Lousiana Rocks! The True Genius of Rock & Roll
By Tom Aswell
I'm not sure, but I'm almost positive that all music came from New Orleans.
— Ernest Kador Jr.
K-Doe might not have been totally sold, but Tom Aswell is. A former newspaperman in Baton Rouge, Monroe and his hometown of Ruston, Aswell, 66, has spent the past four years researching and writing his first book, Louisiana Rocks! The True Genesis of Rock & Roll. The tome, issued Dec. 7 by Pelican Publishing, is a reference volume for six decades of musical history in the Bayou State, with profiles of almost 300 singers, songwriters, producers, session musicians and principal players filling its 500 pages.
"I've seen books on swamp pop; I've seen books on R&B; I've seen a book on Louisiana Hayride," Aswell says. "I have all those books. But no one to my knowledge has tried to bring it all together and show how they interrelate."
Louisiana Rocks! begins, fittingly, in the same place Aswell argues rock 'n' roll did: at 838-840 N. Rampart St., the former home of J&M Studio. There, audio engineer Cosimo Matassa captured direct-to-disc recordings of Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1947 and Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" in 1949 — years before Elvis Presley first walked into the Memphis Recording Service (1953) or Bill Haley and His Comets released "Rock Around the Clock" (1955).
"We were never state-of-the-art," Matassa told Aswell, recounting the early days of J&M, when a single microphone boom would have to be carried back and forth between drum fills and saxophone solos. "There were no tape recorders, so if a singer or musician messed up, we had to discard the entire acetate disc and start over."
In ensuing chapters, Aswell lends equal time to both the standard-bearers and unsung midwives of Louisiana rockabilly, swamp pop, zydeco and R&B. Profiles of Professor Longhair and Fats Domino are preceded by loving introductions to barrelhouse pianist Isidore "Tuts" Washington and blues player Champion Jack Dupree; developing sounds in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Lafayette are feted just as much as those in New Orleans.
The reflections are not all rosy, however. Aswell draws a sad parallel between Memphis' treatment of the original Sun Records studio as a cultural landmark and the Crescent City's forgotten care of J&M, now a Laundromat. Standing outside the shuttered, blighted Dew Drop Inn, Deacon John Moore laments to Aswell the iconic Central City landmark's descent into disrepair: "Man, there were some good times here. I could tell you stories for hours on end. Some of 'em would have to be off the record."
Several good ones did make the cut, including actor Robert Mitchum's arrest there — for the segregation-era offense of "mingling." "That was a high crime back then," Aswell says, laughing. "I'd have hated to be the one who had to arrest Robert Mitchum."
For Aswell, who half-jokingly describes his state day job as "disgruntled claims adjuster," delving into these histories was a welcome return to his college days as a KRUS-FM disc jockey in Ruston. "When Ray Charles came out with 'You Are My Sunshine,' it was too jazzed up from the old traditional Jimmy Davis version. They wouldn't let us play it." (His written version describes how station managers used a knife to cut an 'X' into that side of the record.)
Aswell — also a former standup comic who once was crowned by a fellow DJ and Louisianan, actor John Larroquette, as the funniest man in the state — delights in telling another story that had to be cleaned up for the book: a studio feud between K-Doe and "Mother-in-Law" backup singer Benny Spellman. "My editors deleted the actual quote. I interviewed [K-Doe's manager Larry McKinley], and he said they were down on the floor, fighting, and one of them — I think it was K-Doe — was yelling, 'Get up and fight like a man, you bitch!' Because Benny Spellman was just holding him down.
"They took out the quote," Aswell repeats, clearly chagrined. "I thought that was a good quote."