Dr. John

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A Grammy Hall of Fame Surprise

The Grammy people postponed their ceremony until March due to Covid. Despite the delay they’ve already announced a number of awards. These include 29 songs and albums inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (shout-outs to Dr. John and Irma Thomas).

There’s much to like on this list, but one recording in particular stands out: “Au Clair de la Lune,” a “single” by Édouard-Léon Scott De Martinville.

Unlike the others, this tune never made it to jukeboxes, radio, TV or music stores. And that may be because it’s over 160 years old.

Also it’s only 21 seconds long.

So why is it in the Grammy Hall of Fame?

The web site First Sounds claims “Au Clair de la Lune” is the earliest clearly recognizable record of the human voice they’ve found. But it was never intended to be heard at all. In fact it took a team of scientists to bring it to our ears.

Édouard-Léon Scott De Martinville
Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, a French writer and inventor of the phonautograph.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817 – 1879) was a typesetter by trade. In 1853 he was working at a scientific publishing house in Paris. While proofreading some anatomy engravings he came across one that showed the inner workings of the ear.

The idea of somehow turning speech into type had always fascinated Scott. For a time he tried to discover some form of stenography that could record a whole conversation without errors. Scott became something of an expert on shorthand and wrote several papers on the subject. But shorthand was not instantaneous and mistakes could still creep in.

As he studied the anatomy drawings he wondered, Could spoken words be captured by a device modeled on the ear the same way a camera was based on the eye? Inspired, Scott began to design such a device.

“I cover a plate of glass with an exceedingly thin stratum of lampblack. Above I fix an acoustic trumpet with a membrane the diameter of a five franc coin at its small end—the physiological tympanum (eardrum). At its center I affix a stylus—a boar’s bristle a centimeter or more in length, fine but suitably rigid. I carefully adjust the trumpet so the stylus barely grazes the lampblack. Then, as the glass plate slides horizontally in a well formed groove at a speed of one meter per second, one speaks in the vicinity of the trumpet’s opening, causing the membranes to vibrate and the stylus to trace figures.”

By the Light of the Moon

On April 9, 1860, Scott recorded a French folk song on his new invention — “Au Clair de la Lune.” That recording predates Thomas Edison’s “Mary had a little lamb” by 17 years.

Au Clair de la Lune

Scott called his invention the phonautograph, and those squiggles on smoked glass (later on paper) a phonautogram. His machine created only visual images of the sound and wasn’t able to play back its recordings.

But that didn’t matter to Scott. His intention was for people to read the phonautograms the way you’d read text. A kind of machine-generated shorthand. As it turned out this wasn’t feasible, although he did sell several phonautographs to speech research labs. The sooty, squiggle-covered paper strips went to the French Institute, where they lay undisturbed for 150 years.

The rediscovery of Scott’s phonautographs in 2007 and the process involved in getting them to produce sound is a fascinating and well-documented story

Since this video was made, researchers discovered that the recording was being played back too fast. So, instead of a woman, it’s thought Édouard-Léon Scott De Martinville himself is singing.

Scott never really profited from his invention. Within a few years Edison’s own sound recording and playback device overshadowed the Frenchman’s achievement. Scott ended his days as a librarian and bookseller at 9 Rue Vivienne in Paris.

But now he has a Grammy Hall of Fame award, and the satisfaction of an answer to a visionary question:

“Can one hope,” Scott wrote, “that the day is near when the musical phrase escaping from the lips of the singer will come to write itself . . . on an obedient page and leave an imperishable trace of those fugitive melodies that the memory no longer recalls by the time it searches for them?”

Rickie Lee Jones with guitar

Rickie Lee Jones

Our friend and neighbor Rickie Lee Jones has a lot going on, according to an article in the paper.

Don’t have the time? No problem. We’ve got the TLDR version, right here.

First of all, Jones says she’s going a little stir-crazy these days. (Aren’t we all…) So, she’s streaming a live Facebook concert tomorrow (Sunday, June 27, 2020) at 12 noon, Central. Needless to say we’re eager to hear that.

Rickie Lee Jones livestream "From My Living Room"

She’ll be accompanied by percussionist Mike Dillon and according to the article she’ll “showcase songs from throughout her career, with an emphasis on her … 1979 debut.” Which is one of our favorite albums, not the least because it lets us use the word “eponymous.” As in Rickie Lee Jones’s eponymous album, featuring Dr. John on piano:

Rickie Lee Jones album. Original release date: October 25, 1990

And now, after more than 40 years, Jones has recovered the rights to it. Which means she’ll be issuing a brand-new, remastered version later this year. Maybe even in vinyl (we hope).

Speaking of Dr. John, Rickie Lee Jones recorded with the late Doctor on a number of unreleased tracks. She says “Mac sounded a little weak, but what a unique voice he had. I always loved him. The more you hear him, the more you recognize, ‘What an important American figure.’”

Oh, and did we mention there’s an autobiography in the works? There is; it’s apparently being edited and typeset as we speak. She says, “I hope it reads well. It’s kind of like Forrest Gump as told by Charles Dickens.” Should be published early next year.

And a new album is coming, too — a follow-up to Kicks, which came out in 2019.

Heck, it may be time for another interview.

Miles Davis on Frenchmen Street

Frenchmen Street Musicians

The musicians left Frenchmen Street right before St. Patrick’s Day. Ironically that’s when New Orleans began its lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Bars, restaurants and entertainment venues were closed. That included the dozen or so music clubs scattered along Frenchmen, located just downriver from the Quarter.

Doors and windows boarded up, this once vibrant arts and entertainment district became a plywood-paneled ghost town overnight. Deprived of their usual music venues, some musicians went on-line, playing virtual gigs on Facebook.

But while the entertainment part of Frenchmen Street fell silent, art continued to thrive. Muralist Josh Wingerter used the boarded-up windows as his canvas, creating quarantine-inspired artworks of familiar musicians and other pop figures. Several of them became Internet memes, including a portrait of Louis Armstrong with pandemic-appropriate PPE:

Louis Armstrong on Frenchmen Street
Louis Armstrong

We weren’t able to photograph Wingerter’s art until after some other “artists” had tagged the empty spaces surrounding his images. Fortunately, these graffitists had mostly kept their spray cans away from his work.

Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson
Dr. John
Dr. John
Professor Longhair
Professor Longhair
James Booker
James Booker

For now it’s heartening to see these musicians still entertaining Frenchmen Street passers-by. With restrictions easing, some clubs and restaurants may soon re-open … making us wonder: what’s going to happen to all those artworks?

Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard Hosts “Up From the Streets”

Mark your calendar: New Orleans composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard will be coming to your home in just a few days. No need to clean up the place, however. Blanchard is hosting the award-winning New Orleans documentary, “Up From the Streets.” This “virtual cinema release” will begin streaming on May 14.

Here’s how it works: Tickets to watch the film are $12 each. They’re available from over 75 participating movie theaters in the U.S. Your ticket will be good for seven days, and you’ll have 72 hours to finish the film once you’ve started watching. A list of participating theaters (and virtual tickets) is available online.

The idea, of course, is to support your local independent movie theater while sheltering safely in place. But a portion of the proceeds also goes to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Music Relief Fund. This initiative supports Louisiana musicians who’ve lost income during the pandemic. So it’s a win-win-win.

Up from the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music (Trailer)

“Up From the Streets” is both a history and celebration of the music of New Orleans. It premiered last October at the New Orleans Film Festival. The festival jury nominated it for best feature-length Louisiana documentary. Awards at other festivals in Los Angeles, Washington, DC and Houston followed.

Terence Blanchard is on-camera host and narrator. “Up From the Streets” has interviews by Harry Connick Jr., Wynton and Bradford Marsalis, Aaron Neville, Robert Plant, Keith Richards, Sting, Allen Toussaint and Bonnie Raitt among others. Such legends as Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dr. John, The Neville Brothers, and, of course, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band appear in archival and newly filmed performances.

Michael Murphy is the producer and director. His previous New Orleans documentary was 2005’s “Make it Funky.”

Five Albums We Love

Tough times call for time-tested music. Here are five albums we’ve listened to over and over again throughout the years — on vinyl, compact disc, streaming … some even on cassette!

