The New Orleans musical renaissance of the 1990s that’s made the city come alive with creative sounds of unprecedented variety has been seriously aided and abetted by the handful of locally-based record labels that document and distribute the otherwise obscure sounds of the Crescent City.
Carlo Ditta’s Orleans Records is definitely in the very first rank of New Orleans record companies active in the ’90s.
For 14 years Carlo has labored to produce a series of fine recordings by overlooked or under-recorded artists whose works are now recognized as important and colorful strains of the rich musical fabric of New Orleans.
One-of-a-kind characters like Danny and Blue Lu Barker, Coco Robicheaux, Roland Stone, Ironing Board Sam, Little Freddie King, Rockie Charles and the elusive Guitar Slim Jr. are Carlo’s specialty and stock-in-trade.
Ditta tracks them down, drags them into makeshift studios or cuts them in context, puts the records out, assists the artists’ efforts to get a stage show together, helps book them and handle their little affairs, buys ads in the blues magazines when he can, hustles CDs out of the trunk of his car and juggles his jerky cash flow to keep all the balls in the air like the legendary independent record entrepreneurs of old.
Orleans Records are quality products, almost hand-crafted in their careful attention to detail and regard for proper presentation. Each one is a special project, developed from a germ of an idea in the producer’s mind to a beautifully packaged and wholly singular program of music by an artist only the most fiendish of fans have ever heard of before.
Taken as a whole, the Orleans records catalog represents a remarkable achievement by a young man whose love of the music shines through his label’s every release. The songs excerpted on this sampler themselves present a wildly various and richly rewarding tapestry of sounds from the Crescent City today.
So stretch back and relax, enjoy the sounds of Orleans records, and listen with your inner ears as Carlo Ditta takes a little mental stroll through the label’s history.
Carlo Ditta: I met Mighty Sam McClain in Gretna. He was working with Kerry Brown at the Absinthe Bar, and Kerry took him home to Gretna. I knew Kerry because we grew up together in Gretna. A friend and I had renovated the old Pepper Pot on Weyer Street, and we had a rehearsal studio there where Kerry used to hang around with us.
I was hanging out at Kerry’s house when he brought Mighty Sam over, and I was playing some of my songs for them. He liked “Pray,” which I had written one day at Barbara Hoover’s club, the Beat Exchange, as a kind of reggae song when I was playing with a band called Autobop, which was sort of an avant-garde Human League.
I backed up Willy DeVille at the Beat Exchange one time, on guitar, and I produced an album’s worth of material on a band called the Sponges, which were like the Metairie Beatles, but it never came out. I had some studio time coming from Richard Bird at First Take studio, and I brought Sam there to record the song.
I still hadn’t heard Sam sing, and he came there in his tuxedo on his way to a gig at the Colt 38 lounge on Basin Street. I sang the song to him, and then he sang it, and, man, he blew me away.
We did three or four demos, and on the strength of those demos I went to New York City several times and then moved there to try to get them out.
In the course of this I decided to invest all my savings, which amounted to $2,000, in a professional session at Knight Studios that was a joint production between me and A.J. Loria.
I grew up with A.J. in Gretna too, and we worked on some jingles together which I produced on my 4-track. We ended up with an office-studio at Dolce Advertising on Frenchmen Street. Our big number was “Century Bank of New Orleans —100% for you, Believe it, it’s true.” But we blew that because we were bringing the Sponges and other groups in there to record.
So I’m shopping these demos in New York and they’re sounding like shit, so A.J. tells me he can get Deacon John, Erving Charles, Bobby Williams and all these cats to go in the studio with Mighty Sam to cut real recordings of “Pray” and “Why,” another one of my songs. They had a horn section too, and we overdubbed Mighty Sam and Lady B.J. on the vocals.
I took these tapes to New York and mixed them there and started shopping these tapes around. While I was getting the tapes duped I met Dorothy Goodman at the duplicating place, and it turned out she had been on the same label as Mighty Sam in the 60s —Bell/Amy. She had been a Brill Building songwriter/artist working with Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Charles Koppelman and other music-biz people, and we got together to write some songs at this little 4-track demo studio I had in my apartment on Astor Place. Willy DeVille used to come by there to work on demos for his album on Atlantic.
While I was in New York my aunt in California sent me this entry form for the American Song Festival, so I entered “Pray” and “Why” in the inspirational music category and ended up winning “Best Gospel Song”, which paid $2,000. “Why” was the runner-up at $50.
Now I want to put it out as a record, and A.J. has started Orleans Records to issue his “Mad Mad Mardi Gras” single, which had Wynton and Branford Marsalis playing on it. So I pressed up 700 45s at a little plant in Brooklyn under the Orleans label and brought them back to New Orleans for the World’s Fair. This is 1984.
The other side was “Dancing to the Music of Love,” which was something Sam had recorded back in the 70s, and I licensed it from Moses Dillard in Nashville. The World’s Fair was a bust, and we ended up throwing copies off the stage to the audience at JazzFest, where Sam appeared that year as a guest of A.J., who was there as King Nino & the Slave Girls. I was on guitar. Mighty Sam came on and sang “Pray” and tore the house down.
Somehow we managed to sell 100 copies to Japan and the other 100 copies to a guy in England named Dave Porter, which was quite encouraging. Sam had moved in with A.J. and started playing with Wayne Bennett, and Sam got an offer to come to Japan and cut a live record for Japanese release.
We had recorded a couple of songs on Mighty Sam “live” —”Backstreets” and “A Change Is Gonna Come”—as a demo for a gig on Bourbon Street, and when he got the offer from Japan we decided to record a couple more songs—”Your Perfect Companion” and “Miss B,” which had Cyril Neville on it and we issued it as Your Perfect Companion, a 12” EP with 5 songs on it. It was released May 3, 1986, in time for JazzFest —the first album on Orleans Records.
We got the album distributed by Rounder, Bayside, North Country and some other regional outfits and moved about 2,000 copies pretty quickly, which inspired us quite a bit.
Meanwhile, the 100 records by Mighty Sam we had sold in Japan led to Fumio Nagano of Vivid Sound inviting Mighty Sam and Wayne Bennett to come to Japan for a concert tour of Tokyo, Osaka and other venues. Fumio recorded their concert at the Shibua Inn in Tokyo and put it out as an LP on Vivid Sound in 1986. We ended up licensing the album in 1988 for American release as a CD titled Live In Japan with some additional tracks.
By then I had moved back to New Orleans in 1987 and was living in the French Quarter. I was hot to build the label and find some New Orleans rhythm and blues acts to record.
I remembered from years before when I would see this sign on Orleans Avenue saying SNAKE DANCERS TONITE — PLUS GUITAR SLIM JR. That was at Dorothy’s Medallion, and finally Kerry Brown took me there one night. We met Guitar Slim Jr. and he did a set —it was like watching Jimi Hendrix or maybe Buddy Guy, and I was totally jazzed.
I said, Man, this is a real blues artist, and I wanted to sign him bad. But he wanted some ridiculous sum to sign with me, like a million dollars, so I just left it alone then.
But after I got back to New Orleans I looked him up again and he was much more reasonable now. I think I had to pay up the insurance bill for his car and pay up some of his back rent or something, and he was ready to record.
So we went to my friend’s garage studio, called the Big Easy Studios, on Paris Avenue, and it was so hot that summer that the tape recorder would shut down because of the heat, so we’d take the air conditioning vent tube and move it back to where the tape machine was so we could cool it off enough to keep going. That was really some hot blues in there that summer.
At the time I was making the Guitar Slim Jr. record I took a job at Tower Records as a provincial sales expert to advise them on Louisiana music and turn their customers on to local records. This was before CDs took over —we were still selling vinyl —and I would make sure that Mighty Sam and Guitar Slim Jr.’s records got heavy airplay in the store, and that the tourists would know about them.
So I had joined NARAS and became a member, which allowed me to enter Slim’s record in the traditional blues category for the Grammys, and it got a Grammy nomination in 1988. We lost out to Willie Dixon, but we got a three-page spread in People magazine (with Ronald Reagan on the cover) because Slim didn’t know what a Grammy was, and when he found out, he got drunk for a month or two.
Lee Atwater read the story and was becoming a fan of Orleans Records, so he arranged a jam session at Slim’s home base, the Colt 38 on Basin Street, during JazzFest 1989.
Slim made one good tour, but he didn’t take to the road too kindly. The only criticism really that we got was that Slim didn’t write his own tunes, and that his father, the original Guitar Slim, was a great songwriter.
Then I found out that Slim had a brother, Barry, who was another (illegitimate) son of Guitar Slim and was a songwriter who had written a lot of lyrics. But he was in the Feliciana Forensic Facility in Jackson, LA—he same place Buddy Bolden was sent to—for stealing cigarettes and pleading insanity to try to beat the rap.
This ended him up in the hospital for the criminally insane, and Porgy Jones and I went up there to visit him. He sang us some of his tunes, and we made a couple of phone calls and got him out in a couple of weeks. Naturally I took him and Slim into the studio and cut the song that’s on the anthology, “It’s A Privilege, Baby, To Be Loved By You.” It was gonna be part of the second Guitar Slim Jr. album, but Slim disappeared and we never did finish the album.
I remember seeing Little Freddie King at JazzFest as early as 1977, and after I was back in New Orleans in the ’90s my good friend Gary Rouzan tormented me weekly to make a record with him.
Little Freddie, whose real name is Freddie Martin, had moved here from McComb, Mississippi, and was the neighborhood bluesman in little joints from St. Tammany all through New Orleans. He got his name in the ’60s by imitating Freddie King so well that he would even open for King when he played in the area.
Little Freddie had only recorded one album, for the local Ahura Mazda label—Parker Dinkins’ company—but it was long out of print by now. So we brought Little Freddie into the studio in Metairie and cut Swamp Boogie. Freddie’s style hadn’t changed in twenty years—no slick shit here, just the real low-down ghetto blues and stories from his own life like “Mean Little Woman,” featured here.
One day in 1995 I came across an ad in a local music directory for a guy who called himself the President of Soul. Rockie Charles was looking for work for his group, the Stax of Love Revue. This ad grabbed my attention because the number listed was a West Bank exchange, and I wondered why I had never heard of him before.
So I called Rockie up, introduced myself, and arranged to meet with him at his house in Harvey, where I found he was building a 40-foot fishing boat in his yard out of scrap lumber. It turned out that he wasn’t only a great soul singer and songwriter but also a retired tugboat captain.
Rockie played me some of his old 45 singles that he had made in the late ’60s and early ’70s on his own Soulgate label which were classic examples of southern soul and New Orleans rhythm & blues. He had also worked with Earl King on many Watch Records sessions and claimed to have taught Guitar Slim Jr. how to play guitar.
We started working together on a project showcasing his new songs called Born For You, which was released in 1996 to rave reviews in the local and national music press. He was featured in Living Blues magazine and got a lot of local airplay on WWOZ radio, which led to an appearance at JazzFest and quite a bit of club work in New Orleans and outstate Louisiana. “Don’t Let Me Go,” featured here, captures the sexy, slow-grind sound of this rough-hewn southern soul man.
I’ve been knowing Billy Gregory since I was 14— we’d all look up to Billy, the Rock God, the rock guitarist, you know, he was about four years older than me, and he was in this rock-blues band, Nectar, and they opened for the Jefferson Airplane here in New Orleans, and then they went back to San Francisco with them.
When It’s A Beautiful Day came here for the Celebration of Life festival, the second pop festival that was here, I guess that was in 1970, they picked up on Billy and they got rid of their guitar player. Billy was playing at the Ivanhoe with Frank Bua and the Arthur Brothers and they took him back to San Francisco, and he was the only guy that we knew who made it to the big rock show.
Billy did three or four years with It’s A Beautiful Day, and he made these albums. We followed him, and all the guitar players from Chalmette to the West Bank knew Billy Gregory. He was a guitar-slinging hippie, and then he left the band and came back from San Francisco to New Orleans.
We didn’t know much about black artists then, you know? We knew Aaron Neville and Art Neville because they would play at the Ivanhoe sometimes, “All These Things,” all that stuff. We didn’t know about the Meters yet. They were there, but we didn’t know about them until …. we knew they backed up Dr. John on “Right Place, Wrong Time.” First time I really realized, oh, that’s the Meters, right? Then they started singing. They were an instrumental group, a black group, an R&B group, until they crossed over to the white kids.
But the big cross to the white kids was Fess. Billy Gregory became his guitar player when he came back after It’s A Beautiful Day. I graduated high school in 1973, so I guess this is 1974. That’s kinda why we would go to the 501 Club to see Fess, because Billy was in the band, and that’s how we got introduced to Fess, right? That was for me. But it was similar with Quint and all of them—they were just kids hanging around The Warehouse, and they wanted to have a festival. They wanted to be Michael Lang. That’s what they wanted. They watched Woodstock.
So 1976 comes around and Billy’s the stage manager at JazzFest, he’s playing gigs with Fess, and we were friends, I’d bought guitars from him, we’d been friends…so he lets me on the stage, and that’s where I took those beautiful pictures of Fess.
So Billy had these tapes from the Chicago Folk Festival, which were recorded two months before JazzFest, and they didn’t go there with horns—they went without horns—but what they did do is, every time it was a solo, Fess would holler out to Billy, and Billy would bust out with these rock star solos. The radio station in Chicago recorded the show but they didn’t know how to mix it, so Billy mixed it for them and they gave him a copy of the tape.
I don’t know how this release is going to work out, but Billy and I want to get it out now, and I’ll put it out on Orleans Records, of course.