Thursday, September 22, 2005

Katrina mires New Orleans' music

Katrina left New Orleans a battered music capital. The massive hurricane took some music treasures and spared others. It also decimated the city's party atmosphere.

The Crescent City-- as important as Memphis or Nashville in the development of modern sounds-- thrived on its music scene. Think of how dull music would be without New Orleans. It's the birthplace of zydeco and Cajun. Blues and gospel have strong roots in the city. Louis Armstrong and jazz itself were born there. It's a hotbed for R&B.

Creedence Clearwater Revival founder John Fogerty brought "swamp rock" to the top of the charts without ever having set foot in "Bayou Country."

The musically brilliant Neville and Marsalis families call New Orleans home.

Fats Domino, famous for "Blueberry Hill," "Walking to New Orleans" and dozens of other hits is probably the Big Easy's most recognized resident. The twin piano and saxophone sound of New Orleans rock and roll-- epitomized by Domino-- slipped off the charts but has never fell from favor in its hot city.

Following the hurricane, Domino had been reported missing by his long-time manager. However, his daughter later told authorities he was rescued from the second story balcony of his home.

The piano-playing Domino was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in the original class which showed rock to be largely an invention of southerners. Elvis and Sam Cooke were born in Mississippi, Ray Charles and Little Richard in Georgia, Fats and Jerry Lee Lewis in Louisiana, James Brown in South Carolina, the Everly Brothers in Kentucky and Buddy Holly in Texas. Only Chuck Berry had slightly different roots, being born in St. Louis and later recording for Chicago's Chess Records.

Like Domino, recording artist and cult icon Alex Chilton was rescued from his New Orleans home after being listed as missing for several days. The lead singer for the 60s group The Boxtops, Chilton has a new recording released this month from his current band Big Star.

Also safe were Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Ani DiFranco. The prolific DiFranco escaped with the master tapes to her latest album. Irma Thomas survived, but lost her home. The Rolling Stones took her song "Time Is On My Side" and turned it into a hit.

There was bad news, too. Little Freddie King, who released a masterful blues album titled "You Don't Know What I Know" earlier this year, was reported missing as was Frankie Ford. Ford scored a hit in 1959 with "Sea Cruise."

Many of New Orleans' small clubs were destroyed, leaving hundreds of local musicians jobless. Artists lost their homes, priceless instruments, master recordings and memorabilia which can never be replaced.

The French Quarter and Bourbon Street were left virtually untouched, which could provide the basis for a comeback. Although some residents were talking of a limited Mardi Gras next year, others said that would be inappropriate.

The future of some festivals remained in question. The Satchmo Summerfest and Ponderosa Stomp had been big tourist draws and provided work for the area's musicians. The Jazz and Heritage Festival had included appearances by John Lee Hooker, Robert Cray and the Radiators.

While New Orleans will be rebuilt, it clearly won't be the same. The old neighborhoods which spawned such a rich musical tradition will be gone. Many musicians won't return. Recovery may take years. Eventually, New Orleans should return to musical prominence, however.

Until then, a Mardi Gras party may be exactly what the doctor ordered.

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