Tracks on this list are by Freddy Fender unless otherwise stated (in brackets)
|Wasted Days And Wasted Nights||Duncan 45-1001|
|Crazy Baby||Duncan 45-1002|
|Before The Next Teardrop Falls||ABC-Dot 17540|
|Going Out With The Tide (w/Tommy McLain)||Crazy Cajun 2037|
|I'm A Fool To Care (Joe Barry)||Jin Records 45-144|
|Rainin' In My Heart (Slim Harpo)||Excello 2316|
|Just A Dream (Jimmy Clanton)||Ace Records 546|
|Just Because (Lloyd Price)||ABC-Paramount 45-9792|
|Big Blue Diamonds (Clint West)||Jin Records 1010|
|Graduation Night (T.K. Hulin)||L & K Records 1118|
Contributor: Dave Stephens
FREDDY FENDER – AND EVEN MORE OF THAT WEIRD AND WONDERFUL SWAMP POP MUSIC (SWAMP POP #5)
The reader may already be blinking and thinking “what the heck has a Mexican singer born and brought up in Texas, and known primarily for a number that’s in all those best-of country collections, have to do with swamp pop?” Read on.
Freddy Fender was born Baldemar Garza Huerta in June 1937 in San Benito, Texas to a family of migrant workers of Mexican background. He started playing guitar early, and the music he was brought up with was the tejano and conjunto that we refer to as tex-mex. He also gained a familiarity with the blues from fellow workers. At the age of 16 he joined the Marines and stayed in for three years. When he came out he started playing as a professional musician in the local bars and dance halls.
After cutting some Spanish language records Freddy hooked up with producer Wayne Duncan of Duncan Records out of Brownsville, Texas in 1958. He cut four singles for the label of which a couple of sides were bona fide swamp pop and another strongly verging on that sound. The sides were the self-penned Wasted Days And Wasted Nights (which might just have owed a debt to Earl King’s Lonely Days And Lonely Nights), Crazy Baby (originally from highly obscure swamp man Buck Rogers) and Ivory Joe Hunter’s Since I Met You Baby. Freddy would go on and cut all three of these tracks at pretty well every label he stopped at, with the result that finding the one you actually want isn’t easy. For me the first cuts were the best but in case the Editor has a job finding my selections on Spotify I’ve included videos of both of my selections.
Spendid level of sonic murk on that one. Could be listening to it in some cavernous dance hall, muffled by the crowd.
Pretty well the same riff but that’s how it went in this form of music.
Following some local success Freddy came to the attention of Imperial Records who put out Wasted Days And Wasted Nights. It had just about started nudging its way in to the lower end of the national chart when, in May of the same year, on the bandstand of a Baton Rouge club, Freddy was convicted of possession of two marijuana cigarettes and was sentenced to five years in Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Prison. He served three years of his sentence before obtaining a parole (which was given on the basis that he stayed away from the “corrupting” influence of music). He then kicked around New Orleans for several years before returning to San Benito where he got a job as car mechanic.
And that would have been that if it hadn‘t been for Huey Meaux – if you’ve read any other Toppermost in the Swamp Pop series you’ll have come across that name. Freddy had met him before in the mid 60s and the two met again in 1971 when Meaux signed Freddy to his Houston based record label, Crazy Cajun Records. He tried Freddy on a wide range of material, including several more swampies, until they tried out a country approach. The first recording that Meaux produced with Freddy in this vein was that number, Before The Next Teardrop Falls. Meaux tried to get major labels interested but no one bit his hand off so eventually it was released on Crazy Cajun. The record was virtually an overnight success hitting both the country and the national charts. ABC-Dot bought the master and took over Freddy’s career. He had a series of country hits for the label right through the 70s with the success only starting to drop off in the early to mid 80s.
In the 90s Freddy joined the tex-mex super group, the Texas Tornados, and enjoyed further success, even if along more of a cult line.
