SWAMP POP is unique to South Louisiana. Traditionally, its ‘home patch’ is Louisiana’s Acadiana region, viz: West of New Orleans, out past Lake Charles to the Texas border and as far North as Alexandria, with Lafayette at its epicentre. But even from its earliest days, a really popular local hit would often spread out way past New Orleans to the East, Texas to the West, and Shreveport to the North, whilst the bigger hits made their aural presence felt even further afield, initially as far as Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, on their way to becoming crossover National successes.
An unlikely fusion of Cajun, Zydeco, R&B, R&R and C&W, it emerged in the mid 50s and was largely pioneered by young white Cajuns and black Creoles. It wasn’t actually called Swamp Pop at that time – indeed, it initially didn’t really possess its own, separate identity, and was largely viewed as being a Louisiana strand of Rock & Roll. In fact, the term ‘Swamp Pop’ wasn’t bestowed on the genre until the late 60s, when it was coined by an Englishman, Pop/Rock writer/researcher/historian Bill Millar. But it seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and has subsequently been in common usage for much of the ensuing forty-odd years.
Stylistically, Swamp Pop is clearly a close relation of New Orleans R&B, being readily identifiable by its piano triplets, plaintive melodies (which are often in 6/8 waltz time), bluesy guitar licks, rolling bass and a mournful horn section, all underpinned by a strong Rhythm & Blues backbeat. Lyrically, its songs are often anguished, “God-done-treat-me-bad” tales of lost loves, failed romances, broken hearts and stark loneliness (NB: it should be stressed that not all Swamp Pop songs are ballads – but a hell of a lot are!)
As important as the artists/performers themselves – arguably, even more so – were the men behind the scenes who actually made and released the records. The two main recording studios in the ‘catchment’ area were those owned by J.D. ‘Jay’ Miller in Crowley, and Cosimo Matassa, in New Orleans. However, not all of the sixty-five sides included herein were recorded in professional recording studios, by any means. Several were recorded in makeshift conditions in radio stations, demo studios, etc – a couple were even recorded in the back rooms of record stores. And in essence, it was record stores which acted as the catalyst for the scene, as most of the major players started out selling and/or distributing records, from which all their subsequent activities emanated. Before WWII, Jay Miller had been a semi-professional musician in various Cajun bands, and in the mid-40s he opened a record store in Crowley. His customers wanted Cajun music, which at that time was not readily available, so he began recording sessions himself, releasing the results on his own labels, Fais D-Do and Feature. Floyd Soileau, in Ville Platte, underwent much the same metamorphosis a few years later, which led to him forming the Jin and Swallow labels (he also ended up building a tiny studio out back of his record store). Over in Lake Charles, both Eddie Shuler and George Khoury underwent precisely the same process as Soileau, which led to the arrival of the Goldband and Khoury’s labels (and back-room studios), respectively. Other important record labels in the Swamp Pop pantheon included the mighty Chess Records, of Chicago; Ernie Young’s Nashville-based Excello and Nasco labels (to whom Jay Miller often licensed his productions); Johnny Vincent’s legendary Ace Records (and its Vin subsidiary) of Jackson, Mississippi; Dago Redlich’s Crowley-based Viking label; Sam Montalbano’s Baton Rouge-based Montel label; Myra Smith’s Shreveport-based Ram label; and Jud Phillips’ Atlanta-based Judd label. Another important early Swamp Pop figure was talent scout/manager /songwriter/producer/mr fixit Huey Meaux, the self-styled ‘Crazy Cajun’, who operated out of Winnie, East Texas.
The omnipresent Race/Color issue was never very far from the surface in the deep South, back in the 50s. And although, on the face of it, Swamp Pop was multi-cultural – i.e. as many of its artists were as likely to be black, as white (or vice-versa!) – at that time there were no mixed-race bands. That said, black and white musicians routinely worked together in recording studios – notably Jay Miller’s – and white and black performers certainly formed friendships and strong working relationships. Both Bobby Charles and Jimmy Donley were close friends of Fats Domino – and penned hits for him – whilst Rod Bernard wrote songs with King Karl (NB: Bobby Charles indeed occupies something of an unique position in the white/black saga; initially, Chess Records’ chief Leonard Chess had only ever spoken to him over the phone, and when Bobby flew to Chicago, after ‘Later Alligator’ had begun to break, he was astonished to discover that the singer was white). However, Huey ‘Cookie’ Thierry was literally run out of town in 1965, due to his (admittedly, largely indiscreet) interracial affairs – it would be nearly twenty years before he ventured back to South Louisiana – whilst Gabriel King, a saxophonist in Lil’ Bob’s band, The Lollipops, was jailed for a year in 1957 for publicly kissing a white girl. But – thank goodness – things change. During the Swamp Pop revival of the 90s, when many of the genre’s original artists and bands reformed and appeared on the same bill, there were regular instances of black and white performers jumping up onstage and singing and playing together, to the delight of their audiences – something which would have been unthinkable forty years earlier.
As to the eternal question, “What the very first Swamp Pop record?” this has been the subject of much debate over the decades. It would seem to boil down to a straight fight between three: Bobby Charles’ ‘On Bended Knee’, Earl King’s ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’, and Roy ‘Boogie Boy’ Perkins’ ‘You’re On My Mind’, which were recorded round about the same time, during 1955…
All three singers hailed from contrasting backgrounds. Bobby Charles (Feb 21st 1938 – Jan 14th 2010) was born Robert Charles Guidry in Abbeville and grew up in a French-speaking, Cajun environment in the backwoods. Just seventeen years of age when he wrote and recorded his first disc, ‘See You Later, Alligator’, he became the first white artist signed by Chess Records. Although famously covered by Bill Haley & The Comets, ‘Alligator’ was still a massive seller; the lachrymose ‘On Bended Knee’ appeared on its flip and ironically, became the more popular side in and around Louisiana. Charles went on to write a number of R&R, R&B and Swamp Pop classics, recorded by artists like Fats Domino, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, Johnnie Allan, Tommy McLain, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Delbert McClinton, Johnny Adams, Dr John, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, and dozens more (NB: his own 1950s recordings are anthologised on the splendid After A While, Crocodile, GVC 1009). He can be heard to further effect on Disc 1 of this set via a pair of his own 45s, ‘Why Can’t You’ and ‘Four Winds’, whilst on Disc 2, two more of his songs are presented, by John Fred and Johnnie Allan.
Conversely, Earl King (Feb 7th 1934 – April 17th 2003) was a black Blues singer/guitarist, who’d grown up singing Gospel music. Born Earl Silas Johnson in New Orleans, he’d already recorded for Savoy and Specialty as Earl Johnson before signing with Ace Records, for whom ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’ marked his debut. A significant success, it reached No.7 on the R&B charts (thus making it Swamp Pop’s de facto first hit record), although it was stylistically somewhat atypical of his subsequent recordings. King went on to carve out a long career as a mainstream Blues performer and wrote a number of hits for other performers – one of his own ‘signature’ tunes, ‘Come On’, was later successfully revived by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Roy ‘Boogie Boy’ Perkins was another po’ white boy. Born Ernie Suarez on April 26th 1935 in Lafayette, he was of Spanish/Irish extraction and grew up listening to black music, mainly via his parents’ oddball collection of 78s. Inspired by a couple of Cecil Gant 78s, he taught himself to play piano and in his teens joined a local band, The Modernaires, eventually pushing them towards R&B. In 1955 they recorded a session at a New Orleans TV studio, for local record distributor Mel Mallory’ Meladee label. Roy’s ‘You’re On My Mind’ was issued as a single and became a huge local hit, going to No.1 in Lafayette. He later joined Bobby Page & The Riff-Raffs (whose personnel also included legendary saxman Harry Simoneaux), with whom he alternated between piano and bass, playing on their 1958 regional success ‘Hippy-Ti-Yo’, a raucous, bilingual revival of an old Cajun song, ‘Hip Et Taiaut’. In the early 00s, after many years in retirement, Perkins re-emerged and began singing again at various Swamp Pop and Blues festivals.
Three fine discs, to be sure, but in the final analysis, it’s your choice; all are included on this wonderful compilation. However, in the opinion of two of Swamp Pop’s most celebrated scholars – not to mention performers – both Johnnie Allan and Rod Bernard have long since identified ‘On Bended Knee’ as having been the genre’s pivotal recording.
Meanwhile, among a number of early regional Swamp Pop hits which had sold well but weren’t quite able to break out nationally, were Shelton Dunaway & The Boogie Ramblers’ upbeat ‘Cindy Lou’, Guitar Gable & King Karl’s desperate lament ‘Life Problem’, Guitar Jr’s ubiquitous Swamp Pop favourite ‘Family Rules’ (the original version of a song which Johnnie Allan would successfully revive a few years hence), Lester Robertson (with Joe Hudson & His Rockin’ Dukes)’s pleading ‘Baby Give Me A Chance’ and future teenage heart-throb Jimmy Clanton’s debut, ‘I Trusted You’.
