This true story is published in Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman. The photo is of me dancing at the Congo Square stage at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and appeared on the front page of the Times-Picayune.
Two-Steppin’ & Pussy Poppin’
(New Orleans 1977-1982)
Get on up
Stay on the scene
Get on up
Like a sex machine
It was a rockin’ night in the Big Easy. James Brown was belting out his classic funky song as sweat streamed down his animated face. His backup singers were howling, clapping, and shimmying. The horn section pointed to heaven, blowing and smoking as they fogged up the windows of the Delta Queen, a nineteenth-century paddlewheel steamboat. A tarnished copper moon cast rippling light across the water as we churned down the muddy Mississippi River. The frenzied crowd pressed right up to the stage like a rising tide.
And there I was, dancing and singing on top of the throbbing speakers on either side of the stage—best view in the house—making up my own lyrics because James was stuck on repeat. He must have chanted that same stanza a hundred times. Over and over.
Get on up
This was punctuated with an occasional, “Like a sex machine!” or “Shake your money maker!”
Somewhere around the fiftieth repeat was when I started switching it up, singing with an unselfconscious joie de vivre that can only come from being well-lubricated on Tanqueray and tonic.
Until someone tugged on my ankle. Opening my eyes and coming out of my funky town trance, I looked down to see a black woman, who had hold of my leg and was shaking it to get my attention. “Shut up, honky!” she shouted, looking like she was going to bite. The sea of faces surrounding her also glared up at me. Was I being sacrilegious or off-key? I supposed either one was a possibility.
I knew I could shake my booty with the best of ‘em, so that couldn’t be why I’d stirred up a mob scene.
Must be my improvised lyrics:
“Don’t get down!”
“Get funky, get real funky. “
“Oh heck, don’t get funky.”
“For god’s sake, I said get down!”
Chirping like a canary, wailing like an opera singer. Keeping time with the man sporting the meringued pompadour—just whimsically altering the lyrics a tad.
Plus, I was busting a new move that a jiving group of twelve-year-old girls in cornrows taught me at the Jazz Fest. I asked them if this snake-like gyration had a name. It was a little disturbing to hear the young girls say, “Pussy Pop” without missing a beat. This sinuous dance step requires a very flexible spine and pelvis. Perfect for the King of Soul’s anthem.
The sea of fans below me—all black except for me—did not seem to appreciate my vocal stylings or my au courant choreography. Fortunately, I was way off to the side of the stage and James hadn’t noticed me…yet.
Okay, I was being passive-aggressive. James and I had a bit of history between us.
Now I felt a finger jabbing my other ankle not being prodded by an infuriated JB fan. I glanced down to see Lloyd Cottingim’s bemused face trying to look annoyed with me, and failing miserably. Still, he scowled like an angry pirate and mouthed, “Get down!”
It was all Lloyd’s fault that I was up here on these speakers, anyway. Well, not on the speakers. That had been my idea. My inner go-go girl was getting her mojo on. I’d just spent an eternity in the crowded, wire-laid backstage and was sick and tired of hearing the hot music licks without being able to dance.
The reason I was even backstage at all came back to meeting Lloyd, who convinced me to volunteer at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I was charged with picking the performing artists up at the airport, taking them to their hotel, and then their gigs. The vehicle I was given to transport these mostly iconic performers was Lloyd’s old but reliable red Chevy pickup truck. Not a limo. We were on a budget.
I had met Lloyd one night several years earlier in 1977, when I went out dancing by myself in San Francisco, where I lived. Clifton Chenier, a Creole French-speaking native of Opelousas, Louisiana, was playing at the Last Day Saloon on Clement Street.
I’d become infatuated with Zydeco music and Cajun dancing when a friend invited me to a black Baptist church. Not knowing what to expect, I walked into a whitewashed clapboard church packed with all ages and types of folks. On the stage was a projection screen, and we took a seat on the hard wooden pews in front of it. A man stood up and introduced himself. It was Les Blank, an ethnographic filmmaker from Berkeley. He was showing his documentary Hot Peppers, featuring a musical portrait of Zydeco king Clifton Chenier, and from the first scene I was hooked.
After the film, we pushed the benches away. Les and his friends ladled out red beans and rice in the back of the church while we danced to Clifton, who had driven out from the Big Easy for the occasion. I climbed feet-first onto the Zydeco bandwagon, dancing to Queen Ida, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Clifton whenever they came to the Bay Area and played at small venues like Ashkenaz in Berkeley, and at churches and community halls.
Now, at the Last Day Saloon, I stood in the dark and mostly empty club while Clifton wailed on his frottoir—a washboard made of corrugated metal and worn like a vest. He furiously scratched the tin surface with spoons, cranking out Zydeco music. Tapping my foot for only so long, I got out on the dance floor solo. Several lively numbers later, I was joined by a short man with a devilish grin. He offered me his hand and away we went. He could Cajun two-step like a house on fire.
During the break, we propped our sweaty selves against the wooden bar and he treated me to my first Tanqueray and tonic. It was thirst quenching in a cold, limey, quinine kind of way.
In a thick Cajun accent reminiscent of warm maple syrup and butter pooling on slabs of cinnamon French toast, my dance partner introduced himself. “My name is Lloyd Cottingim. I’m from New Orleans. What brings you out to swing to Clifton by yourself?”
Taking a gulp of the tall, refreshing drink, I wiped the beads of sweat from my face and said, “This is dancing music and I’m a dancing fiend. Most of my West Coast friends don’t groove to Zydeco.”
Lloyd was a ship’s engineer and had traveled to San Francisco from the Gulf via the Panama Canal. He told me he usually made it to San Francisco twice a year, and that he went to clubs, looking for live music, wherever he docked.
We danced till Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band packed up their instruments and drove away in their beater van to the next gig destination. Standing on the sidewalk, still tapping our toes to a silent beat, Lloyd asked, “You want to eat ribs at the ocean? I have some leftovers in the car.”
I wasn’t attracted to Lloyd. He was troll-like with a scraggly beard, dressed in a faded plaid shirt, baggy jeans, and laced-up lumberjack boots. But I appreciated his Southern drawl, his gentlemanly ways, and his big heart. That night had shown me he was an outstanding dance partner with stamina to match mine. Plus, there was a mischievous spark in his eye, and he liked to have a good time. This turned out to be true for all the Cajuns I met, but he was my first so I didn’t yet know how spunky and fun those swamp boys can be.
“Sure. I’m game—and hungry.”
We hopped in his rental car and drove to Ocean Beach. Parked facing the crashing waves, we sucked on succulent, sticky ribs from Leon’s Barbeque and listened to Keith Jarrett’s jazz piano riffs on the tape deck.
By the time the sun rose, a pile of greasy napkins littered the back seat and we had embarked on a friendship that would last more than two decades. We shared a love of music, dancing, food, and conversation—and staying up till the wee dawn hours doing all of the above.
That same morning, over Dungeness crab benedicts and foamy lattés at Mama’s in North Beach, Lloyd said, “You gotta come to Jazz Fest. I’ve worked for the Fest every year since it started in 1970. In fact, Clifton Chenier was part of our first lineup. So were Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and the Eureka Brass Band.”
Lloyd looked at me expectantly, and I nonchalantly sipped my latté. I wasn’t sold yet. He tried again, leaning in excitedly, as the café buzzed with early-morning diners.
“My job has gotten pretty hectic since the festival is growing exponentially each year. Three hundred and fifty folks attended the first one when it was held in Beauregard Square, and this year we expect over ninety thousand.” He leaned back again, impressed by his own numbers. “It’s gotten so big, it’s now held at the Fair Grounds Race Course—a hundred-and-forty-five–acre site. Yeah, baby!”
“So what do you need me for?” I asked, a little suspiciously.
Lloyd folded his arms. “I could use an assistant. You can help chauffeur the performers around New Orleans and stay at my house. It’s the end of April and goes for two weekends, but you should come for a month and I’ll show you around Louisiana. It’s like a foreign country.”
I counted the weeks until April in my head—eight—secure in the knowledge that I could leave my retail stores in the trusted hands of my employees, and took a long, assessing look at Lloyd. Could I trust that he did not have an ulterior motive? I asked, “You serious? Even if it is platonic with no hope of me ending up in your bed?”
He chuckled and said, “No problem. I have lots of girlfriends. My bedroom skills make me popular with the ladies.”
“Too much information,” I said, rolling my eyes.
He added, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, “I’m fine with just being friends. You’ll dig New Orleans and the Jazz Fest. It’s Mecca for music hounds.”
