“There is a New Orleans city accent … associated with downtown New Orleans, particularly with the German and Irish Third Ward, that is hard to distinguish from the accent of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Astoria, Long Island, where the Al Smith inflection, extinct in Manhattan, has taken refuge. The reason, as you might expect, is that the same stocks that brought the accent to Manhattan imposed it on New Orleans.” – A.J. Liebling, “The Earl of Louisiana,” the famous quote introducing John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces”
Rumors of the New Orleans Yat’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Despite the best efforts of invasive hipster gentrification and federal levee failures to eradicate this indigenous species from its native habitats like the 9th Ward, the humble Yat survives — but has been driven underground. Some Yats even manage to thrive in this brave new world of HBO caricaturization and Hollywood co-optation – and not just in Bunny Matthews cartoons. In fact, recent sightings even confirm the existence of the now-almost-mythical Yatasaurus Rex.
Should you, fearless explorer, venture out on any moonlit Saturday night to a strip mall near the airport, at Kenner’s Third Rock Tavern at Williams and Veterans boulevards, you might spy not one, but two, of these Yatasaurus Rexes: none other than guitarist Charlie Cuccia and drummer Jeff Hicks — both original members of the locally noted T.Q. and the Topcats, who now hew off beefy slabs of blood-and-guts rock ‘n’ roll as “Da Meat Department” band.
Through plumes of thick smoke, in between high-octane libations and corny double-entendre jokes, these Bourbon Street and Jefferson Parish lounge veterans crank out classic-rock covers with a grit and soul you won’t find in some wimpy, miserable politically correct Frenchmen Street outfit. Eschewing most of the traditional New Orleans canon for the likes of Stones, Chuck Berry, and Dylan — sung in sandpaper rasps evoking Howlin’ Wolf and Captain Beefheart — they somehow come off as more authentically New Orleans than any vanilla retro “roots-rock” band.
With snifter of Grand Marnier in hand and rooster-like ducktail in full glory, Cuccia exhorts his Yat minions to “raise your glasses, children of the Williams Boulevard!” before launching into a towering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” while Hicks recalls his days of selling cars for New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson in rhapsodizing about a stripper he used to love at the nearby Downs Lounge in Metry – all to the tune of Bob Seger’s “Main Street.”
Revisit the 1970s and recall, if you dare, the moribund radio soundtrack of the time: the ponderously toxic art-rock sludge of bands like Yes; Genesis; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; and King Crimson. Even Led Zeppelin stooped low enough to invoke “the winds of Thor.” It was to this music — as well as more earthbound acts such as Heart, Skynyrd, Journey, and New Orleans’ own Zebra — that young Yats cruised along Wisner Boulevard in their souped-up Trans-Ams, roaring along Lakeshore Drive past Bart’s restaurant, all the way to the Point at West End for a quick toke before copping a feel off their feather-haired Stevie Nicks-wannabe girlfriends.
Enter Charlie Cuccia and Jeff Hicks, circa 1972. Cuccia and Hicks are proud co-founders of T.Q. and the Topcats, a band that still performs today as the Topcats, though with no original members. Gloriously retro before retro was cool, T.Q. and the Topcats defiantly rocked out old-school-style in the face of the 20-minute, mythology-and-melodrama-infused rock-opera opuses of the day.
T.Q. and the Topcats were a Crescent City version of Sha Na Na — on gumbo-laden steroids. According to the Topcats’ Web site : “Originally formed at East Jefferson High School in Metairie, La., with their first practice in a garage on September 28th, 1972, T.Q. & The Topcats were a ’50s and early ’60s show band. The group performed all of the classic songs of the pre-Beatles era of rock and roll. Every song the band did was performed with outrageous choreography or some type of skit with costumes, smoke and special lighting. They also did tributes to Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Everyone in the band sang and did choreography and everyone had a nickname to put across the feeling of a hoodlum gang of the 1950’s.” Cuccia leered under the reptilian alias “Jake the Snake,” while Hicks sported the hirsute handle of “Belch A. Rooney.”
Vintage video of the band in its greaser heyday — including the unbelievable sight of an ax-wielding Cuccia executing dangerously ball-busting splits mid-solo — can be seen herein, on Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and “Roll Over, Beethoven,” as well as on the Gary U.S. Bonds cover “New Orleans,” in which Hicks belts out the lead vocal on a tribute to his native stomping grounds.
T.Q. and the Topcats played the New Orleans area and expanded their reach throughout the Southeast, eventually making their way to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. They shared the stage with stars such as Dick Dale, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Billy Joel, while a notable photo from September 1976 records for posterity the band’s meeting with “Bedtime for Bonzo” star Ronald Reagan.
A fascinating piece of black-and-white footage shows T.Q and company interacting with Johnny Carson on the “Stump the Band” segment of “The Tonight Show.” Viewing the video, the linguistic link between New Orleans and New York City has never been clearer. As the slick Dionysus-like Cuccia raps with Carson, I’m not sure if I’m seeing and hearing Vinny Barbarino, John Gotti Jr., or the frontman for T.Q and the Topcats. At any rate, the T.Q. gang — looking like they had just kicked the asses of the Jets from “West Side Story” in a parking-lot rumble — endures Carson’s playful putdowns before launching into an incredibly soulful, handclapping, a capella rendition of “Iko Iko” that would make the harmonizing Valence Street-era lineup of the Neville Brothers proud.
In 1980, capping a flurry of personnel changes and stylistic shifts, Cuccia and Hicks exited the group, which is now known simply as the Topcats. But the duo continued to ply their musical chops in nightclubs from Bourbon Street to Williams Boulevard. Cuccia also has cut a CD on Gary Edwards’ Sound of New Orleans label, featuring top local sidemen such as saxophonist Jerry Jumonville, guitarist Cranston Clements, keyboardist Joe Krown, and drummer Barry Flippen. To purchase or to hear samples, click here.
Besides playing Saturday nights at the Third Rock with the “Meat Department” band, Cuccia also leads the Swinging Jewels (sans Hicks) on Thursday nights at Waloo’s on North Causeway Boulevard in Metry. The Jewels comprise drummer Joey Catalanotto from the Wiseguys; grittily soulful singer-songwriter Gary Hirstius (also a former Topcat); and bassist Thomas McDonald, who has probably picked up a riff or two from his legendary neighbor: jazz and R&B bassist Peter “Chuck” Badie of Harold Battiste’s trailblazing AFO Records. A monsterly funky bassist, McDonald also can sing his ass off — as well as slap out a scatlike syncopated melody on his shaved head. His version of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” otherwise known as the national anthem of the state of Louisiana, is as soul-drenched as the original, and his vocal modulations will make your baby’s heart flutter and squeeze you a little bit tighter as you’re slow-dragging together on the dancefloor.
Yes, hearts are fluttering at a Swinging Jewels/Meat Department show, but so is the laughter. These wisecracking clowns are simply hilarious. When you’ve played for decades on Bourbon Street for practically nothing but the sheer love of rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve got to develop a sense of humor. The outrageous jokes and Three Stooges humor run constantly like diarrhea of the mouth as the musicians take verbal shots at the audience and each other.
Coasting on seemingly nine lives, the modern-day incarnation of the Topcats is busier than ever, still playing club dates, school fairs, and festivals. But the heart and the soul of the band once known as T.Q. and the Topcats resides elsewhere, and can usually be found on Williams Boulevard in the unforgettable — and only in New Orleans — form of Charlie Cuccia and Jeff Hicks, brothers for life in their own uniquely hardcore brand of hey-brah groove.