The Boogie Ramblers – a black, Creole band – had formed in Lake Charles in 1952 and by the following year they were featuring two alternating singers, Shelton Dunaway (born Sept 20th, 1937) and/or Huey ‘Cookie’ Thierry (Aug 16th 1938-Sept 1997), depending on the material they were performing. In 1955 they recorded ‘Cindy Lou’ for the Goldband label, which became a significant local hit and served to cement their reputation as a major live draw. Within a couple of years they’d changed their name to Cookie & The Cupcakes, and in 1958 they cut the career-defining ‘Mathilda’, for Judd Records. Nowadays regarded as Swamp Pop’s ‘unofficial anthem’, it was a massive seller, spending four months on the Top 100 and peaking at No.41 in early ’59 (had it been on a bigger label it would almost certainly have made the Top 10); over the years, sales have comfortably exceeded a million copies. By far the most popular band in South Louisiana, they were equally as popular with white audiences as black. Although Thierry left in 1965 – he was replaced by Little Alfred (Babino) (Jan 5th 1944-Nov 14th 2006) – The Cupcakes continued to enjoy popularity through to the early 70s, when they eventually ground to a halt (they would reform in the 90s, when Thierry reunited with several former bandmembers). Also included herein are a pair of their early regional hits, ‘Until Then’ and ‘Since Your Love Has Grown Cold’, plus Little Alfred’s debut 45 ‘Walking Down The Aisle’, recorded when he was just sixteen, on which he was backed by The Berrycups, another Lake Charles group stylistically based hook, line and sinker on The Cupcakes.
In many ways, Guitar Gable (born Gabriel Perrodin, Aug 17th 1937) and King Karl (real name, Bernard Jolivette, Dec 31st 1931-Dec 7th 2005) were the unsung heroes of Swamp Pop. They cut some of the genre’s finest, most influential recordings, mainly for the Excello label, yet they remained virtually unknown outside of Louisiana, never quite able to taste any of the crossover successes that some of their peers enjoyed. Gabriel’s trebly, echo-drenched Telecaster defined the sound of Swamp Pop guitar – which is hardly surprising, as The Musical Kings were studio owner/producer J.D. Miller’s house band for a few years and backed just about every local performer of note, on record. Karl’s ‘Life Problem’ had originally been issued as the B-side to an instrumental, ‘Congo Mombo’, but both sides became significant regional hits. They followed through with a series of similarly-styled releases – a percussive, Caribbean-styled instro one one side, backed with a vocal – all of which became big sellers, locally. In 1957 they recorded the original version of Karl’s ‘This Should Go On Forever’, although it unfortunately remained in the can until after Rod Bernard’s cover had become a major crossover Pop hit in 1959. This ultimately led to the band splitting with Miller – Gable believed he’d deliberately sat on the tune, waiting for a suitable white singer to record it (which, to be fair to Miller, was probably was wide of the mark, particularly as Bernard himself has always insisted that he’d been taught the song by Karl, having earlier seen the band perform it live). Meanwhile, they’d enjoyed another huge regional success in 1958 with another of Karl’s songs, ‘Walking In The Park’. Gable, Karl and The Musical Kings stayed together until the late 60s before going their separate ways, although they reformed in 1995 and continued to get together to play Swamp Pop, R&R and R&B festivals until Karl’s death.
Guitar Jr – or Lee Baker Jr, to give him his real name – was born on Dec 18th 1933 in Dubuisson, LA, and grew up in nearby Garland. A largely self-taught guitarist, he set out on a solo career in the mid-50s following a brief spell in Clifton Chenier’s road band. In 1957 he signed with the Goldband label, for whom he debuted with the self-penned Swamp ballad ‘Family Rules’; a major hit in Louisiana and East Texas, it was unfortunately covered by Johnny Spain & His Famous Flames, which prevented it from breaking nationally. ‘Broken Hearted Rollin’ Tears’ was a similarly-styled follow-up, although his third release, ‘The Crawl’, was an upbeat rocker. This heralded a change of style, and his subsequent recordings took him into increasingly Bluesy territory. In 1960 Baker relocated to Chicago, where he changed his name to Lonnie Brooks (the name ‘Guitar Jr’ having already been taken by Luther Johnson) and proceeded to carve out a long, successful career as a fully-fledged Blues legend.
Although essentially a New Orleans-styled R&B group, Joe Hudson & His Rockin’ Dukes, with Lester Robertson on lead vocals, cut one bona fide Swamp Pop classic in the shape of Robertson’s ‘Baby Give Me A Chance’. Another Jay Miller production, it appeared on the Excello label in 1957 and became popular locally. Robertson later recorded with The Upsetters, and cut a series of Little Richard/Larry Williams-styled rockers which are nowadays much sought-after by serious R&R collectors.
