New Orleans' Piano Legends Are Soul Of Mardi Gras

It's Carnival time in New Orleans. The costumed courts of the city's social and pleasure clubs rule the parade routes, but musicians are the real royalty. And among them, the piano players might just reign supreme. Guest host Gwen Thompkins speaks with local musician Dr. John about the music behind Mardi Gras.

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GWEN THOMPKINS, host:

This time of year in New Orleans there are more kings and queens than you can shake a scepter at. It's carnival time.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: From now until midnight Tuesday, the costume courts of the city's social and pleasure clubs rule the parade routes. But the real royalty of carnival are the musicians, and among them, the piano players might just reign supreme.

(Soundbite of song, "Going Back to New Orleans")

Dr. JOHN (Musician): (Singing) Go back home, (unintelligible) land of a beautiful queen. Going back home to my baby, going back to New Orleans.

THOMPKINS: That's Dr. John playing "Going Back to New Orleans." We're going to talk to him about some of the city's piano legends. Dr. John is currently on tour and he joins us from Morristown, New Jersey. Hi there.

Dr. JOHN: Well, top of the morning at you, Gwen.

THOMPKINS: So nice to make your acquaintance. Dr. John, let me ask you this: Can you tell a New Orleans piano player sight unseen? Can you just listen and know where that fellow or that woman comes from?

Dr. JOHN: I have always felt it. You could tell a New Orleans guy by not so much what he did but what he left out, the space he left in the music and where he left it to let the music breathe and to get a little more funky. It's like if you listen to Huey Smith's record of "I Got a Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," the whole song is loaded with breaks to leave the drum a little extra space just to do something.

(Soundbite of song, "I Got a Rockin Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu")

Mr. HUEY SMITH (Musician): (Singing) I got a rockin pneumonia and a boogie woogie flu, yeah.

Dr. JOHN: And it was just kind of the attitude of all the guys did that. All of that influenced other people from other places that played down there a lot, whether it was Ray Charles or Charles Brown. Just various guys. There were so many of them, they incorporated a lot of that stuff into their music.

(Soundbite of song, "I Got a Rockin Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu")

Mr. SMITH: (Singing) Well, all right. Yeah.

THOMPKINS: You sent us a list of some of your favorite piano players and their selections. And now my favorite, James Booker, there's a wonderful track that he did. It's a mixture of classical jazz, R and B, all in the same song.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JAMES BOOKER (Musician): Slow down, baby. Slow down, baby. Slow down.

THOMPKINS: Well, is New Orleans piano, is it really just the Louisiana brand of the blues?

Dr. JOHN: Well, like Jelly Roll Morton, another great keyboard player from New Orleans said once upon a time, it's not New Orleans without that Latin tinge. And that means, to me, that Jelly Roll was aware of that New Orleans, unlike the rest of the United States, is connected as more like the top of the Caribbean than it is part of the United States.

THOMPKINS: Yeah. I'm sure you have been asked many, many times to explain some of the Mardi Gras Indian lines. You know, jacomo fi-na-ne, mi ti cudafayo(ph), iko iko, but what exactly is tee-nah-nah?

Dr. JOHN: Well, tee-nah-nah is when you talk about a funky butt. That is the butt. That thing you shake it and don't break it. That's kind of what the tee-nah-nah is.

THOMPKINS: I see, I see. Well, let's let everybody else see. Let's listen to "Tee-Nah-Nah," Smiley Lewis.

(Soundbite of song, "Tee-Nah-Nah")

Mr. SMILEY LEWIS (Musician): (Singing) Tee-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah. Tee-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah. Tee-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah. Tee-nah-nah-nah-nah...

THOMPKINS: Now, the thing that makes you the lucky man in this conversation is that you can listen to all of these great songs because you can play all of them and you've recorded quite a few of them as well. I mean, "Iko Iko," and then my favorite recording of yours, which is "My Indian Red."

(Soundbite of song, "My Indian Red")

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) Mi ti cudafayo(ph) on a Mardi Gras day...

THOMPKINS: The lyrics are so strong because they show a certain pride of self and pride of community. And I remember after Hurricane Katrina I listened to that quite a lot actually. I love that line: We won't go down.

Dr. JOHN: (unintelligible) And they usually sit on that dirty ground, but I just - I don't even remember what I said.

THOMPKINS: I think you said: We won't bow down, not on that ground.

(Soundbite of song, "My Indian Red")

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) Wild (unintelligible), Wild West, you showed it, didn't you? Wild, wild (unintelligible) we don't bow down on nobody's ground.

Yeah, whatever. The fact is that's what the Saints didn't do in the Super Bowl. They didn't bow down to the Colts. They had the true Mardi Gras spirit. I was very proud of all of the guys doing that.

(Soundbite of song, "My Indian Red")

THOMPKINS: Thank you so much for joining us. I just had a ball talking to you.

Dr. JOHN: Hey, thank you so much, Gwen. I appreciated jaw jerking with you and it was a pleasure (unintelligible).

THOMPKINS: Dr. John joined us from Morristown, New Jersey. Thank you again for being with us.

Dr. JOHN: Hey, have a blessed every day and know your worst day is a blessing because you might learn something from it.

THOMPKINS: Exactly.

Dr. JOHN: All right, Gwen. Take good care.

(Soundbite of song, "My Indian Red")

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Y'all better get out the way. This here is an Indian (unintelligible)... Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot. Jacomo beat goes hot, hot.

THOMPKINS: Mi ti cudafayo(ph). You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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