle. Most of what they play is infused with a dark, swampy flavor that sets them apart from any other rock band. They boast two virtuoso guitarists, Dave Malone and Camille Baudoin, and they can turn any song into a long, improvisatory journey. Volker's keyboard style is more restrained - he's kind of a stripped-down Professor Longhair at times - but what he plays is just perfect for every song. The rhythm section of Reggie Scanlan and Frank Bua on drums can play solid straight rock, but more often adds at least a touch of New Orleans second line rhythm to the music.

For a few years in the 80's, the Radiators were signed to Epic Records, who didn't quite know what to make of them. Their three Epic albums are pretty good, if somewhat slicker than the Rads' usual sound. Except for those few years, the band has recorded for small labels or put out their own albums, and sustained itself by constant touring. During this period the band included percussionist Glenn Sears; except for his tenure, the band's personnel has remained unchanged for its entire life. More recently, The Radiators older audience has expanded - the younger "jam band" crowd has discovered them.

A lot of people think of The Radiators strictly as a party band. I think there's more going on than that; much of their music has darker overtones. If I was going to try to sum up what The Radiators are about, it would go something like this: We're living in a dying world. The Law of the Fish applies, so you'd better keep your eyes open. But while we're here, we might as well have a good time.

If you've never heard The Radiators, where should you start? The first Epic album, Law of the Fish, is pretty good; it has some of the band's best songs, like "Doctor, Doctor" and "This Wagon's Gonna Roll." There are several good live albums; Bucket of Fish is excellent. The Rads' 25th anniversary album, Earth Vs. The Radiators, is a double CD (and DVD) recorded at Tipitina's - guests include the Bonerama trombone section. But maybe the best representation of the band is their 30th anniversary double CD, Wild and Free. As long as you don't require audiophile quality on every track, you'll find it to be an amazing collection of live and studio recordings from the very beginning in 1978 through 2008.

I love the story of the band's origin. In 1978, Volker invited the members of a couple of different bands to jam in his garage one afternoon. They ended up playing for five hours, and the next day they all quit their old bands. They've been at it for the 33 years since then, but the end of the line is near. So if you have a chance during the next two months, set 'em up for the Hard Rock Kid, let the red wine flow, and catch The Radiators.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Brown and Yellow (Tom Brown and Alcide Nuñez)

Warning: more ramblings about Ancient Musick ahead. Lately I've been fascinated by Alcide "Yellow" Nuñez, the early New Orleans clarinetist best known for his recordings with the Louisiana Five. As I explored Nuñez's music, I realized how much his career was entwined with that of trombonist Tom Brown, a fellow New Orleanian.

History is usually more complicated than it first appears, and the history of jazz seems more and more like an onion the more you examine it; peel off one layer, and there is another just underneath, waiting to be explored. Years ago I "learned" that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was the first New Orleans jazz band to travel north and expose the world outside of Louisiana to the complex, intriguing sounds of New Orleans jazz. (It was only later that I learned of Bill Johnson's Creole Band, which included Freddie Keppard and George Baquet, and their success on the national vaudeville circuit as early as 1914.) But Tom Brown actually beat the ODJB to Chicago, and he and Alcide Nuñez, with a little more luck, could have enjoyed the success and fame that came to the ODJB.

Brown and Nuñez were part of the circle of white musicians centered around Jack "Papa" Laine, whose Reliance Brass Band was very popular in the early years of the 20th century in New Orleans. "Brown's Band From Dixieland," which included cornetist Ray Lopez and clarinetist Gus Mueller, came to Chicago in May, 1915 to open at Lamb's Cafe. Their reception was lukewarm at first; the music seemed loud, shocking, and impossible to dance to. But people were curious, and soon Brown's band was an attraction; the line to get in Lamb's was often two blocks long. Around this time, the word "jazz" (or "jass") began to be applied to this unusual music from New Orleans.

Clubowners and promoters suddenly wanted jazz bands, preferably from New Orleans. Drummer Johnny Stein brought his band up from the Crescent City and opened at the New Schiller Cafe. In addition to Stein, the group consisted of "Yellow" Nuñez and three future members of the ODJB: Eddie "Daddy Edwards on trombone, pianist Henry Ragas, and Nick LaRocca on cornet. By this time, Harry Shields had replaced Gus Mueller as the clarinetist in Tom Brown's band. Nuñez soon had a falling-out with LaRocca (not an unusual occurrence, apparently), and the two bands swapped clarinetists.

When Lamb's Cafe closed, Brown's band hit the vaudeville trail, and were offered a job at Reisenweber's Restaurant in New York City. But Brown didn't think the money was good enough, and he declined. The job eventually went to LaRocca, who took over Stein's band, replacing him with Tony Sbarbaro. The ODJB became the talk of New York, and made records for Columbia and Victor; those 1917 records are now considered to be the first real jazz recordings.

And what of Brown and Nuñez? After a few trips back and forth to New Orleans, they both ended up in New York for a few years before returning home for good. Brown apparently found that the life of a well-paid sideman made for a more secure existence than that of a bandleader, and made himself an indispensable part of the Yerkes dance band empire. Harry Yerkes was one of the most active bandleaders in New York from 1917 to 1924; he led (and recorded with) a bewildering variety of aggregations: Yerkes' Jazzarimba Orchestra (featuring xylophone and marimba as part of the instrumentation), Yerkes' Novelty Five, Yerkes' Saxophone Sextet, Yerkes' S.S. Flotilla Orchestra, The Happy Six, etc. Tom Brown was part of most of these groups from 1919 to at least 1923; he made scores of records with various Yerkes groups, as well as with the dance bands of Ray Miller, Russ Gorman, and the xylophone-playing Green Brothers.