Conversely, Jimmy Clanton (born Sept 2nd 1940), from Baton Rouge, was destined to become Swamp Pop’s first fully-fledged Teen idol. After debuting for Ace Records in 1957 with the self-penned ‘I Trusted You’, he followed up the following year with the plaintive ‘Just A Dream’, the record which finally crossed Swamp Pop over to the mainstream. The genre’s first million-seller, it made the Top 100 in July’58, eventually peaking at No.4 Pop/No.1 R&B, setting Clanton up for a career in which he registered more than a dozen major Pop hits, including three further million-sellers, and even starred in a handful of dedicated R&R movies (notably Go Johnny Go and Teenage Millionaire). He later headlined a number of Richard Nader R&R Revival tours and subsequently spent several years as a deejay, before suddenly “finding God” in the 80s and recording a series of Gospel albums. He continues to appear in occasional R&R and R&B Revival festivals, and in 2007 was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.
Indeed, 1958 can be readily identified as the year in which Swamp Pop “came of age”. Hot on the heels of Clanton’s million-selling breakthrough, Warren Storm’s revival of Vernon Dalhart’s ‘Prisoner’s Song’ made the Top 100 and was soon joined by Cookie & The Cupcakes’ aforementioned ‘Mathilda’, whilst important regional hits that year included Johnnie Allan’s first release ‘Lonely Days, Lonely Nights’, Elton Anderson’s debut ‘Shed So Many Tears’, Swamp Pop wild man Jimmy Donley’s self-penned ‘Born To Be A Loser’, and Jivin’ Gene & The Jokers’ debut 45 ‘Going Out With The Tide’.
Drummer/singer Warren Storm (born Warren Schexnider, Feb 18th 1937) hailed from Abbeville, and played drums in his father’s band at the age of twelve. As a teenager he hung out in New Orleans with Bobby Charles, soaking up black R&B music in the local bars and clubs, and he eventually formed his own first band in 1956. In 1958 he began recording for Jay Miller, who leased the sides to the Nashville label, Nasco. His very first release was a soulful update of ‘Prisoner’s Song’, which became a huge hit throughout the South and crossed over to the Top 100 in August ’58. Although it peaked at No.81 it was a massive seller, eventually shifting in the region of 250,000 copies. Whilst he never quite managed another crossover hit, Storm continued to enjoy regional successes, including ‘So Long So Long’ and ‘I’m A Little Boy (Looking For Love)’. During the 60s and 70s he was a member of the first Louisiana ‘supergroup’, The Shondells (other members included Rod Bernard and Skip Stewart), and he remains active to this very day, touring and recording with celebrated 21st Century Swamp Pop supergroup Lil’ Band O’ Gold.
Whilst he has never enjoyed a crossover Pop hit, it’s probably fair to say that no-one has ever come closer to doing so than Johnnie Allan. Born John Allen Guillot in Rayne, LA, on March 10th 1938, his parents spoke only Cajun French and Johnnie himself did not learn to speak English until he started school. He owned his first guitar at the age of six and by his early teens, was playing in local Cajun bands. In 1956 he abruptly changed musical direction after seeing Elvis performing at the Louisiana Hayride, and immediately began singing R&R and Country-oriented material. In 1958 He cut his first record – the self-penned ‘Lonely Days, Lonely Nights’, for Floyd Soileau’s Jin label – which sold sufficiently well that MGM picked it up for national distribution (the MGM release featured a different B-side, ‘My Baby Is Gone’, which is included herein). Johnnie subsequently went on to establish himself as one of the biggest, most consistent recording artists in Louisiana, reeling off a staggering run of regional hits, including sides like ‘Cry Foolish Heart’ and ‘Your Picture’, both for the Viking label. During the 60s he gave up performing live and began teaching (although he continued to cut records – ‘South To Louisiana’ was a massive seller in 1962/63), eventually becoming the deputy Principal of an elementary school. However, in 1971 Allan recorded his iconic, off-the-wall revival of Chuck Berry’s ‘The Promised Land’, which served to reignite his singing career. A couple of years later Charlie Gillett released the disc in the UK on his fledgling Oval label, where it became hugely popular, very nearly making the charts on a couple of separate occasions. This in turn led to Johnnie touring Europe, for various R&R and Americana festivals, and he has continued to be a regular visitor ever since. One of Swamp Pop’s most articulate spokesmen, he is the author of two highly-regarded music-oriented books, Memories: A Pictorial History Of South Louisiana Music (1988) and Born To Be A Loser (1992), a harrowing biography of Jimmy Donley’s troubled life.
