The Hot 8 started, says Pete, in 1995 as a merger of two younger bands, the Looney Tunes Brass Band and the High Steppers Brass Band. At first, says Pete, the new band was excited to be on the streets. "We liked the approval from the people and how they'd be tripping out that we'd learn a new number in one week and play it." Recently, playing parades doesn't have the same appeal for the band. Pete says that's because of a change in attitude from Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, which hire bands for their parades. "This is a traditional cultural event that was about parading and dancing and having fun," he says. "Now it's a big showoff thing. They're worried about the shoes, and they don't want to pay the musicians. That's cool if you want to show off, but pay us."
This change of heart has made the band focus more on its stage show and putting out an album, Rock With the Hot 8, now out on the local Louisiana Red Hot Records label.
"It took a while to get out, and everybody was waiting for it," he says. "We like the versatility of it. There's some traditional music on it. We also did some rap and hip-hop for the youngsters and some old R&B for the older people. We tried to make it sound clean, and Derrick (Moss) from the Soul Rebels helped us out on that."
The CD has been well received, which makes the death of Joe Williams even sadder. Pete recalls that he had a premonition that something would happen to Williams. "We had gone to meet up in Armstrong Park to do photos by the statue of Satchmo," he remembers. "After the photos, Dinerral (Shavers, the snare drummer) said, 'Let's pray.' We always pray before we move on something. I was holding Joe's hand and I thought, 'Damn. Joe's not going to make it tomorrow. Joe's going to get killed.' I decided that I was going to call Joe that night, but it slipped my mind. You know how that happens. The next day I get to work and I'm about to call him after I punch in. Then I get a call on the phone. Joe's dead."
Pete received several calls right after that. He almost didn't go over to the scene because he was so angry. When he got there, he says, "Joe's hanging out of the truck with his hands in the air. I didn't want to believe it. Joe was there two and a half hours after I was there. They didn't get him a sheet. No ambulance came." (To read Gambit Weekly reporter Katy Reckdahl's story on the incident, visit www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2004-08-17/news_feat.html.)
Pete says the band has had trouble coming to terms with this. "It's messed up. I could tell you I'm all right. We get onstage and everybody's dancing and saying, 'Hot 8! Hot 8!' and I'm looking for Joe because Joe's the heart of this band. He did the struggling with us. He did the low-paying gigs with us. I look around and bust out crying. I look at the band and the whole band's crying. Everybody looking at us going, 'What's wrong with them? They tripping.' It hurts to see everybody enjoying what we're doing and he's not here."
Benny pauses. "We have to work our way through," he says. "We have to. We can't do anything to bring Joe back. All we can do is play his music. The only way you can get it out is the music." Although Hot 8 plans to keep its focus on the stage, that doesn't mean the band will quit parading entirely. "If you don't have the streets, then you're lost," Pete says. "The street keeps you in touch with the soul of the music."