What was Baton Rouge like in the 1950s? Back in those times, it was completely different to the way things are now coz you had in baton rouge here you had a lot of little cafes and little clubs and every night they had them little bands- Lightnin’ Slim over here, Slim Harpo over here. People paying fifty cents to come in and everywhere you looked they had a band playing somewhere – four pieces, two pieces and Boogie Jake and all of ‘em.
And it was a time when people were listening – they wasn’t really into tv like they are now. You know if you had a television then you had to have a tall antenna on your house. To get the sound. They made people buy that old, tall aerial, whatever, you know? So everybody who had a TV had a tall aerial on their house. And it was a psychological thing because you know people, big shot has an aerial on his house, he has a television. But, back in that time people were getting out at night, going out and dancin’ at clubs and stuff.
Little-bitty small clubs. Wouldn’t charge over a dollar. Some didn’t charge nothin’. Go in free. The only bad thing about is somebody might start fightin’ and you better get out of there you know? But, that’s the way it was back there when I first came back to baton rouge. I had a record out on Hollywood Records. I was in San Fransisco when I got into service. And I started singin’ in San Fransisco. I used to sing in a church before the service.
I was in the service. In the Air Force. But, when I got out of the air force, I stayed in San Fransisco. I had my godfather out there and I stayed out there. And I started singing, messin’ around, drinkin’ and doing everything. And I got on this talent show with KSM radio out of San Francisco.
They had a talent show one night back at the Ellis Theatre and some of my friends had heard me singin’ so they want me to go on the show. I got on. Fatso Berry was the disc-jockey who was in charge of this show. Etta James, I know you heard of Etta James, she was on the show. Johnny Matthis. Etta was 17 there. Sugar Pie De Santo. There was a bunch of ‘em on there! At the Ellis. But, I won first prize the night I was on. And that gave me a little name in ‘frisco. And from there I made my first record with Hollwood Records out of Los Angeles. John Dolphin.
So that started me on this blues career. And I was singin’ a blues number when I won. I sung a number called ‘Long About Midnight’ by Roy Brown. And he was a great artist. He was one of my inspirations. God, when I first saw him, I knew then I wanted to sing the blues you know? So that’s what really started me on singin’ the blues and that’s how I got involved in singin’ the blues and been out here so long you know? Singin’.
You say you recorded for John Dolphin in Hollywood, how did you come to settle in South Louisiana? Well see I stayed out in San Francisco. I was young, you know, out there and runnin’ wild and all kinds of stuff. Drinkin’ you know. On my own. And so I got arrested and man, look. I got sixty days. I did sixty days in jail. And when I got out I said I’m going home I’m comin’ back to Louisana. So I came back to baton rouge. I had a record out and very few people round here had records out you know. And I got back here and I met a guy name Shaw. Shaw was a booking agent. He used to book Louis Armstrong. So I met him and he decided he want to book me on the road. I went out doing the chitlin’ circuit. Doin’ some dates. I had my record out and everything. Started singing and I went back to school.
I went to Leland College. But, I was too late. I went there on a scholarship coz I played football when I was at school. But that blues and music was into my soul you know?
I stayed up there about couple of minds then I came on back out here. I heard about J.D. Miller. Cat told me about him. So I went on down to Crowley and met him and I recorded a record for him, ‘tomorrow’ that was the first record I recorded with him. And that started me doin a little playin’ around and stuff.
And after that you know I got married. Playin’ and workin’, playin’ and workin’ you know stuff like that. Playin’ around a lot of little clubs. Coz everybody you know, Silas Hogan, Guitar Kelly, whispering smith all of them was here in Baton Rouge. Boogie Jake, Raful Neal. Everybody was playin’ you know. Band over here. Band over there. Band everywhere. Everywhere you look, every night they had something goin’ on. Oh man people loved the blues. They was into nothin’ but the blues at that time.