Although never a prolific recording artist, black singer/guitarist Elton Anderson (Sept 9th 1932-June 1983), from Lake Charles, enjoys near-legendary status among Swamp Pop, R&R and R&B collectors. During 1956/57 he was singing with The Syd Lawrence Band, in Opelousas, where he was spotted by Eddie Shuler’s son, Wayne, who cut a session on him at Goldband. The tapes were offered to Ace Records’ chief Johnny Vincent, who was about to start a subsidiary label; ‘Shed So Many Tears’ – Anderson’s debut – subsequently appeared as the second release on the Vin label, in 1958. It made sufficient waves that his subsequent releases appeared on Shuler Jr’s own label, Trey (which he co-owned with Minit/Instant chief Joe Banashak), viz: the phonetically-mistitled ‘Want A Come Back Home’ (Anderson actually sings “…want to come back home”!) and ‘Secret Of Love’. The latter became a major local hit and was picked up by Mercury Records for national distribution in late ’59, eventually crossing over, peaking at No.88 Pop/No.22 R&B. He later recorded for Mercury, Lanor and Capitol, but by all accounts was notoriously difficult to work with, and by the mid-60s he’d drifted away from Louisiana and appears not to have recorded again.
Despite his classic ‘poor white trash’ background, Jimmy Donley (Aug 17th 1929-March 20th 1963) – born James Kenneth Donley, in Gulfport, Mississippi – beat all the odds to become a successful singer and songwriter (even if his father – a devout southern segregationist – strongly disapproved of Fats Domino recording ‘his boy’s songs!). The five-times married Donley was a violent, aggressive, quick-tempered man, plagued by alcoholism, depression and schizophrenia – and yet he was a songwriter of extraordinary sadness and sensitivity. He cut eight singles for Decca between 1957-60, the pick of which was 1958’s ‘Born To Be A Loser’, a major regional success which failed to break nationally by only the narrowest of margins. He later recorded for Ace and Huey Meaux’s Tear Drop label, and never made a bad record. Donley committed suicide in January 1963 at the age of thirty-three, just a year after his mother’s death; but in his tragically short career he recorded a legacy of simply magnificent, tear-drenched records, which epitomise Swamp Pop at its most desolate.
Clark Kent lookalike Gene Bourgeois, born Feb 9th 1940 in Port Arthur, Texas, was perhaps the least-likely R&R singer of the 50s. A self-taught guitarist, he managed to conquer chronic shyness and by the age of seventeen was fronting his own group, The Saints. Huey Meaux – who was, at that time (1959), operating as something of a ‘talent scout’ for Floyd Soileau – recorded a couple of tracks with them at KPAC Radio in Port Arthur, which he duly offered to Jin Records. Meaux also came up with their new name, and so ‘Going Out With The Tide’ – an atypical ballad (which was recorded in the Men’s Room, hence the echo) – became Jivin’ Gene & The Jokers’ debut 45 and surprised everyone by becoming a regional hit. It sold sufficiently well that they decided to invest a few dollars in the follow-up, and so the haunting ‘Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do’ was recorded in Jay Miller’s Crowley studio. It became a massive Southern hit, whereupon Mercury picked it up and propelled it into the Top 100, where it eventually peaked at No. 69 (Billboard)/No. 53 (Cashbox), selling over half a million copies, and establishing itself as one of Swamp Pop’s points of musical reference. Gene subsequently recorded for Mercury (for whom he cut the superb ‘I Cried’, a number later recorded by Cookie & The Cupcakes and Johnnie Allan, plus a re-recording of ‘Going Out With The Tide’ which dented the Cashbox Top 100), Chess, Hall-Way, Hall and Capitol before ‘retiring’ in the late 60s. Twenty-odd years later he began singing again, and has continued to perform and record sporadically ever since.
Elsewhere, other significant Swamp Pop releases during 1958 included the very first Jin release, Doug Ardoin & The Boogie Kings’ bluesy ‘Lost Love’ (one of the very few white Blues/R&B groups operating in South Louisiana at that time, they unusually featured a singing drummer, Elbert Miller); two further Jin releases, Red Smiley & The Vel-Tones’ ‘Lover Blues’ and ‘Jailbird’, the former a mid-tempo Blues featuring Clint West (aka Clinton Maurice Guillory, born Aug 11th 1938 – ironically, another singing drummer) on lead vocals, the latter a Coasters-styled rocker, featuring Smiley (aka Bob Shurley) on vocals; and on the Goldband label, Jimmy Wilson’s original version of Clarence Garlow’s ‘Please Accept My Love’ (a song which was immediately covered by B.B. King, whose version made the R&B Top 10).
