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The Happy Accident 

How Professor Longhair, Earl King, Smokey Johnson, Wardell Quezerque and other New Orleans music legends came together for one legendary Mardi Gras song

In terms of Mardi Gras, there isn't a better combination than Professor Longhair on piano and Earl King singing and playing guitar. Add drummer Smokey Johnson and arranger Wardell Quezerque, and the ideal ingredients are in place for a classic.

That classic was "Big Chief -- Part 1," which celebrates its 40th anniversary during the Carnival season.

As much of a no-brainer as this combination is, Earl King said that initially there was some confusion in the studio.

"We went into the studio to work on Fess, and ... when we got to the studio, Fess didn't learn the words, and there aren't that many words in 'Big Chief.'" said King, who died in 2002 at the age of 69. King recalled how the record's producer, Joe Assunto, started losing his patience -- he was also losing about $25 an hour for the session -- and ordered King to get in the booth to supply the vocals. "'We can put Fess' voice on there later,'" King said Assunto told him, adding, "but they never put Fess' voice on there later."

The confusion didn't end there. As King recalled, Fess was under the impression that the song was going to include only the four pieces that had already been rehearsed -- he had no idea Quezerque, also known as the Creole Beethoven, had assembled an 11-piece, horn-driven back-up arrangement to fill out the sound. So when Fess saw all the players in the studio when he returned, he assumed they were going to record another song after the smaller ensemble left.

So when the horns blared behind him at the song's introduction on the next take, Fess was taken aback. "'That's some weird stuff there,'" King recalled Fess saying. "And then they did about 20 takes before they could get past the intro."

Smokey Johnson, the session's drummer, wore out the inside of this thumb and forefinger from the constant stick work during those takes, conceding, "Yeah, I was in there bleeding like a goose."

Though many people might believe that Fess provided the famous whistling that mimics the key part of the vocal phrasing -- his whistling on the previously recorded "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" is iconic -- it was King who provided the whistling on "Big Chief," Quezerque. King also wrote the lyrics, while Johnson added the quirky touch of nailing soft-drink tops to broomsticks for a special percussive effect.

"I took two broomsticks and cut the bottoms off and I took these Coke tops," recalls Johnson. "I took a hammer and straightened them out, a bunch of them. I put three on a nail on each nail that I had on these sticks, and I overdubbed them as shakers that you hear back there."

Another curious detail from the session, Quezerque says, was the need to tie Fess' left hand behind his back, "or something of that nature, so he wouldn't use it. He did that all with one hand."

The curiosities that surround "Big Chief" don't end even there, for when the producers of the song sent the master recordings off to London Records -- which was leasing the song -- they for some reason left the intro (including Fess' famous piano work) off the single version. (King's theory: The producers feared the record label wouldn't get Fess' playing at the beginning, which might have been "out there with that rhythmic attack he had.") But all the master tracks were on the tapes, and when the folks at London Records heard it, they put the piano part back in.

Earl King did not anticipate that this tune that he wrote would enter the canon of Mardi Gras music. He didn't even think it was meant to be a Mardi Gras song even if it does touch on the Mardi Gras Indian culture. "I changed the words when I gave it to Fess," King said. "It really was about an Indian breaking into one of those commissaries, man, and stealing the whiskey out of there. I changed it around. I titled that song after my mama, really. My cousin, Roscoe, he used to give her the name Big Chief. My cousin used to tell me, 'Earl, you ain't cut the grass. You ain't done the dishes. You ain't did this. You ain't done that. When Big Chief comes home, she's going to go on the war path.' My momma was a heavy lady."

Smokey Johnson agrees: "Earl King (was) a great writer. I've never heard a bad song he wrote. ... I didn't ever think that ('Big Chief') was a Mardi Gras tune when Earl first wrote it. But that's what it came out to be."

click to enlarge "Big Chief -- Part 1," recorded in 1964, endured a - series of miscues and misunderstandings but has - become one of Carnival season's most popular - songs.
  • "Big Chief -- Part 1," recorded in 1964, endured a series of miscues and misunderstandings but has become one of Carnival season's most popular songs.
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