Gettin’ ‘Beyond Carnival Time’…
10th June 2013 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Al ‘Carnival Time’ Johnson
Beyond Carnival Time
When people greet Al Johnson, they usually don’t just say hi, they ask, “What time is it?” His response, always given with a big smile, is an enthusiastic, “It’s Carnival Time!” Johnson, who penned the Mardi Gras anthem, “Carnival Time,” released the single in 1960. To say the least, the moniker “Carnival Time” stuck.
Because that one song is so firmly associated with Johnson, many people including some fans, fail to fully appreciate his talent as a vocalist, pianist and songwriter. It’s fairly common for folks after witnessing a performance by Johnson, to remark, “Oh, I didn’t know Al played piano.”
Considering Johnson’s high-profile in his hometown, it is remarkable that Beyond Carnival Time stands as his first full-length album. As Etta James would sing, “At last…”
From note one, this CD jumps and shouts New Orleans – particularly this city’s Lower Ninth Ward. Johnson turns back the hands of time as he returns to a self-penned song, “Lena” that he released way back in 1958. Eric Traub shows he knows a thing or two about the era by blowing some honkin’ saxophone in the manner that was favored by many of the sax men in Fats Domino’s band.
When Johnson wrote “Carnival Time,” he’s been quoted saying that he noticed that songs, most notably another anthem, “Mardi Gras Mambo,” referred to the holiday as Mardi Gras as opposed to Carnival. He reiterates that sentiment in his lyrics on “Mardi Gras Strut,” a tune he released in 2006 and updates with a little mambo beat on this CD. “You call it Mardi Gras, I call it Carnival time,” sings Johnson in his distinctively rich voice. In keeping with the frivolity of Carnival and of old-school New Orleans rhythm and blues, he offers, “Strut to the beat and wiggle like a duck…”
Talk about funny lyrics, producer/arranger/composer/trumpet legend Dave Bartholomew is a master. His ditty, “Jail Bird,” made famous by the great Smiley Lewis, is one of the five tunes on the 10-cut disc not originating from Johnson’s pen. Johnson chose wisely selecting this rarely heard song and it is appreciated that he also chose to remember the much-missed vocalist Oliver Morgan by doing a worthy rendition of his hit, “Who Shot the La La,” a tune written by another great New Orleanian, pianist/vocalist Eddie Bo (Bocage).
Johnson gets down on some blues too like guitarist Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” though he does it in a true New Orleans style complete with the piano triplets in the right hand that marked so many of this city’s classic rhythm and blues numbers.
At first, a listener might think this material was recorded in Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The giveaway that it wasn’t initially comes by the presence of the organ played by the album’s producer and label owner, John Autin, and the more modern style of guitar work by Dave Ferrato and Keenan Knight. The updating was obviously a purposeful move to reach a new and larger audience. Drummer Raymond Weber, bassist George French and the horn section of Traub, trumpeter Eric Lucero and trombonist Rick Trolsen as well as Johnson himself keep it old school all the way.
Beyond Carnival Time is a triumph because it is, almost unbelievably, Al Johnson’s first album. That’s important for both the very amiable musician and for New Orleans. The rhythm and blues era of which he was so very much a part, was a huge influence on music throughout the United States and the incubator for rock ‘n roll. It lives on as the root of many musical genres and in its pure form in the voice, piano and style of Al “Carnival Time” Johnson.
Time to Check out the Regulars
With all the festivals and big events constantly happening in New Orleans, though particularly during the spring, it’s easy to kind of take for granted some of the great performers who gig at clubs on a regular basis. Now that things have slowed down a bit – well until Essence Festival on the Fourth of July weekend – this is a good time to check out those favs who’ve been on that, “Oh, I can go next week” list.
Jon Cleary is back in town and that means back at 7 p.m. d.b.a. on Thursday evenings through June 20. The pianist and vocalist, who plays solo, uses these free shows as practice sessions of sorts fine tuning older material with different arrangements and trying out new material. It’s a very intimate setting with an artist who, beyond presenting his own strong material, really keeps the music of greats like Professor Longhair, Snooks Eaglin, James Booker and Earl King vital.
Other steady gigs that are really worthwhile include the Rebirth Brass Band on Tuesdays and drummer Johnny Vidacovich on Thursdays at the Maple Leaf plus Walter “Wolfman” Washington on Wednesdays at d.b.a. At Snug Harbor, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis leads his swingin’ Uptown Jazz Orchestra on Thursdays and pianist/vocalist Davell Crawford comes into the Frenchmen Street club on Tuesdays in June (excluding June 18).
In the “last chance to dance category,” this Thursday, June 13, marks the last of the spring Jazz in the Park series in Armstrong Park. Trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffins headlines at 6:30 with vocalist Mike “Soul Man” Baptiste opening at 5 p.m. Be there or be square….
This article originally published in the June 10, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.