The Ponderosa Stomp

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 06.09.08 in Spotlights

The Ponderosa Stomp, which is organized essentially by record collectors and takes place in New Orleans mid-week between the two Jazzfest weekends, is an kind of event. It’s a two-night, marathon (6 PM to 4 AM) celebration of the unsung heroes and one-hit wonders of American music, including early rock ‘n’roll, rockabilly, swamp pop, blues, soul, funk and garage bands. Needless to say, many of them record for independent labels. So many, in fact, have music available at this site that in discussing some of the most memorable acts I saw – consider their albums a vicarious taste of the Stomp itself – I’m sticking to those from blues and related fields like funk and soul. That’s the kind of abundance of riches offered at Ponderosa Stomp – which, by the way, is named after an instrumental by swamp blues harmonica man Lazy Lester.

It’s hard not to make a new discovery there. One of mine was the Bo-Keys, whose savvy update of the classic Stax sound features the chunky, funky licks of guitarist Skip Pitts (that’s his wah-wah introing Isacc Hayes‘”Theme from Shaft“). Though the current personnel is mostly different, The Royal Sessions gives a good idea of the kind of fatback sounds they put down, and once they finished their own set they backed, among others, William Bell. He helped define the Stax sound with early solo hits like the 1962 “You Don’t Miss Your Water” as well as later duets like the 1967 “Private Number” with Judy Clay, and wrote watershed songs like “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Bell was a pleasant surprise. His hits had a country feel that made them a little lighter (albeit no less intense) than Staxmates Otis Redding or Sam and Dave, but at the Stomp he came on like a powerful, hard-edged Soul Man in his own right. Wiley and the Checkmates were in a similar vein to the Bo-Keys, though perhaps a bit more lush and thus better heard on Introducing Wiley and the Checkmates than live. But “Eyes of the World” is a great lost soul ballad either way, and the band really clicked into focus while backing Roscoe Robinson, who made the mid-’60s jump from gospel (most nobably the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) to secular soul with real élan; just check out the late-60s work on Soul Masters.

New Orleans, of course, is famous for producing strong musicians who had little commercial clout, and pianist Eddie Bo and producer-arranger Wardell Quezerque were prime examples at the Stomp. Beginning in the mid-’50s, Bo’s released more singles than any Crescent City artist except Fats Domino, and exactly one – the 1969 “Hook and Sling, Part 1″ – has charted, both pop and soul. Such sizzling funk makes his The Hook and Sling album an essential, but the joyous, crystalline New Orleans Solo Piano shows off the more traditional side of the man, while dance favorites like “Now Let’s Popeye” b/w “Check Mr. Popeye” capture his ’60s sound. Querzerque was showcased on his own and behind several artists. The compilations Don’t Be Square, Get Hip to Quezerque (a career overview covering the ’50s to mid-’70s), Sixty Smokin’Soul Senders (which sticks to the ’60s) and Funky Funky New Orleans 3 (the ’70s) are all equally dynamic, with an artistic range that shows why Allen Toussaint once referred to Quezerque as “the Creole Beethoven.” Robert Parker‘s The Wardell Quezerque Sessions, featuring that irresistible dance novelty “Barefootin’,” gathers his work with one artist. So, a bit more successfully, does Jean Knight‘s Mr. Big Stuff, named after her 1971 single that went all the way to #2 pop while bridging the gap between soul and funk and announcing an era of independent-women singles.

Among others you could have caught at this year’s Stomp were funk cult artist the Mighty Hannibal, whose Hannibalism! includes “Hymn No. 5,” the 1966 antiwar gem; Barbara Lynn, the vulnerable-sounding swamp guitarist and singer whose Blues & Soul Situation is best when it’s closest to her early-’60s roots (her voice is simply too tender for hard funk); James Blood Ulmer, whose blues classicist albums I’ve already written about extensively in this column; and the oft-recorded Louisiana Red, who’s spent a lifetime trying to recapture the bizarre brilliance of the 1962 “Red’s Dream,” and who probably came as close as he’s ever going to on the 1975 Dead Stray Dog. Finally, there was the moody Syl Johnson, backed by the Hi Rhythm Section. Syl recorded for Hi in the ’70s – in fact, he cut the original version of “Take Me to the River” for them – but is best known among the cognoscenti for the harrowing ’60s/early ’70s sides collected on Chicago Twinight Soul. His music has always drawn on the blues and soul of both Chicago and Memphis/the Delta; and his high, pained tenor and slicing guitar, along with some iconoclastic material, make him an artist difficult to pigeonhole or predict. This hasn’t always done a lot for his career, but among those who go to Ponderosa Stomp it’s his greatest asset.