I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday

Fats Domino, Imperial 5606, 1959, #17 Pop, #22 R&B

Antoine Domino got his nickname not from his size but because his piano style reminded a bandleader he worked for of Thomas “Fats” Waller. In fact, at the time of his first hit, “The Fat Man,” Domino was relatively petite. He only grew into his nickname after he’d begun making the long string of hits that led to fame, fortune, limitless desserts, and Sansabelt trousers.

Most recording artists who have had a great number of hits have also had some misses. While some music lovers may be able to find some subpar releases on Fats Domino’s long list of hits, to me they’re all delights, almost interchangeably enjoyable. Even “Blueberry Hill,” which I’ve heard my lifetime quota of and have sung hundreds of times at senior centers—even that one I can still listen to with joy.

“I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” may edge slightly above the rest of the Fats catalog. I play this record more than any of the others, and (so far) it always remains fresh. It’s one of Fats’s few in which a guitar riff plays a prominent role, and that riff is offset by repeated shouts of “Hey!” that push it along. It was written by Fats and his producer/collaborator Dave Bartholomew, along with a fellow named Roy Hayes.
My first exposure to Fats Domino was at my Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, where my Aunt Kay had grown up. She had a small collection of 78s, including “I Want to Walk You Home.” That 78 mesmerized me and has always been a sentimental favorite, and led me to a lifelong craving for Fats.

Incredibly, he has no fewer than three top-ten hit records with forms of the verb walk in the title. “Walkin’ to New Orleans” is very similar to “I Want to Walk You Home.” They’re both sung at a steady walkin’ pace, with Fats sounding sedate and at the same time a little coy. “I’m Walkin’” speeds things up to a sprint, or at least to the elbow-flappin’ race-walker pace. I enjoy the steppy N’Awlins feel of it, but I also like to perform a slowed down, swingy version—back to regular walkin’ speed.

That brings us back to “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” Now Fats has abandoned the pedestrian mode altogether. He’s revved up the tempo even more, and along with the pace his tone has intensified: He’s gotten a little more boastful, almost full of himself (but not in an offensive way). And he’s not only planning to be a (big) wheel, he will have a set of wheels, and will be oblivious when he goes “rollin’ by.”

The music-related highlights of the most recent trip to NOLA my wife and I made included seeing Fats Domino’s totaled piano in a Katrina exhibit, seeing another Fats piano, restored with financial help from Sir Paul McCartney, in the U.S. Mint Building, and seeing Fats’ restored house in the Ninth Ward. Alas, that house no longer contains The Fat Man.

Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Jelly Roll Morton, General 4003, 1939

It’s a tribute to a guy whose brief period of glory was in a place called Funky Butt Hall, before he spent his last twenty-four years in a mental institution, totally incompetent. It’s sung by a guy whose nickname is slang for the male sex organ. The singer doesn’t quote the honoree spouting words of wisdom, but instead urging someone to “open up that window and let that foul air out.”

All that said, listening to Jelly Roll Morton playing and singing “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (also known as “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”), recorded in 1939, just a couple years before Morton died, is a glorious experience, time after time.

The mysterious Buddy Bolden is the person most people credit with inventing jazz—except for, ironically, Jelly Roll Morton, who always claimed he invented jazz. Of course, no one person “invented” jazz. It has way too many antecedents. But you can hear in this record a nice example of the mix of blues, sacred music, and swing that Bolden’s said to have made his mark with.

The record label gives the writing credit to Morton, but most agree that the music and lyrics originated with trombonist Willy Cornish and other members of Bolden’s band, as they played at the Union Sons Hall (the place everyone called Funky Butt Hall). No recording of Bolden and company has ever been found, and Buddy’s estrangement from reality began in 1907, before anything we’d think of as jazz made it to a recording studio.

Mr. Morton was all but forgotten in the thirties, after his heyday during the preceding decade. Styles had changed, former friends and associates had been alienated. But he went out with a bang, recording solo and raconteuring away for Alan Lomax, who also put together a nice bio, Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortune of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” in 1950. The full-band recording of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” with Sidney Bechet, Zutty Singleton and other New Orleans lights assisting, is probably as close to being a perfect evocation of that great city in music (and what better way to evoke NOLA?). But the solo Jelly displays piano-playing as deft and artful as always and a voice as timeless as New Orleans’ mystique. It somehow matters not at all that he’s singing about funky butts, foul air, and a man who died crazy and nearly lost to history. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” whoever wrote it, is divine.

Iko Iko

Dixie Cups, Red Bird 024, 1965, #20 Pop and #20 R&B
(My copy is a 1987 Antilles reissue that tied in with the movie The Big Easy.)

I love New Orleans. My most vivid memory from all of my visits to New Orleans is that of my wife Sweets sitting on the window ledge of a French Quarter building almost three decades ago, cradling our one-year-old in her lap. Sweets is slurping from an upended bottle of beer, while upending a baby bottle of milk for Li’l Sweets. Nice slice of American family tourist life. When the wife and I went to New Orleans for our 25th anniversary, we stayed in the same guest house where we’d stayed then, The Lamothe House on Esplanade Avenue, and it seemed not to have changed at all. (But we’ve changed; for one thing, the wife no longer drinks beer, and my grown-up daughter no longer drinks milk.)

…it’s the sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love,” in street-parader mode, that produced the version of the song that has the enduring charm.

It’s believed that the actual family name of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton was Lamothe. I’d like to think he may somehow be connected to the place we stayed. (Well, he was born a few blocks up Esplanade.) Jelly Roll was the first great composer-performer of New Orleans, and he knew it. He always said it was he who invented jazz. Whatever his role, his music is the sound of New Orleans—the place to start—from “Wolverine Blues” to “Grandpa’s Spells.”

A few decades later, The Dixie Cups made music that was every bit as N’Awlins as Jelly Roll’s. The single format suits their song “Iko Iko” perfectly. It sounds spontaneous and incomplete, like an inadvertently captured moment that became documented and preserved. And, as a matter of fact, the recording was impromptu happenstance. Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson had recently come out of New Orleans (and out of nowhere) with a Ronettes reject, “The Chapel of Love,” which ended up knocking The Beatles out of the top spot on the charts. Their producers, the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had been trying to match that initial success with follow-ups.

One day, the sisters sat in the recording studio, reminiscing about their grandma’s Mardi Gras Indian chants, and, with cousin Joan Marie, started singing while tapping on ashtrays and folding chairs and whatever else was on hand. The trio didn’t realize they were singing variations on Sugar Boy Crawford’s song “Jock-A-Mo,” which Grandma had heard back in 1953. Crawford’s song has almost the same tune and lyrics, full of the lore of the Indians, with spy boys and flag boys, kings out for blood, and the distinctive patois of the marching tribes. Sugar Boy sued the Dixie Cups and won, kind of. He got little financial reward and little recognition. (The songwriter credits on the 1965 single are B. Hawkins, R. Hawkins, and J. Johnson, The Dixie Cups; the credits on the 1987 reissue add Joe Jones, their former manager, and his family members, who claimed authorship. The Dixie Cups sued in 2002, got all the rights back, and are once again listed as the songwriters. Still no Sugar Boy Crawford.) Any way, you look at it, though, it’s the sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love,” in street-parader mode, that produced the version of the song that has the enduring charm.

At the end of the song, near the fade, you can hear that the girls weren’t sure whether or not to keep singing. Leiber and Stoller, in the right place at the right time (the studio board), got it all on tape, and the resulting single, retitled “Iko Iko,” is perfect New Orleans-heritage pop—made in New York City. It only got to #20, but is a far more distinctive record than “Chapel of Love.”

“Iko Iko” appears on another top-shelf document of New Orleans, the 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo. Dr. John not only delivers a revved up, horn-driven version of The Dixie Cups’ song, landing a single of it on the charts again, but pulls out a potpourri of other New Orleans gems, from “Little Liza Jane” to Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” to a medley of Huey “Piano” Smith hits. It’s seamlessly entertaining, and it’s 100% New Orleans, just like Jelly Roll, The Dixie Cups, and, yes, poor Sugar Boy Crawford.