“GG gave me his notice. He wanted to start his own group. … An artist with the talent of a GG Shinn does not need to share the money 12 ways.” – Boogie Kings bandleader Ned Theall, recounting Shinn’s exit from the group
It was 1966 when singer-trumpeter GG Shinn split from the Boogie Kings. But his legacy with Louisiana’s longest-running rock ‘n’ roll band is so strong that his spirit never really left. His short-but-indelible stint, during which time he fueled a power-packed vocal tandem with Jerry Lacroix, is still considered the group’s apex. And that’s saying something, given the cavalcade of great singers who’ve done tours of duty within the BK ranks, like Clint West, Tommy McLain, Lil’ Alfred Babino, Duane Yates, Allen Wayne, and Gregg Martinez, to name just a few. Shinn and his monstrous vocal chops make their welcome return to this year’s 10th annual Ponderosa Stomp.
GG Shinn and Jerry LaCroix, the King Brothers
In its heyday the twin Shinn-Lacroix vocal attack drew admiration even from megastars. “The Righteous Brothers really were in awe of GG and Jerry. Bill [Medley] and Bobby [Hatfield] have made many public comments about the talent of these two guys,” Theall recalled. Dubbing themselves “the King Brothers,” Shinn and Lacroix teamed up on numerous duets like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Let It Be Me.” It was their unbridled artistry and soul that lifted the Boogie Kings – as tight and musically proficient as the musicians themselves were – from mere cover band to something loftier.
As Theall added:
“The two years that we had GG and Jerry as a team molded the sound and style of the band as we totally broke away from the old sound of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. These two guys were so strong that many of our fans think that this was the ‘original’ Boogie Kings. They made such a huge impact on our success that it simply can’t be measured. … The odd thing about them is their contrasting styles. GG has this sweet, pure, smooth voice with a dramatic high register, and Jerry has a rough, get-down-and-dirty, soulful voice. But the two of them together would make the most beautiful blend of rhythm and blues music that the Boogie Kings have ever had.”
And once a Boogie King, always a Boogie King, as evidenced by Shinn’s reappearances with the group during modern-day reunion shows. But who is GG Shinn? Quite frankly, his full story has yet to be told. But Shinn was born Aug. 25, 1939, and hails from Franklin, La., where in 1956 he formed his first band, the Flat Tops. By 1963 he was recruited into the Boogie Kings, which had been founded in 1955 in Eunice, La., by Doug Ardoin, Bert Miller, and Harris Miller. The band played everywhere around Louisiana and east Texas, gaining in notoriety particularly at the Bamboo Club in Lake Charles and the Big Oaks club in Vinton near the Texas border, the latter club drawing a young Janis Joplin as a patron.
The Boogie Kings at their peak in 1965, with Jerry LaCroix and GG Shinn.
According to Theall: “We played at the Big Oaks every weekend and the crowds were tremendous. One had to be 21 years old in Texas to purchase liquor, but in Louisiana, one only had to be 18. The club was located about a half mile from the Texas border, so the kids would come over in droves to get boozed up.”
Floyd Soileau of Ville Platte’s Jin label hired the band to record their first album, titled “Clint West and the Fabulous Boogie Kings,” which included the West vocal showcase “The Twelfth of Never.” But by 1965 West split from the Boogie Kings, and Texas singer Jerry LaCroix joined. As Theall tells it: “The band’s only competition was a band called ‘Jerry and the Dominos.’ We were wiping them out so badly that Jerry gave up his band and called me for a job with the Boogie Kings. I hated for that to happen because we really admired Jerry’s band. But then again, I was very happy to have the opportunity to work with Jerry. We had 11 pieces already, but I hired him anyway because of his enormous talent.”
Recalling the first time he heard the Boogie Kings, Lacroix noted:
“It was like a freight train coming through that room! These guys had five tenor saxophones, a couple of trumpets, a Hammond B-3 organ and one of those Louisiana drummers. They were playing all of that what is now called swamp pop music back then. Fats Domino, Bobby Charles, Louisiana-style music. These guys were really super powerful. They were great. So, after our band kind of disbanded, all of my friends went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. So, I said if I can’t lick these guys I’ll join them. I called up Ned [Theall], the leader of the band, and asked him if he could use another singer. He said, ‘Come on.’ There were three lead singers and all the horn players sang like black chicks in a gospel choir. They had beautiful voices. It was just an incredible band.”
A chance encounter with Sam Montel of Baton Rouge, who had been the force behind Dale and Grace of “I’m Leaving It Up to You” and “Stop and Think It Over,” led to a recording session at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans. The resulting album, “Sam Montel Presents the Boogie Kings,” includes the key tracks that cemented Shinn’s place in the annals of Louisiana rhythm and blues. Rich with Shinn’s jaw-dropping vocal gymnastics, those songs include “The Crying Man,” “Fever,” “Funny How Times Slips Away,” “Harlem Shuffle,” and “Devil of a Girl” (the latter penned by Morgan City rockabilly swamp-popper Vince Anthony Guzzetta).
By May 1966, the Boogie Kings scored an extended gig in Lake Tahoe, Nev., and according to Theall, “this was to be the last major appearance of the GG and Jerry team.” In 2010, Shinn told the Houston Chronicle: “I left the band because I wanted a small band that could travel better. That big band, it was just too expensive to move around.” Shinn formed a group called the Roller Coasters, which released the infamous “Putt-Putt” album, whose cover featured a trumpet-blowing, suit-wearing Shinn fronting a seven-piece ensemble (including two drum kits) set up on a miniature golf course.
Below is an audio recording of Shinn playing the 1968 Port Sulphur High School prom in Plaquemines Parish during this Roller Coasters period of his career, performing dynamic versions of the Temptations’ “Get Ready” and Glenn Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman.”
According to the Houston Chronicle:
In 1966, he put the Roller Coasters together and Lacroix joined him about a year later. The band was together for “two or three years,” Shinn recalled.
The Roller Coasters did shows up and down the Gulf Coast and played in Miami a lot, he said. “That was fun. Those days are gone.”
Shinn and Lacroix went separate ways. Shinn joined a jazz-rock fusion band called Chase, which produced two albums in the early 1970s. Shinn joined Chase in the middle of the recording session for the second album, “Ennea,” which was released in 1972.
As told by Theall in his inimitable style:
G.G. Shinn had replaced the lead vocalist in the Chase band. Their vocalist had split when the song “Get It On” went all the way to No. 1. Sound familiar? I knew Bill Chase personally. He was a brilliant trumpet player and a great person. I went to the first rehearsal of the band Chase. I remember it well, because Bill forgot his mouthpiece, and I loaned him mine. GG did the vocals on Chase’s second album. It was a masterpiece of an album, but it did not go anywhere. Shortly after the second album was released, Bill Chase was killed in a plane crash, and the world lost a great trumpet player and a wonderful man. Rest in peace, my brother. GG’s big opportunity was delayed by an act of fate. But he was lucky not to be in the plane with Bill.
Although the first Chase album sold nearly 400,000 copies, “Ennea” was not as well-received by the public. One likely reason was a shift away from trumpet sections. A single, “So Many People,” received some radio play, but the side-two-filling “Ennea” suite, with its tightly chorded jazz arrangements and lyrics based on Greek mythology, was less radio-friendly.
Shinn toured with Chase, even traveling to Japan, and YouTube videos of that tour capture Shinn’s overwhelming vocal power for posterity. Though Bill Chase is dead, the group’s members still perform together at reunion gigs.
According to the Houston Chronicle: “Shinn formed a band called T.S.C. Trucking Company and spent time in Las Vegas. That band lasted for about 15 years.” According to guitarist Gerry Mouton’s Web site bio: “While Gerry was with G.G., they played all over the country. Beaumont, Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Little Rock, Panama City, Nashville, Memphis, Louisville, Iowa City, Denver, Aspen, Monroe, Jackson, Biloxi, Ruston, Joplin and more places than Gerry can remember.” The band likely also included Boogie King/White Trash sax player Jon Smith and future Toto singer Bobby Kimball at one time or another. Shinn also has played with Luther Kent, who said of GG: “Always loved singing with GG. We did a few gigs with the Chicken Hawks, also with the Boogie Kings. GG is one of the greatest vocalists I’ve ever heard!!!!!!!”
