by Larry Benicewicz
Lazy Lester in Baltimore at CAT's Eye Pub, 1995,
Photo Larry B.
Legendary R&B singer and songwriter of South Louisiana, King Karl, has died of a lung ailment on Wednesday, December 7, 2005 in Mesa, Arizona, where he had made his home since 1992. He was laid to rest with full military honors on December 15, in Phoenix National Cemetery. He was fifteen days short of his 74th birthday.
Although today a largely forgotten figure, this prodigious composer was indisputably one of the major architects of Swamp Pop, a musical genre which flourished in the 50s and 60s and was unique to what is now referred to as the “Fertile Crescent,” the musical territory stretching from New Orleans to Houston. While never consciously trying to ascribe to any particular formula when penning such often recorded classics, such as “Irene,” “Life Problem,” “This Should Go On Forever,” and “Have Mercy on Me,” nonetheless, he invented most of his ballads in a signature E-flat, B-flat, two chord progression with triplets, which served as highly influential, definitive prototypes for a whole host of later Swamp Pop standards, including Johnny Allan’s (Guillot) “Lonely Days and Lonely Nights,” Cookie (Huey Thierry) and the Cupcakes’ “Mathilda,” Guitar Jr.’s (now Lonnie Brooks) “Family Rules,” Jivin’ Gene’s (Bourgeois) “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” Jimmy Clanton’s “Just A Dream,” and Phil Phillip’s immortal “Sea of Love.” “This is how it came out of my head. I don’t know anything about this Swamp Pop business. It was always just plain blues to me,” he responded in a 1991 interview in Scott, LA, with local historian, Shane Bernard, the son of famed singer Rod Bernard.
King Karl was born as Bernard Jolivette in Grand Coteau, LA, on December 22, 1931 but spent his formative years in Sunset near Opelousas. He claimed that his principal musical inspiration derived from an uncle, John Abes, who lived nearby and who played both piano and accordion, the latter not in a modern zydeco fashion, but in the old French or La La style. Demonstrating an early aptitude in both vocal and instrumental technique while in school, the thirteen-year-old took up the saxophone and with classmates founded his first band. A few years thereafter, he was recruited by an accordionist in the region, Howard Broussard, to play guitar and handle some vocal chores. In 1949, Bernard moved to Beaumont, TX, to seek employment, eventually working in a veterinary hospital and later for the railroad. A highlight of this period was a short stint as a singer with the Lloyd Price orchestra at the renowned Raven club. At that time, Price was touring heavily, promoting his 1952 blockbuster, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” on Specialty (#428). However any of Bernard’s musical aspirations in the Lone Star State abruptly evaporated when his father died, prompting him to return to Opelousas in order to support his family. In 1953, not long after settling down in his former homestead and accepting a construction job in Lake Charles, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Fort Hood, TX, and eventually on to Korea, as the war there was winding down. Honorably discharged in May of 1955, Bernard again returned to the Grand Coteau area where he toiled in a sweet potato kiln.
Ironically, his fortunes were to change dramatically due to the intercession of a local parish priest, Father Millet, who was also the parochial school’s English teacher. As the church’s disk jockey during recess and teen hops, this man of the cloth had to endure a lot of criticism for his enthusiasm for the what some of the congregation deemed the “devil’s music.” Remembering Bernard’s talent as a singer, the reverend recommended that he join up with a neighboring band, the Swingmasters, which included another much younger, former protégé of Millet, Guitar Gable (Perrodin), as well as horn player Freddie LeBien, bassist and vocalist, Albert Davis (now with zydeco ace Murphy Richard and the Zydeco Kings), and drummer Joseph Zeno. But Millet had another motive as well for pointing Bernard in Guitar Gable’s direction. He was growing increasingly concerned that the 21-year-old Zeno’s unsavory reputation, including street hustling, drinking, and womanizing, would contribute to the delinquency of Gable, who at the time was a minor of 18 years.
At first Guitar Gable had his doubts about welcoming onboard a singer/songwriter with so few prior musical credentials, but nonetheless allowed the persistent Bernard to sit in one night with the Swingmasters at Joe’s Place in Rayne. To say the least, he passed his audition with flying colors, much to the delight of the crowd. “I felt right away it was the right move to make [to quit the Swingmasters] and maybe Zeno was feeling the vibes, too. Anyway, I left him a week later at Roger’s Night Club on the Breaux Bridge Highway. He took it better than I expected,” said the guitarist. Guitar Gable later learned that the shady Zeno had come to an untimely and ignominious end in a street brawl in California. “It wasn’t a surprise, really. He was always looking for a quick money deal anywhere and anytime,” he added.
