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NOLA 300 Music

Turn Your Radio On

I was stopped at the light at Rampart and Canal the first time I heard Fats Domino sing “I was standing, I was standing on the corner of Rampart and Canal." This constituted an ultimate cosmic New Orleans moment.

Radio got me started on it all. From the age of five on, when I wasn’t playing outside, everything I did in my room at home proceeded with the accompaniment of a small, tube-powered Zenith. From building mock forts with Lincoln Logs and toy soldiers to arranging a small collection of bird’s nests in a kindergartener’s concept of a nature museum, the “Nifty Fifty” pop-chart program provided my constant soundtrack. WCPO-AM, in my hometown of Cincinnati, played an improbably broad cross section of pop, rock, R&B, and country among those fifty competing songs. I was too young to understand the romantic lyrics, but I always felt deeply drawn to the soul and excitement in the music.

I’ve felt that pull ever since. For the past forty-odd years, I have worked in various interconnected roles—as an author, producer, folklorist, and drummer—in a range of indigenous American music. This continuum includes blues and R&B, country and bluegrass, gospel, rock and rockabilly, Cajun music, zydeco, swamp pop, and the category-defying swirl of New Orleans. My special interest in Louisiana developed when I lived in Chicago from 1976 to ’82, and worked on the blues scene there. Opening a show for the Neville Brothers while playing with Sunnyland Slim certainly helped spark my fascination. So did two trips to Jazz Fest, the 1976 release of Clifton Chenier’s rollicking album Bogalusa Boogie, and playing Tipitina’s in 1980.

I moved to New Orleans in December 1982, thinking that I knew something about Louisiana music. In truth, that move marked the start of my serious education, thanks to the radio station WYAT (an acronym for Where Y’At?) As I drove around town, tuned to 990 AM while trying to learn the city’s illogical layout, WYAT continually blew me away. I almost careened off Tchoupitoulas Street, for instance, the first time I heard Dave Bartholomew’s “The Monkey (Speaks His Mind.)” Clarence Henry—singing like both a girl and a frog on “Ain’t Got No Home”—likewise amazed me. So did Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” “Breakaway,” and “I Done Got Over It,” not to mention lesser-known gems by Ernie K-Doe, Smiley Lewis, Professor Longhair, Lloyd Price, and Barbara Lynn.

And I was stopped at the light at Rampart and Canal the first time I heard Fats Domino sing, “I was standing, I was standing on the corner of Rampart and Canal,” from his debut record, “The Fat Man.” This constituted an ultimate cosmic New Orleans moment. In a broader sense, WYAT reinforced my notion of New Orleans and South Louisiana as a self-contained separate world, with its own anthemic music that was seemingly unknown in mainstream America.

I had heard of Fats Domino before, of course, but that first listen to “The Fat Man” took my sense of him—and the New Orleans traditions that he embodied—to a much deeper level. At the same time there was some familiar continuity, since WYAT also played some of my first favorite radio hits from WCPO, including Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite,” The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Chain Gang” by Sam Cooke, The Drifters’ “I Count The Tears,” Duane Eddy’s“ Rebel Rouser,” “He’s A Rebel” by the Crystals, and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City.”

I experienced a quantum leap in radio listening in 1963, at age eleven, when the Beatles hit big. They inspired me to start playing the drums—or, more accurately, a lone toy snare drum. In lieu of actual drumsticks I used my aforementioned Lincoln Logs, and I managed to get a passable cymbal sound by banging on the metal bars of the cage that had once housed my pet mice. I taught myself by playing along to the radio, especially to songs by British Invasion bands such as The Kinks, and to surf music; a year later, with a full drum kit, I could play the hell out of “Wipe Out” on gigs with my garage band, The Henchmen. And I could keep up with instrumental hits by Cincinnati’s hometown hero, Lonnie Mack, one of early ’60s rock’s most innovative and influential guitar soloists. Mack also perfected a seamless vocal blend of R&B, blues, country, and gospel that epitomized Cincinnati’s multi-cultural mélange of northern, southern, and Appalachian music.

As if a veil was suddenly lifted, I understood that this song represented a vibrant living tradition rather than some esoteric artifact.

But it was The Rolling Stones who really introduced me to blues, via their cover versions of classics by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bo Diddley. I started buying records by those African-American originators and poring over the liner notes. I was intrigued by the blues and determined to learn more about it, but local radio was no help. Cincinnati’s African-American station, WCIN, focused instead on hits by Motown artists and James Brown (whose music I also loved), and blues rarely aired on white-oriented pop stations. There was one glorious exception, though. In 1966, “Baby Scratch My Back” by Slim Harpo, a Baton Rouge swamp-blues classic, made an unlikely climb up the national pop charts. And at this same time, I stumbled upon WLAC-AM, a Nashville-based station with a blues show that came on way past my bedtime. Keeping the volume turned down low, I secretly listened to it every night.

In 1968 my father took a job in London. I lived there for the next two years, and was thrilled to find that British radio featured weekly programs of blues and related American sounds. I heard Cajun music and zydeco for the first time. One song that especially struck me was Cleveland Crochet’s “Sugar Bee,” a raw, rough-edged Cajun–blues hybrid. I assumed, given the reverential tone of the BBC deejays, that Cajun/zydeco was an obscure, exotic, regional genre known only to ultra-hip record collectors. Then, in 1975, on a day off from working on the Delta Queen, I was shooting pool in a bar called Ethel and Slim’s Roundhouse in Paradis, in Saint Charles Parish. “Sugar Bee” came on the jukebox, and everyone jumped up to dance. As if a veil was suddenly lifted, I understood that this song represented a vibrant living tradition rather than some esoteric artifact. That moment of clarity has guided my work ever since, especially my eighteen years of playing with the Cajun/Western swing band the Hackberry Ramblers.

In the mid-’80s WYAT went off the air around the time that I finally got a car with an FM radio. This upgrade enabled me to listen to WWOZ, so my South Louisiana musical education continued, as it still does today. In hindsight I’m very glad that I thought to tape an hour of WYAT on my over-sized ’80s boom-box. I still listen to that cassette occasionally. I return to it for the great songs, of course, including “The Fat Man”—but also to hear this proud proclamation by the deejay known as “Cherie, your oldies sweetheart”: “That was Fats, ‘Walking To New Orleans’! We got more talent in our little finger then they got in the rest of the whole wide world!”

 

Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, folklorist, and producer and is the former drummer for the Hackberry Ramblers. Learn more about his most recent book, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, by visiting erniekdoebook.com. The K-Doe biography was selected for the Kirkus Reviews list of best nonfiction books for 2012. In May 2018, the LEH honored Sandmel with an award for his Lifetime Contribution to the Humanities.