Pianist Al Farrell has corresponded with Jerry Wexler, been given free studio time by Allen Toussaint and had Fats Domino check out his gigs several nights running. His press kit includes testimonials from Earl King and Irma Thomas. And I'll bet you haven't heard of him.
For all the New Orleans music stories that become part of the city's funky little canon, there are many more, through circumstance, which slip through the cracks. Farrell, who honed his piano chops alongside James Booker, has for a long time been among them. After 50 years of playing, Farrell just released New Orleans on a Saturday Night!, his first solo album. So perhaps, with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, even if there are no second acts in American life, there may be some in New Orleans music.
Farrell, a Fortier High School graduate (class of '62), is a veteran of New Orleans' classic '50s prom-band sound, like the Dukes of Rhythm, the Jokers, the Playboys and the Satellites — the underage kids who hung around French Quarter clubs, ate and drank beer at Ye Olde College Inn, and played teen dances. (A young Mac Rebennack, who attended Jesuit High School and played with Ronnie Barron and the Delinquents, was among them.) Farrell's career nearly hit the skids when he disobeyed parental orders in the late '50s and traveled to Biloxi to play with a popular DJ, but once he was allowed out of the house again, he rebounded and put together the band the Counts, with which he played from 1959 until 1967, when he graduated from UNO. Fats Domino went to see the Counts and sat at the bar with Farrell talking afterward. The group also backed up Benny Spellman, Snooks Eaglin, Shirley and Lee, Earl King and others.
"I really didn't want to be a professional musician," Farrell says. "People told me, 'You'll be bobbing up and down under the poverty line.'"
For a long time, luck was with Farrell — partly because of a fortuitous purchase.
"I bought a Wurlitzer electric piano at Grunewald's on Baronne Street," he remembers. The portable piano was easy to transport and could be heard in a crowded dancehall far better than an upright. "I attracted quite a good band with that."
Farrell started law school but dropped out after a year and settled into a regular gigging schedule — and an exploration of another side of life.
"I worked on oil rigs and started hanging around joints after class," he says. "I wanted to get a feel for what folks were thinking. One of those folks was James Booker, who played at the Maple Leaf and Jimmy's on alternate nights from Farrell.
"We were swapping sets at Jimmy's," Farrell says. "Oh, and he was a pain in the ass. Loud and insufferable. Just everything you wished he weren't because he was such a great musician. But I learned a lot."
Farrell worked on his career persistently, exchanging telegrams with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records and even going to New York to see the influential talent scout John Hammond. "I remember Allen Toussaint was just bemused that I got to see John Hammond in his office," Farrell says. "And I said, 'Well, I'm here in your office.'"
As the years went on, Farrell was derailed for periods of time by health problems, among them tarsal tunnel syndrome, which at times prevented Farrell from walking, let alone playing piano. He persisted, and New Orleans on a Saturday Night! is the result.
New Orleans on a Saturday Night! is a straight-ahead album of classic New Orleans piano, honed by years on bills with Booker and Professor Longhair. Farrell's lyrics, though, come across as deeper than many Crescent City classics. His narratives are the stories that existed beyond the simpler lyrics of classic teen-dance songs of romance on a weekend night or listening to a streetcar roll by. Guest spots by James Rivers and Jerry Jumonville add extra punch to a fine collection of R&B piano tunes that recall the gold-toned days of New Orleans teenage life in the '50s.
Readers can contact Alison Fensterstock at email@example.com.