A Month In The Blue Room

The Blue Room - New Orleans, LA.  crica late 50's by JOtwell (click to buy)
The Blue Room – New Orleans, LA. crica late 50’s by JOtwell
(click to buy)
I got my face to face introduction to New Orleans in the most delightful way imaginable. Despite my fascination with the music of the area, I hadn’t visited New Orleans during my first few years in the States, for whatever reasons.

Then one day I got a phone call from a former band mate, B. Lee Inman, a multi instrumentalist specializing in horns, who was working as musical director for Ray Peterson, the fifties star crooner (“Corrina, Corrina,” “Tell Laura I Love Her,” etc.). Ray had rather successfully re‑invented himself as a supper club act and had  landed regular work on the Fairmont hotel chain, which still carried full-size orchestras for dining and dancing. He had just finished an engagement at the Fairmont in, I think, Kansas City, when his touring rhythm section quit without notice, so B. Lee was in a bind.  As he explained it to me, the format for the featured acts on the Fairmont circuit was that they brought their own rhythm section and then meshed with the resident big band, using a personal book of arrangements written for a standard big band. Although the exiting rhythm section did not read per se, they had learned the book by rote, and this short‑notice emergency meant that a sight reading section would need to be assembled very quickly for the next stop on the tour:  the legendary Blue Room at The Fairmont on Canal Street in New Orleans. This was a crucial stop for Mr. Peterson, as he had not yet played this most prestigious venue on the circuit.

B.Lee, who had lived in Nashville when we worked together, figured that I could put the requisite section together from the deep Nashville talent pool and he stressed that under the circumstances Mr. Peterson would be willing to pay top dollar, plus all the trimmings. The Blue Room gig, a four-week stand, was a scant two weeks in the future, however, so I told B.Lee I’d jump right on it and call back asap.

I dropped a dime on drummer Steve Dellavecchia at once, as I knew he was not only conservatory trained, but also had some big band experience. It turned out to be the only call I had to make because as fate would have it, Steve had recently worked on a gospel record with none other than Ray Peterson himself, and he told me that two of the other session guys on the project, guitarist Larry Keith and pianist Quinton Powers were formally trained musicians who could read notation with ease, and were good guys into the bargain. All three players had a recent working relationship with Mr. Peterson, so it seemed like a copacetic solution, as long as everyone was free to go. And as long as the deal was right, of course!

I got back to B. Lee within half an hour to get the financial details squared, while Steve was calling Larry and Quinton to see if they’d be available for a New Orleans adventure. Fate was smiling all the way around, as the deal included good money, accommodations and dining privileges at The Fairmont, and round trip travel on the Peterson end. On the Nashville front, we were all able to adjust our date books to fit in this engagement.  I tell ya, it was meant to be!

B. Lee was in Indianapolis visiting his folks, and he said he’d drive down to Nashville with the book so we could take an early look and play through the rhythm section parts before Ray Peterson arrived in town later in the week. My publishing partner at the time, Bob Todrank, had a spacious, well-equipped home studio, complete with grand piano, which I reserved for a few days. By the time B. Lee arrived, less than forty eight hours after his initial call, we were set.

A book of arrangements is actually a collection of chart folios, anywhere from 20 to 40 separate bound folders, one for each musician involved, and is the responsibility of the musical director, who places the books out on the music stands, collects them at the end of the gig, keeps them updated as needed, and generally transports them in a flight case or something similar. Managing the book is one of the chief responsibilities of the M.D. I’d learned book management from no less than King Curtis, who had written most of Doris Troy’s charts, and kindly gave me the benefit of his advice when I became her official M.D. I’d passed that knowledge on to B. Lee, so I was not surprised that the Ray Peterson book was in excellent order.

The five of us convened after Bruce had rested from his journey, and we got down to business, but it was easy-going business. I had not met Larry or Quinton before, although I knew both by name, and it was instantly obvious that they were highly skilled professionals and very pleasant fellows to boot. Each was a successful songwriter in addition to being a session player.  Larry had enjoyed a string of hits, the most recent being “Better Love Next Time” for Dr. Hook and Quinton was coming off the Reba McEntire smash “Whoever’s In New England.”

The book was a fair indication of what was in store. Some transcriptions of standards arranged by the mighty Nelson Riddle, some by Gordon Jenkins, excellent big band reworkings of Ray’s hits, a few of B. Lee’s charts of contemporaneous hits, and a well-written, if gnarly, Barry Manilow medley, which I figured would be an eyes-down every night.  (After a few performances, many charts are really only used for reference points, but some, like this baby, require one’s entire concentration throughout).