Shinn “returned to Louisiana in 1986 and opened up a nightclub in Lake Charles,” according to the Chronicle. “He got married and moved north to Monroe, when he opened another club. Now he has a club in Alexandria, which coincidentally is the town where Lacroix was born.”
In 1992, Shinn formed a veritable supergroup with fellow Louisiana legends John Fred Gourrier of “Judy in Disguise” fame and country-music artist Joe Stampley, a north Louisianian whose 1960s group the Uniques scored a regional hit with a cover of the Allen Toussaint composition “All These Things” and landed on “American Bandstand.” Performing as the Louisiana Boys, the trio also recorded a 1997 album of the same name, produced by Howard Cowart, who played the famous bass line on “Judy in Disguise.”
In 2000, Shinn released a great album on Gary Edwards’ Sound of New Orleans label, titled “You Can Never Keep a Good Man Down.” Shinn is joined by an all-star cast of Crescent City R&B masters, including drummer Harry Ravain (a former latter-day Boogie King), pianist Al Farrell, guitarist Allen Poche, and tenor saxist Jerry Jumonville. Standout tracks include the title song as well as a version of “Two Steps From the Blues” that’s a dead ringer for Bobby “Blue” Bland, and a scorching rendition of Danny White’s “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (with blazing guitar work from Poche).
If you’re ever in Alexandria, GG’s nightclub is the hottest spot in town, though one gets the impression that most patrons have little to no idea of the owner’s musical pedigree. Just make sure the legend is performing on the night you go. The club also brings in acts like Cajun accordionist Wayne Toups, soul icon Percy Sledge, swamp-pop singers like Warren Storm and TK Hulin, and country and cover bands, though the focus of the mostly under-40 crowd seems to be on dancing to the DJ’s tunes. While you’re there, pick up a copy of GG’s “Christmas with GG Shinn” CD, in which Shinn breathes brand-new soul into those sometimes-tired holiday standards. You can also catch GG singing around the state and in Texas at festivals and clubs, where he often team ups with TK Hulin to re-create the electric duets of his “King Brothers” days. With Boogie Kings bandleader Ned Theall having died in 2010 after a final Boogie Kings CD that included GG on several tracks, that band’s future is up in the air, though original founder Doug Ardoin is now fronting a new lineup. What’s not up in the air is that GG Shinn remains one of Louisiana’s most powerful singers. If you have any doubts about what blue-eyed soul is all about, catch him at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp. GG will school you.
The opening of the Morganza Spillway to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from potentially massive Mississippi River flooding has many Ponderosa Stomp fans breathing a sigh of relief, but not so for those still in harm’s way: the hardy denizens of the Atchafalaya Basin’s culturally rich communities, which have served as spawning grounds for Cajun, swamp-pop, and other visceral forms of Looziana music.
“There have been some unique communities in the Atchafalaya Swamp then and now,” writes Jiro “Jireaux” Hatano in a 2003 article titled “The Music Entertainment in the Atchafalaya Swamp.” “While some of them were abandoned after the great flood of 1927, others are still alive, and a couple of communities are doing well at music entertainment business.” As the great flood of 2011 looms, how many of these fragile but surviving music epicenters will be wiped out?
Ancient moss-draped cypress trees tower above the Atchafalaya Swamp.
The dancefloor at Whiskey River Landing in Henderson, awaiting the arrival of the likes of Steve Riley or Geno Delafose.
Swamp-pop legend Tommy McLain performs in front of the massive swamp-scene mural at Pat's Atchafalaya Club in Henderson.
But head south toward Morgan City, where the Atchafalaya River meets the Gulf of Mexico, and along the swamps and bayous and lakes of the basin you’ll find in little one-horse towns – or just up the bend along winding country roads amid dense junglelike vegetation – some still-vibrant oases of coonass culture, where the multi-generations (grandparents, mom/dad, and grandchildren) all come out to kick out the jams on Saturday nights, learn the Cajun two-step at the Sunday fais do-dos, and scream “Aaaaaiiiieeeeeee” to their sometimes angst-ridden, other-times joyous ancestral sounds.
In the relatively large petroleum-powered burg of Morgan City you might find one Vince Anthony, former Looziana rockabilly blazer from the late 1950s who now cranks out countless CDs of well-crafted swamp-pop originals — with the same regularity that sugar cane is harvested each fall — all sung in a voice as smooth as Mello Joy coffee and rich as Steen’s cane syrup. Born Vincent Guzzetta, Anthony and his band the Blue Notes recorded singles for the Hilton and Viking labels, including at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary studio in New Orleans. Later, GG Shinn recorded a scorching version of the Anthony-penned “Devil of a Girl” for Montel Records in Baton Rouge.
Morgan City swamp-popper and rockabilly guitarist Vince Anthony in the late 1950s or early '60s.
Morgan City also served as the post-rock retirement home of former Specialty recording artist and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack runnin’ pardner Jerry Byrne of “Lights Out” fame (not to mention “Carry On” and the humid south Looziana dirge “Raining.”). Having eschewed the decadent life of dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music in his later years, Byrne died in 2010, an apparently successful nonmusical businessman.
Specialty recording artist and longtime Morgan City resident Jerry Byrne ("Lights Out").
Brothers in swamp pop and unique hairstyles: Warren Storm and Don Rich pose outside LA Cajun Stuff record store in Houma.
North toward Pierre Part, along Louisiana Highway 70 midway between Morgan City and Donaldsonville, you’ll find yourself on the shores of Lake Verret – in Don Rich country. Son of the legendary-in-those-parts musician Golen Richard, Cajun keyboardist, accordionist, and soulful singer-songwriter Don Rich is keeping the swamp-pop fires burning in numerous gigs along the U.S. 90 corridor stretching from Lake Charles to Gretna.
Don Rich's sister, Liz the Gator Queen from the "Swamp People" TV show.
A Jin recording artist and Louisiana and West Bank music hall-of-fame member, Rich also tips his hat to traditional Cajun music, classic country such as George Jones, and soul giants like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. When the godfathers of swamp pop pass into that great sock hop in the sky, Don Rich will take his rightful place as an elder statesman of the tear-jerking genre. Don also has a few notable relatives, including cousin Bobby “Da Cajun” Richard, a disc jockey with a swamp-pop and Cajun show on KCIL 107.5 FM in Houma, as well as his sister Liz “The Gator Queen,” who is starring on The History Channel’s “Swamp People” show.
Don Rich is no stranger to the musical venues of Pierre Part and environs, and this writer had the pleasure of visiting one that now is lost to the ages, perhaps a casualty of Hurricane Gustav’s rising waters in 2008: Chilly’s on Lake Verret (827 Shell Beach Road). “The Cajun Country Guide” by Macon Fry and Julie Posner describes the boisterous joint in its latter heyday:
“This is just a great place, a hidden treasure! How could such a wildly popular dance hall exist since the 1930s on a tiny scrap of sinking land 2.5 miles off the Baton Rouge to Morgan City Highway? It helps that the dance hall actually sits on stilts over tranquil Lake Verret and that hundreds of recreational fishermen back their boats in here on weekends. Slow dancers can gaze out the window at moonlight and moss reflecting on the water. The place does not look very old; according to current owner ‘Chilly’ Russo, grandson of the original builder, it was 75 percent obliterated by Hurricane Andrew and few years earlier 50 percent destroyed by Hurricane Juan. After each storm a new plywood floor was placed on the old pilings. A young crowd shows up for the Saturday-night Swamp Pop shows by local singer Don Rich, but the big event is the Sunday-afternoon Cajun dance. Folks drive from Morgan City and Baton Rouge or come by boat from around Lake Verret to dance, drink, and hang out on the patio by the lake.”
Indeed, this place was a true gem, reminiscent of the now-obliterated seafood shacks and camps mounted on pilings at New Orleans’ West End and elsewhere along Lake Pontchartrain. Here’s a video of Foret Tradition playing the Fats Domino classic “Josephine” at Chilly’s (also known as “The Old Lake” club).
The legendary swamp-pop/Cajun music stronghold Chilly's nightclub, mounted over rickety pilings on Lake Verret.