In terms of song writing Freddy was hardly prolific so was very reliant on others for his songs. This is a cover of a song from another swamp great, Jimmy Donley (Swamp Pop #3). The song is Please Mr Sandman. Same tune as usual but different horn section riff; this one’s rather more funky.
I have just one more Freddy Fender selection and it’s a bit of a wild card. It’s another one of those Crazy Cajun Huey Meaux cuts and the number is Jivin’ Gene’s Goin’ Out With The Tide. Huey recorded a version of this with Freddy on vocal and a second one with both Freddy and Tommy McLain. The second one dispenses with the usual triplets for a quieter beginning, with an organ and (relatively) subtle piano. Fred is well up for it and takes the first verse, Tommy then comes in for the second before yelling “Sing the bridge, Freddy Fender” and then they all pile in. What’s amazing about this one is how cheerful they all seem to be on what is basically a goodbye song!
On to “even more of that weird and wonderful swamp pop music”. A few headings might help.
Rocking Up The Oldies
Joe Barry, originally Joseph Barrios from Cut Off, Louisiana (yes really), had one of the bigger hits of the swamp pop era with I’m A Fool To Care. Joe kicked off his recording career with a single for Jin entitled Greatest Moment Of My Life. He followed that with a couple for the Sho-Biz label, after which he returned to Jin where he cut I Got A Feeling backed with I’m A Fool To Care with Huey Meaux handling the production. The latter song was a country number written by Ted Daffan in 1940 and subsequently made famous in a version by Les Paul and Mary Ford. Joe was familiar with the Gene Autry version. Somewhere around that time, Fats Domino with his predilection for country music recorded the song though Joe always claimed that he’d never heard that record (and it may well have been after Joe’s cut anyway). He accounts for the strong Domino flavour of his recording by the fact that it was cut at Cosimo Matassa’s famed New Orleans studio which was fully attuned to turning out Domino material. There’s a story that our man was unsure which of these sides should be the A-side so he took it to a brothel and played it to some hookers. They unanimously chose I’m A Fool To Care.
The Swamp Blues Overlap
While Swamp Blues and Swamp Pop were different genres there was a definite overlap in terms of audience, and occasionally an artist from one of them would perform song(s) from the other. Jimmy Reed’s Honest I Do bore some resemblance to swamp pop, not least of which was that familiar chord sequence. Although Reed operated out of Chicago he was held in esteem by many of the swamp blues performers and several variants on this number cropped up, particularly from those who recorded in Crowley, LA. Most famous by far of these was Rainin’ In My Heart from the King Bee man, Slim Harpo. This one even reached the elevated position of #34 in the US National Chart.
Swamp Pop even had its own teen idol. Jimmy Clanton was the right age and he had the looks but he also had the right background for a swamp pop artist, having been born and brought up in Baton Rouge, LA. His debut record, Just a Dream, had the right sound but his story followed a different arc to most of the rest of the cajun boys. Just A Dream was recorded in 1958, at Ace Records in Jackson, Mississippi. Ace was owned by Johnny Vincent who had already had some experience of hit records albeit almost all with black artists and a predominantly New Orleans sound. By slight changes here and there, Vincent and the team at Ace successfully modified the Clanton record sound so that it fitted more the pattern of teen idol recordings and Clanton benefited by achieving continued chart success through to the early 60s. His early Ace records still have elements of swamp about them but unfortunately these are in a minority in the Clanton compilations I’ve sampled.
Influences to and from
Swamp Pop was formed largely from influences from the much wider field of popular music. As it progressed it continued to take on board such influences somewhat like a sponge. But this went both ways. I’ve already made comment (Swamp Pop #4) on the similarity between Little Richard’s Send Me Some Lovin’ and Bobby Charles’ Your Picture. I would also remark that Richard’s Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave was distinctly swampish. Another record to which this comment might apply is New Orleans artist Lloyd Price’s Just Because, which was subsequently covered by Larry Williams. Given the relatively early date of the Price record – 1956 – it’s likely to have been an infuence on, rather than one that was influenced by, but both did happen.
Other than paying due credit to Cookie and the Cupcakes, I’ve made little mention of the working bands which used to make the circuit of those dance halls in Lafayette, Lake Charles and so on. Bear in mind that such bands often included one or more horns plus inevitable keyboards then they were sizeable outfits to keep on the road. These bands included Johnnie Allan and the Krazy Kats, Joe Barry and the Vikings, Rod Bernard and the Twisters, Bobby Charles and the Cardinals, Lil Bob and the Lollipops, Jivin’ Gene and the Jokers, Bobby Page and the Riff Raffs, John Fred and the Playboys and more. One of the biggest of the lot in terms of both size and audience acclaim was the Boogie Kings.
Clint West was a vocalist, drummer and band leader who once led said Boogie Kings, a 10 piece band who must have kicked up quite a sound in their pomp. He’s another of those cajun boys who changed his name. Born, Maurice Guillory, he started drumming from an early age and was apparently holding down the drummer’s seat in Gilbert Mayeaux’s Vidrine Playboys at the age of 12. He started his rock‘n’roll career with Red Smiley and the Vel-Tones, and in 1962 joined the Boogie Kings who were already in existence. The band played a wide range of material from country through to swamp pop and soul – one of their specialties was a stomping version of James Brown’s Night Train.
Big Blue Diamonds (sometimes the “s” appears, sometimes not) was a country song written in 1950 and over time it‘s been covered by artists as varied as Tex Ritter, Sam the Sham and Van Morrison. One of the best versions of the song came from black artist Little Willie John in 1962, who invested it with a hefty chunk of soul. Clint’s version which owed quite a lot to Willie John came out in 1965 and became another bayou standard.
Yup there was at least one of them (apart from Clint, above). The slightly strangely named T.K. Hulin (real name Alton James Hulin) formed his own band, the Lonely Nights, at the age of 16 and had his first local hit, I’m Not A Fool Anymore, the following year (1963). A blend of soul and swamp pop, it even managed to scrape into the bottom end of the US Hot 100. But I’m going instead for the much later (As You Pass Me By) Graduation Night, a song dealing with a particular US ritual which seems to have crept in over here. I feel that T.K. was created for this song. It’s kind of swamp but implied, not in your face. And the fact that the melody line bears some resemblance to Tennessee Waltz doesn’t do it any harm.
Others and Borderline Swamp
I’ve run out of both interesting headings and selections – or reached the limit in the case of the latter. But I’ll sneak a few more clips in. Most of these are borderline swamp pop (that’s according to my definition which isn’t shared by everyone) but definitely come under the catch-all heading of Louisiana Rock’n’Roll and, more importantly, are worth a listen.
She Wears My Ring from Phil Bo – full name Boudreaux – isn’t swamp pop. It’s R&B but not like any other R&B record I’ve heard. An absolute stormer from start to finish with both arranger and band on tip top form. It came out on Jin and was a flip. The A side, Don’t Take It So Hard was swamp pop and was so good it almost made my list. The original was from Earl King but that was six years earlier. Anyway, here’s She Wears My Ring (and, in reference to the image, this was the only clip available):
John Fred and the Playboy Band are well known for their ’67 hit, an “answer” disc to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, entitled Judy In Disguise (With Glasses). If you don’t know it check it out on YT. It’s good but not a lot about it relates to Louisiana. However the group had been in existence since 1958. John Fred (full name, John Fred Gourrier) started the band going while the boys were still at school. They had a good sized local hit with Shirley in 1959. The one I like though, was their version of John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillen, released on N-Joy in 1965. They threw in a liberal spicing of Frankie Lee Sims and the whole concoction steamed along very nicely.
Gene Terry’s Teardrops In My Eyes came out on Goldband in 1958. It was swamp pop, well, sort of. It also had a doo wop chorale and a remarkably primitive feel about it altogether which I confess I find attractive. It was coupled with a wild rock lady called Cindy Lou.
Opelousas Sostan from Rufus Jagneaux was another from Jin, and something of a charmer sung partly in English, and partly in French. According to John Broven, Rufus (Benny Graeff) composed the song while wintering in a hippie commune in the hills of Tennessee. Not only was this not swamp pop, it didn’t have much to do with cajun music either.
