NEW ORLEANS FORCES its musical past upon you, whether you want it to or not. When I arrived there, one of the very first things I noticed were the queued-up tourists standing outside ramshackle French Quarter buildings awaiting musicians they’d crossed oceans and continents to witness up close and personal. It was a physical representation of the musical hide-and-seek game I’d play for the next twenty years. Go into a record store, search the bins for obscurities and dicker with the clerks to get them for far cheaper than they were worth. The Internet has mostly killed the game. But the lines still form outside of New Orleans clubs.
I got to town in late spring and pounded pavement in search of the restaurant job my college film work prepared me for. Up and down the French Quarter streets, door to door with a hastily-typed resume stocked with some real experience and some fake stuff. I stopped to rest by the French Market. Catty-corner from the old market, back in a sliver of concrete and slate, sat a tourist joint that made its money selling high-octane daiquiris. The name is lost to the years but this was the kind of place that had added fried green tomatoes to their slim menu because the movie of the same name recently arrived in theaters. What kept my attention was the screwy piano player who sometimes after his lunch session was through set up his rig across Decatur Street and played for change while he hawked CDs in between songs. The angriest record store owner (and later my boss) I ever experienced, a guy who chased people out of his store for asking about the lunch box collection lining his walls, turned into a kitten whenever the piano man was plunking his keyboards. If that ball of beardo anger could switch gears just in the presence of the musician, I thought, there’s something deeper happening here.
His name was Edwin Bocage, but he went by Eddie Bo. By the time he died in 2009, Bo was less recognized than peers like Irma Thomas and Ernie K-Doe, but his musicality was much more devastating. Offbeat magazine connected the dots from keyboard legends Champion Jack Dupree and Professor Longhair directly to him. Bo wasn’t just a jazzer, though he could dazzle on the keys, having studied classical piano at Grunewald School of Music. It wasn’t just the schooling. Bo wrote and recorded and performed R&B hits in the 50s and 60s, and later switched out his piano for an organ to make several indelible funk recordings that soared aurally but somehow missed bringing Bo fully into the national spotlight.
When I met Bo, those days were long behind him. Still, there was something magically weird about him, about all of New Orleans. So I’d sip go-cups full of swill and watch him play on the street. He would sometimes nudge a CD propped up against a tip jar in between songs. I barely had enough dough for another drink, which meant I definitely didn’t have enough for the guy accompanying himself with the shitty drum samples stored in his Casio and so I never bought one of his CDs. But I should have. A brighter light would have sucked it up and gotten Bo to do a two-for-one. I was lost to the cheap swill and the immaturity of my early twenties. He’d shake his head at me and play another song. “I record them professionally,” he told me once with the casual shrug of someone who knows his audience isn’t paying the right attention. His fingers danced around the keyboard as I drifted from the street humidity into a nearby bar. But ever after, I’d stop by the tourist trap to hear Bo’s peculiarities ring out as sock-with-sandal types swigged over-powered daiquiris in white Styrofoam cups stamped with pink flamingos. Even I knew he was better than that crowd. Leaning up against a Decatur Street wall while Bo banged away on his Casio is a favorite memory largely because it was one of the first times in my life where I knew enough to step out of the frame and let something happen, where I was able to be a witness. Bo’s skills filled cumulus clouds over the town, and he rained down musical styles derived from fish frys and juke joints and Mardi Gras flambeaux performers in the space of one song. The skill was undeniable, the substance pervasive. After a few times witnessing Bo do his thing, it dawned on me; the Casio-playing songster must have been somebody once upon a time.
Of course he had. An uncle played with jazz legend Sydney Bechet. His mother was his first piano teacher, and according to him, she ripped it up and down the keyboards just as quick and every bit as mellifluous as Professor Longhair.