Then the radio stations didn’t come to baton rouge ‘til around that time I come back here. They had the XOK chain, WXOK. Coz’ they had a little station here, a white station, but, they had a half an hour they would play blues you know. Didn’t have a real station until WXOK came and they started playing blues, rhythm and blues stuff like that you know. So that’s how I got in touch with J.D. Miller and I started going down there and recording. Whispering Smith and Slim Harpo and all them blues guys here from Louisiana started recording for him.
What year was that first record?
‘The Hoodoo Party’ I cut that in, that was my biggest record it been all over the world. ‘Hoodoo Party’ is the biggest records I ever made. It’s still sellin’. I cut that in ’61 with J.D. Miller. I wrote that tune and arranged everything. Katie Webster played piano. There’s some good musicians on it.
‘The Hoodoo Party’ represents Louisiana music. Coz it’s in the style of Lousiana. Piano style. I’m not playing it, I let Katie play it, but, I play that style. Longhair and all them, Fats Domino have a style similar to my style. But, that particular song is played during carnival time all over Louisiana. Every year it gets bigger and bigger all over the world. But, that the song that represent Louisiana swamp music. Hoodoo Party.
Tell me about the circumstances in which you wrote that song? How did it come to you? I was married and me and my wife we had, I think we had, about five, four or five children and I wrote a whole lot of songs. That’s not the first. A lot of stuff I write you know. But, that tune just came to me. Coz I did a tune (sings) “my baby’s got it, she’s got what it takes” its on here. (sings) “she got a heart, made of gold, there’s movement down in my soul.” So 'The Hoodoo Party' I had (sings) “well the Hoodoo King and the Hoodoo Queen gave a little party down in new orleans. Heard a woman scream and I turned around. Cadillac Slim just rolled in town. Boogie chillun” go into the boogie you know? And it just caught on.
People just liked that kind of thing about New Orleans. I’m talking about New Orleans in the song. People just liked it. Its getting very popular. I think eventually somebody big, you know one of them big, big guys might record it you know, but, its been on a five or six little small guys have cut it. But ain’t had nobody big like the rolling stones or somebody big like that hit it. Once they hit it its zoomin’ you know. But, its actually a Louisiana-paced type song.
I wrote it and sung it, but, I didn’t get the money I was supposed to get because J.D. Miller put another guy’s name on there ‘Thomas and Dees’. There ain’t supposed to be anybody’s name on there but ‘E. Thomas’. That’s my name. I wrote the song and arranged it. But, they stole a lot of stuff from guys back there you know? They just fucked over people man. A lot of guys I know couldn’t read and write. Shit they ain’t never got no money. But, its like you see. But this is my new one here. This cd here was released over in Switzerland. By a company. And the guy never did give me no money. It’s a rat race out here you know? See I sell a lot of my stuff right here. T-shirts, tickets. I sell all my stuff right here.
is it as bad as the old days? Well the old guys they didn’t know. They didn’t know about no publishing. Writer’s rights. They didn’t know nothin’ man. And they got beat. It’s a good thing they didn’t know they go beat you see?
But, my son is Chris Thomas-King he’s over on a tour right now. That’s him right there. Here’s over on a tour right now with buddy guy and them right now. Here’s over there touring tonight over in Europe. And I he know everything about the business. I taught him everything. He make his own records at his own studio. Write his own stuff. Produce his own records and shit. I taught him everything you know. I didn’t get it, but, he gonna get it coz he ain’t no dummy.
In my case now you know, being a business man, a radio show and my own thing, I play my own records. They wouldn’t play my records a long time ago, once every now and then. The guys don’t play your records it hurts you. See but god fix it where I play my own records. Play any records I wanna play. Number one show in Baton Rouge. Nothin’ but the blues.
I play the real shit man. Lightnin’ Slim and all of ‘em. Muddy Waters. Buddy Guy used to play with me. He was playin’ with me the night he left Baton Rouge to go to Chicago. But, you know he got big. He got that big money and he got the big head you know so he don’t know me now. He got big you know. But, I don’t give a damn how big you might money you get.
