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!

The Skelly Suggests…Celtic Spirit

Captain Celt by Stirling Snow (click to buy)
Captain Celt by Stirling Snow (click to buy)


Check out what’s new in music from Ireland. Get your celebrations off on a new foot. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

From The Desk… Something in the Way They Play: Legendary Female Guitarists Part 4

Sister Rosetta Tharpe by JOtwell (click to buy)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe by JOtwell (click to buy)


Continued from http://wp.me/p2W71Q-hh

However, the real First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll was not yet gracing the pages of upscale musician magazines.  Rather, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was sweating it out in Pentecostal churches, as she’d been doing since the 1930s . . . only now she was most often to be seen ferociously wielding a white solid-body Gibson SG Special or a Barney Kessell Gibson double cutaway archtop.  She created a sensation on her first visit to the U.K., the first of many, with her rafter shaking vocals, high-intensity guitar shredding, and a pigeon-toed stomp and strut that let you know exactly where she was feelin’ the groove.

Born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, she had become a huge celebrity in the black gospel world in the early ‘30s and as her career progressed she became irresistible to secular audiences world-wide with her potent rhythmic drive, still acoustic at that point, and that stone-cold soulful voice. Once she got her hands on an electric guitar all bets were off.  Her electric guitar playing set the template for rock ‘n’ roll guitar as surely as Professor Longhair did for rock ‘n’ roll piano and Earl Palmer did for rock ‘n’ roll drums. That big . . . That important.

(During the time that I was fortunate enough to play piano with Chuck Berry, and get at least a little close to this most enigmatic of men, I asked him who his own biggest influence had been. “The Sistah, young man, the Sistah,” was his reply.)

Sister Rosetta never felt that she’d left the church, and she continued to contribute award winning music year after year. Her influence on black gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and soul music is immeasurable.

Unquestionably the original Soul Sister!

The Skelly Suggests…Three Mary’s, Three Guitars

3 Mary's 3 Guitars by JOtwell (click to buy)
3 Mary’s 3 Guitars by JOtwell (click to buy)

I have added a few videos to the end of this playlist so you see these legendary ladies in action. Enjoy!


Three Mary’s, Three Guitars

Spotlight – Mary Osborne

Blues in Mary’s Flat – Mary Osborne

Rose Room – Mary Osborne

Just One of Those Things – Mary Kaye Trio

Lazy Afternoon – Mary Kaye Trio

In the Still of the Night – Mary Kaye Trio

My Heart Belongs to Daddy – Mary Kaye Trio

Summertime – Mary Kaye Trio

Tiger Rag – Les Paul, Mary Ford

How High the Moon – Les Paul, Mary Ford

Vaya Con Dios – Les Paul, Mary Ford

Lover – Les Paul, Mary Ford

Tennessee Waltz – Les Paul, Mary Ford

Mary Kaye Trio on YouTube
Mary Ford on YouTube
 Mary Osborn track YouTube

There is no footage of Mary playing on this video but this track is amazing and not available on Spotify so please check it out.



From The Desk… Something in the Way They Play: Legendary Female Guitarists Part 3

3 Mary's 3 Guitars by JOtwell (click to buy)
3 Mary’s 3 Guitars by JOtwell (click to buy)

By the onset of WW II, all the elements of the electric guitar were in place. Once wartime restrictions were eased by 1947, a slew of manufacturers began offering the new amplified instruments to the market. The war had drastically altered the perception of women in the workplace, with Rosie the Riveter serving as an iconic role model, and it was no different in the music world, as women began to pick up the amplified instrument.  Following the pioneering advertising spreads used by National Guitars with Letricia Kandle, the top manufacturers began casting around for attractive women who were reputable players, in order to show their revolutionary product to the widest possible audience.

Gretsch found their girl in Mary Osborne, a big-band guitarist influenced by Charlie Christian. She had built a reputation as a touring musician and was building an impressive discography by recording with notables such as Mary Lou Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Ethel Waters, and Billie Holiday.  Mary photographed with an impressive hauteur, usually decked in the finest evening gowns, cradling one or another of Gretsch’s archtop electrics (most notably the very expensive White Falcon) on the pages of Downbeat and other hip journals. She looked every bit as expensive as the guitars, which was probably Gretsch’s intention.

Gibson didn’t have to look far because Les Paul’s wife and musical partner Mary Ford was already hugely popular. Although her greater contribution to their success was her multi-tracked, pitch perfect vocal harmonizing, she employed her husband’s revolutionary instruments most attractively and convincingly across the media landscape of the time.

The launch of the Fender line, which established the completely solid-body option, was another giant step in the evolution of electric guitar.  But the advertising people continued to see the benefits of having attractive women players attached to their product, so Fender chose Mary Kaye as their figurehead. The Mary Kaye Trio had established themselves as a top-tier lounge attraction in Las Vegas, on the same level as Louis Prima and Keeley Smith, and Mary was tearing them up with her spirited proto-rock chops. A perfect fit for the space‑age Stratocaster! In 1956 The Mary Kaye Trio was the subject of a Fender promotional photo campaign featuring the new swamp-ash blonde Strat with maple neck and gold hardware.  Made in limited numbers, these are now among the most expensive and collectible guitars in the world.

Mary’s own provenance was pretty special. Descended from the royal Hawaiian line of Queen Liliulokalani, she was born Malia Ka’aihue in 1924. She was sometimes referred to as the First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and she certainly did her bit.

The Skelly Suggests…Ladies of Steel

Letritia Kandle, Letar virtuoso and Steel Guitar innovator
Letritia Kandle, Letar virtuoso and Steel Guitar innovator. by JOtwell (click to buy)

It would have been amazing to be able to post a playlist today that included some of Letritia’s work BUT there are very few recordings that exist and none of them are available on the standard music sites. Here is a link to one of her songs that I got from The Steel Guitar ForumLetritia on Steel. If you click on the Steel Guitar Form link you will find more samples at the bottom of the thread. My next idea was to do a playlist of Female Steel Guitar Players. I had some successes and some failures. Please be aware that this list is a paltry example of the depth of players out there. It was made from what was available on the web. PLEASE feel free to make any additions you feel were left out. I welcome the input. This first entry is actually a YouTube video of Barbara Mandrell. It shows footage of her playing as a child and then leads into her playing today. Great video- 

Ladies of Steel

Summer Romance – Maggie Bjorklund

Montreal – Kaki King

Locust Grove – Cindy Cashdollar

Living in the Moment – Sally Van Meter

Weary Lonesome Blues – Sally Van Meter

Bone Chaos in the Castle – Kaki King

Spanish Fandango – Steve James and Cindy Cashdollar

Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers – Kaki King

Frost – Maggie Bjorklund

Speeding West – Lucky Ocean, Redd Volkaert, Cindy Cashdollar

2 O’clock – Kaki King