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DAVE DAVIES, host:

A great music scene doesnt mean there's always a great local record label there to document it. Nowhere has this been more true than New Orleans, which went decades without a homegrown label to document its riches. This explains why, during the late 1950s, Ace Records of Jackson, Mississippi released so many New Orleans classics.

Rock historian Ed Ward has the story.

(Soundbite of music)

ED WARD: Johnny Vincent was born John Vincent Imbraguglio to a couple who ran a restaurant in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1925, and he went into the Merchant Marine straight out of high school. After mustering out, he ran a jukebox business in Laurel for a while. But in 1953, he took a job with L.A.'s Specialty label as their local talent scout. He sent one good record after another to Specialty, but they went nowhere. Finally, he organized a session in New Orleans with Eddie Jones, who called himself Guitar Slim, and had a young piano player named Ray Charles do the arrangements.

The song, "The Things I Used to Do," was a top seller in 1954, so after one too many arguments with Specialty, Johnny set up his own label, Ace. Early on, he leased songs from smaller labels or did one-off sessions in Jackson or Houston, but it was when he discovered J&M Studios in New Orleans and the musicians who worked there that his label took off.

(Soundbite of song, "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu")

HUEY "PIANO" SMITH AND HIS CLOWNS: (Singing) I wanna jump but I'm afraid I'll fall. I wanna holler but the joint's too small. Young man rhythm's got a hold of me too. I got the rockin' pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu.

Want some lovin', baby, that ain't all. I wanna kiss her but the gal's too tall. Young man rhythm's got a hold of me too. I got the rockin' pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu.

I wanna scream...

WARD: The record announced that the group was Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns, a group which had nearly as many personnel changes as it had personnel over the years - there are even a couple of records under this name on which Huey "Piano" Smith doesn't appear. As huge a classic as it is today, though, "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu" barely dented the pop charts, although it was a Top 10 R&B hit.

Cosimo Matassa, co-owner of J&M Studios, found Ace its best-selling artist. A band from Baton Rouge called the Rockets had auditioned there, and Cosimo thought the lead singer had something. He was right.

(Soundbite of song, "Just A Dream")

Mr. JIMMY CLANTON (Musician): (Singing) Just a dream, just a dream. Just a dream. All our plans and our all schemes. All our schemes. How could I think you'd be mine. Could be mine. The lies I'd tell myself each time.

I know that we could never last. Never last.

WARD: What Jimmy Clanton had was a good-looking white face, and an ability to write material that suited the times. Dick Clark liked him and made him a national figure. Vincent figured this was the way to go and looked for another like him. Frank Guzzo from suburban Gretna, Louisiana, was his man. Renamed Frankie Ford, he turned out to be another hitmaker, but of an entirely different sort.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Cruise")

Mr. FRANKIE FORD (Musician): (Singing) Old man rhythm is in my shoe. It's no use to sittin' and a'singin' the blues. So be my guest, you got nothing to lose. Won't you let me take you on a sea cruise?

Oo-ee, oo-ee baby. Oo-ee, oo-ee baby. Oo-ee, oo-ee baby. Won't you let me take you on a sea cruise?

Feel like jumping baby won't you join me pleas? I don't like begging but I'm on bended knee.

I got to get to rockin'...

WARD: As the owner of a successful label, Johnny Vincent was often approached by artists whose contracts elsewhere had run out, and this is how Joe Tex got to record for Ace.

(Soundbite of song, "You Little Baby Faced Thing")

Mr. JOE TEX (Musician): (Singing) You little baby faced thing, you just a liven me. Woo. You little baby face thing. I bet your kisses taste sweet. Yeah. You little baby face thing. Im keeping all the fellows from you. Whoa yeah.

Theyll be a rock 'n' roll dance that's coming town at night. I bet your mama and papa take you and she said all right. So I go down baby bought a ticket for two 'cause I'd rather go to the dance with you.

You little baby face thing.

WARD: The reason none of his records there were hits, of course, was that he was trying to sound too much like others - Little Richard, in this case.

By the time 1960 came around, New Orleans had sprouted some labels, most notably Minit, which drained some of Ace's talent away from it. Saxophonist Alvin "Red" Tyler had been arranging sessions, but he followed the exodus, leaving things in the hands of a strange young kid named Mac Rebbenack.

Rebbenack was a great rock 'n' roll guitarist until an incident with a gun injured his left ring finger, and he switched to piano, which figures on "Sahara" - cut in 1961 before he, too, left the label.

(Soundbite of song, "Sahara")

DR. JOHN (Musician):

WARD: Johnny Vincent always blamed The Beatles for the decline of Ace Records, but the fact is that the times left him behind well before the British Invasion. Jimmy Clanton's pop success had blinded him to the proto-soul music his sometime session musician Allen Toussaint was making, and when Toussaint became the talent scout at Minit, Ace's fate was sealed. A British company called Music Collection, however, paid Vincent a reported million pounds for his catalog in 1997, and he died rich and happy three years later.

DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in France.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Captain America."

This is FRESH AIR.

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