We’re not saying these are the best in whatever musical category they happen to occupy. Nor do we claim each album’s the best offering from that particular artist. “Best” is not a debate we want to get into.

What each album offers is good company. A musical sanctuary for those who just need to make the rest of the world disappear for about 40 minutes or so.

1. Dr. John, Gumbo

Five albums we love

Hard to believe this recording’s almost fifty years old! The songs on Gumbo are so different from the pop and jazz of the early 70s they might as well have landed from outer space. They had — and have — an infectious, driving, carefree yet wistful quality that’s a defining characteristic of New Orleans music. And co-produced by Harold Battiste, how could they not?

While Gumbo is available online and on CD it’s worth seeking out a vinyl copy (either the 1972 Atco original or the 1986 Alligator re-issue) in order to read Dr. John’s liner notes, strangely missing from the other formats.

2. Fats Domino, Greatest Hits: Walking To New Orleans

Five albums we love

They’re all here: “Blueberry Hill” … “I’m Walkin'” … “Blue Monday” … the songs you need to get you through these hard times. Bonus activity: put “Ain’t That A Shame” on repeat, pick up a saxophone and pretend you’re Herb Hardesty.

3. King Curtis & Champion Jack Dupree, Blues at Montreux

Five albums we love

Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Montreux, Switzerland on June 17, 1971, but it could’ve been a decade earlier at the Drop on LaSalle. Everybody’s having so much fun here. On “Junker’s Blues” Jack plays fast and loose with the 12-bar format, dropping a measure here and adding one there as the band struggles to keep up. “When it comes to bars,” he says, “the only ones I know about are those you drink in and those in prison cells. I don’t count bars, I play by feeling.”

4. Aaron Neville, My True Story

Five albums we love

Produced by Don Was and Keith Richards, with Richards on guitar, this album of doo-wop standards may seem as far removed from New Orleans as you can get. But oh, that voice. That soul, that wellspring of controlled emotion. “These songs helped to mold me into who I am,” says Aaron Neville. “They’re all dear to my heart, and they rode with me, in my bones, through all these years.”

We could listen all day long.

5. Allen Toussaint, American Tunes

Five albums we love

I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.

Ernie K-Doe, 1979 

We referenced this on a recent blog post featuring Paul Simon’s timely video, “American Tune Til Further Notice.” Now it’s time to play the record in its entirety. While you’re listening you may want to read an insightful revue by another virtuoso New Orleans pianist, Tom McDermott. A fitting testimonial to an astonishing career. Thanks, Mr. Toussaint, for helping us get though this period of isolation and loss with your unyielding optimism and matchless grace.

Happy Birthday, Carol Kaye

In the words of Dr. John, “Carol Kaye is a sweetheart and a kick-a– guitar player as well as a kick-a– bass player!”

You may not recognize the name but you’ve heard her on literally thousands of recordings, TV themes and movie scores. A member of L.A.’s legendary Wrecking Crew, Carol Kaye stood out in that group of virtuoso studio musicians as one of its very few women.

From CarolKaye.com:

Carol Kaye circa 1955

“Carol Kaye was born [Ed. note: March 24th, 1935] in Everett, Washington to musician parents, Clyde and Dot Smith, both professionals. She has played and taught guitar professionally since 1949, played bebop jazz guitar in dozens of nightclubs around Los Angeles … accidentally got into studio work late 1957 with the Sam Cooke recordings.

“In 1963 when a Fender bassist didn’t show up for a record date at Capitol Records, she picked up the Fender bass (as it was called then) and augmented her busy schedule playing bass and grew quickly to be the number one call with record companies, movie and TV people, commercials and industrial films.”

So Much Music

The list of Carol Kaye’s credits on electric bass is truly mind-boggling: The Beach Boys … Phil Spector … Quincy Jones … Frank Sinatra (and Nancy Sinatra) … Ray Charles … Sonny and Cher … Diana Ross and the Temptations … as well as New Orleans own Soul Queen, Irma Thomas. And Mahalia Jackson. By her count, over 10,000!

As Taj Mahal said to Carol when they both appeared at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, “Carol Kaye, you are the best!

Here’s a 2013 interview with Carol Kaye by the Snapshots Music & Arts Foundation: