I’ve written several dozen music articles and reviews for local publications and jazz websites as a sideline over the past 7 years. I write mostly for the satisfaction of shedding light on musicians whom I believe have had a level of publicity or recognition that pales in comparison to their considerable accomplishments.
My friend and musical colleague Bobby Lonero passed away recently. Bobby was best known for his spot-on renditions of Louis Prima’s Greatest Hits, making him a favorite of the considerable Italian-Sicilian-American community in New Orleans. Italian-American Marching Club events, St. Joseph’s Day festivities, parades, weddings, banquets – Bobby was a fixture and brought immense joy to all of those events for roughly 50+ years as a professional musician.
Bobby Lonero was not widely known beyond the metropolitan New Orleans area. He had an original song or two that received airplay and charted in the late fifties, but nothing that would be highly recognizable beyond the most devout music historians. Bobby’s greatest legacy will be the thousands of glasses of red wine raised in celebration, wedding dances of Fathers and daughters named Angelina, Marie, or Giovanna, music accompanying St. Joseph’s Day parades, and Tarantella’s danced on overcrowded New Orleans dance floors.
Bobby Lonero was not perfect. His financial difficulties sometimes strained relationships with fellow musicians. He could be forgetful and disorganized. He sometimes embellished the truth. But as is the case with most accomplished musicians, when the final tally is completed by the only accountant who matters, the smiles and the joy and the memories he created for others will far outweigh his faults. And it’s not even a close call.
So as I find proper epitaphs difficult to come by and very little fanfare on display as I reflect on Bobby’s life and career, 5 1/2 decades of a working musician’s life at least seems worthy of a simple blog post.
Bobby Lonero and the New Orleans Express were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame roughly a decade ago. From late 2002-2004, I played several dozen jobs with Bobby’s band, so in some small way I guess my association with Bobby affords me a sense of music immortality.
I couldn’t attempt to compile a complete chronicle Bobby’s career. The formal documentation of his career is minimal, and most events would have to be pieced together from the recollections of the thousands of musicians who shared the stage with Bobby. Everyone has their own personal version, and this is mine.
My earliest memories of Bobby were of my parents going out to see Bobby’s band at local music/dance clubs in the early 70′s when dancing, drinking, mingling, and leisure suits were the order of the day. The culture was different then, before DJ’s, karaoke, and synthesized 1-man bands took over the night club scene. As a teen I took up the guitar and joined a garage rock band, with plans to conquer the world with our original songs. My dad once asked upon hearing one of those original songs why we didn’t focus more on cover songs. “Bobby Lonero plays other people’s songs, and he makes money playing music,” he would say.
Perhaps that was Bobby’s greatest strength and shortcoming. As time moved on, Bobby’s repertoire gravitated increasingly toward Louis Prima hits to satisfy his Italian-American following. Though he recorded and pursued original songs early in his career, he never quite caught the break that would give him a defining “signature” song that so many other New Orleans artists used to propel their careers. When we had conversations about songs that he had recorded and written, there were also stories of deals gone bad and promises not kept that doomed some of those songs and recordings to obscurity.
For decades I knew Bobby only casually as the musician I’d see at Italian events, parades, and celebrations. In 2002 our musical paths would cross serendipitously. My Uncle Walton “Duke” Duplantis was known to many in New Orleans as the host of Franky & Johnny’s restaurant who would sing Sinatra hits on the P.A. system along with the jukebox that still spun vinyl 45′s. When friends and extended family decided to give Duke one “Big Night,” a first class Black Tie events where the charismatic, yet perhaps unpolished vocalist could realize his musical aspirations, we all knew there was only one backup band who could fill the bill – Bobby Lonero and the New Orleans Express.
I had written charts for many of the Sinatra tunes that Duke was familiar with, and for several months Bobby, Duke and I worked out the kinks and honed in on the songlist, later bringing in the full band. The fruits of those efforts came to fruition in November of 2002 at a sold out Rosy’s Jazz Hall on Tchoupitoulas St., a night that will be remembered fondly by all who knew these 2 musicians, the background story, or both.
There would be annual “Duke’s Big Night” shows again in 2003 and 2004. We would play smaller clubs with a scaled down band in the months in between. After the 2004 show, I began to pursue some of my original music with other musicians, and Bobby and I lost touch musically. On occasion we would cross paths, and I’d help him out with transportation or a favor, or I’d buy him lunch.
I guess what I’ll always remember is how happy Bobby would be when things went well musically. The instrumental song “Europa” became somewhat of a signature song for me, as the saxophone player and I would trade off verses and licks throughout. Bobby always laughed and smiled at me when we tore that one up. We once worked out harmonized licks at the end of the bridge in the song “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and we were both in musical heaven when our two guitars plucked in unison.