Alas, Chilly’s is gone-pecan, but still going strong is the Rainbow Inn on La. 70. According to Fry/Posner:
“The Rainbow is perhaps the quintessential South Louisiana barroom and dance hall. Built in the late thirties, it is a wooden structure with a broad stucco face that sports two round Coke signs and its name is bold red lettering. An old kitchen and dining area in one side is now unused, but the main room with its long bar and wide dance floor still gets action. Bands are scheduled intermittently but usually on Thursday night. The favorite performer is Don Rich, a young local Swamp Pop singer. In its heyday the Rainbow got top Country acts as well as South Louisiana stars like Johnny Allan and Warren Storm.”
The circa-1930s Rainbow Inn in Pierre Part, also known as "Don Rich country."
Another amazing throwback-style dancehall is Stevie G’s in nearby Belle River, also on La. 70. This joint really packs them in, and during breaks from the live music, the dance floor fills up with young flesh cavorting and gyrating to the sounds of a DJ, generating a sexy, sweaty scene not much different from a late-night Crescent City meat-market bar such as F&M’s or the Goldmine. But when Don Rich or one of the visiting swamp-pop legends takes the stage on weekends, you know you’re in Cajun country, and the elder folk join their younger progeny to cut the rug in grand, effortless, and tireless fashion. Stevie G’s also brings in the torch-bearing young Turks of swamp pop from New Orleans’ West Bank – bands like Foret Tradition, Junior and Sumtin Sneaky, and Brad Sapia – as well as the hugely popular college-and-beer-oriented zydeco stars Jamie Bergeron and Travis Matte from central Acadiana.
The packed dancefloor at Chilly's on Lake Verret near Pierre Part.
A glowing billboard beckons to swamp-pop lovers outside Stevie G's nightclub in Belle River.
Music abounds from the teeming Cajun bayous, but then so does the food – and not just seafood. And some music joints have found new life serving up the grub. One unique venue just outside Morgan City perfects finger-licking-good yardbird in an imposingly squat venue a few miles off U.S. 90: Chester’s Cypress Inn. According to Fry/Posner:
“Nestled in a stand of cypress trees halfway between Houma and Morgan City, this little hideaway has the best fried chicken this side of grandma’s kitchen table. A sign boasts, ‘If the Colonel had our recipe, he’d be a general.’ You won’t find any nouveau Cajun cuisine here, just plates piled high with fried chicken, fish, froglegs, and mounds of crispy onion rings. Chester Boudreaux has passed away, but his children, Calvin Boudreaux and Bobbie LaRose, have kept the Inn much the same as it was when he opened in the forties. The tables are still covered in plastic, and the waitresses still carry cardboard plates laden with golden fried food from the adjacent building that houses the kitchen. Crowds drive the twenty miles from Morgan City and Houma (past dozens of new fast-food franchises) to eat in the homey dining room that once housed a dance hall.”
Chester's Cypress Inn outside Morgan City, where a motorcycling Bob Dylan ate the onion rings.
And I’m not the only outsider captivated by the semi-submerged charms of Looziana’s backroad bastions of swamp culture: No less than Robert Zimmerman, aka world-renowned rock bard Bob Dylan, famously describes a motorcycle sojourn he took through these sugarcane- and cypress-studded hinterlands during his 1990s stint living in New Orleans to record for producer Daniel Lanois. Dylan too has partaken of the joys of Chester’s antique grease, according to this excerpt from his autobiography “Chronicles”:
“Crossing into Thibodaux, we rode near Bayou Lafourche. It was a clammy day, light rain off and on and the clouds were breaking up, heat lightning low on the horizon. The town has got a lot of streets with tree names, Oak Street, Magnolia Street, Willow Street, Sycamore Street. West 1st Street runs alongside the bayou. We walked on a boardwalk that ran out into the water above the eerie wetlands-small islands of grass in the distance and pontoon boats. It was quiet. If you looked you could spot a snake on a tree branch.