Guitar Gable also cleared up another popular misconception associated with the Swingmasters. J.D. Miller, the notorious Crowley, LA, engineer/producer, was fond of bestowing colorful monikers on most of the artists in his stableLazy Lester (Leslie Johnson), Lonesome Sundown (Cornelius Green), Slim Harpo (James Moore), and Lightnin’ Slim (Otis Hicks), just to name a few. “Everyone always assumed that it was J.D. Miller who gave me my nickname. But it was actually Joseph Zeno,” asserted the bluesman.
And neither does Miller receive the credit for selecting Bernard Jolivette’s sobriquetKing Karl. “Back in the early 50s, there was this disk jockey in Eunice that went by the name Carl King. I just switched it around,” said the singer. With the addition of Bernard Jolivette, the new group was then christened Guitar Gable and the Musical Kings, featuring King Karl. After several personnel changes early on, the band would eventually add Gable’s younger brother, Clinton “Fats” Perrodin, on bass, Clarence “Jockey” Etienne (now with the Creole Zydeco Farmers) on drums, and John Johnson on piano.
The group’s repertoire soon expanded rapidly, especially with the inclusion of the prolific Jolivette’s catalogue of compositions. “I was even writing songs while I was attending my night school classes,” said King Karl during the Bernard interview.
But Guitar Gable, who cannot read music, had a few numbers up his sleeve as well. “One night in New Iberia, Jockey was playing some kind of drum beat and it reminded me of ‘Frankie and Johnnie.’ So, I kind of went along with it. That’s how ‘Congo Mombo’ was born,” he said. Gable, showing an occasional compositional flair, would also go on to co-author both sides of Excello 2108, “Cool, Calm, and Collected” bw “It’s Hard But It’s Fair,” a disk that sold substantially well in the region.
Convinced that the group had enough material with which to record, Guitar Gable in 1956 took the whole crew down to Lake Charles with the expectation of possibly utilizing Eddie Shuler’s Goldband studio to that end. But there was some sort of glitch in the schedule and no session ensued. On the way back, the guitarist remembered that J.D. Miller had such a facility on N. Parkerson Ave. in Crowley. So, acting on a hunch, they paid a call. Although the late Miller’s Master Track enterprises at 413 N. Parkerson Ave. now run by son, Mark Miller, is considered state-of the-art, the old Modern Music Center studio, which it replaced, decidedly was not. “It was a small room with boxes piled in the corners. Miller had to get some help to move stuff around so he could position the mikes properly. I think that that day some studio regularshis young son, Bill, Lazy Lester, and [Clifford] Pee Wee Trahan, a fine white guitaristcame to our rescue,” said Guitar Gable.
Despite the rather primitive recording conditions, the first session yielded a duo of national smashestwo double-sided hits, which were released on the Excello label. As Jockey Etienne said recently, “I had just joined up with the band and was lucky enough to participate in two winners on the first try.” “Congo Mombo,” the hot, up tempo, instrumental was coupled with Jolivette’s plaintive “Life Problem” (2082). Only slightly less successful was the second release, a similar juxtaposition, “Guitar Rhumbo” with “Irene” (2094).
Miller had a special lease agreement with Ernie Young of the Nashboro label in Nashville by which Young would distribute (and assiduously plug via intrepid and pioneering disk jockeys Gene Nobles, John R. (Richbourg), and Bill “Hoss” Allen over 50,000 watt clear channel WLAC) the recordings of all of Miller’s acts on his roster in exchange for the publishing (Excellorec Music, BMI) residuals. Moreover, Young had a thriving mail order business through his own Ernie’s Record Mart, which was well trumpeted over the same airwaves, reaching at night nearly one-third of the United States and parts of Canada.
As a result of these initial sensations, Guitar Gable and the Musical Kings were propelled into the spotlight and they quickly became the toast of South Louisiana. “We played all the hot spotsroad houses like the Southern Club and Moonlight Inn in Opelousas, the Evangeline in Ville Platte, the Clover Club in Lafayette, the Carousel in Baton Rouge, and the Rainbow in Kaplan. But there were also many teen center gigs, like Eunice on Saturday night and Lafayette on Fridays,” said the guitarist. When queried about the segregation policy of the former “white only” clubs, Guitar Gable gave a familiar reply. “Yeah, we got that regular back door treatment. I can’t say we agreed with it or liked it. But in those days, though, it was understood.”
