The soundtrack to Mardi Gras, from its first wave to its golden age
On Mardi Gras Day 1949, at the height of his popularity, Louis Armstrong returned to his hometown of New Orleans to fulfill what he described to Time magazine as "a thing I've dreamed of all my life . . . to be King of the Zulus." Standing atop a mule-drawn float and tossing coconuts to huge crowds along the parade route, Armstrong reigned as the ceremonial king of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the city's first — and, then, only — Black parading Carnival organization.
Armstrong's appearance as King Zulu was a media sensation around the world, bringing unprecedented exposure to New Orleans's Carnival traditions — and generating controversy among the national Black press, for his donning of the krewe's traditional black greasepaint — while setting a new standard for celebrity involvement in Mardi Gras parades. It also had a galvanizing effect musically, inspiring a small but substantial wave of songs about Carnival and helping to kickstart the entire notion of Mardi Gras music. Previously, popular songs enjoyed coincidental success if they became favorite tunes during a given Carnival season — akin to today's "song of the summer" — but until King Armstrong got the world's attention in 1949, there were very few songs made for and about Mardi Gras. In the years following, however, New Orleans artists released a string of seasonal tunes that reflected the range of popular styles brewing at the time, from traditional jazz to rhythm and blues to mambo.
The growing demand for Black and Afro-Caribbean dance music would soon transform popular culture around the world with the explosion of rock and roll in the mid-1950s, and these first-wave Mardi Gras recordings were part of that process. Some songs achieved lasting success and remain at the top of the Carnival-music firmament, others disappeared from the scene almost as quickly as they arrived, and it wouldn't be until the 1960s and '70s that Mardi Gras music would enter its first real golden age. But taken together, these early-'50s forerunners provide a snapshot of the musical diversity and influence of New Orleans at this pre–rock and roll moment, as well a window onto the forces of genre, race, technology and tourism that would shape the soundtrack of Carnival — and influence popular music across the country — to this day.
The musical impact of Armstrong's Zulu reign appeared not long after Mardi Gras 1949. That fall the pianist Henry Roeland Byrd, making his first performance on wax as Professor Longhair, recorded "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" for the Star Talent label. Over a rollicking piano ostinato punctuated by trumpet and saxophone, Longhair sang of wanting to "go see the Mardi Gras" so that he could "see the Zulu king."
With its mix of boogie-woogie and jump blues with an Afro-Caribbean tinge, "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" laid the foundation for music inspired by and in celebration of Carnival. Isolated precursors existed: King Oliver recorded an instrumental called "Zulu's Ball" in 1923, featuring a young Louis Armstrong, and in 1932 Victor Young's orchestra recorded the sentimental tune "While We Danced at the Mardi Gras." But "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" jump-started sustained interest in the subject among local artists. Longhair recorded a different version of the song for Atlantic, released in 1950, and Fats Domino put his spin on it in 1953. Longhair's 1959 version, recorded as "Go to the Mardi Gras" for the New Orleans label Ron, is a mainstay of Carnival compilations and playlists — one of the undisputed "greatest hits" of Mardi Gras.
Soon after Longhair's opening gambit, in 1950, came "Carnival Day," a Latin-tinged number about the sights and sounds of Fat Tuesday. "The Zulu king'll be ballin' on Rampart Street," sings Dave Bartholomew, the prolific bandleader, songwriter, producer and arranger responsible for many hits of 1950s–'60s rhythm and blues. "Carnival Day" was one of Bartholomew's first recordings, made when he had just begun his legendary collaboration with Fats Domino. With clave accents, electric-guitar fills and horns on top of a blues harmonic structure, "Carnival Day" is more than a swinging party record: In retrospect, it's a canny mix of all the styles that would inform popular music in the coming years.
Another Afro-Caribbean-influenced Carnival classic to come out of this early period began as a hillbilly tune: "Mardi Gras Mambo" originally recorded in 1953 by country singer Jody Leviens. It drew the attention of Ken "Jack the Cat" Elliott, a white radio DJ who had recently befriended the young rhythm-and-blues group the Hawketts, featuring a 15-year-old Art Neville on vocals and piano. "The country version hadn't sold. [Elliott] figured an R&B version might. He figured right," Neville writes in The Brothers , the Neville Brothers' 2000 autobiography.
Elliott organized a quick session for the Hawketts to record the tune, and the group "gave it a little mambo snap to cash in on the craze of the day and knocked it out in no time," Neville writes. They also changed and added to the lyrics, referencing Black neighborhoods — "Gert Town, where the cats all meet" — and "the Zulu king." (Leviens's version did mention the Zulu king, but the singer pronounced it "Zula," like "hula.") Through Elliott's connections in broadcasting, as well as the Hawketts' undeniable vim and freshness, "Mardi Gras Mambo" became the hit of Carnival 1955 and '56, only growing in popularity from there. "More than forty years later I'm still singing the damn thing," Neville writes in The Brothers. "Don't even ask me about royalties," he adds. "All of us learned early on that, in New Orleans, control stayed in the hands of a few men. It'd be that way for decades to come."
Indeed, for Black artists of the period, artistic control and commercial success rarely went hand in hand. Such was the case for the banjo/guitar player and songwriter Danny Barker, who, in 1953, made a group of Mardi Gras records under his own label, named King Zulu. For the songs, he set his sights on a then-untapped cultural resource: Mardi Gras Indians, also known today as Black Masking Indians. Mighty and beautiful, they occupy the streets with chants, songs and hollers every Mardi Gras morning in their enormous, elaborately beaded and feathered suits.
Before the King Zulu project, only a few artists had recorded music that referenced the Mardi Gras Indians: In 1927, Louis Dumaine and His Jazzola Eight released "To-Wa-Bac-a-Wa," a jazz instrumental that didn't show any obvious Indian influence beyond its title; there was also the inclusion of a few Indian phrases in Bartholomew's "Carnival Day" and James "Sugar Boy" Crawford's "Jock-a-Mo." But Barker's King Zulu sides would be the earliest set of recordings to incorporate the folk songs of Mardi Gras Indians. They also amount to the first Mardi Gras album — a group of songs all written, recorded and released with Carnival in mind.
The project came at a turning point in his career, and in jazz more broadly. Barker, a New Orleans native, had been living in New York and had recently left a stable, longtime gig with Cab Calloway's Orchestra. Meanwhile, the swing era had peaked, and bebop was the next new thing — but decidedly not Barker's thing. Traditional New Orleans jazz (popularized as "Dixieland," though Barker disliked that term) was newly ascendant, thanks to a devoted fan base of collectors and amateur historians who celebrated what they believed to be the only truly authentic form of jazz. Barker had dabbled in the scene, but was skeptical. After some success as a songwriter, he hoped to forge his own path, following the advice of his uncle, the drummer and songwriter Paul Barbarin: "He said, that's where the money's at, man — get a hit song, you'll receive royalties as long as the song lives," Barker said in a 1988 interview.
Seeing that Carnival music was on the rise, Barker looked to his hometown for inspiration. He had grown up catching glimpses of the Indians in his downtown Seventh Ward neighborhood and knew they were manifestations of Black power, defiance and creativity — just the kind of lightning he hoped to bottle. "The words go round and around, and they build up," he writes of Mardi Gras Indian chants in his 1986 autobiography, A Life in Jazz. "Nobody's going to fool with an Indian on Mardi Gras Day. He ain't gonna hear no s*** from anybody."
Working with his cousin Howard Mandolph during a visit home to New Orleans, he attended a Sunday practice of the Monogram Hunters, a downtown tribe, and recorded their chants and songs. After returning to New York he hired a group of fellow sidemen and put his own spin on the songs, adding verses and jump-blues arrangements. The records were a self-funded effort, put out in early 1954 under Danny Barker and His Creole Cats.
In "Chocko Mo Feendo Hey," Barker sings, "I'm gonna shake 'em all down on a Mardi Gras Day," and, "I'm gonna drink much wine on a Mardi Gras Day." "Corinne Died on the Battlefield," a call-and-response number, tells the story of an Indian queen who gets caught in the crosshairs of a brawl on Mardi Gras Day. On "Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing," based on a chant heard among neighborhood kids, he channels Latin swing to praise a girl who could "shake for me on a Mardi Gras Day."
Finally, there was "My Indian Red," now commonly called "Indian Red." Today, it's widely known as the sacred anthem of the entire Black Masking Indian tradition. It's typically the first song Indians sing as they come out on Mardi Gras morning, performed unhurriedly, with ceremonial grandeur. Barker, however, was not an "Indian of the nation," as the song goes. He wanted to make a hit party record, so he adapted accordingly, rendering the song as a jaunty march.
It would take another 20 years for verisimilitude to come to recorded Mardi Gras Indian music, when the Wild Tchoupitoulas, led by George "Big Chief Jolly" Landry, joined his nephews, the brothers Neville, in the studio. (This project, produced by Allen Toussaint, was the Nevilles' first studio recording together, and soon after they joined forces officially as the Neville Brothers.) The ensemble's 1976 self-titled debut featured the first recorded rendition of "Indian Red" since Barker's. Their version, done in lilting 6/8 meter, incorporated R&B harmonies and, most important, featured real Mardi Gras Indians playing their own instruments. Though Barker's records weren't well-known, his influence wasn't forgotten: Listen to the beginning of the Wild Tchoupitoulas song "Brother John," and you can hear Aaron Neville quoting "Chocko Mo Feendo Hey," singing it a capella before the group comes in for the chorus.
Barker had hoped to make a Mardi Gras hit, but the records were "a disaster," Barker says in his autobiography. He blamed their format, having pressed them as 78-rpm discs just as local jukeboxes were converted to play 45s. Moreover, Barker and Mandolph simply didn't have the right connections.
Paul Barbarin, writing to Barker in late January 1954, offered encouragement to his nephew, saying that "Tootie Ma" had made a small splash among local juke joints. Ever the protective uncle, he praised Barker's singing voice on the records, writing, "You got a good chance, Danny."
While Barbarin clearly wanted to boost Barker's spirits by playing up the (real or inflated) success of the records, he also tried to steer his nephew toward a more lucrative hustle: playing traditional jazz for white fans and tourists. In the same letter, Barbarin shared news of a session he'd just recorded for a new label called Southland, with a band put together by the well-respected white cornetist and bandleader Johnny Wiggs. It was another entry into the growing Mardi Gras music canon: a traditional-jazz version of "If Ever I Cease to Love," an English music-hall tune from 1871 that served (and still serves) as the official song of Rex, one of the city's elite white krewes. The B-side was an instrumental track called "King Zulu Parade," once again proving the lasting cachet of Armstrong.
Southland was a small label run by Joe Mares, a merchant and jazz fan connected to the New Orleans Jazz Club. The club had an international, mostly white membership and was the epicenter of the traditional-jazz revival, helping to popularize both the style and the first- and second-generation jazz musicians who had been long forgotten by the rest of the music world. "They are smart operators," Barbarin wrote, and he laid out Southland's plan for selling the "Cease to Love" 78s: "They are having 10 thousand press at once to sell to the visitors here. ... They will place them in all the drug stores and five and ten stores on Canal Street." Barker, Barbarin and Mandolph, by contrast, were not allowed to even sit down in many of the stores on Canal Street at the time.
The record was released as the "Mardi Gras Theme," with Johnny Wiggs' band billed as the Mardi Gras Revelers, and it came in a festive package, featuring a purple, green and gold illustration of a busty blonde in a Carnival mask. Musician-surgeon Edmond "Doc" Souchon performed vocals on the uptempo "If Ever I Cease to Love," doing a gravelly Louis Armstrong impersonation. Liner notes written by the eccentric jazz authority Al Rose declared that the "gay, nonsense tune . . . 'If Ever I Cease to Love' has endured through nearly a century as the theme music for Carnival."
Such a claim — an official song of Mardi Gras — held sway because of Rex's status. The city and its newspapers of record all acknowledged the krewe's king, known simply as Rex, as the "King of Carnival" (this is still true). By this logic, the official song of Rex was the official song of Mardi Gras, and Southland knew to market it as such. "Unbreakable souvenir record — Mardi Gras theme," an insert declared in purple all-caps type. "Mail it to your friends."
The 1960s and '70s would prove to be Mardi Gras music's first golden age, with the minting of classics like Al "Carnival Time" Johnson's "Carnival Time" (1960), Professor Longhair's Earl King–penned "Big Chief" (1964), King's own "Street Parade" (1972) and Dr. John's "Mardi Gras Day" (1970). Mardi Gras Indian music would flower starting with the Wild Magnolias' "Handa Wanda" parts 1 and 2 (1970) and the 1976 Wild Tchoupitoulas-Nevilles collaboration. By 1977, the Carnival canon was robust enough to fill out the compilation record Mardi Gras in New Orleans, still popular today.
There's an interesting "prequel" quality to nearly all the songs released in that early-'50s window. The Hawketts had a hit with "Mardi Gras Mambo," but Art Neville wouldn't become a household name for another 20 years, through his work with the Meters and the Neville Brothers. When Dave Bartholomew released "Carnival Day," he was in the first stage of a career that would come to change the course of American music. Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" is an undisputed classic, but it took several studio efforts for him to land on the seminal version recorded in 1959.
Danny Barker would achieve a lasting legacy as a musician, storyteller and jazz elder, but in 1954 his King Zulu sides were an outright failure. They only reemerged beginning in the late 1980s, in part through his relationship with Jerry Brock, cofounder of the New Orleans community radio station WWOZ-FM, as well as the rise of preservation-minded New Orleans music fans. They've since been reissued as 45s and appear on a re-release of the Baby Dodds Trio's Jazz à la Creole.
Armstrong's Zulu reign was a high-water mark in his development as an American icon, and, as with any iconic moment, its significance radiated beyond the cascading success of his career. In retrospect, his appearance signaled transitions under way in both New Orleans and American popular culture. Simply by returning home and embracing Carnival traditions with the full weight of his celebrity, Armstrong invited other New Orleans musicians to use the touchstone of Mardi Gras as artistic grist — something Bartholomew took up with "Carnival Day," using a mix of sounds that would come to define popular music in the following decades.
It's also of crucial importance that Armstrong appeared with Zulu, a Black parading organization working in the white-dominated medium of large-scale Carnival parades. That dynamic mirrored the musical landscape of the era, in which Black artists were transforming the record industry and popular culture yet remained beholden to white gatekeepers and exploitive deals — something Art Neville, who never reaped financial rewards from the success of "Mardi Gras Mambo," understood. Danny Barker had hoped to make his own way in the recording industry, but instead he watched his King Zulu records flop while "If Ever I Cease to Love," recorded by white musicians (save for Paul Barbarin) for white tourists, became a staple of the season for fans of Rex.
What was happening in popular music was also happening to New Orleans, with the rise of the tourism industry over the second half of the 20th century and the popularization of Mardi Gras as a consumer experience. Southland Records's tourism-savvy marketing of "If Ever I Cease to Love" was an early example of the kind of material culture that would develop as Mardi Gras became one of the city's primary economic engines. New Orleans Black musical culture has become a pillar of the "cultural economy," though that arrangement doesn't always benefit the communities sustaining it.
Such is the joy and complexity of Mardi Gras music then and now: There's a lot going on behind the gloss of spectacle and revelry, but at the same time, to quote the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, "Ain't nothin' but a party."
Molly Reid Cleaver is an editor and historian at the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum, research center, and publisher located in the French Quarter. Many thanks to Jerry Brock, cofounder of WWOZ-FM, for the guidance and expertise he provided to this story.