“I moved the bike up close near an old water tower. We got off and walked around, walked along adjoining roads dwarfed by ancient cypress trees, some seven hundred years old. It felt far enough away from the city, the dirt roads surrounded by lush sugarcane fields, labyrinths of moss walls in crumbled heaps, marshlands and soft mud all around. On the bike again we cruised along Pecan Street, then over by St. Joseph’s Church, which is modeled after one in Paris or Rome. Inside there’s supposed to be the actual severed arm of an early Christian martyr. Nicholls State University, the poor man’s Harvard, is just up the street. On St. Patrick’s Street we rode past the palatial grand homes and big plantation houses, deep porched and with many windows. There’s an antebellum courthouse that stands next to clapboard halls. Ancient oak trees and decrepit shacks side by side. It felt good to be off by ourselves.
“It was early afternoon and we’d been going for a while. Dust was blowing, my mouth was dry and my nose was clogged. Feeling hungry, we stopped into Chester’s Cypress Inn on Route 20 near Morgan City, a fried chicken, fish and frog legs joint. I was beginning to get weary. The waitress came over to the table and said, ‘How about eating?’ I looked at the menu, then I looked at my wife. The one thing about her that I always loved was that she was never one of those people who thinks that someone else is the answer to their happiness. Me or anybody else. She’s always had her own built-in happiness. I valued her opinion and I trusted her. ‘You order,’ I said. Next thing I know, fried catfish, okra and Mississippi mud pie came to the table. The kitchen was next door in another building. Both the catfish and the pie were on cardboard plates, but I wasn’t nearly as hungry as I thought I was — just ate the onion rings.
“Later on, we rode south towards Houma. On the west side of the road there’s cattle grazing and egrets, herons with slender legs standing in shallow bays – pelicans, houseboats, roadside fishing – oyster boats, small mud boats – steps that lead to small piers running out into the water. We kept rolling on, started crossing different kinds of bridges, some swinging, some lifting. On Stevensonville Road we crossed a canal bridge by a little country store and the road turned to gravel and began to wind treacherously through the swamps. The air smelled foul. Still water – humid air, rank and rotten. Kept riding south until we saw oil rigs and supply boats, then turned around and headed again towards Thibodaux. Thibodaux was neither here nor there and my mind started thinking opposites. Thinking about maybe going up to the Yukon country, someplace where we could really bundle up. By dusk we’d found a place to stay outside of Napoleonville. We pulled in for the night and I shut the bike down. It was a nice ride.
“We stayed at a bed-and-breakfast cottage that was behind a pillared plantation house with sculpted studded garden paths, a cream stucco bungalow that had a certain charm stood like a miniature Greek temple. The room had a four poster comfortable bed and an antique table – the rest, camp style furnishings, and it came with a kitchenette equipped with utensils, but we didn’t eat there. I laid down, listened to the crickets and wildlife out the window in the eerie blackness. I liked the night. Things grow at night. My imagination is available to me at night. All my preconceptions of things go away. Sometimes you could be looking for heaven in the wrong places. Sometimes it could be under your feet. Or in your bed.”
Speaking of Houma, one of the best places to buy swamp-pop and Cajun music CDs (when not listening to the power-packed programming on KLRZ-FM out of Larose or KMRC in Morgan City) is at LA Cajun Stuff in the Southland Mall, a staunch booster of local music from in and around the Atchafalaya Basin, with numerous in-store performances with artists such as Vin Bruce and Treater, always-free bottomless coffee, and the colorful conversation and down-home hospitality of owners Pat and Dale Guidry. A former shrimper from Cut Off — the same town that spawned ex-Saint QB Bobby Hebert and swamp-pop legend Joe Barry — the bilingual Dale is often called out to speak French to the visiting buses of European tourists hungry for a genuine ethnolinguistic experience to write home about. Swamp-pop singer-songwriter and Stomp favorite Jerry Raines of “Our Teenage Love” fame also still calls Houma home these days.
LA Cajun Stuff at the Southland Mall in Houma, your source for swamp-pop, Cajun, and zydeco music.
These are just a few of the Looziana cultural islands — and icons — at risk from the spillway’s rising floodwaters. Though this Touro Infirmary baby can’t claim to know even a fraction of them intimately or to have even scratched surface in describing this diverse, multi-ethnic area, I’d feel gut-punched if they are swept away – like so many legendary local venues lost to the eroding sands of time and/or decay (and a tidal wave of parking lots), like the Dew Drop Inn and the Club Tijuana in New Orleans, the Joy Lounge in Gretna, or the Junkyard in Marrero. And America will have lost some of the remaining, endangered vestiges of a rich culture whose roots can be traced back to the Acadians’ Grand Dérangement and whose contributions to the nation — and indeed the world — are incalculable. And like the wetlands that envelop it — irreplaceable.
The opening of the Morganza Spillway threatens an Atchafalaya Basin teeming with life -- and music.
I had just purchased six piping-hot, 8-inch rice-and-porkers at the Sausage Link on old U.S. 90 in Sulphur, Looziana, when I glanced down at the newspaper rack by the exit door and spied a surprisingly familiar sight in this almost-alien swampland. Had I drunk too much beer at the Kaw-Liga bar down the road, where I had eavesdropped on the locals debating whether an actual wildcat had killed old man Guidry’s horse? Or was I really seeing what I was seeing?
The cover of the freebie magazine on the rack featured the photo of a man gripping sticks from behind a drum kit, namely “Lightning Mitchell” of Lake Charles, with the headline reading: “He’s Been Jamming With the Legends for Over 60 Years. Now He’s Chilling With Us.” I shamefully did not recall having heard of Mitchell before, but the article informed me that he was the drummer on Phil Phillips’ immortal “Sea of Love” and Boozoo Chavis’ pioneering zydeco landmark, “Paper in My Shoe,” and had played with the likes of Katie Webster and Lil’ Alfred.
But what had made me do my surprised double take was the striking poster on the wall behind Lightning: “Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau.” It was the Ponderosa Stomp poster for Year #2 (2003), with its roll call of legendary names like Billy “Boy” Arnold, Jody Williams, Henry Gray, and all those usual suspects. You had better bet your ducktails that Lightning Mitchell is a fan of the Ponderosa Stomp—and vice versa.
I was on my way to the VFW Hall in Starks, LA., near the Texas border, for a star-studded and certainly very Stomp-like bill: Warren Storm, Willie “Tee” Trahan, Tommy McLain, TK Hulin, and Charles Mann. The occasion for such an illustrious lineup was the Jack W. Johnson Memorial Dance. Jack had been a trumpet player for Louisiana Express, one of the go-to backing bands used by all the swamp-pop legends, such as those playing this show, as well as Lil’ Alfred, Johnnie Allan, and many others.
I had phoned the promoter a week before to reserve tickets and a table. My call all the way from New Orleans had no doubt jolted the late Jack Johnson’s brother, Don, who was producing the show in Jack’s memory. After all, it’s no hop, skip, and a jump from the Old Gumbo to the Sabine River. I was slightly worried that Don would view my citified status with suspicion, a la that famous scene from “Easy Rider,” when the xenophobic small-town guy in the diner notes disdainfully to his country compatriots: “Check the flag on that bike.”
But at the VFW Hall, after Warren Storm informed me that Don wanted to meet the guy who had come all the way from the Crescent to Calcasieu, my trepidation immediately dissipated. Don took one look at the tricked-out embroidered rooster ballcap on my head, smiled, and held up a hand to reveal a scar running at least 7 inches from his palm up his arm. “Steel-spurred rooster got me 20 years ago,” he revealed with a twinkle in his eye. Pumping his scarred right mitt, I knew then that Don and I were 100% simpatico.
And as the music started, we were immediately transported back to the late 1950s, when the U.S. dollar was as good as gold and swamp pop was king. The VFW Hall was jammed with booted, cowboy-hatted, and Hawaiian-shirted dudes and their dates, who were dressed to the nines and smelling like perfume factories, drowning out the faint industrial reek of nearby Sulphur and Lake Charles. This was the hottest ticket in town. The only minor disappointment of the night was that our reserved seating at a long row of tables was so packed with Cajun and Texan flesh that we opted to stand for most of the night just offstage near the merchandise table, around which the headliners were seated like so many Cabinet secretaries or heads of the five New York famiglias. So though we mostly stood, we were near enough to touch the hems of their godlike garments.