When asked whether it also mattered that J.D. Miller could justify taking half the writer’s credit from both Jolivette and himself merely by changing a lyric or two and then applying his familiar pseudonym under the title, James West, Guitar Gable answered, “You know, back then, all we wanted was a little fame, getting played on the radio, and working regularly six days a week. That was like honey in the butter. And, to tell the truth, I forgot about the royalties. We all did.” In fact, all the members of the ensemble made more money in one week after the impact of their first disk than they had seen in their whole lives up to that point. “I can’t speak for the others, but I was just a little awe-struck because I was still in high school. I had to get special permission from the principal just to do the engagements,” he added.
But the Musical Kings were also working for J.D. Miller and, from Guitar Gable’s depiction, this employment was tantamount to indentured servitude; in fact, Miller, fearing tampering by other entrepreneurs like himself, kept a tight rein on their itinerary, strictly curtailing their travel. Their contract called for one year with four renewable options (five years in all) at the discretion of Miller, a deal which essentially bound them to him until the end of the decade. In fact, during the late 50s, Guitar Gable and the Musical Kings was the house band at Crowley, before it was replaced by what is now recognized as the Legendary Crowley Studio Band of drummer Warren Storm (Schexnider), pianist Katie Webster, tenor Lionel Torrence (Prevost), bassists Bobby McBride and Rufus Thibodeaux, and guitarist Al Foreman. “We’d be on call day and night to back up practically everybody Miller brought inCarol Fran, Lonesome Sundown, Lazy Lester, and Slim Harpo. One fellow we never helped out was Lightnin’ Slim, though, because he played almost like a one-man band, really spare and simple,” said Guitar Gable. In all fairness, being just a vocalist, King Karl could never be lumped in with this illustrious supporting cast, but Jockey Etienne recalled that he often supplied some of the percussion effects with whatever J.D. Miller had handy in the studio, including folded up newspapers, empty boxes, and even hardware. And Lazy Lester, who often assumed a similar role as King Karl, can also attest to Miller’s penchant for improvisation.
Near the end of the Musical Kings’ tenure with J.D. Miller, one of King Karl’s creations again struck the proverbial pay dirt“This Should Go on Forever”but by Rod Bernard, a young, white Cajun singer. Originally recorded on February 22, 1957, it was a personal favorite of King Karl but J.D. Miller thought it had no commercial potential (even rerecording it for the aforementioned Bernard), and allowed it to molder in the vaults nearly two years before releasing it, but only after Rod Bernard’s version was already climbing the charts (finally peaking at #20 on the national survey in March, 1959). Originally issued on Floyd Soileau’s Jin records (#105) of Ville Platte in late 1958, it proved to be such a phenomenon that Soileau, with his limited distribution network, was obligated to seek a larger, more experienced, firm in order to maximize its sales. One of the eager suitors, Chess records of Chicago with its subsidiary Argo (#5327), eventually won out. And J.D. Miller didn’t mind this arrangement in the least since he could now claim both the publishing (Jamil, BMI) and half the writer’s fee on this blockbuster, as well as receive a healthy stipend from his belated launch of the initial R&B version on Excello.
“I first heard them [Musical Kings] do the song at the Moonlight Inn on Highway 190 in Opelousas and the melody really haunted me. I always wondered why they didn’t record it. When I asked King Karl about it, I could see he was disappointed that J.D had completely ignored it. But I was determined to learn it for myself,” said Rod Bernard. His perseverance paid off as the always affable and accommodating Karl, guitar in hand, taught him the basic chords from his front porch, after which Rod raced over to radio station KSOL in Lafayette to tape a demo while his memory was still fresh. After hearing the rough approximation of the tune, Floyd Soileau instinctively knew he had a winner on his hands.
Later, while on a promotional tour in Chicago, Rod Bernard remembered vividly an incident related to the promulgation of his interpretation of “This Should Go on Forever.” He was seated at the breakfast table of a hotel on South Michigan Ave with the principals of Chess records, Leonard and Phil (born Czyz), and their publicist, Max Cooperstein. They inquired if he had heard the song being played over the radio. When Rod responded in the affirmative, that he had heard the Musical Kings’ rendition over WLAC the previous night, the furious Leonard had Cooperstein make a hasty phone call. After returning, Cooperstein confidently declared, “Well, that’s the last time that’s going to happen,” which may explain why the original never took off, even on the R&B charts. It was business as usual for the movers and shakers of the music industry in the 50s.
In all, J.D. Miller released six Musical Kings singles and no less than forty master tapes remained in the can, although some later saw the light of day on Bruce Bastin’s UK Flyright label. But any more thought of recording for either Miller or anyone else was temporarily put on hold as Guitar Gable, too, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1960.
During Guitar Gable’s two years in the service, King Karl took charge of what was left of the outfit and eventually ended up in Nashville at 177 Third Ave., then the headquarters of Excello records, but not before in advance proffering Ernie Young a demo which was recorded at Lloyd Reynaud’s house in Opelousas. Reynaud, the brother of saxman Hot Rod, a member of Cookie and the Cupcakes’ horn section, would go on to record bluesmen Jay Jay Callier and Roscoe Chenier for his own label, Reynaud, in the early 60s. In short, Young wanted Karl, but ever wary of retribution from Miller, he recorded the singer in Nashville under the alias, Chuck Brown, eventually releasing two singles from one session, including the soulful blues, “Hard Times at My Door” (2108) in 1962. Although Karl was free and clear contractually from Miller, the producer exercised his “territorial rights” when he got wind of this ruse and blocked the shipment of any of his singles into Louisiana. “He had them stopped right at the border. That’s how much power he had. But I still managed to get my hands on some of them,” said King Karl to Bernard.
After his hitch in the Army was concluded, Guitar Gable wanted to resume where he had left off and attempted to reform the band almost immediately upon his return. But, by that time, things had changed substantially. His longtime drummer, Jockey Etienne, had departed to serve in the same capacity for the ensembles of a succession of R&B luminaries, including Solomon Burke, Bobby Powell, Joe Simon, and Johnny Adams. Moreover, blues music, itself, was on the wane and his popularity suffered commensurately, as the band was now competing with soul, the music of choice for a younger, hipper black generation desperately wanting to shed its “country” image. And if King Karl and Guitar Gable felt like they were struggling against the tide of this slicker, cosmopolitan sound, they must have sensed that they were positively overwhelmed by a yet altogether new trend which began to hold sway in Acadiana a mere two years after Gable’s tour of duty ended. When the British Invasion finally took root in South Louisiana, it was the final nail in the coffin for blues-based aggregates such as the Musical Kings.
Asserting his independence, which he enjoyed while Gable was in the military and desiring to move in a different direction, King Karl, during this time frame, struck out on his own and signed (as King Carl) with Carol Rachou’s Tamm label, a subsidiary of La Louisianne records of Lafayette, then located at 2823 Johnston St. Although ably aided in this endeavor by Guitar Gable, including a fine tribute to former mentor Lloyd Price, “Just Because” (#2002), his first effort for the fledgling label, outside of local juke box play, fell well short of expectations as did his second, “I’ve Never Been So Wrong” (#2007). And it was little consolation to him that other R&B charter members of Tamm, including Phil Phillips, Camille “Little” Bob, and Lynn August, also fared likewise. In 1964, King Karl, hoping for more exposure, switched to the higher profile La Louisianne with yet another bluesy composition, “I’m Just A Lonely Man” (#8047) and in 1966 recorded his last number for the logo, “Blues for Men” (#8080).
By the middle of the 60s, King Karl had to contend not only with shifting public tastes in music but also a chronic illness, especially an asthmatic condition. And, aside from his passion for writing songs, he mostly retired from music for the next three decades.
After marrying Georgette in 1974, the sister of Grand Coteau’s celebrated zydeco accordionist, Jude Taylor, King Karl eventually found work as a security guard at Women’s and Children’s Hospital and night watchman at Evangeline Maid Bakery, both in Lafayette. The couple eventually moved to Scott, LA, but Bernard’s deteriorating health dictated his move to more favorable climate in 1992. Accompanied by his devoted wife, who magnanimously relinquished a comfortable nursing position, he finally settled in Mesa, Arizona.
Although he continued to compose songs in this new environment, he never really returned again to the public arena until mid-decade and only due to a fortuitous incident. It just so happened that Chicago native, now Scottsdale-based, Bob Corritore, a local player (harmonica), club owner, and sometime impresario had (and still presides over) a regular 6-11 pm Sunday night radio slot, “Those Lowdown Blues,” over KJZZ (91.5 FM) in nearby Phoenix, a program dedicated to all things related to this genre, including, interviews, seminars, and, music. Bob is probably best known in blues circles as advancing the career of Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter), who now resides in Hannover, Germany. One night he had as guest, Lazy Lester, who was in town for a show. As usual, Lester, with little prodding, could be counted on to expound upon a wide range of topics, as well as provide an endless supply of anecdotes from the old days in Louisiana. As luck would have it on that particular evening, he recalled King Karl and Keith, Karl’s stepson, who was listening, called in, informing the astonished Corritore that his stepfather lived only miles from the station.
