After living in Los Angeles in the 1950s, he returned to New Orleans to run the local office for Specialty Records. However, while in Los Angeles, he met Specialty producer Bumps Blackwell, who gave him a job doing some production and arrangements. One of the tunes he worked on was Sam Cooke's 'You Send Me.' Battiste's arrangement work on that alone would qualify him for legendary status. That was just the beginning. Back in New Orleans he produced 'Cha-Dooky Doo' for Art Neville and 'Lights Out' for Jerry Byrne. Then, seeing the wealth of modern jazz being played in New Orleans and the lack of recording opportunities for it, Battiste started AFO (All For One) Records with several other like-minded musicians including Melvin Lastie, John Boudreaux, Red Tyler and Peter Badie.
The importance of AFO cannot be over-emphasized. It was an African-American- and cooperatively owned recording and publishing company, the first of its kind. They succeeded in recording some of the best modern jazz and rhythm and blues of the period, including 'I Know' by Barbara George, 'Ya-Ya' by Lee Dorsey, and the Ellis Marsalis Quartet's Monkey Puzzle record. In some ways, Battiste was the only person recording modern jazz in New Orleans at that time.
'If it wasn't for AFO, no one would have heard Ellis Marsalis or James Black or Alvin Battiste and other people who are and went on to be world-class musicians,' says Battiste, who receives the Big Easy Entertainment Award's Lifetime Achievement Award in Music on Monday, April 19. 'The idea of starting a musician-owned company that was moderately successful not only as a company but as a social and economic statement of what we could do, and in the meantime recording some modern jazz -- that is what I'm most proud of.'
AFO was active for several years in the mid-1960s. When the British Invasion came and the market for New Orleans music dried up, Battiste moved back to Los Angeles. He hooked up with a musician named Sonny Bono who was looking for someone to record his wife, Cher. Battiste recalls, 'I was just helping Sonny. It was something that he was doing.' Battiste went on to become Sonny and Cher's conductor and producer for many of their late-1960s albums.
But one of his best projects was still to come. In 1968, he and fellow New Orleans musician Mac Rebennack brought into the studio several other New Orleans musicians who were out in Los Angeles, to record an album based on a legendary voodoo figure. They called the album Gris-Gris, and it launched the new career of Rebennack, whom the world now knows as Dr. John. In his autobiography, Rebennack writes, 'Harold Battiste arranged for us to slip in and cut a few tunes on free studio time and through Sonny and Cher he sweet-talked a deal for us with Atlantic [Records] for a new album - with Battistes production, we were making music - mixing up out-jazz with R&B and New Orleans roots music.'
Battiste's career continued for the next two decades in Los Angeles. He served on the Board of Governors of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) and taught music at several colleges. In 1983, he answered the request of Ellis Marsalis and returned to New Orleans to become an associate professor of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans. Since then, Battiste has taught and mentored the many musicians who have come through that program.
And yet he's still looking to the future. 'I'm developing a foundation to uplift the perception of New Orleans jazz, the second 50 years,' he says. 'I guess it's what I've been doing all my life. My passion has always been modern jazz. The jazz musicians of 1950s and '60s have been neglected. There are so many cats that I couldn't get on record back then. This can be an institution that after I'm gone, people can use for research.' Battiste has always been dedicated to promoting and recording the music of the Crescent City. As writer and historian Kalamu Ya Salaam puts it, "He helped the musicians to take the music seriously. By starting a cooperative with a recording company and a publishing company, an increased emphasis was placed on the value of the music. He said that it's important enough that we control our publishing. It's important enough that we record it. That was not only the first time it happened here, but it was the first time it happened in many places. There are not many people who have done as much for the music. Harold Battiste is a major inspiration."