Fine in the Lower Nine
I have spent the last two years of my life writing songs with my California collaborator, Colman deKay for a musical adaptation of a book by Dan Baum called Nine Lives. It is the story of nine people lives in New Orleans between Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with the city of New Orleans as the main character in the story.
In September, Threadhead Records Foundation was awarded a grant to record the album by Pepsi in their Pepsi Refresh Grant contest, a contest to help folks in the Gulf Region come back from the natural and man made disasters of the last few years. We booked time at Piety Studio in New Orleans and began recording 24 of the 38 songs written for an album. Matt Perrine was hired to arrange the bulk of the material for the record and to hire most of the band. We began recording in November. The final product would include the voices and talents of 109 people who have inspired me through their music or their lives to continue to try and create which for an artist means to continue to live.
The first track is Fine In The Lower Nine sung by John Boutté and Wendell Pierce. The song begins with an elegant, bluesy piano arpeggio which leads us to Boutté singing the intro. It is only four lines but he sings them with such beauty that I could not imagine another voice leading off this record. I love John and gave him complete freedom to choose what he would sing. He chose to sing just the intro because I had hired seven other Boutté family members for the record and he wanted to give them their space to shine. When John went to record the intro he found the piano had been recorded a bit too fast for his liking, he prefers a very relaxed phrasing and wanted some space. John is a fine piano player so I asked him to record his own intro. He agreed but said that he only records vocals under the name John Boutté and would have to use an alias for his piano credit so when you see the album credit it reads, “Piano – Skinny Parcheesi”.
Wendell came in next to sing. Having Wendell on the record had been John’s idea. He had heard a quality in Wendell’s speaking voice that he thought would make for a lovely singing tone. Wendell was enthusiastic about being involved but is primarily an actor and was uncertain he could carry a whole song on his own so I asked John to be there when Wendell cut his track.
Boutté is one of the finest singers I have ever worked with. I have brought him into the studio to work singers through vocals before and, for all of his playful nature, he understands how fragile a moment it is for a singer to step up to the mic in the studio and breathe life into a melody.
On Wendell’s first pass, he sang the melody down an octave from the demo and, while it was a gorgeous tone, it wasn’t quite the gusto we were looking for in an opening number. John asked me to turn on the studio mic and I did. He called out to Wendell, “Hey baby, that’s not your natural tone. I’ve heard your speaking voice and you don’t talk down low like that. You a baritone, baby. Sing it like a baritone.” Wendell did the next take up and octave and it was swinging so much that I danced with my arms in the air but it wasn’t enough for John. He asked me to turn the mic on again and said, “That was great, baby, but you’re an actor. This time act!!” The next take was perfect and we all applauded them both.
Wendell came in to listen and sat down on the couch next to John. He put his huge arm around the diminutive Boutté and it was the loveliest Kodak moment you could want.
Later, when Mark Bingham went to mix the track, we noticed a great disparity in the volume of Boutté’s delicate tenor and Wendell’s booming baritone and Mark said he would address it. When I came back to listen, the balance between the two was perfect and there was a wonderfully intimate quality to John’s voice, as if he were whispering right to you. I asked Mark about it and he smiled, saying, “I moved his voice way up front in the mix, I wanted it to be like the face of Jiminy Cricket pressed up against the television screen, welcoming you to The Wonderful World Of Disney”. The affect was wonderful and I am forever grateful to Mark for the visual of Boutté in top hat and tails with green antenna.
The band Matt assembled was wonderful: Matt on bass, Jason Mingledorff on sax, Kevin Clark on trumpet, Rick Trolsen on trombone (all from the amazing brass band The New Orleans Nightcrawlers) and Tim Laughlin on clarinet (the man Pete Fountain called the next great clarinetist in New Orleans.) For background singers we had Debbie Davis, Tara Brewer and Arséne DeLay, (a niece of John Boutté) and a lone male voice, Vance Vaucresson, (cousin to John Boutté).
Vance is a lovely fellow who’s family has owned and operated Vaucresson Sausage in New Orleans for four generations. If you have ever had sausage at Jazz Fest, it was probably Vaucresson. A member of the press who had been invited to the session was blown away that someone so well known n the community for so many years for his sausage and cooking was also privately an amazingly talented singer but that is New Orleans for you.
Rounding out the background singers on the track are the legendary New Orleans R&B singers, The Dixie Cups. How they came to be on the record is a wonderfully wacky New Orleans moment.