Paul Getty was one of the richest men in the world. Paul Getty was the one that backed the Beatles, Paul Getty stayed in an airplane in the air. He didn’t even stay on the ground. He stayed in the air all the time. They had to take big transports and then put gas in the plane. He didn’t come down. But, he had more money than anybody in the world. But, when he died he came down and they buried him and I didn’t see no armoured car out there with the money, in the graveyard.
So I don’t care how much money you get you know it don’t make no difference. You ain’t gonna take it away with you. You can’t eat it. Shit, now I eat just about as much as anybody else. Anything I want to eat I can get it. You know what I mean? I can buy it.
But, anyway, coming back down to earth. I’ve helped a lot of young guys, Tab Benoit, Chris Thomas, Troy Turner they all come under me. That’s my thing. So I help the young guys try to get a chance to come in and play and help them you know as far as learnin’ the thing and play and shit. And it’s been rewarding coz they just put me in the hall of fame, the Louisana Hall Of Fame. About three weeks ago I went over there and was inducted into the hall of fame. Plus I won an ambassador award for a thousand dollars. And I also won the fellowship award for five thousand dollars in the state of Lousiana. So my work hasn’t been unnoticed.
I’m going to throw some names at you and I want you to tell me what comes to mind when you hear them. Firstly, Jay Miller.
Jay Miller was a producer. He gave me a chance to make some records. I wouldn't be what I am today if it hadn’t been for jay miller, but, I didn’t really get what I should have gotten. But, what I got was better than nothing. I wouldn’t have the name I have now if I hadn’t a got with jay miller and been all over the world behind the records even though it taught me a lesson. You know? So I don’t go around blaspheming him and talking about him you know.
He gave me an opportunity to make some records and he thought I was a hell of a singer and he liked my voice. And he liked the songs I wrote. I don’t have anything against him. I might say something but that the way. I should have got the writer’s rights on all the songs I wrote that’s only thing wasn’t right you know. But, when it all come down, I wouldn’t be sittin’ here tonight if it hadn’t been for Jay Miller.
Why do you think so much classic swamp blues came out of that studio in little ol Crowley, Louisiana? Jay Miller was an innovator and he kept up with the sound. And he would try different things but he was really a blues producer. I was doing some stuff that really. I’m not the kind of artist that sings one groove and stay there. I’m doing a whole lot of different grooves. Like the guy in Dublin Ireland tell me, “Tabby have you found your niche yet?” He says “coz may you been so many different styles”. A lot of people don’t realise how many different styles.
Tell us about the artist Lightnin’ Slim
Lightnin’ Slim was a guy just the way he talked that’s the way he sung. He knew me. Coz he had a policeman was managing him and the policeman come over to my house to get me and Lightnin’ to make some dates together but I wasn’t doin’ the type of thing Lightnin’ was doing. Lightnin’ was playin’ the guitar and I was doin’ some other kind of shit like Roy Brown was doin’. With the horns and shit. And I wasn’t in his groove at the time. So that’s why I didn’t go on those dates with him you see?
But, my record was hot and this guy was going to book me and Lightnin’ together. But, I didn’t go because I’m not into that groove. The guy came to get me. Willie Dixon came to get me to Chicago, but, I couldn’t go because I had a lot of children. I had seven children. Five girls and two boys. And my children come before anything you know. Coz if it wasn’t for me that wouldn’t be here. So I stayed home and I’ve been overseas several times.
Slim Harpo. Slim Harpo was a friend of mine and he was a harmonica player and he had a little group. He used to get out and play like everybody else. But, he made records and some people used to say about him “that Slim Harpo, he sang through his nose, sang through his nose”. And people talk about ya you know. And people used to talk about slim. See the records slim made sold millions, but, he told me “Tabby, sing out. Stop singing like you’ve been singing. Let yourself go.” Johnny Adams told me, “Tabby, why don’t you sing out?” I used to sing out and I stopped singing. What the hell me singing hard, I wasn’t makin’ nothin’ you know? So eventually I went back to start singing in my real style. I started singing like I used to sing.