Lloyd would be true to his word and never tried to jump my bones. But I didn’t know this about him yet. I just had to trust his generous and tempting offer. He’d already lured me with his fancy footwork and the late-night rib fest by the beach, and he knew my real weakness: dancing to live, soulful ethnic music until the early hours of the morning.
The next day I bought an airplane ticket.
Two months later, Lloyd picked me up at the New Orleans International Airport. He looked exactly the same as he did when I met him in San Francisco, except that he had traded in the long-sleeve plaid shirt for a wrinkly short-sleeve Hawaiian number in a faded orange hibiscus flower print. He greeted me with a huge bear hug that lifted me off the ground, even though I was taller than him. His red truck idled at the curb.
First stop was Buster Holmes’ restaurant in the French Quarter for red beans and rice with smoked sausage and turnip greens. Afterward we strolled down to Angelo Brocato’s on Ursulines Street for cannolis and lemon ice. My initiation into all things New Orleans had begun. We then drove over to the Thirteenth Ward, where he had grown up near the Neville Brothers.
After pointing out the rickety double-shotgun-style house he was raised in and waving to a few old acquaintances hanging out on their front porches, sipping Barq’s root beer from bottles, we cruised over to St. Charles Avenue.
“You don’t mind if I do some work?” he said as we drove.
“Are we going to one of the ships you work on?”
Tossing the toothpick he had been cleaning his teeth with out the window, he said, “No. I’m also a city building inspector. I check out the historic houses that are getting a facelift and write up reports.”
I was trying to figure out how he juggled so many diverse jobs at the same time when we pulled up to an ornate, tilted Queen Anne on the edge of the Garden District.
Lloyd got out and walked around to my side of the truck. The door was stuck shut, but it sprang open when he gave it a hard, noisy kick with the same lumberjack boot he was wearing when I met him on the dance floor in San Francisco. We sauntered up the crooked wooden steps and he knocked.
Heavy, shuffling footsteps and a high-pitched voice trilled, “Don’t let the cat out!” The door creaked open. A statuesque, barefoot man in a black silk kimono embroidered with chrysanthemums greeted us, just as a fat tabby ran between his legs and escaped onto the street.
“Lloyd! My favorite city employee! Are you here to check my pipes?”
Lloyd blushed. “Armand, you are such a tease! Meet my California assistant. She flew all the way here from San Francisco to help me at the Fest. It’s her first one.”
Clapping his hand to his forehead, Armand said, “Oh my, a Fest virgin. Be prepared for one crazy time if Lloyd is in charge of your itinerary. You won’t be a virgin for long!”
As Armand leaned forward to grasp my hand, his kimono fell open, revealing a hairy chest, six-pack abs, and a g-string.
“Where’s my belt?” Armand fussed as he waved us inside.
“Would you like chicory coffee with a dollop of Baileys Irish Cream, or gin martinis?”
Though it was early afternoon, the drawing room was dark with its heavy, red velvet curtains drawn and crystal chandeliers shedding dim light. Large gilt mirrors reflected our shadowy, distorted images. I felt small and ordinary compared to our host, who was still clucking and chuckling about me being a “virgin.” Lloyd went to check the kitchen remodel and I sat across from Armand on a leopard-print divan. He had still not belted his robe shut as he poured martinis into three bathtub-size glasses.
We toasted to my first Fest and then Armand gushed, “Tell me all about Frisco! In the 1960s I performed there at Finocchio’s on Broadway in a drag queen revue.”
Two hours later, we stumbled outside into the stark sunlight. I squinted at Lloyd and asked, “Are all the homeowners of the houses you inspect such hospitable characters?”
As he giddily skipped down the steps a bit lopsided, he said, “I pass every building permit application. I know everybody in this town. How can I not help them out? I get a lot of perks, too. From coffee cake to cash; sex to music.” He winked and nodded toward Armand’s house. “Even martinis!”
We drove to several other houses in the Garden District and Lloyd explained their architectural styles and history. “This was the biggest Confederate city in the South. Barely a year after the Civil War started, New Orleans was captured without combat or bombardment. As a result, we have the largest collection of surviving Antebellum architecture.”
These architectural grand dames kept company with enormous, ancient oak trees that spread protective, leafy arms over charmingly disheveled gardens hedged in rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias. Dark-leafed magnolia trees in full bloom shed handkerchief-sized ivory petals on the emerald-green lawns. Lloyd pointed to a Victorian painted a lurid lavender and said, “This home was built in 1857 for a wealthy merchant, who shot and killed himself on the front porch after running into financial trouble.” He pointed to a throng of people looking up at the house. “That group of tourists milling around on the sidewalk are on a ‘haunted house’ walking tour.”
Just as we slowed to a stop in front of the Victorian, I heard the guide announce to his flock in a tremulous tone, “I have seen a misty form float across the front porch, so keep your eyes unfocused yet focused.”
I laughed and said, “I’m surprised the tour is during the day.”
We continued on to the funkier Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods on the other side of the French Quarter, stopping at hulky Greek Revivals and narrow shotgun shacks made from swamp cypress during the Civil War era that were on Lloyd’s inspection list. Most of the owners or contractors weren’t home, so he left chatty, hand-written notes on their door, each signed with his curlicue signature and a happy face. He certainly didn’t act like any government official I’d ever met.
Getting back into the truck with a groan after his last stop, where they plied us with hot, sugary beignets, he said, “How about I take you to the Jazz Fest offices and introduce you to the staff? If we’re lucky, Gus will be deep-frying his famously tasty turkeys.”
Balancing out the martinis and beignets with substantial food sounded like a good idea. It was beginning to occur to me that I would have to throw my regular California diet of fresh, organic salads and whole grains to the wind while here in the Deep South.
The office at the fairgrounds was in chaos. The frantic staff was juggling all the last-minute logistics of running one of the most popular music festivals in the world, with bands flying in from as far away as Senegal, Belize, and Madagascar.
Lloyd pushed open the screen door and said to everybody in the makeshift trailer office, “Meet my volunteer assistant from San Francisco.”
Quint Davis, the Fest producer, came over and I felt an immediate attraction. His sleeves were rolled up and he was talking on two phones at once and rolling his eyes, but managed to give me a warm smile. He handed the phones to a staffer and said, “Welcome to the hub of the bedlam! We’re all meeting up at the Rock’n’Bowl later tonight. Why don’t you join us so we can all get to know you a bit more?” I nodded, grinning. “Good!” he said. “Now, it’s back to work.”
My palms were sweaty from the encounter with Quint and the humidity. I turned away and followed Lloyd over to his desk. He picked up the roster of the musicians we’d be shuttling between the airport, their lodgings, and performance venues, and I looked over his shoulder and whistled. It was a veritable Who’s Who in the music world: Dr. John, Duke Ellington, Youssou N’Dour, Branford Marsalis, Linda Ronstadt, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Tito Puente, The Temptations, Ella Fitzgerald. “Who isn’t on this list?” I said. Lloyd raised his eyebrows, his grin practically saying, “I told you so.”
A tantalizing, meaty aroma emanated from the parking lot. Distracted, Lloyd handed me the clipboard and went outside where a hefty man wearing overalls, with a sweaty red face, auburn hair, sideburns, and a beard, was prodding a rotund turkey that bobbed in a boiling vat of fat with a long, metal fork. The fryer was a custom-made behemoth that looked like a locomotive belching savory-smelling smoke.
“Hey Lloyd, what’s up?” the man said and slapped Lloyd hard on the back.
“Easy, Gus, I don’t want to fall in the fryer.” They both guffawed in that wheezy geezer-guy way, like what he said was the funniest thing they’d both ever heard. Lloyd nodded to the bird. “Got any turkey ready to eat for me and my friend?”
“Yeah, go on inside my trailer. There’s a hot platter piled high. Help yourself. Cold Jax beer is in the fridge.”
The trailer was dark. I tripped over two German Shepherds huddled together, gnawing on turkey legs. They gave a low growl, scurried under the dining table, and continued demolishing the bones with loud crunching sounds.
We crowded around the Formica table, careful to keep our feet away from the dogs, and dug in using paper towels for plates. Lloyd grabbed a drumstick and said, “I could devour an entire tom.”
“So what’s Quint’s story?” I asked, trying to sound casual, while Lloyd inhaled his food.
After he swallowed, he cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “Interested, eh? Don’t get your hopes up; I think he’s engaged to Linda Ronstadt.”
I giggled nervously. “Oh, well. Don’t think I’ll win that contest.”
After he had polished off the platter and two beers, he burped and I asked, “Why does Gus fry the turkey?”
Lloyd leaned back against the banquette and said, “He insists baked turkey is too dry and bland for Cajun tastes. Unlike roast turkey, a quickly cooked deep-fried turkey is rich in flavor, with a crispy, golden-brown skin and tender, juicy interior.”
Mouth full of the delectable meat, I could only nod my head in agreement as Lloyd continued, “Gus McIlhenny’s family has been making Tabasco Sauce since 1869. He lives on Avery Island and is heir to a huge fortune. But all Gus really wants to do is live in this trailer with his dogs and fry turkeys for his friends. He loves feeding people!”
Licking the salty and spicy grease off my fingers, I exclaimed with a satiated sigh, “That was the best turkey I’ve ever eaten. What’s Gus’s marinade?”
“Well, it’s a secret. He won’t share the recipe with anyone. Even for front-row Rolling Stones tickets…I tried. I suspect it includes a lot of his family’s red-hot pepper sauce.”
We threw our bones under the table to the voracious dogs and went outside to thank Gus, who was busy trussing another turkey for the fryer.
“See you at the Rock’n’Bowl,” Lloyd yelled through the office screen door.
We headed back Uptown to take a nap before going out dancing, making one pit stop to nab a few slices of oozing pecan pie topped with whipped cream at the Camellia Grill, down the street from his house on Carrollton Avenue.
As we clumped up the rickety staircase to his front door, an elderly woman in a faded flower-print nightgown leaned out of a second-story window across the alley. An ashy cigarette dangled from the side of her mouth.
Lloyd waved. “How you doing today, Miss Ermaline?”
Bleary-eyed, she hacked and said, “Peachy, Lloyd. Thanks for askin’.”
She stared at me, shaking her head. “Who’s the new girlie you got there? And why is she following you around with a clipboard and a suitcase?”
“She’s my assistant.”
Ermaline humphed and said, “Right… and I’m your chauffeur.” With a sly cackle, she added, “Got any pot?”
Once he reached the top of the steps, Lloyd rummaged around in his briefcase and yelled, “Catch.” He tossed Ermaline a baggie, which she snapped out of the air like a gator swallowing a leaping frog.
“Thanks, Lloyd. You can deduct it from my next paycheck.” She giggled girlishly, then disappeared inside and shut the window with a thud.
“Well, I won’t be seeing that money any time soon,” Lloyd grouched.
Why did I get the feeling this was another of Lloyd’s “jobs”?
Ermaline wasn’t the only one who loved her marijuana. After Lloyd got me set up in the guest bedroom, he went into the living room. He sat in his great-grandfather’s rocking chair, placed an upside-down shoebox lid on his lap, and neatly rolled several thin joints, all the while rocking back and forth. The inch-deep grooves in the hardwood floor were evidence that this was where he had spent several decades rocking and rolling, smoking and reading. I discovered that Lloyd was a night owl and barely slept; hence he was one of the most well-read people I’d ever met. He was filled with facts and details on a myriad of topics—a human encyclopedia. It was one of the reasons he was such a good conversationalist.
That night, we sauntered down the street to the Rock’n’Bowl in the warm evening air faintly scented with river detritus and night-blooming jasmine. Even though I was tuckered out from our gallivanting around town and didn’t really want to bump into the possibly engaged Quint, Lloyd insisted that I hear Professor Longhair—yet another New Orleans legend.
“How could a music club be in a bowling alley?” I asked. “Won’t the crashing pins and bouncing bowling balls drown out the music?”
Lloyd shook his head and hooked his finger, motioning me to follow him inside the noisy club. Downstairs was well-lit, with several groups of people queuing around the lanes. Upstairs was dark. There was a stage and a dance floor with chrome tables scattered about.
It was around midnight, and an elderly man sat on a piano bench muttering to the audience. He wore sunglasses and was hunched over the upright piano. He began to play and the place lit up. This skinny old man with the gold-toothed smile rocked the house with his Mardi Gras second-linin’ music—his fingers rolling, hopping, and pecking over the keys like jumping beans. We pushed the tables aside and cut loose. Along with Lloyd, there was a plethora of great dance partners who kept me two-stepping to every hot number.
Our dance-a-thon was interrupted when Professor Longhair suddenly stopped playing. We all turned around in mid-step and saw that a woman had gotten on stage. We heard her ask if she could sing with him, and he nodded and began tinkling the keys. The woman joined in. It was the unmistakable voice of Rickie Lee Jones.
None of the Jazz Fest staff ended up coming that night, but who needed them? Any thought of Quint Davis was danced out of my mind, accompanied by the sweet musical coupling of Longhair and Jones.
These impromptu jam sessions happened night after night at every club we went to. Lloyd was right: New Orleans was the mother lode for live music. Add to the mix all the stellar musicians performing at the Jazz Fest, who then spontaneously dropped into the clubs for a spot of improv, and it was pure overload.
My job started the day after my first experience at the Rock’n’Bowl with a run to the airport to pick up Flora Purim, the Brazilian jazz singer. I already had her solo album and was nervous to meet one of my main divas. She was unmistakable as she glided into the arrival lounge in a long, white cotton dress, her many bracelets jangling. I introduced myself and she sashayed after me toward the red truck. For once in its creaky, rusty existence, the door opened effortlessly. She lifted her flowing skirt and lithely hopped onto the bench seat. I was worried she might be put off by our outdated wheels but she rolled down the window, turned to me with a broad, sunlit smile and said, “I love Louisiana already!”
She chatted about her life on the drive into town, and white cranes flew over the truck when we drove along the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. “Oh, such a good omen!” she exclaimed delightedly. The briny smell of shrimp and brackish water floated in through the open windows.
Her soft, lilting accent soothed my discomfort with being so close to one of my favorite singers. “Are you hungry?” I asked. Her performance wasn’t until that night. She nodded.
We drove straight to Buster’s, where Lloyd had introduced me to red beans and rice just the day before. It only cost a dollar a plate, but they were the tastiest beans in the South. Flora said, “This dish reminds me of feijoada—Brazilian bean stew.” Sweat beaded on the icy beer bottles as we feasted and yakked about our travels.
Flora and I hit it off. I had hitchhiked through Brazil in the early 1970s and spent two weeks dancing in the streets of Salvador da Bahia during Carnival. We had a lot to talk about.
We drove to the hotel and later I picked Flora up and took her to her performance. She extended her trip three extra days and asked if I would show her around town. I told her we could discover New Orleans together with Lloyd’s guidance. After nights of clubbing, during which Flora got on stage to warble with Irma Thomas; Dr. John; and Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. & The Zydeco Twisters, we’d eat greasy pre-dawn breakfasts at the Hummingbird Grill, a twenty-four-hour diner in Skid Row where sleepless heroin addicts sniffled over their coffee. I dropped Flora off at the airport and she invited me to her and her husband Airto Moreira’s show in San Francisco a month later.
I was developing a reputation at the Fest office of being an exceptional shepherd to the musicians. Lloyd was very proud of his acolyte. After the festival ended, I flew back to California and my busy life, promising Lloyd I’d come back and work for him again. I kept that promise five years in a row.
On one of my annual visits, I got assigned to escort Cab Calloway around town. It was a big day for me. I’d watched him dance and sing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, performing “Minnie the Moocher.” Looking slick in a white tuxedo, he’d scat-sing while doing a gliding backstep—the precursor to Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk.”
He was shorter and greyer than I remembered when I met Cab at the airport, but still debonair decked out in his trademark tuxedo.
He didn’t blink when I ushered him out to the red truck. He graciously opened my door, then went around to his side. Miraculously, the door cooperated without the usual persuasive kick. Cab lifted his tails and swept onto the seat.
As with Flora, I developed an immediate friendship with Cab. We’d sit in the cool, dark recesses of his hotel lounge, sipping cocktails, and he’d regale me with insider stories of the jazz world from the 1930s when he played in Duke Ellington’s band and headlined at the Cotton Club—New York’s premier jazz scene. As I nibbled on a syrupy maraschino cherry, Cab’s seductive, smoky voice wove a cocoon around me, revealing another era of cigarette holders and furs, big bands and Bing Crosby. Then we’d go to the Maple Leaf and eat a dozen raw oysters at the bar for ten cents apiece while listening to Aaron Neville croon “Tell It Like It Is.”