By the time Ray Peterson arrived in Nashville we’d ironed out all the twists and turns and were ready for him to sing down his show.  To our collective amusement he had brought along a giggly group of oriental seamstresses whose mandate was to fit the musicians with new stage outfits, so our breaks were occupied with inseam measurements and the like, the ladies setting up shop on the premises. We had no say in the choice of wardrobe, and for some reason best known to himself, Ray decided on an Elvis In Vegas look for us, with high collar capes, vests, and tight flared pants, in embroidered tones of white, and we were expected to go shirtless into the bargain.  All a bit surreal, but the whole deal was shaping up to be a bit surreal anyway, so this development just added to the giddy aspect that was starting to envelop us, as befitted a Big Easy musical adventure.

Haberdashery hijinks aside, Ray was an excellent vocalist, possessed of a rangy tenor voice of considerable power and taste. He was also, quite obviously, a post-polio survivor and although he didn’t wear leg braces, he walked with that typical compromised gait and sometimes used a walking cane. As the other guys had already worked with him, it came as no surprise to them, but was one more wrinkle for me to process.

We were right on schedule and headed south in high spirits, arriving the evening before the  mandatory band call. We were each assigned a suite with a canopied king-size bed, high ceilings, soaring draped windows and elegant decor. We took the edge off the trip in one of the beautiful bars that were dotted around the spacious premises, and peeked into the legendary Blue Room, closed for the night, but all we had expected – a fin de siecle masterpiece – and our home for the next month.  Although the seductive throb of the Vieux Carré was just across Canal Street, we were sensible boys, at least that night, and letting discretion be the better part of valor, we got our heads down in preparation for day one.

Band call was at noon, so after breakfast in the staff canteen we finished our set-up as the big band guys began drifting in. These were the members of The Dick Stabile Orchestra, Mr.Stabile having been a fixture on radio over many years, but most of the players were more our age, and quite friendly as we introduced ourselves around. The rhythm section was absent, of course, but as those rows began filling with the full complement of brass, reeds and utility players I could see Steve grinning with barely concealed satisfaction.  B. Lee distributed the books and then counted in the overture/play-on chart, a pretty zingy concoction to let the horns get warmed up.  I hadn’t done a big band date in some years and I’d forgotten the sheer heft of it all.  Adrenalin!

The band stand, under a high proscenium arch, was a classic set-up. Stage right was a tiered riser for 5 trumpets, in front of 4 trombones, in front of 5 reeds, with the 2 utility players to their right. Center stage was an independent drum dais, full to the brim, as Steve Dellavecchia had broken out his big band kit, a glittering array of drums and cymbals. Stage left was occupied with a higher riser, which was to be shared by Quinton at the concert grand piano, and myself on electric bass. Larry was on the low floor stage, where he could liaise with Ray and the rhythm section while still in eye contact with B.Lee, who was in front of the orchestra. As Larry was playing amplified acoustic guitar, he and the piano were going D.I. into the excellent P.A., so I routed my Fender P-Bass that way too, but with a bass amp and cabinet hidden under our riser for extra oomph.  It was a clutter-free band stand.  Very clean.

Ray arrived and we ran the show down completely twice before breaking.  We were doing two shows a night – the first a 45 minute set and the second an hour, meaning we’d be done by 11.30, just as Bourbon Street was hotting up!  We all wanted to get the first night under our belts before the shenanigans got under way, so we retired to our rooms for the balance of the afternoon.

As a rule, musicians don’t like to eat a big meal before playing, but Larry Keith, who was already proving himself to be quite the bon vivant, solved that issue by starting a nightly ritual for our stay, inviting the rhythm section to his suite for room service oysters on the half, champagne, and a discreet sampling of more exotic fare.  By the time we donned the clown suits, we were ready to go!

Musical highlights included a swinging Sinatra-esque “Fly Me To The Moon,” a booting Basie‑style take on “Corrina, Corrina,” a dramatic reading of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and the aforementioned Manilow medley, which brought the house down every night. Despite his limited mobility, or maybe because of it, Ray proved to be an engaging performer, with a definite rapport with his audience.  This being New Orleans, there were several hot soloists on board, and the charts allowed for blowing room, especially as B. Lee happily ceded some of his own usual solo space on trumpet and alto sax to the local boys. The first night went without a hitch and afterwards the well-pleased manager told us about a local tradition whereby various of the NOLA illuminati, would drop by on the second night to check out the new act in town.  He pointed out a long, curved banquette, slightly stage left, as their designated spot.  Okay …

Having completed night one, we were ready to venture forth into the Quarter, which was absolutely as advertised.  In short order I came upon a cohort, the great sax man Gary Brown, who I knew from his Nashville sojourn leading The Soul Machine on Jefferson Street, and who played on many of the later Bee Gees records.  He’d returned to his home turf and was working a Bourbon Street club, so we visited in there for a while, getting our feet wet, so to speak, but not yet settled in enough to go hog-wild into the early hours, although that would happen soon enough!

The following day I breakfasted at The French Café, then settled at a sidewalk table, notebook to hand, in front of St. Louis Cathedral and the people watching bonanza that is Jackson Square.  I would spend many an hour there in the coming weeks, although I soon cast my net wider, riding the streetcar line through the Garden District out to Audubon Park and jumping off at random spots:  the unique above-ground cemetaries, the warehouse district, with its  art galleries and vintage guitar shops, and Audubon Zoo at the end of the line.

Night two, I arrived at the Blue Room a little early to see who might show up and take a seat at the designated banquette.  By show time, although I couldn’t put names to all the faces, it was easy to identify Allen Toussaint, flanked by Lee Dorsey and Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Ernie K Doe, Pete Fountain and Al Hirt.  I had met Lee Dorsey previously in England, so on the break I went over to re-introduce myself to this sunny individual, although I was too awestruck to manage more than a polite handshake with the immaculately attired Mr. Toussaint. I also had a few words with The Frogman, who invited me to his Bourbon Street club after our second show.  Yes sir!  I did that, and it became a regular stop on the nightly round, along with Gary Brown’s joint.

Larry, Steve and I were the usual Three Musketeers on the late night prowl, and we soon found that the inky, sultry darkness held many an exotic spot, especially in the mysterious courtyards that lurked just a little off the beaten paths. Because of the length of our stay we began to feel part of the musical fabric of that magical town, if only on a temporary basis, as we made our nightly rounds. We had one off-day per week, which I tried to use to my best advantage. The first of these led me to venture to a far edge of the Quarter, to see the Ellis Marsalis Trio holding court, and where I got my first glimpse of the then teenaged Wynton and Branford sitting in with Dad on a few tunes.  I didn’t forget that one!  I also sampled Preservation Hall a time or two, and although the old-time traditional strain was not at that time my tasse de the, I enjoyed seeing and hearing the old guys gettin’ down.

As the engagement progressed, the overall confidence level was getting pretty high as we meshed tighter and tighter with the big band. This led to the only snag we were to hit, although we only hit it once.  In the second week Ray decided he wanted to introduce a song Larry Keith had written for the new gospel album, so Larry spent a couple of afternoons with pen in hand to put a score together. We convened a quick band call on the Wednesday, and the song ran down without a hitch. Did it that night – without a hitch . . . then . . .

The song structure began with Ray singing, accompanied only by Larry’s acoustic guitar, with the rhythm section entering gradually before the full band made its presence felt. The rhythm was 6/8, but on the second night Ray began the first section in 12/8, an easy enough mistake to make, as the two-time signatures are related. Once that path was taken, the rhythm section had no choice but to join in at 12/8, and it still didn’t seem like anything was wrong, except we knew the horn players were counting in 6/8, so their entry would inevitably be early.  B.Lee had not picked up on this discrepancy, and Steve and I were desperately trying to get his attention in the most unobtrusive way we could, to see if he could avoid the impending train wreck. Didn’t happen, and the horns dutifully plowed in at their appointed spot.  B.Lee was able to mute them after a couple of blasts, so I don’t think the audience noticed anything going awry, but we all did!

Well, that got sorted right quick, and the rest of the time it was daytime adventure, spot-on shows and late-night forays  around the Vieux Carré. In some ways it reminded me of Hamburg back in the early sixties, an orgiastic gumbo of myriad life-styles , cultures and music.  I forged a long-time association with Larry Keith on that trip, as we became songwriting partners for the next several years, and I continued to make music with Steve Dellavecchia . . . still do, from time to time!

After the final show and the after-party, Dellavecchia made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. We’d all travelled down in the provided transportation, but Steve had opted to drive down in his T‑Bird convertible, which he’d garaged during our stay. “Wanna ride back with me – we’ll be back in no time.”  I wouldn’t do it today, but I went for it, and at about 2.30 a.m. we headed north, top down.  When we hit the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain, a straightaway like an airport runway, I thought we’d take off into the blue-black night sky.  But he kept it grounded as we roared through night-time Mississippi and Alabama.  What a ride, and achieved in the promised record time!

The Easy had me and we’ve returned many times since, but I’ll never forget my beautiful introduction to New Orleans!


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