But if 1958 had been Swamp Pop’s breakthrough year, then 1959 was the year in which it consolidated. As we’ve already discussed, Jivin’ Gene & The Jokers registered strongly with the achingly beautiful ‘Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do’ in the Fall; but earlier in the year Rod Bernard had reached No.20 (No.12 R&B) with his magnificent cover of ‘This Should Go On Forever’ (although King Karl & Guitar Gable’s original version has been included herein) whilst the genre’s biggest hit of ’59, by far, was enjoyed by Phil Phillips & The Twilights who climbed to No.2 (No.1 R&B) with the irresistible, million-selling ‘Sea Of Love’. Memorable regional hits that year included Steve Rollins & The Continentals’ sobfest ‘Crying Over You’ (a song which Johnnie Allan would successfully revive a couple of years hence), Randy & The Rockets’ (New Iberia’s finest!) debut 45 ‘Genevieve’, Buck Rogers’ (aka Lawrence Rodriguez, from Baton Rouge) self-penned ‘Crazy Baby’ (a song more often associated with Freddy Fender) and Dale Houston’s magnificently yearning ‘Won’t You Believe Me’ (Houston would, of course, team up with Grace Broussard to devastating effect in 1963, as Dale & Grace, to record a couple of Swamp Pop’s biggest records, ‘I’m Leaving It Up To You’ and ‘Stop And Think It Over’).
Rod Bernard (aka Rodney Ronald Louis Bernard) was born on Aug 12th 1940 in Opelousas, into a working-class, French-Speaking Cajun family. He got his first guitar at the age of eight and by the time he was ten, he was performing in a local Cajun-Country troupe. By the early 50s he was hosting a radio show on KSLO in Opelousas, singing Country and Cajun songs and accompanying himself on guitar, and by his early teens he was a regular deejay on the station, spinning the popular tunes of the era. But when Rock & Roll came along his musical boundaries changed and he immediately formed his own R&R group, The Twisters. After cutting a couple of singles for a tiny local label, Carl (so obscure they didn’t even have catalogue numbers!), Bernard approached Floyd Soileau with a view to cutting a record for Jin. He subsequently recorded ‘This Should Go On Forever’ at Jay Miller’s studio (he’d been taught the song by Karl/Jolivette) and it immediately registered as a huge regional hit. Chess Records picked it it for national distribution, eventually re-releasing it on their Argo imprint, and the disc eventually made the US Top 20 – whilst Rod Bernard found that he’d become a Pop star, virtually overnight. However, follow-ups failed to sell anywhere near as well – in truth, they were a little too slickly arranged and produced, being aimed at the teenage R&R market – and only a couple of his later Mercury releases, ‘Shedding Teardrops Over You’ and ‘Just A Memory’, did him much justice. During the 60s he formed The Shondells (no relation to Tommy James) with Warren Storm and Skip Stewart, although he continued to cut solo releases for Hall, Hall-Way, Arbee, Tear Drop, Scepter and SSS International, before finally returning to Jin. He performs and records only sporadically nowadays, although he is still active as a deejay.
Perhaps an unlikely singing star, Phil Phillips (born John Phillip Baptiste in Lake Charles, on March 14th 1931 – although some sources give his year-of-birth as 1926) had been working as a bellhop after leaving the US Navy in the early 50s, and at that stage appears to have had few musical aspirations. However, he could certainly both sing and play guitar, and he’d earlier recorded as a member of The Gateway Quartet, a Gospel group he’d originally formed with his brothers, in High School. In 1957 he was inspired to write ‘Sea Of Love’ for a girlfriend, who apparently refused to believe that he truly loved her. Baptiste even cut a demo of the song, which somehow came to the attention of George Khoury. It was subsequently recorded at Eddie Shuler’s Goldband studio, with Baptiste being backed by The Cupcakes, plus a vocal trio whom Khoury dubbed The Twilights. George also came up with the stage name ‘Phil Phillips’ (explaining that Baptiste’s real surname was too French for most people to pronounce), and released the disc on his own label, Khoury’s. The record took off overnight and after it had topped all the local charts, Mercury came in and licensed it for national distribution. It stayed at No.2 on the Top 100 for several weeks (kept off the No.1 spot by The Browns’ ‘Three Bells’) and topped the R&B charts for a week in October. For a follow-up Phil recorded the self-penned, similarly-styled ‘Take This Heart’, also at Goldband. He subsequently recorded for Mercury, but soon found himself in dispute with the label following accusations of unpaid royalties. He never registered another hit record but instead became a popular deejay, although a one-off late 60s session yielded an anti-drug song titled ‘The Evil Dope’, which has become something of a cult record.
