[Dixielandjazz] Dr.John, Butera, Blount, Prima

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Fri Aug 8 15:10:53 PDT 2003

Good to read comments about Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack), Sam Butera, Prima,
Blount, etc.

There's an interesting connection between Dr. John and Sam. Although Sam
(b.1927) was 14 years older than Mac (b.1941), both of their careers were
shaped around the same time by the growth of rhythm and blues in New
Orleans in the late forties/early fifties.

Paul Gayten, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Lloyd Price,
and others were developing the then-new style for listeners and dancers in
the black community. Sam came up as a fine all-around player--a wonderkid
in high school, he could read well, played big band, some Dixieland, and
later good be-bop. When R&B was making inroads he changed his style and
became the first white player to package the music for white dancers in New
Orleans. I remember his fine little band at the Safari Room with jazzers
Jimmy Blount on trombone and drummer Dick Johnson--knocked 'em dead. This
rise co-incided pretty closely with the end of the local
Dixeland/traditional N.O. jazz revival in the city (around '53).

Dr. John was just a kid at the time, but he started hanging out in places
where R&B was played by black artists, and he absorbed the blues feeling
deeply. As some listmates have noted, his piano playing is down-home funky
and irresistible, whether it's OKOM or not. His vocals are fine, too. I'm
not fond of all his R&B stuff but on things like "Makin' Whoopee," you've
gotta say, styles be damned, this guy grabs you and doesn't let go.

Dr. John's story is told in a lively 1994 autobio, "Under a Hoodoo Moon."
Good digest too of his life in the 1986 Jason Berry/Jon Foose/Tad Jones
book "New Jazz in the Cradle: New Orleans Music Since World War II." Don't
let the subtitle make you think there's anything about OKOM in it, though.
In their approach they cover the growth of R&B well and make a stab at
modern jazz, but it's as if the revival never happened. The local R&B
origins story is told most thoroughly in John Broven's 1978 "Rhythm and
Blues in New Orleans." For all jazz styles and a curtsy to R&B, there's my
2001 book "Jazz in New Orleans--The Postwar Years." For early N.O. R&B and
modern jazz from a great personal perspective, see drumming great Earl
Palmer's (with Tony Scherman) 1999 "Backbeat." Does anyone know of a Butera
bio? And there must be oe or two on Prima. Any ideas?

Getting back to Sam, his high energy combo was perfectly suited to become
the backup band for Louis Prima during the Prima/Keely Smith heyday. And
Sam never lost his gift for playing melodic improvisations, even amid the
showbiz  mugging and clowning that made Louis a top Vegas/TV/recording act.

We can wonder in vain how much players like Prima and Butera, who began in
jazz, might have contributed to jazz if they hadn't "gone commercial" (same
is true of Nat King Cole and others), but I think that what they did had
merit on its own terms. Two things for sure--they had a greater impact on
popular culture and they made many, many people happy. Beyond that, Cole's
breakthroughs in reshaping attitudes towards blacks in America have been
much-studied.  It would be interesting to learn more about Prima's effects
on images of Italian Americans. But that's a whole other matter.

Charles Suhor

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