Congress should place New Orleans rock 'n' roll on the endangered music list. During the '50s and '60s, the rhythm-heavy sounds of Fats Domino, Huey Smith and the Meters danced across the land. But over the past 15 years, the New Orleans sound has been isolated.
The jaunty feeling of New Orleans rock 'n' roll seems irreproducible outside the city's steaming environs, and America's last great regional rock tradition -- a jubilant party mix of the best Afro, Latin, Caribbean and Anglo spirits -- faces extinction. Its children heed the homogenized beck and call of MTV and national radio, and the music's pioneers and heroes fall to time.
In the past few years, the deaths of Professor Longhair and James Booker have underscored the precarious status of the city's unique piano tradition. Just recently, Isidore (Tuts) Washington, the last performing link between the barrelhouse tradition of New Orleans' red-light district and the rolling rumbas of Longhair, also died. Although Washington was a fixture in New Orleans clubs for 60 years, inspiring everyone from Longhair and Domino to Allen Toussaint, he was never recorded on a readily available label until a year ago.
Despite some decline in his physical skills, Washington's effortless command of blues, boogie, ragtime, stride and pop is pleasurably detailed on "New Orleans Piano Professor" (Rounder 2041). In classic New Orleans style, it is Washington's rhythmically commanding left hand that supports the casual stream of improvisations he brings to standards like "Frankie and Johnny," as well as a number of blues.
But Washington never attacks his songs with his skills. Instead he treats them all like old buddies, drifting into them, carelessly conversing, occasionally challenging them and, with a fluid arpeggio, bidding a fond adieu.
With New Orleans musical fortunes in decline throughout the '70s, the city's best expectations fell on the Neville Brothers. Formed in 1977 by four brothers whose ties to New Orleans music stretch back to the '50s, the group seems most likely to extend the grand traditions without losing a single beat from the past. However, two unsatisfying albums recorded in 1977 and 1981 in the decidedly unfunky studio settings of New York and Los Angeles seem to reaffirm that New Orleans music and musicians don't travel well.
These problems have been wonderfully remedied by a small New Orleans label, Black Top, which recorded the Neville Brothers live and at Tipitinas, one of the band's regular New Orleans venues (they will appear at the Wax Museum on Tuesday). The result, "Neville-Ization" (Black Top BT-1031), is as rhythmically intricate and compulsive as the tradition requires and vocally glorious beyond the expectation of any rock tradition. The record kicks off with Aaron, Art and Cyril Neville casting a funereal atmosphere over "Fever" with some mournful, unison harmonies, and then quickly breaks down into more spontaneous vocal interplay.
The album's finest moment is Aaron's transcendent reworking of his smash "Tell It Like It Is." A vastly underrated soul stylist, Aaron's quavering falsetto is almost exquisitely painful as he breaks words into syllables and melts the syllables into pure emotion.
Art's gentle handling of his own "Why You Wanna Hurt My Heart?" is an equally moving romantic entreaty. It's the up-tempo street funk of the carnival standard "Big Chief," the Meters' "Africa" and "Mojo Hannah" that invites drummer Willie Green's tricky syncopation and the Nevilles' polyrhythmic percussion. When the vocals, percussion instruments and keyboards all start percolating in the funky language of the street parade, the land of a thousand dances comes vibrantly alive once again.
Those looking for musical treasures from the past should try "New Orleans' R&B" (Chess CH9174), a budget-priced collection of rare New Orleans recordings from the '50s, originally released on Chess or its subsidiaries. Of special note is the inclusion of two carnival pieces that still pop up on New Orleans juke boxes. Sugarboy Crawford's "Jockomo" is based on the traditional Indian street chant that later led to the Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko." The Hawketts' 1954 recording of "Mardi Gras Mombo," featuring a very young Art Neville, reveals the Latin influence that Longhair popularized in New Orleans.