After Brown's band broke up, Yellow Nuñez formed a five-piece band, the Louisiana Five, with drummer Anton Lada. Nuñez's clarinet was the lead instrument; the only other horn was the trombone of Charlie Panelli, who later played with the Original Memphis Five. The Lousiana Five was at least a distant rival to the ODJB; they recorded over 40 sides, one of which, "Yelping Hound Blues," was pretty popular. (It's actually much better than the grim title would suggest.) The Louisiana Five recordings have been both praised and panned by jazz critics, but the best of them sound pretty good 90-something years later. Nuñez was a strong clarinetist; he played (on records, anyway) exclusively in the high register, allowing his lead to cut through the sound of the other instruments. He seldom strayed far from the melody, but often indulged in some mild improvisation as the tune progressed.

When the Louisiana Five broke up, Nuñez also found a home with Yerkes; it is reasonable to assume that Tom Brown helped him secure a position with the bandleader. For whatever reason, the clarinetist didn't stay with Yerkes long; he only made a handful of records with Yerkes' groups, all from the years 1919 and 1920. Nuñez led a quartet for awhile, and returned to New Orleans in 1927. Until his death in 1934 he played with various groups, including a police band, but never recorded again. He passed down musical genes, apparently; his grandson, Robert Nunez, is now principal tubist with the New Orleans Philharmonic.

Tom Brown also moved back home, and in 1924 and 1925 he appeared on a couple of fine Okeh records by trumpeter Johnny Bayersdorffer and pianist Norman Brownlee. The Bayersdorffer record ("Waffle Man's Call"/"I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Riding Now") in particular is a great example of a New Orleans jazz band recorded in the city, and probably represents Brown's best recorded work. He recorded several times with trumpeter Johnny Wiggs in the 1950's (including an album under his own name), showing his brass-band derived style to be basically unchanged. Brown died in 1958.

Unfortunately, one of the things musicians and observers remember about Brown is his virulent racism. Many of the early white New Orleans jazz musicians seemed to have had blinders on when it came to giving credit to African-Americans for creating jazz, but Brown's attitudes went beyond that. I decline to quote some of the statements attributed to him.

Recordings by Nuñez are somewhat hard to find now, but most of the Louisiana Five sides have been reissued at various times, although often on small labels, and most of those collections are now out of print. There are several tracks by the Five in the Ragtime to Jazz CD series on the Timeless label, and one track on Retrieval's Pioneer Recording Bands. The Happy Six have their own collection, Dance-O-Mania, on the Rivermont label; Nuñez plays on a couple of the tracks, and there's plenty of Tom Brown there, of course.

Because these recordings are so hard to come by, I've posted several items from my 78 collection here in mp3 form. As far as I can tell, the Louisiana Five's Columbia record of "Yelping Hound Blues" and "Just Another Good Man Gone Wrong" has never been reissued, although I may have overlooked some obscure release. I also included a side by the Happy Six which doesn't appear on the Rivermont CD, "Who'll Be the Next One (To Cry Over You)." It's early-20's dance music, not jazz, but it's pretty good for what it is; you'll hear a "straight" trombone solo on the melody by Tom Brown. The virtuoso soprano sax work toward the end is probably by the great (non-jazz) saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft, although it could be F. Wheeler Wadsworth. And finally, there's a track by Yerkes Southern Five which features both Nuñez and Brown, Lucky Roberts' "Railroad Blues." It has been reissued, on one of the Timeless Ragtime to Jazz CDs, but it's so good that I couldn't resist posting it here; it may be the best recorded performance by Nuñez. In addition, you can download the Louisiana Five's Edison recording of "Clarinet Squawk" here; it's not their best work, though, in my opinion.

I'll let the last word on Alcide Nuñez belong to Charles Ellsworth Russell, Jr. In 1918, long before Pee Wee Russell was the great jazz clarinetist he became, his father took him to an Elks Club event in St. Louis. The band was the Louisiana Five, and the twelve-year-old Pee Wee was surprised and amazed at what he heard from Nuñez's clarinet: "Nuñez played the melody and then he got hot and played jazz. That was something. How did he know where he was and where he was going?" If for no other reason, we should honor Alcide Nuñez for introducing Pee Wee Russell to the world of jazz.

Acknowledgments: I referred to the following books in preparing this post:

Robert Hilbert - Pee Wee Russell: the Life of a Jazzman
Al Rose and Edmond Souchon - New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album
Brian Rust - The American Dance Band Discography 1917-1942
Gunther Schuller - Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development
Richard Sudhalter - Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945
Brian Wood - The Song for Me: A Glossary of New Orleans Musicians.

The Sudhalter book in particular was very helpful in sorting out the comings and goings of the early white New Orleans musicians in Chicago and New York.

The first photograph is of Alcide Nuñez, from the Nuñez family archives. The second photograph is a rare shot of The Happy Six, with Tom Brown, from a 1922 Columbia Records Catalog in my collection.