I get my hair cut by John’s sister Lynette “Nettie” Boutté. This is no fancy shmancy metro sexual styling salon. It is a women’s beauty parlor, primarily Creole and African-American women. If you want to know what is going on politically, musically or romantically in New Orleans, Nettie’s place is better than the internet for gathering information. The dishy gossip that goes around the room while I am there makes the long wait not only worth it but delightful every time.
I was sitting in the chair as Nettie worked on me, talking about the recording of Nine Lives. A very sweet lady in the next chair spoke up asking, “That sounds like a very interesting project. Would you like to have The Dixie Cups on your record?” I looked at Nettie and she smiled at me saying, “Paul, I’d like you to meet Athelgra Neville from the Dixie Cups.” I almost fell out of my chair. I waited anxiously for Nettie to finish so I could call the head of the record label, Chris Joseph, and ask him. His response was immediate and enthusiastic: He texted, “GET THE DIXIE CUPS ON THE RECORD!!” I put him in touch with the leader of the band, Barbara Hawkins, and they worked out the details. And that’s how I got to make a record with a group that I have listened to since I was a boy, who’s Iko Iko called me home when I was on the road, made me smile upon returning and sad upon leaving again for all of my life.
Detroit Brooks, brother of the late, great Juanita Brooks, was recording in the other studio at Piety and Bingham had been telling me for days that we should have him on the record. One night as we were finishing Detroit came in and asked very sweetly if I would like to hear a track from his record. As soon as I heard the beauty of his groove and the power of his singing I knew we had to have Detroit on Nine Lives. He came in to play and said, “It’s a full track but I hear a place to groove” and groove he did, adding the perfect tough of sloppy roast beef gravy to Matt’s carefully stacked po-boy and that was perfect for me because I like my po-boys with a little gravy on them.
The final member of the band was chosen by me: the drummer, Herman Roscoe Ernest III. This was to be the final recording session of Herman’s life and, although I did not realize this at the time, I know now that Herman did. I am humbled to tears when I think about his courage, his humor in the studio and his passion to play as much music as he could while he still could.
Herman was on the record I was making when the flood happened, Between Friends. He was friends with Mike Mayeux who had a studio in Meraux before Katrina and the flood. I barely had money to pay Herman for one track back then but he told me he liked my songs, “Nobody writes good words anymore. These are real songs, man. This ain’t about money. I just want to play on your songs.” I learned more from Herman on that one session than I had in all the records I’d made before… including some very expensive records for major labels with big money, “name” producers.
Since I had seen him last, Herman had become ill with cancer, but no one who knew Herman doubted that he would beat it. I didn’t for a second. Herman was a tall, muscular, very dark skinned handsome fellow for all of his life and I was not prepared for the transformation in his appearance when he showed up for the first day of rehearsal.
I met him getting out of his truck and could barely conceal my shock at his changed appearance. He was thinner and his face was swollen to the point where he had to hold a tissue to his face when he spoke to keep from drooling. He got out of his truck and I asked softly, “Hey baby, how you doing?” He smiled past his tissue and said, “Well, baby, it hurts but it could be worse.” My heart sunk in shock at these words as they were the very lines I had planned on asking him to sing as the voice of Da, who was the drummer for Irma Thomas, on a song we were to record later in the session. I asked if he was well enough to work and told him I understood if he didn’t want to do the session but he insisted saying he wanted to play music.
Herman played on five of the tracks before Matt and Mark Bingham pulled me aside and told me that Herman was hiding from me the fact that he was in a great deal of pain. I asked him if he could continue. Sitting in a chair in the control room holding a tissue to his face, he looked at me with the slight irritation of pain on his face and said, “It only hurts when I’m not playing music. Let’s do another song.” So we went back to work.
The news of his death affected me deeply. I was and remain in awe of his courage. His humor in the studio in making the other musicians laugh and never talking about his illness, his passion to play music for as absolutely long as he was physically able are all things that humble me to this day. An inner beauty that I will never forget.
The track itself? Swinging with the innocence of 1960’s R&B bubbling up from the layers of singers and players and coming through the joyous sounds of Wendell singing. The band falling all over you like a New Orleans drunk and Herman’s drumming laying down a groove that was part of his DNA as he had grooved so many songs just like that one in his career.
Thrilling, exhausting, emotional… and this was only track one.
~ Paul Sanchez – April 6, 2011