Ponderosa Stomp fans know that the most magical sounds often emanate from the most primitive of conditions. Take, for instance, the flood of hits that flowed from the legendary 15-by-16-foot hole in the wall that comprised Cosimo Matassa’s original J&M recording studio on Rampart Street. The same with Eddie Shuler’s tiny Goldband studio, which he opened in the rear of his TV repair shop in Lake Charles. The landmark songs recorded in just those two Looziana incubators – like Antoine Domino’s “The Fat Man,” Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do,” and Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” – mesmerize listeners almost because of their technical limitations, not in spite of them.
Likewise, Jivin’ Gene, aka Gene Bourgeois, of Port Arthur, Texas, began his ascent to swamp-pop immortality by singing in the toilet. Not his greatest hit, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” but rather the equally swampy “Going Out With the Tide,” later covered by another Meaux protégé, Freddy Fender (here in a duet with Tommy McLain).
“He walked in with blue jeans and bare feet and kinda like Clark Kent’s version of Superman, with horn-rimmed glasses. And he wanted me to record his rock ‘n’ roll band. I told him I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but if he wanted to bring his band in, let’s get down to it. In the KPAC studio there was an old Magnecord in mono – you never heard of stereo in those days – and two pots and a toilet in the corner of the room. And he had to sing in the toilet. I had a big old RCA ribbon mike, a diamond-shaped thing, and I hung it up on the boom and put my amplifiers in a horseshoe shape. The drums had to be way back. I thought I was gonna have to put them out in the street before it was over ‘cause it was getting too loud. I called [Ville Platte’s Jin label owner] Floyd [Soileau], saying, ‘I think this guy has potential.’”
Soileau would release “Going Out With the Tide” as Jin 109 (backed with “Up, Up, and Away”), and it became a regional hit. Bourgeois confirms the story, but with a different twist. “Yeah, I really did sing in the shitter. But it was because I was so shy, I didn’t want anyone looking at me when I sang,” he told the 30 Days Out blogger.
In a separate post, 30 Days Out writes about the sonic effects of the commode in creating the plaintive swamp-pop sound (though apparently confusing “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” with “Going Out With the Tide”):
“My favorite Gene story was about the time they recorded ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’ at KPAC radio studios in Port Arthur. Gene used to get stage fright when he sang, even when the audience was only his band and a producer. So Huey stuck Gene in the men’s room along with a microphone and turned out the lights. The great echo you hear on the song came from that location – and it became a trademark of the great Texas-Meets-Louisiana swamp rock sound. Every time I think of Port Arthur, that tune begins to play in my brain: ‘Breaking up is hard to doooooooo/Making up is the thing to doooooooo.’”
Meaux and Soileau then booked a recording session for Jivin’ Gene at Jay Miller’s storied studio in Crowley, La., and it was there that Gene cut the definitive version of his most famous tune, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” which hit #69 on the Billboard charts in 1959. According to Soileau:
“It was about Gene’s wife problems. We did a Fats Domino-type thing and put the record out. Right away Huey started getting airplay on it in East Texas, and I got airplay on it down in this area, and things started happening. And Bill Hall still had his eyes open, and we made a deal with him to get it in on Mercury Records. And as a result his Big Bopper Music got the publishing on the original sides and that was his compensation. And Huey managed the artist and I had the record label and the record company, so I had my compensation. We had a three-way thing going there for a while, and Mercury took on with Jivin’ Gene and did fairly well with him.”
The hit record resulted in Gene appearing on numerous major TV shows and touring nationwide with the popular singers and bands of the day. Other tunes on You Tube by Gene include “Poor Me,” “You Make a Fool of Me,” “Just a Memory of You,” “The Creek Don’t Rise,” “Genie Bom Beanie,” and “You’re Jealous.”
Gene went on to do further recording for Mercury, mostly in Nashville, even redoing a version of “Going Out With the Tide” – cum violins – that made The Cash Box listings in 1960. However, somewhere in the process the “swamp” got taken out of the swamp pop. As Warren Storm, whose own Nashville recordings sound slightly castrated compared with his Louisiana-recorded oeuvre, would tell Shane Bernard in “Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues” about his Music City studio experience:
“Oh yeah. It wasn’t swamp pop. It was more pop than anything else. … It was the Nashville sound, that’s where it was. Nashville. … It was mechanical because it was the Nashville sound. All the records that came out of there, it was the same music background.”
(Apparently Nashville producers found little need to turn to the outhouse as an acoustical accoutrement, what with Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, and Chet Atkins in house at any given time.)
Bourgeois would later record for Chess, Hall-Way, and TCF-Hall into the 1960s before dropping out of music for almost 20 years and working as an insulator – reportedly even plying his trade on the Alaskan pipeline like so many other Cajuns who have found work around the globe in the petroleum industry both on- and offshore. [See author Woody Falgoux’s “Rise of the Cajun Mariners.”]
By the 1980s, nostalgia for the past took hold, and the accolades began to pour in. Gene was inducted in 1993 into the Louisiana Hall of Fame (Lou Gabus’ precursor to the current hall) and the Museum of the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame in 1995, and he received the Louisiana Hall of Fame Living Legend Award in June 2003.
In recent years Gene has joined forces with fellow East Texan Ken Marvel, a keyboardist and singer whose working band provides able backing for Bourgeois on his semi-regular gigs. However, as a bandleader in his own right, Marvel is not content, like so many other groups, to merely recycle the golden swamp-pop oldies in letter-perfect, note-for-note renditions. Yes, he pays tribute to the masters, but on his two CDs (“Mr. Swamp Pop” and “Swamp Pop Music”) Marvel has actually written numerous well-crafted original songs with mature themes, sung with passion and earnestness. And it doesn’t hurt that he uses a crack coonass band for his recording sessions (including Warren Storm, Wayne Toups, Jon Smith, Pat Breaux, Jason Parfait, Steve Grisaffe, Tony Ardoin, and Mike Burch, among others). Be sure to catch Marvel playing around East Texas’ Golden Triangle area or else at his occasional Louisiana appearances.
No longer reliant on the porcelain gods for acoustical succor, Jivin’ Gene has reunited with Floyd Soileau’s Jin label with a new CD, “It’s Never Too Late,” recorded at David Rachou’s La Louisianne studio in Lafayette and released in 2009. Gene wrote or co-wrote nearly every cut on the 14-song CD and is backed by Warren Storm on drums and rubboard, Ken Marvel on keys, and Rick Folse (son of legendary Vin Bruce band alumnus Pott Folse) on sax, among others.