A plethora of new Swamp Pop performers began to emerge at the turn of the 60s, some of whom would go on to become important players. But, of course, for every crossover success there were always a dozen or so other performers who never quite got the breaks, and were destined to remain virtually unknown outside South Louisiana. Several of these ‘forgotten’ artists nonetheless cut some memorable records, as we shall see.
The next major name to arrive was Joe Barry (July 13th 1939-Aug 31st 2004), who hit it big in early 1961 with his second release, a soulful revival of Les Paul & Mary Ford’s ‘I’m A Fool To Care’. He was born Joseph Barrios in Cut Off, LA, into a French-speaking, Cajun family, none of whom spoke much English. A younger cousin of Cajun/C&W singer Vin Bruce, who taught him how to play guitar when he was still a child, he grew up obsessed with music. By the time he was eighteen he had his own band, and a chance introduction to Floyd Soileau led to their cutting a low-key single, ‘Heartbroken Love’ (which they actually recorded in Soileau’s record store), for Jin. Although only a local hit it served to whet Floyd’s appetite and he agreed to another session, this one at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans. Much of the session was spent on a Ray Charles-styled ballad which Joe had written, and at the very last minute they did a one-take run-through of ‘I’m A Fool To Care’ for the B-side, which he delivered in his barely penetrable, natural Cajun accent. And the rest writes itself; no-one ever heard the intended A-side, and within just weeks Joe was on his way. After becoming a huge local success it was picked up by Mercury, who made it one of the first releases on their new Smash subsidiary. It reached No.24 (Billboard)/No.19 (Cashbox)/No.15 (R&B) and very quickly sold over a million copies – indeed, it made sufficient an impact that he re-recorded it in French, as ‘Josef Barrios’ (the French language B-side, ‘Oh Teet Fille’, is included herein). The follow-up ‘Teardrops In My Heart’ also made the Top 100, peaking at No.63, but subsequent releases sold disappointingly. Joe later recorded for Princess, Success, Nugget and Houma, before quitting the music industry in disillusionment, following an altercation with his manager, Huey Meaux, over alleged financial indiscretions. He returned briefly in the late 70s, with a series of Country and Gospel recordings, but was later dogged by ill-health and died in 2004.
John Fred & The Playboys were a popular blue-eyed R&B group along the lines of The Boogie Kings. Born John Fred Gourrier (May 8th 1941-April 14th 2005) in Baton Rouge, he’d formed The Playboys in 1957 and they’d registered their first hit record back in 1958 with ‘Shirley’, a sax-driven rocker (on which the singer was actually backed by Fats Domino’s band). Their follow-up, the Bobby Charles-penned ‘Good Lovin’, was a sizeable regional hit, but Fred’s time would of course come in the late 60s, with the million-selling, international No.1, ‘Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)’.
By common consent, after Jimmy Donley, just about the unluckiest Swamp Pop performer was probably Rockin’ Dave Allen (Sept 27th 1941-April 28th 1985). Born David Allen Stich in Houston, Texas, but raised in Franklin, he cut five killer singles for Jin (on which he was backed by his own band, The Thunderbirds), including ‘Give Me One More Chance’, Big Walter Price’s ‘Shirley Jean’ and ‘Walking Slowly’ the latter two releases becoming massive hits throughout The South. But crossover success eluded him and although he was a hugely popular live performer, often appearing as the ‘Special Guest Star’ on the Southern leg of national one-nighters’ packaged tours, he never quite made the big time. He later switched to performing Blues and R&B material, recording for labels like Eric, International Artists (for whom he recorded the highly-regarded Color Blind LP) and Big Orange. He died from pneumonia in April 1985, at the age of 43.
Margaret Lewis, from Snyder, Texas, was one of the few women singer/guitarist/songwriters of the era who operated outside of either the Country or R&R field. Although she only enjoyed regional success at this stage of her career, she cut a series of excellent 45s for Shreveport’s Ram label, including the excellent, chugging ‘Goin’ To St Louis’. Lewis would go on to taste her biggest successes as a songwriter, her most well-known copyright being Johnny Adams’ astonishing Southern Soul classic ‘Reconsider Me’.
Gene Thomas from Palestine, Texas, enjoyed an unexpected crossover success in 1961 when United Artists picked up his debut Venus 45, ‘Sometimes’. The song was later recorded by Paul Revere & The Raiders and The Flamin’ Groovies, whilst Thomas later wrote & recorded ‘Playboy’, a Top 20 hit for him in 1968 with Debbe Neville.
T.K. Hulin, who would become known as ‘The Voice With A Tear’, was something of a teenage prodigy. Born Alton James Hulin in St. Martinville, LA, he formed The Lonely Knights at the age of sixteen. They duly backed him on his first 45, ‘Little Bitty Boy’ on LK Records, a label which had been set up by Hulin’s father and a local songwriter, Robert Thibodeaux. Hulin would go on to enjoy crossover successes in the 60s with ‘I’m Not A Fool Anymore’ and ‘Graduation Night’.
Glenn Wells – real name Glenn Stilwell, from Beaumont, East Texas – was introduced to Floyd Soileau by Huey Meaux, who produced his sessions. Glen and The Blends were extremely popular in East Texas in the early 60s and they had a half-dozen 45s released on Jin, of which ‘Write Me A Letter’ was the first.
Tibby Edwards (born Edwin Thibodeaux in Garland, LA) was an established Country singer who’d toured with Lefty Frizzell and worked with Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys. After a five-year residency on the Louisiana Hayride he switched to Rock & Roll in the mid 50s, cutting a number of discs which are nowadays sought-after R&R collectables. ‘Forever Is A Long Time’, on the Jin label, appears to have been his one foray into Swamp Pop territory.
Recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio, backed by the New Orleans sessionmen’s A-team, Jerry Raines’ throbbing ‘Our Teenage Love’ was the first release on Morgan City record store-owner Andrew Blanco’s Drew-Blan Records, and it was a massive regional hit. The song would later be covered by Rod Bernard, Dale & Grace and Freddy Fender, and it proved to be Raines’ sole brush with Pop success, despite a handful of further memorable releases.
Phil Bo (aka Philip Boudreaux, from Houma, LA) sang with a heavy Cajun accent. His masterpiece was the rollicking ‘She Wears My Ring’, on Jin, which appeared the B-side of his biggest seller, ‘Don’t Take It So Hard’. He later recorded for L&K, Smash, Shame and Som.
Gabe Dean (aka Gabriel Dean Leneau) was born in Marksville, LA and he won a talent contest on a local radio station at the age of ten. He was just sixteen years old and still at High School when he recorded the rocking ‘Slop And Stroll Jolie Blonde’.
Prince Charles (aka Charles Fontenot) was from Ville Platte and led a local band, The Rockin’ Kings. They recorded ‘Cheryl Ann’ (with Charles Veillion on lead vocals) in the tiny studio at the back of Floyd Soileau’s shop, and it duly appeared on Jin.
Skip Stewart – also known as Skip Morris – was actually one Maurice Guillory, from Eunice, LA. A founder member of The Boogie Kings, he later joined The Twisters, was at one-time a deejay at KVOL in Lafayette, and in the 60s was famously a member of The Shondells, alongside Rod Bernard and Warren Storm. His unlikely revival of The Crests’ Doo Wop classic ‘Sixteen Candles’ makes for a great Swamp Pop outing.
Sidney Simien – aka Rockin’ Sidney (and later, Count Rockin’ Sidney) – from Lebeau, LA, was a Zydeco/R&B/Blues musician whose work often took him into Swamp Pop territory. He recorded prolifically for Jin between 1958-64, ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine’ appearing on the flip of one of his biggest regional hits, ‘No Good Woman’. The song would later be revived by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, although Sidney’s biggest success would come in the early 80s when the million-selling, Grammy-winning ‘My Toot Toot’ became a major worldwide hit.
During the 1960s, Swamp Pop would continue to go from strength to strength, with more and more crossover Pop, R&B and Country hits, and belated recognition for songwriters like Bobby Charles and singers like Tommy McLain. But that’s another story, for another sleevenote, on (hopefully) another compilation…
Big Thanks to Sandy Macdiarmid, Tony Wilkinson, Dave Penny, Shane Bernard and John Broven.
Check out these websites:
Swamp Pop – Cajun & Creole Rhythm & Blues by Shane Bernard (University Press of Mississippi © 1996)
South To Louisiana – The Music Of The Cajun Bayous by John Broven (Pelican Publishing Co © 1983)
Memories: A Pictorial History Of South Louisiana Music by Johnnie Allan (Jadfel Publishing Co © 1988)
Born To Be A Loser by Johnnie Allan & Bernice Larsen Webb (Jadfel Publishing Co © 1992)
This 2 CD set is available NOW if you click the nice blue ‘now’