We played an Italian Festival in Kenner years ago, and I’ll never forget one song in particular. I took a break for a couple of songs and walked the audience, and one of those songs was a crowd pleaser known as “Eh Gumbari.” He had a number of parents line up with young children along the front of the stage, each participating as the kids shouted out the various instrument names and the band echoed the sounds. It’s a wonder anyone would have the patience to pull off such a feat. But Bobby’s defining quality was that he so desperately wanted everyone to enjoy the music and that he wanted everyone involved. And rarely did Bobby fail to get such a reaction and participation from his audience.
I surprised him once in 2005 when my wife and I took a weekend getaway to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where, to our surprise, he was playing at one of the hotel lounges. He lit up with an ear to ear grin when we walked in and told the audience that a great musician and great guitarist with whom he had played many, many shows had just entered the bar. Bobby had such respect for fellow musicians. I don’t think I can ever recall an instance where he denied a request of a fellow musician to sit in when we were playing together.
He asked if I had any requests, and he obliged with “Banana Split for My Baby,” another real crowd pleaser.
I had the above photo of Bobby & I framed, and I brought it to him one day to sign. He wrote simply, “To a great player and a great friend. Your forever friend, Bobby.”
Here’s one final musical memory of Bobby – a poignant Christmas song I had the pleasure of performing with him live entitled “Christmas for Two.”
Actor Hugh Laurie, star of the hit TV show House, is quite an accomplished musician. For years he admired and emulated New Orleans pianists and their sound – Dr. John, Professor Longhair, and Allen Toussaint to name a few. He recently traveled to our great city for the first time to see and hear the sights and sounds of the Crescent City first hand, a pilgrimage that culminated in a PBS special/concert and his first album. Laurie collaborated with Vocalist Irma Thomas (The Soul Queen of New Orleans) and the aforementioned Allen Toussaint).
Here’s a brief excerpt that includes a few kind thoughts regarding New Orleans.
“I feel like this is a city that doesn’t fear death. It’s looked death in the eye. Los Angeles on the other hand – everybody’s absolutely terrified. Terrified of getting old, terrified of wrinkles, terrified of dying.
“Music fills the streets and clubs of New Orleans like nowhere else. It’s a city that sings itself to sleep at night, and sings itself up in the morning. I’ve never known a place or people who so massively exceeded my expectations. It is more than I hoped it ever could be, and I hoped for quite a lot. This has been my Jerusalem.”
It is said that truly great musicians give the same inspired performance whether the audience numbers 5 or 5,000. I was reminded of that fact when we traveled down to the French Quarter last Saturday night to let my son Michael capture a few late night photos. On the “Moonwalk” that borders the Mississippi River, we came across this New Orleans Street Musician with nothing but a harmonica, a microphone, and a small amplifier. We encountered him, alternatively blowing his instrument and wailing bluesy lines for a handful of late night strollers around 11:00 p.m.
For more great New Orleans photos, visit Michael Cortello Photography .
Here’s a suggestion if you’re an iPod or .mp3 player owner. Rather than playing your favorite albums and songs, set your player to randomly select songs. You’ll find great tunes you’d forgotten about – what I like to call hiden gems. Here are a quick 5 that I found on my iPod recently:
This week my cover story for local entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine’s New Orleans Jazz Fest issue: Interview/profile of legendary jazz musicians/educators Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield.
Thanks again to Laura Tennyson, Communications Strategist for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for arranging this interview and to Josh Danzig and the staff at Where Y’at magazine for the assignment. Photo credits: Romney Photography
(From left to right: Ed Petersen (standing – recent performance paying tribute to the music of Harold Battiste), Harold Battiste, Irvin Mayfield, Jr., Victor Atkins (standing – recent performance paying tribute to the music of Ellis Marsalis, Jr.), and Ellis Marsalis, Jr.
I can remember my first day in a rock band like it was yesterday. I made the life-changing decision to pursue guitar lessons in the summer of 1978, just prior to my 14th birthday. From that day forward, I spent 2 years with a singular goal as my source of motivation – to reach the level of proficiency that would allow me to play in a rock and roll band. “Oh, Susanna,” “Good King Wenceslas,” and “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” were simply a means to an end.
Then after 2 years practicing on my Acoustic guitar, the planets aligned. Cousin Steve, a drummer knew Kevin who could sing. He asked me and cousin Jay (another guitarist) if we wanted to start a band. Stonehawk was born, and the rest is history.
