Eddie Bo was a songwriter, arranger, producer, vocalist, and pianist, born and raised in New Orleans.
Eddie Bo was a songwriter, arranger, producer, vocalist, and pianist, born and raised in New Orleans. A catalyst in the evolution of New Orleans rhythm and blues (R&B) and funk music, Bo preferred to work behind the scenes and often recorded under pseudonyms. Though perhaps less known than other Louisiana musicians, Bo released more single records than any artist in New Orleans, except Fats Domino. His work has been recognized with a US Congressional Lifetime Achievement Award in Jazz & Blues; the South Louisiana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award; and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Award. In 1997, New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial declared May 22, 1997, “Eddie Bo Day.”
Born Edwin Joseph Bocage on September 20, 1930, Eddie Bo descended from a long line of shipbuilders, carpenters, and bricklayers, who spent nights working in jazz bands. His cousins Charles, Henry, and Peter all played with Sidney Bechet, among other pre-World War II jazz orchestras. Growing up in the New Orleans neighborhoods of Algiers and the Ninth Ward, Bo served in the US Army after graduating from Booker T. Washington High School. Later, he studied musical composition and arrangement at New Orleans’s Grunewald School of Music. He developed a unique, percussive piano style, inspired by his mother, a self-taught pianist; Professor Longhair; and modern jazz greats Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.
In his early career, Bo performed as part of the Spider Bocage Orchestra in various jazz clubs. At the same time, he frequented famed blues venue the Dew Drop Inn, inspiring him to branch out into the more lucrative R&B scene. As pianist, Bo hit the road with a group of New Orleans musicians—backing up a package tour that featured Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, the Platters, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Johnny Adams, Earl King, and Guitar Slim.
Bo’s recording career began in 1955 as a session piano player for Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records (a subsidiary of Specialty). His own singles, originally credited to Little Bo, followed shortly. He performed in the piano-driven New Orleans R&B style, incorporating elements of early rock and roll (rock ‘n’ roll). Bo’s song “I’m Wise,” released on the New York City Apollo label in 1956, was later transformed by Little Richard into the hit “Slippin’ and Slidin’.” Bo followed with another strong rock and roll number, “Oh-Oh,” released on Chess in 1957.
By 1959, Bo had begun writing and arranging for other artists—such as Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, Robert Parker, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, and Tommy Ridgley (for whom Bo penned “In the Same Old Way” with some regional success) —on the New Orleans–based Ric and Ron labels, both owned by Joe Ruffino. He worked as a session player, along with Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, on many of the records as well. Bo was appointed talent scout for the labels, and was responsible for cobbling together the recording studio space. There were several Eddie Bo Ric/Ron singles, with one of the more noteworthy being his contribution to the Popeye dance craze, “Check Mr. Popeye,” eventually licensed to Swan Records out of Philadelphia.
In 1962, Ric/Ron was closed for business, and Eddie Bo continued making records for a variety of labels, small and large. He also helped Oliver Morgan write the classic “Who Shot the La La.” Within a couple of years, Bo had his own publishing company and started the first of there independent record labels: Fun, Blue Jay & Cinderella. Bo also released singles of his own, gradually developing his New Orleans R&B style into modern-sounding soul music. He also produced singles by local artists such as Tommy Ridgley, Art Neville, Snooks Eaglin, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
Experiments in Funk
In 1965, Eddie Bo started recording for Joe Banashak’s Seven-B label, experimenting with an embryonic funk sound inspired by James Brown. The first of these releases was “Pass the Hatchet,” parts one and two. Credited to Roger & The Gypsies, the vocals, arrangement, and production were handled mainly by Bo, with some help from Tommy Ridgley. The song is an infectious dance number in which Bo shouts phrases like “Let me chop it!” and “Timberrr!” The funk continued with Oliver Morgan’s “The La La Man,” parts one and two, written and arranged by Bo. Other funky mid-1960s productions on various labels featured female soul artists, including The Explosions, Sena Fletcher (aka Mary Jane Hooper), Inell Young, and Inez Cheatham.
For a time during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Al Scramuzza of the well-loved Seafood City eatery partnered with Bo to create the Scram record label. This label’s singles, which occasionally promoted Seafood City (“Do the Crawfish,” etc.), expanded on Bo’s experiments in funk. His biggest funk hit, “Hook & Sling”—a sparse, bass-heavy song in the James Brown style with great offbeat drumming, choppy guitar work, and shouted interjections—is from this period. “Hook & Sling” rose to number thirteen on the 1969 Billboard R&B charts. Bo also produced singles by Sonny Jones and Walter “Wolfman” Washington for Scram.
By 1970, Bo was running another label, Bo-Sound. On this label, he released another funk classic, “Check Your Bucket,” as well as a noteworthy single by Marilyn Barbarin. Operating through the early 1970s, this label released a few singles with a proto-disco sound. Bo simultaneously ran other labels. The female-led group The Explosions released “Hip Drop” on his Gold Cup label, for example. Many releases during Bo’s most inspired period, the mid-1960s through early 1970s, featured backing band The Soul Finders (a.k.a. Soul Powers) which featured, at times, Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar and the brilliant funky drummer James Black.
After the early 1970s, Eddie Bo all but disappeared from the music scene, choosing to renovate houses instead. After this hiatus, he released a self-produced album, Another Side of Eddie Bo, in 1979, followed by Watch for the Coming in 1984. Both releases were in a modern jazz/funk vein. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bo occasionally collaborated with Tabby Thomas, Raful Neal, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and George Porter, Jr. Meanwhile, record collectors and soul/funk enthusiasts showed a renewed interest in his early singles. As a result, several labels released collections of widely varying production quality. These collections helped revitalize Eddie Bo’s music career; he made more frequent live appearances, including participation in the Ponderosa Stomp music festivals.
In the 1990s through the early 2000s, Bo gave regular performances at his own nightclub/restaurant, Check Your Bucket, on Banks Street in New Orleans. Check Your Bucket suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina, as did Bo’s home and recording studio. Though Bo was on tour in France when Katrina hit, his club never bounced back after the storm. Eddie Bo died on March 18, 2009, from a heart attack. He may be gone, but lovers of R&B, soul, funk, and jazz are still discovering the wealth of great music he left behind in recordings.