Bo had been a musical contender in a town that spawned champion keyboard kamikazes; Jelly Roll Morton, Champion Jack Dupree, Tuts Washington and later, Fats Domino, James Booker, and Dr. John. While the 9th Warders went crazy over Ernie K-Doe’s goof-ridden bluster, Bo plied his trade on the streets of the Quarter. But he was more than a singing street piano player, more than a songwriter. In the blink of an eye, Bocage could switch gears, swapping tourist lunch spot self accompanied back drafts for Jazz Fest stage piano fireworks backed by certified Louisiana hot shots. His solid left hand rhythms could reduce amateur pianists to frustrated tears of defeat while his right hand barreled euphonic bliss over top, like so much confectionery sugar sprinkled on top of a beignet. A loose regimentation of soul built up and bounced back as his fingers tapped at the keys of his Casio. It was mesmerizing to a no-goodnik on the streets of New Orleans for the first time. He was showing me the true history of the town in bursts of song long before (and long after) I realized what was going on.
Bo was born in 1930, and raised on both sides of the Mississippi, first in Algiers, and then in the 9th Ward. A regular at the famous Dew Drop Inn, Bo played after-hours sessions alongside the top New Orleans players of the day: Ellis Marsalis, Bobby Marchan, Joe Tex and Clarence Gatemouth Brown. In 1961, he parlayed a quirky New Orleans dance craze into a smoking hit record, splitting the song into a two-part single called “Check Mr. Popeye.” And “Check Mr. Popeye” would have gone international were it not for two quickly produced rival songs championing the same dance, one by the better situated Chubby Checker and another by New Orleans local Huey “Piano” Smith, best known for “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” Before the song started its climb, Bo had led a local orchestra under the name Spider Bocage, backing the likes of Big Joe Turner and Ruth Brown as they shouted their songs out across the dance halls.
As the Popeye dance craze gave way to the Mashed Potato, Bo recorded a bevy of singles and penned a number of hits for other artists. Etta James charted with Bo’s “My Dearest Darling,” while Little Richard took Bo’s “I’m Wise,” rechristened it “Slippin’ and Slidin’”and included it on his first LP, Here’s Little Richard, hailed as one of rock and roll’s canonical recordings.
It was the time of the single, the Brill Building, Motown’s hit factory. Seven inch slabs of vinyl spun radio station turntables into dollar bills and rang out of juke joint music boxes while the good people (and the bad) bounced their backsides along in rhythmic delight. Bo served up a huge array of danceable platters– in New Orleans, only Fats Domino recorded more than Bo. Over the course of his career he wrote, produced and performed songs for the small independent labels that sprang up almost overnight: Ric, Chess, Blue Jay, Scram, Ace, Joe Banashak’s legendary Seven B, Apollo, and Swan.
When the Meters, Cosimo Matassa’s go-to studio band, broke ranks to become headliners and produced a string of singles so insistently groove inducing they migrated from regional southern radio to the national stage, eager radio programmers scrambled down to New Orleans nightclubs, calling cards in hand. Bo, a long timer in the record industry mines, adopted an organ into his act and brought with it an idiosyncratic agility not found in other funkateers, combining the classical training he’d received after serving in the military with the jazz and r&b chops he’d developed back at the Dew Drop Inn. Having already dealt self-penned jams to Richard, James, Chris Kenner (who recorded Bo’s song, “Timber” under the name Candy Philips) and Art Neville, Bo knew how to write something that enveloped someone’s particular persona without sacrificing his own musical identity. Utilizing that same methodology, he launched headfirst into the funk. Only this time, Bo hoped to pocket the change himself and mint a more relaxed career as he entered middle age.
Tapping legendary New Orleans drummer James Black to push the pulse, Bo set about recording “Hook and Sling,” again dividing the song into parts as he had with “Check Mr. Popeye,” again eschewing the LP for the 7-inch single that had served him so well in the past. Sling made it to #13 on the R&B charts and broke in the low levels of Billboard’s hot 100. But the decision to ignore the album format may have forced Bo’s late 60s funk recordings into a quicker hibernation than they deserved. Disc jockeys and record companies still plucked individually-issued singles from the rank obscurity of regionalized charts, but the age of the long player had arrived. Radio stations peppered their playlists with album tracks not designated to be hits, hoping to push into the spotlight underknown artists, while pumping more radio-packed action out of the product.
Scram Records (owned by Al Scrammuza, later a local legend for his seafood restaurant and its iconic local commercials) released Bo’s tilt-a-whirl take on James Brown style funk, “If It’s Good To You (It’s Good For You),” on Sling’s tail. The music bubbled along, allowing for the bass and the drums to syncopate a connected backbeat that Bo layered a punched up organ over top of, while a restrained chinking guitar spread its bop in the middle of the mix. The song resonated and percolated and reverberated. It readied the national stage for Bo’s ascendance. And if “Sling..” was any measure of how to funkify your life, it’s follow up swam the same stream. You can’t listen to “If It’s Good…” without breaking out in some dance floor hijinks. The repetitive guitars and Bo’s smooth jive force the wiggle from the most unwiggliest of folks. The phrasing was right, the snap and crackle and pop mingled in the right spots, a decisive horn line forced the jam upright just when it seemed like it would funk off into the Mississippi. But nothing happened with the song.
Rather than give in and record an album, Bo swaddled himself in frustration. And in that frustration, tired of his recordings making money for other people, he started his own label. Had he spent those energies on recording rather than the business end of the music industry, Bo’s sprawling funk songs might have overwhelmed those of George Clinton and James Brown, and taken Eddie Bo to that national stage. As it was, his next single, “Check Your Bucket”– another two part infection– had all the prerequisites needed to charge into the funk fray. Without an album to push it, the song lagged in the regional market. Bo was in his forties, and distressed. Songs that sounded phenomenal weren’t being recognized. Chalking it up to payola, Bo split the scene, leaving New Orleans in the rear view mirror and settling down in Florida.
He worked as a carpenter. He studied religion. He landed in Miami in the middle of the town’s “Miami Vice” resurgence. He longed for home. So Bo moved back to New Orleans. He got the Casio, booked gigs around town, and played on the street, where I met him.
And then something happened. With support from local radio station WWOZ and the Louisiana Music Factory record store, Bo recorded another album, and then another, and another still. It’s the first of the comeback trilogy that’s most enthralling, featuring mostly solo keyboard concoctions. These are the arrangements he’d been playing when I stumbled onto him, but performed on a baby grand. The music leaps off the recording, a bongo drum the only other instrument, establishing pace while Bo ricochets up and down the keys offering an incredible dexterity no school could teach.
The new recordings brought a new wave of local popularity. Another New Orleans club poached Bo from his lunch time performances, offering a weekly solo showcase for more money and bigger crowds. He ditched the street gigs and set about opening a restaurant/nightclub and named it for one of his favorite songs, “Check Your Bucket.” Ten years before his death a fire swept through the restaurant, which doubled as Bo’s home, destroying recording masters, music charts, and his keyboards. Every few steps forward Bo made, one tragic step backward awaited him. A few years later, the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, while Bo was touring France. The flood waters wrecked the Bucket. Bo didn’t have it in him to revive the place.
As the Internet took hold, a new generation of music collectors discovered Bo through funk compilations that gave new life to the songs the musician once banked his career on. But in interviews, Bo delved much further than that funk past, laying accolades on the players who inspired him. Five years before his death, discussing his early life as a musician and subsequent career with a local interviewer, Bo tried to make sense of the larger picture. “What happened, what really happened was that blacks needed to find something to make something for themselves because they didn’t have that much. This sort of thing was authentically black music. I’m glad to know that the tunes that I’ve been doing over the years have been accepted throughout my lifetime.”
On a Wednesday at the end of March 2009, Bo’s percussive heart gave one last rumble and extinguished one of the most monumental cadences in popular music, just as his audience widened internationally, as singular songs returned to the spotlight of the music industry. The New York Times, The Guardian, The Independent, and The Los Angeles Times all ran obituaries recognizing his influence far beyond his New Orleans based career. I hadn’t lived in New Orleans for a decade but I felt him go. It was his playing that opened my ears up to most of the music I listen to today. “We played in a lot of fields,” Bo told John Sinclair in a 1999 interview about his early days. “The 9th ward had cows and chickens before the houses developed anywhere. Wasn’t worried about the money. We played. We wanted to play. We’d all get there some kind of way. Wipe your shoes off and play. That’s why the shit was so funky.”