It’s nice to see New Orleans making progress on a comeback from the devastation of Katrina, although it’s obvious that it’s going to be a uphill battle and the city might never again have quite the same unique character. It’s a place that’s special for a lot of reasons, and one of those is it’s importance to American music. I’ve made a number of trips there through the years and have always enjoyed the city enormously, and the genesis of my interest was musically based too — at least indirectly.
While growing up I was no different than any of my peers in how I learned about things that were outside of my normal daily life. I picked them up from the radio, TV, magazines, listening to records, and of course from movies. New Orleans first came to my close attention in what was an otherwise mostly forgettable black and white film. (And I don’t mean Presley’s King Creole.) It was a lurid melodrama called Walk On The Wild Side, starring Englishman Laurence Harvey as a Texan and Jane Fonda in her sex kitten phase playing a character fittingly named Kitty Twist. It was considered a little daring at the time, with a plot that revolved around a bordello managed by Barbara Stanwyck as the madam (and Hollywood’s first openly lesbian character), but was actually pretty tame and would be laughed at now.
At the time I saw this movie I was struggling to “find myself” while negotiating college, so the movie was great escapism with it’s story of the seamy side of New Orleans, and it was probably pretty easy for an impressionable young guy to overlook the flaws and get into the film. I don’t remember that much about the movie itself, which probably tells you something about it – or my spotty memory – but two things really stuck with me. First was the city itself — the look, the feel, and the touch of disrepute that was all pretty exotic stuff to me. (Side note — if you have knowledge that this film was actually shot in a Burbank studio, please keep it to yourself.)
The second thing I took away was Elmer Berstein’s music, especially the theme song, which perfectly captured the mood and the setting right in the opening scene. And when Brook Benton sang, ‘One day of prayin’ and six nights of fun; the odds against goin’ to heaven six to one’, I thought that was about the coolest thing I’d ever heard. The tune earned the film’s only academy award nomination and I was determined to own the soundtrack, but as I discovered when I hit the record store later, there was something that I would like even better.
In those days, you could go into a record store and take several selections into the little glass booth to try them before purchase. When I first heard Jimmy Smith’s version of “Walk On The Wild Side”, I was instantly sold, and added the album to my growing collection. Even after all these years, the song still makes me think of New Orleans whenever I hear it.
Although organ music showed up occasionally in the jazz world for many years, with legends such as Count Basie and Fats Waller jumping on the organ at times, it wasn’t the first keyboard instrument early jazz musicians thought about mastering. Jimmy Smith not only helped make organ music part of the jazz mainstream, he was also influential in helping create “funk” or “soul” jazz. During his long and storied career his was the name that came to mind whenever jazz organ was talked about.
Just an afterthought — in the seventies Lou Reed had a hit with a song of the same title and said his inspiration was the Nelson Algren book, not the movie made from it, and it is a different song. Although it might be the first one that younger readers think of, please don’t overlook Jimmy Smith’s classic — or any of his other music for that matter. He’s one of the legends.