And moving away from the hoi polloi’s tables might have been a lifesaving strategy. With so many rabid dancers coming and going as the band shifted gears in rapid-fire succession from belly-rubbers to jitterbuggers, sitting in those crowded aisles might have been deadlier than a Who arena show marred by trampling casualties. So dense was the stampede back and forth from tables to dancefloor that I could almost hear the mounted Cajun cowboy’s cry of “Hippy Ti Yo!” riding herd on the rug-cutters running furiously pell-mell to relive their youths with every frenzied dance step.
Charles Mann and Warren Storm
Anyone familiar with the Ponderosa Stomp needs no introduction to the legends who graced the stage at the Starks VFW that night. Tommy McLain, the benevolent leprechaun-like John the Baptist figure in a frosty-white beard, still singing with the voice of an angel after all these years. Charles “Red Red Wine” Mann, emoting intensely on-stage like a cross between Jerry Lee’s preacher cousin Jimmy Swaggart and soul master Otis Redding. Willie “Tee”, a gentle bear of man with a Satchmo-like gravelly voice and a growling sax. TK Hulin, whose uncannily youthful rock-star looks and authoritative Tom Jones aura fuel his nonstop dynamic stage presence as he belts out the unforgettable chorus to “Alligator Bayou”: “I’m a good-time, hard-lovin’ Cajun man.” Truer words were never spoken. And then, certainly the Caucasian equivalent of Lazy Lester in the Ponderosa Stomp pantheon of music giants: Warren Storm, who can dub himself “The Godfather of Swamp Pop Music” without anyone batting an eye, so deep is the stentorian soulfulness of his bayou wail and pleading, tremelo-like vocal quaver. At 70-something, we can forgive him for not pounding the skins that night. We also don’t bat an eye at the notion of driving practically to the Sabine River Turnaround to see this atomic bomb from Abbeville delivering the goods one more time.
And let’s not forget the backing band, Cypress, who brought .44 Magnum musical firepower to befit the occasion—and each member a card-carrying coonass to boot. Many touring swamp-pop legends find themselves stuck with mediocre pickup bands playing without benefit of rehearsal. Not Cypress. Honing their chops as Storm and Tee’s regular outfit on at least eight gigs a month, these minstrels are well-versed with the stars’ material as well as each other. Composed of two relatively youngish bucks on bass and drums (Scott Broussard and Kyle Dugas) and two more seasoned veterans on keyboard and guitar (Karl Bordelon and Tommy Richard), the Cypress band galloped along like a frisky quarterhorse at a Cajun bush track—a sure bet at any big race. Bordelon even picked up the trumpet on occasion to sound a few Gabriel’s notes, no doubt as the night’s honoree, Jack Johnson, smiled down from Swamp Pop Heaven.
Honoree Jack Johnson's portrait held by his survivors
As the evening wore down, it got to be crying time again as we paused to reflect on Jack Johnson. Over muffled tears and blinding flashbulbs, we took pictures of Jack’s survivors posing with a framed portrait of the trumpeter that had been signed by all the swamp-pop legends on the bill. Through whiskied breath I tried to coax some smiles out of the siblings, reminding them that this was Jack’s party and he would want the occasion to be a festive one. They did their best to comply.
Warren Storm reads raffle numbers with promoter Don Johnson's wife
And though the show was almost over, Warren Storm had one more special performance to give: He spent a good 20 minutes reading off the winning numbers for the parade-of-prizes raffle tickets that had been sold. At my request, he even read off a few numbers in his native French tongue. This is a musician who—if there were any justice in this stinking world—will be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with the rest of his swamp-popping peers, and there he was reading off the winning digits at the Starks VFW before launching into his final set and driving back to Lafayette in the wee hours. That’s the utter epitome of class and showmanship.
What a scintillatingly brilliant night of music it had been, yet there was still one more little divine pot of gold waiting at the end of this rainbow: the Lucky Longhorn motel in Vinton, an arm of the Texas Longhorn Club complex. Part truck stop, part motel, part restaurant, part casino, part laundromat, this cozy little oasis just off I-10 can meet every weary swamp-pop fan’s traveling needs. And with your choice of shower or Jacuzzi, you’ll find more than a little lucky respite there as you lay down to sleep and dream those “Sweet Dreams” of your next magical musical mystery tour. Talk about a happy ending. Yeah you right, baby.