In my interview with Ava last month, she asked me to name some specific New Orleans guitarists of note; and I provided links and brief rundowns on four: Lonnie Johnson, René Hall, Snooks Eaglin, and Leo Nocentelli. Of course, there have been and are far more than that. So, I agreed to provide a list with links and a few comments on other significant fretboard players from the Crescent City.
Note: this is just my personal perspective, limited by time and space, and NOT a comprehensive grouping. My apologies to anyone I've left off - and I've left off a lot, including a lot of young up-and-comers. All these cats are worth knowing about.
- A well-loved and respected banjoist, guitarist, songwriter and jazz historian, who relocated to New York City in 1930 and played in numerous well-known jazz bands over the years. Like Lonnie Johnson, he was a pioneer of improvisational soloing on the guitar. To many, he may be most remembered for the cabaret songs he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s for his wife, Blue Lu Barker, to sing, the most famous of which was "Don't You Feel My Leg", well-covered by Maria Muldaur in the 1970s. The Pointer Sisters recorded another of his songs, "Save The Bones For Henry Jones". After over three decades in the Big Apple, the Barkers moved back to New Orleans. Danny helped form the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band to get youngsters involved in the fading brass band tradition in his hometown, setting up a brass band revival movement in the city that continues to this day, and helping numerous jazz players get their start.
- One of two topnotch guitarists in the long-running (30+ years and counting) rockin' New Orleans band, the Radiators
, Camile is the primary lead player, although his cohort, Dave Malone, takes his share. The band does mostly all original tunes; and, though a rock band, their hometown R&B and funk roots ooze out, too. Best savored live, they were a jam band before the term was coined, and are known to never play the same set twice. They'll improvise as the spirit moves 'em, segue from song to song, throwing improbably perfect cover tunes into their amalgamated medleys along the way. To see what a great band they've been from the start, check out their retrospective of live takes and unreleased studio work, Wild & Free
- A great acoustic blues and roots guitarist and performer, Spencer is not originally from New Orleans, but has lived and worked out of the city for long stretches at various points along his career; and local musicians and music lovers there consider him one of their own.
- Though he keeps a pretty low PR profile, Cranston is a great, versatile electric guitarist who has played and recorded behind many national and local acts. He's part of a New Orleans supergroup of very eclectic guitarists, Twangorama
. (more members to come on this list). You can see them in action here
. . . and here
- One of New Orleans' best behind the scenes session cats, the late George Davis' playing, rhythm and lead work, can be heard on many New Orleans R&B hits of the 1960's, most famously Robert Parker's "Barefootin'" and Willie Tee's Atlantic smash, "Teasin' You". His jazz leanings were evident in his signature style of fluid fingering, octave riffing, and a strong, rhythmic attack. Hearing him on those old records, he became a favorite of mine before I even knew who he was. You might also know of him by a song he wrote (with the assistance of Lee Diamond) for Aaron Neville back in the mid-1960s, "Tell It Like It Is", released on a label he co-founded, Parlo. Davis recorded very little under his own name back then, just two singles total, as I recall; and on neither did he even use his full name. I featured one of those sides
, a great instrumental track, on HOTG shortly after his passing. After leaving New Orleans when his record label and the distributorship it was tied to imploded, Davis played behind some of the greats of jazz. In his late years, he recorded hours and hours of fine original material in his home studio. He was well-loved and admired by those who knew and worked with him.
- I've had the pleasure of seeing Phil play live in New Orleans several times over last fifteen years or so, and have his first two CDs. He's always pulling musical rabbits out of his hat - well, out of his Guitarp, a fascinating hybrid instrument he invented that issues forth amazing soundscapes - by turns comic, trippy, and beautiful - in Phil's nimble, creative hands. Another member of Twangorama, he is more well-known in New Orleans now than he used to be, but remains well under the radar. A true original, beyond categorization.
- Although Earl was a protege of Guitar Slim
(Eddie Jones), the Mississippi blues guitar star who got his start in New Orleans and flamed out early, he is revered more for his bountiful songwriting talents than for his guitar playing, which was raw and often erratic; but, man, could this guy write hits and timeless classics. Earl was once even signed to Motown in it's early days, though no singles on him were ever issued. Over his long career, he recorded a lot of his own material, but only had a major hit as an artist with one of them, "Those Lonely Lonely Nights"
in the mid-1950s, which has become a blues standard. Several of the self-penned sides he recorded in the early 1960s for Imperial were lesser hits that became famous later when covered by others: "Come On" by Jimmy Hendrix; and "Trick Bag" by the Meters in the 1970s and Robert Palmer in the 1980s. In the wonderful world of New Orleans Mardi Gras music, Earl wrote one of the most well-know numbers, "Big Chief", which was first recorded by Professor Longhair in mid-1960s and has been covered countless times since. King also composed songs recorded by Lee Dorsey, the Dixie Cups, Dr. John, Levon Helm, Boz Skaggs and many others. I could go on and on; but read his bio for more detail.
- OK, Sonny's a bit of a ringer here, as he is Mississippi-born, and was raised from a youngster in Lafayette, LA, where he still resides. But, since he is one of the most innovative and spectacular guitarists of his generation, it's impossible not to include him - besides, he's played myriad gigs in New Orleans over the years, collaborated with Allen Toussaint, and written several impressive songs about the city, including his most famous, "Congo Square"
, covered notably by the Neville Brothers, as well as by John Mayall. Sonny is without a doubt the most important slide guitarist since Dwayne Allman - nobody sounds like him, nor can they figure out quite how he generates the shimmering, ethereal sounds upon with he launches his technically brilliant, killer solos. Living in the same town, I've gotten to see Sonny play up close a number of times, and still can't grasp what kind of voodoo he has going on between his amp settings, tunings, harmonics and sheer technique. He's been putting out albums since the early 1980s and has played on hundreds of tracks for other artists. Eric Clapton seems to idolize the guy and has had him on his last couple of Crossroads festival shows. Sonny's songwriting at times borders on the amazing, too. I highly recommend "The Deep South"
from his Levee Town
album, as a perfectly realized creation - lyrics, instrumentation, performance, production - absolute bliss. I need to tell him that sometime. If you haven't heard Sonny by now, hurry up and go get you some
- The other outstanding guitarist in the New Orleans Radiators, big Dave also shares vocal duties in the band with keyboardist and chief songwriter, Ed Volker.
- Tommy is Dave's younger brother and lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist in the subdudes
, the legendary roots band from new Orleans. . . via Colorado. Tommy was associated with several great New Orleans bands in his younger years, including L'il Queenie and the Percolators
and the original Continental Drifters
; and is a great player on either acoustic or electric. Both Tommy and bandmate John Magnie write and co-write incredible material for the band and their reputation is widespread, though they never hit the big time - and some would say that is not a bad thing. . . . I also like his solo album from back in the last century, Soul Heavy
- Simply New Orleans' premier jazz guitarist. His main band for over 30 years has been Astral Project
, an incredible collection of players and composers who still rule in a city where awesome players abound. Steve has a custom- made 7 string guitar which he plays with deceptive ease and great fluidity, and has a sound like buttah. In recent years, his tone has become a bit brighter. He used to go for the mid-range in a big way. But no matter how he dials it in, he's a class act all the way.
- As a teenager in Rochester, NY, Mooney was well-schooled in Delta blues by none other than the legendary 'Son' House, who took a liking to him and showed him how it was done. In 1976, John relocated to New Orleans and soaked up the funky influences of the city, including the intricate, quirky rhythms of Professor Longhair. Over the years, he has merged his deep feel for Delta blues with his instinctive grasp of Crescent City R&B, creating a distinctive style that is very much his own. He's a monster performer who doesn't play-act the blues. He is totally possessed by the intense feelings he summons and amazingly adept on his instrument.
Deacon John Moore
- Deacon John has been a popular entertainer on the New Orleans scene, since the late 1950s. He and his band, the Ivories, have worked steadily through all those decades, mainly as a cover band for all occasions. Naturally versatile, his playing and material adapted as musical trends came and went. But, unknown to many, Moore also played on a heap of sessions in the 1960s for fabled local producers such as Dave Bartholomew, Wardell Quezergue, and Allen Toussaint. As talented as he is, he recorded surprisingly very little on his own until late in life, having only three 45s released in the 1960s, which were unable to generate much sales action. More recently, he has been involved with an ongoing stage show featuring classic New Orleans R&B called Deacon John's Jump Blues
. The project has generated both a CD and DVD, which are well-worth seeking out to see and heard Moore performing at the top of his game.
'Big Dee' Perkins
- A great, funky, in-the-pocket, ensemble player, Big D has roots in New Orleans gospel music, and has played for years with a host of outstanding local acts, including a long membership in pianist/vocalist Jon Cleary's (Jon is also a guitarist!) backing band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen
. Perkins certainly lives up to that description.
- Another acoustic guitarist who maintains a fairly low profile which belies his considerable skill, Rankin has always impressed me with the range of material he tackles. One song he's covered that impressed me greatly was his interpretation on 12 string guitar (!) of Professor Longhair's devilishly tricky piano fingering on "Big Chief". Gutsy and brilliant.