But, Lightnin’ Slim and Slim Harpo all them guys was just everyday people. They were just regular guys.
That Lightnin’ Slim, everywhere he played at them little women be behind him everywhere he went. Yeah they were behind him man. He had his own little crowd. Just like you hear them records, that’s the way he sounded out there in the club. Guitar, drum, sometime he have a bass, sometime he have a harmonica.
He played them little cafes where you go in free at man. Motherfuckers start fightin’, you had to run. I was in a place one night, I was lookin’ at Lightnin’, me and um, the boy out of New Orleans, Huey Smith and The Clowns. You heard of Huey Smith? Me and Huey was together one night. We went down there one Sunday night and man we was in there, Lightnin’ was playin’, had a guy he was dancin’ man. And this building where was was they had licence plates outside, raggedy, raggedy-ass building. And Big Maybelle whatever her name, she was runnin’ the band, Lightnin’ was sittin’ back there playing and he did one of them old jump numbers and the guy was dancin’, another guy cut at him like that (demonstrates) with a knife or razor. The guy fell out like that. I thought the guy was dead. Fell out. Man, I got up, I ran out of there man. The guy he fell and he fainted. Man, people were gettin’ out of that goddamn place like gravy on rice. Sometimes he’d playing, mutherfuckers start shootin’ man. I’m serous. That’s the kind of crowd he had. Coz’ they didn’t charge to come in. Anybody could come in there you see. And man you be dancin’ and havin’ a good time and somebody starts arguin’ and next thing “bam!, bam!” Everybody gone. Jump all in the toilet man. Women out in the street “aargh!” Man you ain’t never saw nothin’ like it. That’s the kind of crowd he had followin’ him.
And the people loved him, love him man. Slim too man. But, certain elements in the city, they never did give those guys any respect. They never did let them play in big halls and temples where they brought other bands at. Horns and stuff, they wouldn’t’ let ‘em play. They had to play them little small funky dives, little clubs you know. That’s the way it was in Slim Harpo’s time. On his last album he cut, I wrote the last two tunes, I went to Nashville, I wrote to songs for him, (sic) ‘I’m Sorry Baby’ and ‘Baby She’s Got It’. But now, they wouldn’t give me the writer’s rights. They wouldn’t’ give it and slim argued with the guy over there at excello, he argues with him “man, we oughta give it, we’re going to need him, he’s a good writer”. The motherfucker wouldn’t give me the writer’s rights. I had a tune ‘my baby’s got it’ (sings) “my baby’s got it”. Then I wrote a tune for him, “my baby, she’s got it” you know. I wrote that, the motherfucker wouldn’t even give me the writer’s rights.
Was that Ernie Young?
No, not Ernie Young. Um, the other guy, he had took over Excello at the time. I can’t recall his name right now. But that motherfucker wouldn’t even give it to me. Here was the thing though, motherfuckers, they want your shit, but, they don’t want to pay you. Same guys they paid some of ‘em, some they wouldn’t pay.
Motherfuckers wouldn’t pay me. But, like I say, it made a better person out of me ‘coz I was able to take it and keep on truckin’ you know what I mean? Now I go out and press my own records. I’ve got my own label. I got the money to press them with. I ain’t got to ask nobody for nothin’. I got the money. But, I didn’t have shit at the time. I got their hustle you know. And I could’ve had if somebody had gave me what I was justly deserved. You see what I’m sayin’?
But, I still don’t have nothin’ against Jay Miller. I didn’t get the money I was supposed to get. That had 65 payouts from b.m.i. On ‘The Hoodoo Party’. I saw the statement when they sent it to me. I’m with B.M.I. myself. One of these days, I gonna get me a lawyer, get him to look up see how much it was paid out on the ‘hoodoo party’ from the time it was released. I’m gonna find out.
I want to mention one more artist to you and one more song. One artist, Silas Hogan. Silas was like a father to me. I didn’t have a father. I took him to Amsterdam, Holland with me and man, shit, he was, oh man, he was a nice guy. He was quiet. And he wore steel hat all the time, when he retired from standard oil. Some of his music that he do, I do some of his music now, he was doin’ that different type, that old thing. A lot of cats can’t play that shit, but, I do it on some of my records.
He never had no problems, never had a cross word. He played there with me. I played at Smithsonian Institute up there in Washington, D.C. Took him up there with us. I recorded something for him, put it on my label too.
But, Silas was ok man. And I went to his funeral when he died and he had a lot of hogs. I tried to buy one. Silas wouldn’t seel me that hog. He must have knew I had high blood pressure. I didn’t even know I had high blood pressure. And, shit, Silas, he had a bunch of hogs. I’d see him up there at the fruit stand gettin’ slop and shit for his hogs. He say “ I say “man when you goin’ to sell me the hog Silas?”. “I’m gonna get it ready for you, I’m gonna let you know”. He never sent me that. He knew I had high blood pressure, you see.
And anyway, one night, I’m going to tell you this. Silas came to the blues box, the old blues box. Summertime, and guys in there playin’, people just walkin’ in. Black and white. Wasn’t just black or just black or white, college students, people from everywhere. So Silas had an old truck, pickup truck and on the back of the truck he had two of them 500 gallon cans that he put the slop in. Old truck was runnin’, one side was like this (demonstrates lop-sided). Dirty, nasty, raggedy everything. So Silas had brought the old truck down there and you had to tie the wires to start it so we was all in there jammin’ that night man and Silas was in there with is. Silas, he had a women. He was goin’ with some womans and she used to drink a lot of beer. She’d drink big Millers man. She’d drink three or four of them and pee all night. She was his girlfriend. Everyone was havin’ fun. So anyway, we got ready about 11.30, 12 o’clock on a Wednesday night. So Silas says “well I better get on up the road, I got to get up early in the morning and feed them hogs”. I said “alright Si, i’ll check you later man”. Silas went outside, about five minutes he come back he said “man somebody done stole my truck”. Some motherfucker stole the truck (laughs) with all the slop in the cans back there ridin’ on one side, stole it.
He was a nice gentleman. His son still play. His son, I don’t think he been here yet, but, he used to come to the other club all the time. Son play everything. Silas, I recorded him, I took him overseas and he played at the blues box ‘till he died. Guitar Kelly was playin’ with him, but, Guitar Kelly he got old now.
Kelly can’t play no more man, after he got shot he can’t play. Mess around, but, he can’t play. He and Silas played together all the time. He’d sing and Silas back him up. And then Silas sing and he back Silas up. Anyway man it was something that old blues box. Henry Gray all of ‘em used to hang there.
Whispering Smith, the greatest harmonica player I ever heard in my life. Ain’t never had but one or two little harmonicas. He played on my record ‘twenty-five years with the blues’. Every song he got playin’ a different solo. Whispering Smith. You ain’t never heard of him. But, he died man. Oh man. Called him “Mose”. Jay Miller told me when I went to make that record, that album, said “who you gonna bring down here on harmonica Tabby?”. I said “I’m gonna have Raful Neal on harmonica”. He said “bring Mose” (Whispering Smith). And we went down there on the Saturday and Sunday and did the album. Four tunes one day and five the next day. ‘Twenty-Five Years With The Blues’.
I want to mention one more song to you. Maybe your second biggest record ‘Popeye Train’. ‘Popeye Train’ was big. But, the biggest record that I think I’m gonna have is gonna be ‘I Love Big Fat Women’. Its gonna be on the new cd coming out. And ‘Louisiana Women’ that’s on the new cd coming out. Man every time I sing ‘I Love Big Fat Women’ they be on the floor like this. Everywhere I go, I mean everywhere.