Today, as part of our week long celebration of Mardi Gras,
we take a look at 4 legendary New Orleanians
Who played major roles in the development of
the New Orleans music scene!
“In the early 1950s, Richard Penniman, who would soon become famous as Little Richard, liked to sit around an all-night restaurant in the bus station in Macon, Georgia, and watch people come in. Oh boy! he thought, when he saw an imposing, six-foot-two figure descend from the bus: It was Eskew Reeder, another gay, Black teenage performer moving between the worlds of the church and the chitlin’ circuit, as the network of African-American performance venues was known.
Reeder was fifteen or so, and he was already traveling the South with a ‘lady preacher’ named Sister Rosa, who was hawking store-bought bread that was supposed to be blessed. As Penniman later told the story, he and Reeder met in the bus station restaurant where Penniman was ‘trying to catch something—you know, have sex…I thought Esquerita was really crazy about me, you know.’
Reeder’s handsome face was punctuated by lips that seemed to be permanently set into the kind of cocked, half-ironic sneer that would come to define a certain kind of rock & roll star, from Elvis Presley to Billy Idol. Penniman had already cut a couple of unnoticed records by then, but Reeder, who would later be known as Esquerita, would that night become Penniman’s teacher.
Little Richard: ‘Esquerita and me went to my house and he got on the piano and he played One Mint Julep; It sounded so pretty. The bass was fantastic. He had the biggest hands of anybody I’d ever seen. His hands were about the size of two of my hands put together. It sounded great…and that’s when I really started playing.’
It was a night that changed American music. It wasn’t just the way Esquerita pounded out a percussive rhythm with his left hand that impressed Penniman. He overlaid it with the high-and-loose honky-tonk treble plinking that he likely learned from the country songs he loved to hear on the radio.
Esquerita and Little Richard stayed in touch as friends, collaborators, and rivals until 1986, when Little Richard was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Esquerita died, a victim of AIDS who was buried in an unmarked grave on Hart Island, New York. Their careers had mirrored each other over rock & roll’s first thirty years, playing out the dualities of the sacred and the profane, music and money, and God and the Voola, what Esquerita called his mojo, the spirit that motivated his music." (Esquerita and The Voola, Baynard Woods, Oxford American 2019)
Little Richard talks about Esquerita
"Sax player and arranger Sam Butera was ‘Keith Richards to Louis Prima’s Mick Jagger’ once he joined the great trumpeter, singer and bandleader in Las Vegas in 1954. With vocalist Keely Smith, the group leaped into national consciousness on the wings of songs like ‘Just A Gigolo,’ ‘Jump Jive An’ Wail’ and ‘That Old Black Magic.’ Burt Kearns and Rafael Abramovitz sat down with Butera in 1991 and got the real story about the Mob’s connection to Vegas and the raunchy private lives of the musicians.
Sam Butera was a red-hot, 27-year-old rhythm and blues tenor saxophone player from New Orleans when, on Christmas Eve 1954, he got the call to work with his musical hero, Louis Prima, in Las Vegas. The result — a joyful mix of Dixieland jazz, jump blues and rock ’n’ roll, combined with the impeccable vocals of a deadpan female singer — launched “Louis Prima & Keely Smith with Sam Butera and the Witnesses” into the biggest musical success the gambling city had yet to see. Butera’s wailing, honking sax and innovative arrangements provided the crucial spark, and recordings of songs including Just A Gigolo, When You’re Smiling, Jump Jive An’ Wail, and That Old Black Magic extended their fame far beyond the Vegas Strip.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune referred to Sam Butera as “Keith Richards to Prima’s Mick Jagger.” Butera was also known for his fierce loyalty to Prima and as a man who knew how to keep secrets. Like the mobsters who ran the casinos and clubs where he worked, and the goodfellas who made up a significant portion of his fanbase, Butera lived by the code of omertà, and when he died in 2009, it was assumed he’d taken his secrets with him. No one knew that in February 1991, he told all. Over days in the living room of his home on Chapman Drive in Las Vegas, Butera revealed to journalists and screenwriters Burt Kearns and Rafael Abramovitz the story behind the rise and fall of “The Wildest Show in Vegas.”
Who is Cosimo Matassa?
Cosimo Vincent Matassa was an American recording engineer and studio owner, responsible for many R&B and early rock & roll recordings that established the golden age of New Orleans rhythm & blues.
In 1945, at the age of 18, Matassa opened the J&M Recording Studio at the back of his family's shop on Rampart Street, on the border of the French Quarter in New Orleans. In 1955, he moved to the larger Cosimo Recording Studio on Gov. Nichols Street, nearby in the French Quarter. As an engineer and proprietor, Matassa was crucial to the development of the sound of R&B, rock and soul of the 1950s and 1960s, often working with the producers Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint.
Cosimo recorded many hits, including The Fat Man (Fats Domino), Little Richard's Tutti Frutti along with records by Ray Charles, Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, Smiley Lewis, Bobby MItchell, Tommy Ridgley, the Spiders and many others. Cosimo was responsible for developing what became known as the New Orleans sound, with strong drums, heavy guitar and bass, heavy piano, light horns and a strong lead vocal.
Cosimo retired from the music business in the 1980s to manage the family's food store, Matassa's Market, in the French Quarter. He died on September 11, 2014, aged 88, in New Orleans but the songs live on forever.
MIND SMOKE MARDI GRAS - VARIOUS ARTISTS