Mac 'Dr. John' Rebennack
- Before he assumed the Dr. John stage and recording persona, Mac Rebennack was very active on the New Orleans band and session scene as a guitarist in the late 1950s, playing with the R&B and rock 'n' roll cats (bucking segregation, he even joined the black musicians' union), writing hit songs, producing and arranging sessions, and doing his own recording, all as a teenager, having learned his rudiments from studio regulars Roy Montrell and Walter 'Papoose' Nelson (see below). His first 45 as a featured artist in 1959 had the frenzied guitar instrumental, "Storm Warning"
, on it. Unfortunately, he had to give up the instrument in the early 1960s, when the ring finger on his left hand was nearly severed by a gunshot during an altercation. Having been brought up playing the piano, he switched to organ while his finger healed, then became a full-time pianist as it became clear that his fingerboard technique would never be the same. Narcotics violations caused him to flee his hometown soon thereafter and he relocated to Los Angeles, where a host of New Orleans expatriates were working in the music business. It was there that he developed his Dr. John concept and had his initial success. His keyboard prowess is well-known; but he still plays guitar from time to time on gigs, and occasionally on record. Jimmy Robinson
- Another memeber of Twangorama, and an amazingly versatile New Orleans guitar master, who has played with many other groups and fronted a few of his own, including the progressive rock/jazz fusion outfit Woodenhead
, which has been together off and on since the mid-1970s. Jimmy has recently been playing a lot of solo acoustic material.
- Born and raised in New York City, Teddy found his way to New Orleans around 1970, when he was hired as guitarist for King Floyd's road band, the Rhythm Masters. Teddy played with them and wrote the music for a number of Floyd's singles until the band split with Floyd after a few years. Royal remained in New Orleans, doing club dates with various bands and working as a session musician at Allen Toussaint's Sea-Saint Studios. He eventually became a regular in Fats Domino's road band for over 20 years, playing either bass or guitar at various times. Along the way he developed a deep appreciation for jazz and became an inspired improviser and soloist, heavily influence by Wes Montgomery. Several years ago, Teddy relocated back to the New York City area and still gigs
with his jazz combo. For more details on his long and fascinating musical journey, read my linked features on him at Home of the Groove.
- Brian has been a bedrock funk/rock guitarist on the New Orleans scene since the early 1980s, when he began playing with the Neville Brothers. He also was a founding member of the funky Meters
, a spinoff band of the original Meters, and has played with a spinoff of that spinoff, PBS
(Porter-Batiste-Stoltz), a power funk trio. In recent years, Brian has been releasing solo albums and honing his songwriting skills, and remains a formidable presence on the music scene.
- I first spotted Shane playing with the Neville Brothers after Brian Stoltz left. He is a great funk and rock player
with k-i-l-l-e-r tones and chops. You can read his linked bio and check the rest of his website for details; but I'll just add a recommendation for any of his three solo CDs - very funky, inventive stuff, all with excellent sidemen.
- A contemporary banjoist and guitarist who specializes in "creole jazz", music composed by historically significant (and in some cases nearly forgotten) mixed-race people of color in New Orleans of French ancestry, who contributed mightily to the musical heritage of the city and jazz. Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver both were French creoles, for example. Vappie is of that background and musical tradition, although he played contemporary music coming up, and has his own band, the Creole Jazz Serenaders. His Creole Blues
CD is excellent; and I've enjoyed seeing him play several times in New Orleans. In 2008, he teamed with Otis Taylor, Corey Harris, and Alvin Youngblood Hart on the CD project, Recapturing The Banjo
- I first saw this way funky Japanese transplant in New Orleans playing in the mid-1990s with the Wild Magnolias
, a Mardi Gras Indian group who were the first to incorporate their street rhythms and chants with funk music instrumentation back in the early 1970s. When they perform in concert, they have their own funk band backing them; and June was a regular part of that for several years. He has played behind many of New Orleans' finest since moving to town, and has been with with Papa Grows Funk
since their inception. He can burn and wail on those rock-god style solos, and has an effective funk comping style. A few year back he arranged and played on a soulful album by Theryl DeClouet, The Truth Iz Out
, revealing a tasty, subtle side to his playing I didn't know he had.
Dan Phillips is a former resident of Memphis, TN where he did a volunteer weekly radio show called, "New Orleans: Under The Influence from 1988 to 2004. He now lives close to New Orleans and spends what little free time he has listening to the latest in New Orleans sounds and working on his New Orleans R&B, funk and soul blog Home on The Groove.