From Louis Armstrong to Fats Domino to Lil Wayne, New Orleans has gifted the world’s ears with some of the most popular and influential music ever recorded. A massive treasure trove of Crescent City sound lies below the radar, too. Here are some of New Orleans’ greatest acts you may have never heard.
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Keyboardist Wilson Turbinton, aka Willie Tee, stuck a flag in American music as bandleader and arranger for the Wild Magnolias, the first ensemble to blend Mardi Gras Indian chants and percussion with electronic instrumentation back in 1974. Tee’s fiercely funky band the Gaturs released several singles in the early ‘70s on his own Gatur Records; in 1994, they were compiled for CD release by the reissue label Tuff City.
The Fabulous Fantoms
In the late ‘60s, New Orleans spawned a gritty, groovy revolution in Southern funk, with bands like the Meters, the Gladiators, and the Gaturs. The Fabulous Fantoms were among this bayou renaissance; the workhorse 10-piece ensemble was legendary for their late-night live shows at joints like the Devil’s Den and the Autocrat Social and Pleasure Club.
Mary Jane Hooper
Born Sena Fletcher, undersung soul queen Hooper -- who, like many artists, got her start singing in the church -- broke into popular music singing backup for hitmaker Allen Toussaint. She moved out on her own working with another prolific producer, Eddie Bo, with whom she recorded this genius soul take on Jeannie C. Riley's “Harper Valley P.T.A.” You should also check her smooth, swirling groove on the classic “Psychedelphia.”
When New Jersey-based DeLuxe Records went scouting for talent in New Orleans just after World War II, they likely changed history by waxing the first recordings of towering musical figure Dave Bartholomew (who would go on to steer the career of Fats Domino) and Roy Brown, who penned the pre-rock 'n’ roll hit “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” Also signed and recorded on that outing -- if less-widely remembered -- is the charming vocalist Annie Laurie, who left secular music in the early ‘60s to devote herself to her faith. Her recordings with bandleader Paul Gayten are great examples of New Orleans jump blues and R&B before the rock 'n' roll revolution.
Cash Money Records has a whole first generation of pre-Lil Wayne, pre-Hot Boys artists that are largely forgotten outside of New Orleans and the community of serious heads and crate-diggers. One of the most popular at the time (and a big influence on Wayne) was Lil Slim, who put out three albums for the label before leaving over a financial dispute.
Da' Sha Ra'
All-female group Da' Sha Ra' was one of the first acts signed by New Orleans’ Take Fo’ Records, the city’s first (and still only) bounce-only label, also home to perennial party-mover DJ Jubilee and Big Freedia’s biggest early influence, transgender rapper Katey Red. Their springy, ebullient brass-driven sound here on “Bootin’ Up” is a perfect example of early bounce music and New Orleans artists putting their own stamp on rap.
With his towering pompadour and livewire keyboard-pounding style, the flamboyant pianist born Eskew Reeder both looked and sounded like Little Richard, multiplied. Esquerita didn’t record himself until after the other wild rocker’s defining sessions in New Orleans for the Specialty label, but the two definitely met in the ‘50s. By the early ‘80s, in the last years of his life, Esquerita was announcing from the stage that Little Richards had copied his signature shout.
The Ohio-born Bobby Marchan had multiple lives in the entertainment business, from traveling female impersonator, to vocalist for New Orleans R&B outfit Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, to glamorously gowned host of the infamous “Gong Show” talent contests in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Always hip to the current tide of popular music, Marchan used decades’ worth of industry connections to shepherd dozens of young hip-hop hopefuls -- including the earliest incarnation of Cash Money Records -- into the business, helping with contracts, touring, and radio play from his Manicure Records shop on the West Bank.
Before Elvis Presley had his Ed Sullivan appearance cut off at the waist for excessive shaking, New Orleans rockabilly firecracker Joe Clay was told he simply couldn’t play one of his wild sides, like “Ducktail” or “Sixteen Chicks,” on the career-making show -- he had to play a tamer Platters cover instead. Clay continued to record and perform, but his career flagged, and he eventually settled into a day job as a school-bus driver -- until he was rediscovered in the ‘80s by crate-digging European rockabilly revivalists. Clay was a regular at New Orleans-area festivals up until his death in the fall of 2016.
The Red Rockers
The Red Rockers formed in New Orleans in the late ‘70s, part of a growing New Wave and punk scene that also included acts like the Normals and the Cold. In search of brighter lights than South Louisiana could offer, they moved to Los Angeles and had a hit with 1983’s pop-friendly “China,” which got video play on MTV and earned the group opening tour slots for impressive names like U2 and the Go-Go’s. By 1985, though, the Red Rockers had disbanded.
Dr. Spec’s Optical Illusion
In garages across the country, rough-edged, psychedelia-tinged teen bands sprung up in great number throughout the ‘60s. In New Orleans, the weirdest, wildest, and loudest was Dr. Spec’s Optical Illusion, which released only one record in its five or so years of existence. Until its reissue by Crypt Records in 2004, “Tryin’ To Mess My Mind”/”She’s The One” was a collector’s holy grail.
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