Before I drove him back to his hotel, we’d stroll under the moonlight, looking beyond the levee at the silvery fish-scale whitecaps flitting across the Mississippi. The river was six feet higher than the street, and the only thing between us and being under water was a packed-down pile of dirt. Cab and I would shake our heads and marvel at the feat of engineering keeping all that water at bay.
On my very last trip to the Jazz Fest in 1982, I found the atmosphere of New Orleans had changed.
That year Laura, Lloyd’s new wife and the head of operations for the Jazz Fest, picked me up at the airport. Lloyd was busy chauffeuring Dizzy Gillespie around town.
I’d be staying at their new home in Algiers Point—a free ferry ride across the river from the French Quarter. Before I even settled myself in the front seat of the faithful ole red truck she said, “Promise me you will not walk by yourself everywhere at all hours like you usually do. This town has gotten really dangerous.”
At a stoplight on Decatur Street, Laura reached into her purse and showed me her handgun.
I raised my eyebrows. “Since when did you start carrying a gun?”
“Since crack cocaine showed up on the street,” she replied matter-of-factly.
Just then, a hulking man in a shiny tracksuit threw himself across the hood of the car. Gripping the wipers, he pressed his acne-scarred face against the windshield. Several teeth were missing. Wild-eyed he screamed, “Bitches!”
“See what I mean?” Laura said calmly as she tromped on the accelerator.
The crazed man bounced off the hood like a ping-pong ball and rolled back into the gutter.
Laura didn’t break a sweat—or glance in the rearview mirror.
She said sternly, “You will not go out at night by yourself! Capiche?”
I did go out that night with Lloyd and Laura for a seasonal treat of soft-shell crab meuniére at Mandina’s, and then on to Tipitina’s to dance ourselves sweaty-silly to the drunk and opiate-laced powerhouse Etta James. Her bawdy lyrics made me blush.
The next morning, Lloyd shook me awake. He waved croissants and black coffee under my nose as I rose from the creaky couch. “Get up, lazy. James Brown is arriving at the airport in one hour and you’re picking him up.”
I got there just as the plane landed. I waited and waited. Everyone had debarked and departed. The only person left in the deserted lounge was a short, older woman wearing a maroon pantsuit with sturdy pumps and a handbag. Swiveling her head in all directions, she turned and made eye contact with me. She had a creased, mahogany face framed by a bouffant hairdo, and looked vaguely familiar.
Then it struck me. That was the same face on the cover of James Brown’s Sex Machine. An album I played incessantly when I was a teenager in 1970.
It must be his mother or… “Mr. Brown?” I hesitantly queried as he turned again and stared at me in disbelief.
“Where’s my driver?” he screeched without bothering to say hello or ask my name. He looked poised to hit me with his shiny patent leather handbag.
Trying to keep the welcoming smile from sliding off my face, I politely said, “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you from the back, but I do work for Jazz Fest. I’ll be taking you to the hotel.”
This did not soften his dour expression. Taking a deep breath, I turned and walked outside to the curb. Though boiling mad, he followed me to the truck, and I opened the door with only one well-aimed kick.
He looked horrified and squawked, “You’re just a girl! You can’t be my driver, and this jalopy can’t be my ride. Where’s my limo?”
Somehow, I herded him into the truck. I tried to strike up a conversation but he didn’t say another word on the drive into New Orleans, although he made a lot of huffy noises and kept patting his stiff hair back into place. The windows were wide open, as the air conditioning didn’t work. With great relief, I dropped him off at his hotel.
Later, I heard from the Fest management and stage crews that he was indeed a demanding pain-in-the-ass. He also made a point of telling them he did not want to be chauffeured around by “that girl in the truck.”
I didn’t have the pleasure of encountering Mr. Brown again until my night dancing on those speakers, cruising down the moonlit Mississippi.
Temperamental pain-in-the-ass he might be, but I had to appreciate his showmanship and ability to work the crowd into a froth of moaning, gyrating, screaming, and Pussy Poppin’.
Get on up
Shake your arm
Then use your form
Stay on the scene like a sex machine.
As he finally ended the song and the sex machine ground to a halt, I sheepishly slid off the speakers and slunk backstage out of sight, Lloyd shaking his head after me. After all, that crowd was there to see the King of Soul, not the honky from California. He may have been a huffy, cantankerous grandma with me, but for them, he was the original sex machine.
Here is something fun to do in New Orleans while not dancing till the wee hours: swamp tours. Read my article here.