From that point onward, Bob practically became a member of King Karl’s household and soon after invited him to the station for a tete-a-tete, had him perform at his Rhythm Room in Phoenix, and even made some recordings at the Tempest Recorders studio in Tempe“Cool Calm Collected,” which appears on a 1998 HighTone compilation, All Star Blues Sessions (HMG 1009) and “Mathilda,” which is included in a now out of print 1999 Phoenix Blues Society project, Desert Blues, Volume I. Later in 2000, Bob organized a huge blues jamboree in town, the Blues Blast, which included King Karl as a headliner, among such other notables as Henry Gray, Kid Ramos, Eddie Shaw, and Lil’ Ed (Williams) & the Blues Imperials.
Equally instrumental in King Karl’s coming out was guitarist C.C. Adcock, who like Bob, is a huge fan of the blues and is now the leader of the legendary Louisiana all star band, Lil’ Band O’ Gold, which includes drummer Warren Storm, saxophonist Dickie Landry, and accordionist Steve Riley. Adcock had connections to King Karl in that a former band of C.C.’s, Cowboy Stew Blues Review (with Clifton Chenier’s longtime guitarist, Paul “Lil’ Buck” Senegal), was well represented with relations of Karl, including son Larry Jolivette on bass and his cousin Nate Jolivette on drums.
During the same time frame of the mid-90s, C.C. prodded the reluctant Guitar Gable and King Karl (during his homecomings) to participate in jam sessions with his rock and roll band of that era. These frequent reunions culminated in a comeback concert the prestigious Festival International de Louisiane in 1995, an annual five-day celebration of that state’s cultural heritage held the last week in April in Lafayette. The overwhelmingly positive reception accorded this latter undertaking precipitated a junket throughout South Louisiana and Texas with memorable stops at the House of the Blues in New Orleans and Antone’s in Austin, as well as a much touted appearance at the Baton Rouge Blues Festival. Through C.C.’s negotiation with director, Ira Padnos, of the Ponderosa Stomp (named after a Lazy Lester song and is an annual, large scale, two-day, uptown New Orleans Rock N’ Bowl venue sandwiched between the JazzFest weekends), he was able to secure King Karl no less than three separate engagements (2002, 2003, 2004) and C.C. also arranged the so-called “Swamp Pop Summit” with Quint Davis of JazzFest 2005, wherein King Karl joined Warren Storm, Tommy McClain, and Phil Phillips onstage on Sunday, April 24, for a triumphant demonstration of this brand of Louisiana blues. Commenting upon King Karl’s stage demeanor, C.C. was effusive with his praise. “He was really focused on his presentationa consummate professional. He was in great spirits and his voice was in fine form throughout.” His and his colleagues’ remarkable performance at this concert was captured on an eponymous two-CD set, which can purchased via the on-line agency, www.munckmusic.com
King Karl will likely be remembered by his friends and acquaintances in two regardshis legacy of enduring blues melodies and his character. As to his canon of work, all marvel at his ability to communicate emotion through both the musical notes and lyrics. “His songs would always strike a chord with me. He had the uncanny ability of expressing himself as if he had a direct line to his heart,” said C.C. Adcock. And his personal make up was no less extraordinary. Here was a man who had every right to be vindictive and bitter but instead had come to terms with those had wronged him in the past; in fact, he had forgiven them, preferring to focus on the here and now. Enriched by his company, his associates to a person speak of his “dignity,” “genuineness,” his “soft-spoken manner,” and his “warmth.” “Aside from his talent as a singer and songwriter, he was about the kindest, most gentle soul that you’d ever want to meet,” added Bob Corritore. Indeed, his passing is a huge loss for Louisiana, the blues community, and anyone fortunate enough to have crossed his path.
Having his life cut short just as he was beginning a second career, King Karl didn’t accomplish as much as he would have desired. But his family and supporters can take comfort in the fact that he did give his new-found audience more than just an inkling, more than just a glimpse of his greatness as a major figure in the glory days of Louisiana music. But his music will always live on.
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