Bob French, R.I.P.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? How about Donna’s on Monday nights? On the few occasions when I made my way to New Orleans earlier in this 21st , I’d make a point to stay through Mondays so that I could attend the weekly session that Bob French hosted at Donna’s on North Rampart Street. Donna’s had the aura of a shrine that acolytes made pilgrimages to on Sundays for brass band music and on Mondays for the jam session led by French, who was a down-home, genial host. Bob would ask pilgrims to identify the far flung places they'd traveled from, and he’d remind us that while there wasn’t a cover charge for the music or the platters of chicken and red beans'n'rice that flowed from the kitchen following the first set, the hat would be passed continually through the night and he expected to see greenbacks spilling over the sides.
On one particularly memorable night a decade ago, Donna’s gave me my first glimpse of such amazing locals as Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown, Ellen Smith, Corey Henry, and John Boutte, a great singer who’s now starring in HBO’s Treme. Trumpeter Brown and vocalist Smith, whose scant recorded output is a baffling thing, performed a “Dr. Feelgood” that would have made Aretha, Ray Charles and the crowd at the Fillmore blush. Pianist Davell Crawford, whom I’ve seen give indifferent performances in more prestigious venues, sat in that night and played for all the marbles.
Tastes of NOLA night-life such as this can induce in me an almost abject yearning for the Big Easy, especially on Monday nights. Alas, Donna’s ceased operations in its dilapidated home across from Louis Armstrong Park two years ago, and Bob French died on Monday at the age of 74. Somehow it seems fitting that the former preceded the latter, as Donna’s would have had a terribly ghostly feel without Bob on the bandstand.
As is fairly customary in New Orleans, French came from a musical family. His grandfather Robert was a renowned tuba player, and his uncle Maurice played trombone with Armstrong and Kid Rena. His father, Albert “Papa” French, was a banjo player who led the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band for many years, and his brother George, who survives him, is a leading bass player around town. In Up From the Cradle of Jazz, Bob recalled, “I’d ask Daddy, ‘How much do you charge for this and what do you charge for transportation? I’d always ask him about the business because he’d been at it so long. It was a heck of an advantage.” Among the directions he took from his father were charging top dollar, dressing sharp, and showing up on time.
The French brothers formed a group called the Turquoise with Art and Charles Neville when they were in high school, and by the late ‘50’s they were appearing on record with Fats Domino, Earl King, and other New Orleans r&b stars. Up From the Cradle…credits them with giving “a more punctuated groove” to King’s classics “Trickbag” and “Mama and Papa.” As French relates in the video interview below, his ability to punctuate a groove may well have come from his first session with Domino when studio owner Cossimo Matassa reminded him to “play louder” so that he could be heard in the one-mic set-up in use at that time.
French is a colorful storyteller. Here’s how he recalled getting his start: “I heckled and jeckled Dave Bartholomew [Fats Domino’s bandleader] so much to give me a recording session. Earl Palmer was the drummer. There was no place for Bob French or anybody else. Earl was the man. Then Earl left New Orleans and went to California. Thank God he did,” French says while blessing himself. “The Lord is good. He works in strange ways. I used to worry Dave Bartholomew every day and finally when ‘Mr. Drummer’ left, Dave said, ‘I got a session for you.’ And I said, ‘There is a God’.”
The Times-Picayune's obituary of French emphasized his outspoken, curmudgeonly nature, especially in his work as a former disc jockey at WWOZ. That's not the French I met at Donna's, and lots of readers weighed in with a contrasting view too. Read it all here.
French succeeded his father as leader of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band in 1977. Here's the band at Lousiana Music Factory with Leon Brown singing "St. James Infirmary Blues." That's Freddy Lonzo on trombone, Detroit Brooks on banjo, and Richard Moten on bass.
We'll hear music by French and his New Orleans colleagues throughout tonight's Jazz a la Mode.