A couple of second-hand guitars (as Bachman-Turner Overdrive once sang), an amplifier from American Rent-All, and we were on our way. The first song we attempted was “Peace of Mind” (Video below) by the band Boston. Jay strummed the intro chords for 4 measures, and Steve and I kicked in with the drums and lead. “Now you’re feelin’ kinda low ’bout the dues you’ve been payin’…”
I can say that the “high” of making what I considered real rock music for the first time was one of the greatest memories of my adolescence. New band members and another band would come and go over the years (Mark and Darryl and Darrell and Joe, then Private Joy with Rocky and Mark). We knew that the odds were long on success, but the possibilities were endless. So when a few of my former bandmates started a comment thread of reminiscings on Facebook recently, I found myself frustrated – I wanted to find a hidden transcipt of every conversation, every joke – a diary of every band practice, every silly discussion we had about selecting a band name or a songlist – planning the details of our imaginary world tour.
“It sometimes occurs to me that the thing that scares us the most when we’re young is the unpredictability of the future. Then, the thing that scares us the most when we’re older is the predictability.”
Here’s to the unpredictability of youth, and to all of the past members (at one time or another) of Stonehawk: Band for the ’80′s.
If those of you living outside of New Orleans want to know why natives like me love it here, one reason is the plethora of and accessibility to great artists. The artistic ability per square mile in this city is astounding. I wrote an article that will appear in local entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine during New Orleans Jazz Fest in late April/Early May, and had a chance to interview legendary jazz musicians/educators Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield.
I never get tired of speaking to great musicians and artists, particularly about the creative process and the courageous nature of developing your artistic gift in the face of daunting challenges. Here’s an excerpt from my interview – a quote from Irvin Mayfield, Artistic Director of the GRAMMY Award-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and of the New Orleans Jazz Institute at the University of New Orleans, regarding his esteemed predecessors in jazz and music education:
“Nobody starts to play basketball because they had a great coach. They play basketball because they saw Michael Jordan. As much as I have respect for all of the classroom time that these gentlemen (Marsalis and Battiste) have spent, I would never have been interested in them if they couldn’t play. We call these guys educators, but was Louis Armstrong any less of an educator? Was Cannonball Adderley any less of an educator? Was Miles Davis?”
- Irvin Mayfield
(Pictured left to right, Myself, Irvin Mayfield, and Ellis Marsalis)
Thanks to Laura Tennyson, Communications Strategist for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for arranging this interview and to Josh Danzig and the staff at Where Y’at magazine for the assignment.
As a lifelong musician, music advocate, and music writer, I weighed the importance of avoiding the temptation to be an overbearing parent with the desire that my only child would follow suit and take up an instrument. A small piano, another keyboard, an assortment of guitars, and a willing mentor in the house provided a nurturing environment. When he finally came to me at the age of 9 or 10 and expressed an interest in trumpet or drums, we drove to a nearby music store. A few licks on the drums brought a smile to his face, and we were off and running.
The first 6 months he seemed enthusiastic. The ensuing 6 months required frequent reminders that practice was necessary, and the final 6 months were torture – for both of us. Lectures about the importance of commitment, the cost of drums and lessons, etc., etc., etc.
I came to the realization that perhaps his arts education journey would be different from mine. I told him that I would support whatever he wanted to pursue, and that we could take a music hiatus for the summer while he played baseball and also pursued his newfound joy – photography. At the end of the summer, we wanted a decision before continuing.
When the summer was over, he came to us and said that he had decided that photography was really what he enjoyed. We committed to him that we would match whatever amount of money he saved on his own to put toward a nice camera. And for the last couple of years, it’s clear that he has the photography (or shutter) bug.
Some parents are more demanding than others, and the recent buzz about “Tiger Moms” has rekindled the discussion about how strong a hand parents should rule with. Of course, there’s still no blueprint to parenthood. It’s still an art more than a science, in my estimation.
Lesson: One of my concerns with standardized testing and the pressure that kids face at such an early age is that childhood should be a time of exploration, not of narrowing their focus. Expose your kids to a world of possibilities and they will choose to narrow their path when it’s appropriate – and they’ll have the benefit of making an informed decision.
There are obviously many challenges still ahead for these parents of one. But if my pride in my 13 year-old son’s work is any indication of the job I’ve done as a parent, then I guess things will turn out okay. Here’s a sample of work from Michael Cortello, aspiring New Orleans Photographer:
Today marks 17 years of marriage with my wonderful wife Kim. I suppose she’s stood by me through more than most would have. I’ve always believed that the greatest thing that you can do for a loved one is support their dreams, and she’s always been willing to sacrifice for me to pursue mine. For that I am supremely grateful.
While most couples have a song they consider their own, we really have 2 songs that are memorable to us. We danced to the song “We’re All Alone” by Boz Scaggs at our wedding, but I later performed the Beatles’ “Til There Was You” (well, not actually composed by the Beatles, but the version I was familiar with growing up) to her at our wedding reception.
I’ll let Paul McCartney and the Fab Four do the honors today: