By Lolis Eric Elie
When David Simon and Eric Overmyer go into their esoteric flights of obscure musical fancy in the writers’ room, Tom Piazza is right there with them, toe-to-toe, sometimes throwing out a reference so arcane that no one in the room has heard of it other than him.
When I met him 17 years ago, Tom had already published a collection of short stories, ‘Blues and Trouble,’ and a lot of jazz criticism, including ‘The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz.’ He's gone on to write more about jazz, as well as blues and country music.
But now Tom spends most of his time writing fiction. His two novels, ‘My Cold War,’ and his post-Katrina ‘City of Refuge,’ could hardly be more different in tone, but they are alike in the critical praise they received and their sensitive portrayal of the detail and texture of our complicated lives. (I like ‘City of Refuge’ in part because it contains a brief homage to my late grandmother.)
His book ‘Why New Orleans Matters,’ published right after Hurricane Katrina, is a favorite around the office and on the ‘Treme’ set.
After reading Eric Overmyer’s music list, Tom decided to offer up his own list of neglected New Orleans R&B. I'm not getting in between these two. Listen and make your own choice.
I’d be pleased and impressed to find someone else who has heard all of these songs.
1. “Every Time I Hear That Mellow Saxophone” (Roy Montrell) – Frantic vocal by Roy Montrell, apocalyptic riffs and sandpaper tenor saxophone. A classic.
2. “Going Back to New Orleans” – (Joe Liggins) – Liggins was not from New Orleans but this song is one of the great New Orleans anthems. Dr. John likes to close his shows with it.
3. “Loud Mouth Annie” – (Myles and Dupont) – This one rolls right along, silly lyrics and all. Big Boy Myles was one of the undersung heroes of New Orleans R&B.
4. “New Orleans” – (Big Boy Myles) – “Well, come on everybody take a trip with me…” I prefer this version to the better known one by Gary “U.S.” Bonds.
5. “A Thing You Gotta Face” – (Polka Dot Slim) – Produced by the shadowy Sax Kari, this is heavy on blues harmonica, with the grizzled voice of the obscure Polka Dotted One over a jumping, stuttering rhythm. Nobody else I know likes this record.
6. “Well I Done Got Over It” – (Guitar Slim) – One of the towering figures of N.O. music, Guitar Slim would do anything to rock the house. He would dye his hair green, hook his guitar up to a 50-foot extension cord and ride out the front door of a club on somebody’s shoulders, playing the whole time. You know... before such behavior was considered acceptable....
7. “Street Parade” – (Earl King) – Guitar Slim’s greatest disciple, Earl King was one of the town’s best songwriters (“Those Lonely, Lonely Nights,” “Trick Bag,” “Mama and Papa,” “Let’s Make A Better World”) and an electrifying performer. Everybody misses him.
8. “The Hook And Sling” – (Eddie Bo) – Eddie Bo could serve up the funk as well as anyone, and sometimes better. This one is in the “better” category.
9. “In The Night” – (Professor Longhair) – You couldn’t possibly have a list like this without at least one track by Fess. I love the little break in his voice when he hollers, “Oh, well, in the night…” on the refrain.
10. “The River’s Invitation” – (Percy Mayfield) – “Well, I spoke to the river/And the river spoke back to me…” From the songwriting giant best known for “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” this one sets a deep and suave blues groove, with Mayfield’s unmistakable voice casting a spell from the first words.
11. “Where You At” – (Lloyd Price) – Another anthem, raucous, loud, and surging, with Price hollering for all he’s worth as he “looks all over New ORRR-leans” for his baby.
12. “Bumpity Bump” – (Smiley Lewis) – Smiley Lewis applied his high, nasal tenor voice to some of the great R’n’B songs to come out of the city. This one is right in the pocket, swinging like crazy as the little rabbit jumps from stump to stump trying to escape the hounds.
13. “Tee Nah Nah” – (Harry Van Walls) – The obscure piano man Van Walls does his own, smoky-voiced version of the old time junkie blues. “Reelin and rockin, and spinnin like a wheel / If you ever had that habit, you know just how I feel…”
14. “Rhythmetic Rhythm” – (Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams) – Surreal classroom lyrics (“Rhythmatic” is a contraction for “arithmatic”) over a hard-driving beat anchored by one of the best New Orleans drummers. Hungry was right up there with Earl Palmer when it came to laying down that New Orleans version of the rock and roll beat.
15. “Don’t You Know, Jockamo” – (Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns) – A call-and-response grab-bag of Mardi Gras Indian phrases and jive talk, from the masters of good-time music.