My rather miserablist definition of the genre wouldn’t include my final track but I’d get flayed alive if I didn’t include it. Johnnie Allan was born, John Allen Guillot in Rayne, Louisiana. He was playing music from an early age – most of them seemed to be child prodigies – and formed a band called the Krazy Kats in 1958. That same year he recorded Lonely Days, Lonely Nights for Jin and had some success with it locally. He went on to record for a number of labels including Mercury but came back to Jin in the early 70s. It was during this time that Jin released his version of the Chuck Berry number, Promised Land. Belton Richard, a cajun star, played accordion on this cut which certainly made a difference. The record was released as a single in the UK to link in with the release of Charlie Gillett’s Another Saturday Night album and it did very nicely indeed.
My love of swamp pop which I suspect has come through pretty clearly in spite of a protective layering of mild cynicism, is founded in nothing logical or intellectual. However in the music’s defence I could say that melodically it is no more limited than blues and, while the latter form of music has given us a much wider range of interpretations than swamp, some individual singers – that’s excluding the bigger names – have relatively constrained musical vocabularies. Think Jimmy Reed (with no disrespect intended). That said I have to add that there is little in swamp to compare to some of the blues greats in their pomp.
What I can say about this form of music is that it has held a peculiar attraction for a grouping of English gents including not only John Broven who I’ve name-checked a few times, but also Bill Millar and Charlie Gillett, who between them have done more to document and publicise the genre than anyone, anywhere. I’m very happy to be doing my little bit as well.
1. There’s an attempt at a definition of Swamp Pop in the Rod Bernard Toppermost which I’ve informally titled Swamp Pop #1. This one is Swamp Pop #5 and is the last in the series.
2. I have to own up to a degree of plagiarisation in the Swamp Pop series, particularly so in this one. But the copying is from myself. Some of the text (often suitably modified) appeared in my ebook “RocknRoll”.
3. Johnnie Allan’s song Lonely Days, Lonely Nights, in spite of sharing a melody line (albeit the same one used by 50% or so of swamp ditties) plus most of the title with Earl King’s These Lonely, Lonely Nights, was actually a different song. and had Guillot (Allan’s real name) listed as writer.
4. Joe Barry was influential in getting Fender re-involved with music, post Angola (source John Broven).
5. Doug Sahm was influential in getting Freddy back on stage again. He even had him sharing a bill in Austin with psych hero Roky Erickson (source Joe Nick Patoski in the sleeve notes to Crazy Cajun Recordings).
6. In a 1978 issue of the English music magazine New Kommotion, Bill Millar wrote “All these years I’ve been into blues, soul, doowop and swamp-pop, especially swamp-pop … When the entire school was fixated by Presley’s Neapolitan balladry, I’d be monopolising the communal Dansette with “This Should Go On Forever”, “I’m A Fool To Care”, or “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”, revelling in the secret loveliness of it all. Where those records actually came from was anybody’s guess, but now we know better.”
7. Until relatively recently there was no one CD or box set which offered the novice (a) an introduction to the music and (b) a goodly number of the key tracks. Ace Records UK, bless ’em, had given us several excellent albums but not a label spanning best-of collection. That situation was rectified in 2012 with the release of On Bended Knee: The Birth Of Swamp Music from GVC. I don’t own it due to the level of overlap with existing material I have, but I do strongly recommend it as your starter for one. I would add that the sleeve notes from Roger Dopson are excellent:
8. Clint West’s actual forename(s) tend to vary depending on source. I’ve gone with Maurice but he also appears as Clinton Maurice and Clinton Joseph.
“South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous” by John Broven (1983). The book covers all types of Louisiana roots music not just swamp pop but it does it extremely well. Highly recommended.
Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is available as an ebook and is described by one reviewer as ‘probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across’. “RocknRoll” contains further reflections on Swamp Pop in its 1,000+ pages. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” this year, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX.