R.I.P. Art Neville of the Neville Brothers

Art Neville ACL 2005

Austin City Limits was saddened to learn of the death of ACL Hall of Famer Art Neville, keyboardist, songwriter, singer and co-founder of funk/soul legends the mighty, mighty Neville Brothers and the Meters, and an ambassador for New Orleans music worldwide, on July 22. He was 81. 

The eldest Neville Brother, Art was born in 1937 in the Big Easy. Though he claimed that the brothers had no radio or records growing up, Art still discovered music, falling under the spell of both the 1950s doo-wop groups like the Orioles and the Drifters and the New Orleans piano greats Professor Longhair and Fats Domino – obvious influences on both his instrument of choice and the R&B harmonies of his brothers’ band. He scored a regional hit early on with the Hawketts, recording “Mardi Gras Mambo” when he was only 16. The song is still a staple of New Orleans Fat Tuesday celebrations. 

Following a stint in the Navy, Art formed Art Neville & the Neville Sounds, becoming the house band for Allen Toussaint’s many productions and eventually evolving into the beloved funk outfit the Meters. With the Meters, Art contributed the classics “Hey Pocky Way” and “Cissy Strut” to the musical lexicon, recorded acclaimed instrumental albums like Rejuvenation (named one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time) and backed artists like the late Dr. John (“Right Place, Wrong Time”), LaBelle (“Lady Marmalade”) and Robert Palmer (Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley). 

Following the expiration of a contractual obligation that prevented them from working together, Art joined forces with his younger brothers Cyril, Aaron and Charles, backing their uncle, Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief George “Jolly” Landry on the landmark 1976 Wild Tchoupitoulas album, and released their self-titled debut as the Neville Brothers in 1978. The siblings recorded frequently and toured relentlessly for over thirty years, issuing classic albums like Fiyo On the Bayou, Yellow Moon and Valence Street and iconic songs “Sitting in Limbo,” “Brother John,” “Yellow Moon,” “Congo Square” and, of course, the immortal N’awlins anthem “Iko Iko.” Art also resurrected the Meters as the Funky Meters, continuing to perform with both groups as his health allowed until he retired from the stage in 2018.  

Called “the captain of the ship” by New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival director Quint Davis, Art Neville made three iconic appearances on ACL with the Neville Brothers, the first Big Easy band to grace the ACL stage: in Season 4 (1979), Season 11 (1986) and Season 20 (1995).  We were proud to honor them with an induction into the ACL Hall of Fame in 2017, featuring tributes from some of New Orleans finest including Trombone Shorty and the late Dr. John.  Here is Art singing the first number in the band’s 1979 ACL debut: the Neville Brothers classic “Sitting in Limbo.” 

Amazing Rhythm Aces’ Russell Smith R.I.P.

amazingRaces02

Austin City Limits was saddened to learn of the July 12 passing of Amazing Rhythm Aces singer Russell Smith of cancer. He was 70. The group appeared on Austin City Limits in our second season in 1977. 

Born in Nashville, the Tennessean started his music career in the state’s other Music City, Memphis and co-founded the eclectic roots rockers Amazing Rhythm Aces in 1972. The band scored two hits from their 1975 debut Stacked Deck: the top 20 pop hit “Third Rate Romance” and the top 10 country hit “Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song).” The Aces won a Grammy in 1976 for ‘The End is Not in Sight,” which took home the award for Best Country Vocal Performance By a Group. The band dissolved in 1980. 

Smith then moved into country music, writing songs for a wide variety of artists. He penned number 1 country hits for Randy Travis (“Look Heart, No Hands”), T. Graham Brown (“Don’t Go to Strangers”), Ricky Van Shelton (“Keep It Between the Lines”) and Don Williams (“Heartbeat in the Darkness”), as well as placing cuts with Tanya Tucker, Rosanne Cash, Kenny Rogers, the Oak Ridge Boys and many others. Smith even scored a hit of his own with 1989’s “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight.” 

Following two albums in the 1990s with the bluegrass novelty band Run C&W (which also included the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon), Smith rejoined the reformed Aces in 1994. The band continued to record and perform up to the present day. He will be missed by the Aces’ loyal fan base. 

Here he is from the Aces’ ACL episode, performing “Third Rate Romance”:

Dr. John R.I.P.

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits was disheartened to learn of the death of the legendary Dr. John of a heart attack on June 6, “at the break of day,” according to a statement released by his family. The Night Tripper was 77. He is survived by his wife, three daughters and sister.

The multi-Grammy winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer was born Malcolm Rebennack on November 20, 1941 in New Orleans. At 13 he met Big Easy piano great Professor Longhair, a lifelong mentor. By the fifties he was one of the city’s first-call session guitarists, recording many sides for legendary producer Cosimo Matassa. He switched primarily to the piano only after having one of his fretting fingers shot in a bar fight in 1960, and became one of the New Orleans greats at the keyboard.

Following a mid-sixties stint in a Texas prison on drug charges, Rebennack moved to Los Angeles, joining a group of fellow New Orleans expatriates led by producer Harold Batiste and eventually ending up in the world-famous Wrecking Crew. A lifelong student of New Orleans voodoo, Rebennack created the character of Dr. John, combining the nascent psychedelia of the period with stories about the Senegalese prince of the same name, a nineteenth century NOLA spiritual and medicinal healer. Originally developed for his friend Ronnie Barron, the identity passed on to its creator when Barron was contractually obligated elsewhere. Dr. John the Night Tripper released his first album Gris-Gris in 1968, putting his own distinctive spin on New Orleans culture and reintroducing the city’s music and iconography to a new audience. He went even further with 1973’s Gumbo, a collection of Big Easy classics like “Iko Iko” performed in a more traditional (or as traditional as the Night Tripper would ever get) style that really brought the music of his hometown back to the masses.

Dr. John spent the rest of his long career alternating between celebrating his city’s jazz, blues and funk heritage and exploring a tripped-out ether all his own. He scored a top 10 hit with the irresistibly funky “Right Place, Wrong Time,” produced by Big Easy icon Allen Toussaint and performed with Neville Brothers precursors the Meters. He put his piano heroes Professor Longhair and James Booker back in the spotlight with 1981’s remarkable solo piano album Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack. He won the first of his six Grammys in 1989 for “Makin’ Whoopee,” a duet with Rickie Lee Jones from his album In a Sentimental Mood, a collection of pre-rock & roll standards. He won a Best Traditional Blues album Grammy for 1992’s Goin’ Back to New Orleans, a rollicking batch of NOLA standards that he brought to the ACL stage in Season 18. He spent the next quarter of a century going back and forth between tributes to his influences (Duke Ellington on 2000’s Duke Elegant, Johnny Mercer on 2006’s Mercernary, NOLA music godfather Louis Armstrong on 2014’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, his final album) and albums that dug back into his Night Tripper roots (1998’s Anutha Zone, 2001’s Creole Moon, 2012’s Locked Down, produced by Dan Auerbach and another Grammy winner).

Here is Dr. John performing “Goin’ Back to New Orleans,” from his 1993 appearance on Austin City Limits.

Austin City Limits #1803: Dr John – “Going Back to New Orleans” from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.

Rebennack became an activist for New Orleans following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, releasing the EP Sippiana Hericane in 2005 to benefit the New Orleans Musician Clinic and 2008’s groovy, scathing City That Care Forgot, another Grammy winner. He appeared in the Band’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz and PBS’s 1995 A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan (recorded in ACL’s Studio 6A), contributed to the soundtrack of Disney’s New Orleans-set cartoon musical The Princess & the Frog (itself based loosely on NOLA activist and chef Leah Chase, who died just a few days before John) and served as the inspiration for Dr. Teeth, leader of the Muppets’ house band the Electric Mayhem. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 and received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University in 2013, becoming, as some wags noted, Dr. Dr. John. He returned to ACL in 2017 to join fellow NOLA all-stars in a salute to Fats Domino during the induction of N.O. legends the Neville Brothers for the ACL Hall of Fame.  That appearance ultimately became his last performance as he retreated from public life shortly after.

An in-demand collaborator, over the years Dr. John performed with everyone from the Rolling Stones to Van Morrison to Spiritualized. He is as much of an icon in New Orleans music as Louis Armstrong, Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. The world is a brighter, stranger, groovier place for having him in it.

“As an entire generation of music icons continues to fade away, Dr. John not only embodied but in many ways personified an entire era of New Orleans musical culture,” comments ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “It took us almost 20 years to get the good Dr. to the ACL stage in 1993, but he was in rare form and obviously enjoyed himself. It was an honor to have our stage be his last public performance in 2017, honoring the great Fats Domino. You can’t help but smile when you think of Dr. John.”

Here’s the conclusion to Dr. John’s ACL episode, with the Night Tripper boogieing off stage left to the funky strains of “Capucine” as he’s boogied out of this mortal coil. He will be greatly missed.   

 

Austin City Limits #1803: Dr John – "Capucine" from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.

Roky Erickson R.I.P.

photo by Scott Newton

We here at Austin City Limits were deeply saddened by the passing of the great Roky Erickson on May 31. He was 71.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Roger Kynard Erickson was the godfather of the Austin music scene. Pre-dating the cosmic country scene of the seventies, his Austin-based group the 13th Floor Elevators – the first band to whom the term “psychedelic” was applied on their 1966 debut The Psychedelic Sounds of – created an explosion heard ‘round the world with “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” an instant rock & roll classic. Originally performed by Erickson’s teenage band the Spades, the song would go on to be a staple in the repertoire of punk, garage rock, metal and psychedelic bands for decades afterward. If he had vanished from the face of the earth following the release of that single, he would still be a legend.

Fortunately for music fans, he didn’t. After three albums with the Elevators – including the psychedelic staple Easter Everywhere – and years of well-documented legal and health troubles (check out the documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me for the full story), Erickson came back strong in the late seventies with a string of singles and gigs, often backed by Austin power trio the Explosives. He enlisted ex-Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook as producer for the overlapping albums Roky Erickson & the Aliens, The Evil One and I Think of Demons. Along with 1986’s harder rocking Don’t Slander Me, the LPs introduced a new batch of classic tracks, from “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer),” “I Think of Demons” and “If You Have Ghosts,” to “Starry Eyes,” “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer” and “Creature With the Atom Brain.” His songs have been covered by Foo Fighters (who recorded “Two Headed Dog” in Studio 6A for ACL’s fortieth anniversary special), ZZ Top, R.E.M., Doug Sahm, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Ghost, the Butthole Surfers and many more. He was the subject of the 1990 tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson, which became the model for the tribute LP deluge of the nineties.

Erickson remained active up to his death, releasing new albums All That May Do My Rhyme in 1995 and True Love Cast Out All Evil in 2010, collaborating with psych rockers the Black Angels and Okkervil River, and gigging regularly with a band led by his son Jegar, most recently at SXSW 2019. His visceral songwriting, slashing rhythm guitar and powerhouse vocals set a standard for psychedelic rock & roll that has been often emulated, but never matched. 

“Before there was a Willie, there was Roky,” notes ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona. “Roky Erickson put Austin on the musical map, and arguably created a music genre – or at least a name – that didn’t exist: psychedelic. To say he was a musical genius would be a gross understatement. What’s even more amazing is that despite his tragic personal history and struggles, he created music that inspired and stood the test of time. It was one of our proudest moments to capture the full glory of Roky Erickson on the ACL stage in 2008. Nothing and nobody else can compare.”

Erickson appeared in full force on Austin City Limits in 2008, backed by his old pals the Explosives, as well as members of the Summer Wardrobe and his fellow Texas psych contemporary Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top/The Moving Sidewalks. Here he is with the opening song: “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” of course. We’ve also included the Foo Fighters’ version of “Two Headed Dog.” We will miss him greatly.

Austin City Limits #3312: Roky Erickson – Youre Gonna Miss Me from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.

 

Leon Redbone RIP

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits mourns the passing of enigmatic and eclectic singer and song stylist Leon Redbone. He was 69, though, in typical Redbone fashion, his death announcement gave his age as 127.

Little is known about Redbone’s background, and he liked it that way. (One story goes that his desire for privacy was so intense that he gave legendary music talent scout John Hammond the phone number to a dial-a-joke service instead of his own.) It was eventually revealed that he was born Dickran Gobalian in Cyprus in 1949, emigrating to Canada in the mid-sixties. He first began performing in Toronto in the early 1970s with an unusual repertoire consisting of pre-World War II – sometimes pre-twentieth century – tunes from the vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, blues and jazz traditions. His distinctive mumble-mouthed growl, superb guitar work, Panama hat, trademark bushy mustache and sunglasses caught the attention of Bob Dylan, who recommended him to Rolling Stone in 1974, garnering the singer a full-length feature in the magazine a year before he released an album. He released his debut On the Track in 1975, featuring beloved Warner Bros. cartoon character and kindred spirit Michigan J. Frog on the cover, the first in a string of albums resurrecting American songs long forgotten in the post World War era. “Leon introduced a whole new generation to some great American classics,” notes ACL producer Jeff Peterson. 

Though he never sold huge amounts of records or singles, Redbone became a familiar voice through commercials for Chevrolet, All laundry detergent, Ken-L dog food and, most memorably, Budweiser beer, singing “This Bud’s for you” while relaxing on a surfboard. He also provided the theme songs to television shows including Mr. Belvedere and Harry and the Hendersons. He was a favorite of Johnny Carson, appearing regularly on The Tonight Show, and was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live twice in the show’s first season. He vaulted back into popular culture after duetting with Zooey Deschanel on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the soundtrack to the now-classic Christmas film Elf, also providing the voice for the character Leon the Snowman. He retired in 2015, after which fan Jack White reissued both his debut album and an LP of early recordings on his Third Man imprint.

“He seemed like a novelty act to some, and he loved to play up the mystique, but when you heard him sing and play, you knew Leon was the real deal,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “When I booked him for ACL during my first year as producer, he was part of a ‘package’ tour with Tom Waits, so we were able to tape that legendary show with Tom on the same night. Among his many other contributions, we can thank Leon Redbone for bringing Tom Waits to the ACL stage!”

Redbone appeared on ACL in 1979 in support of his third album Champagne Charlie. Here he is putting his own distinctive spin on Blind Blake’s “Diddy Wa Diddy.”

Austin City Limits #406: Leon Redbone – “Diddy Wa Diddy” from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.

Leon Rausch R.I.P.

photo by Scott Newton

We here at Austin City Limits are saddened to learn of the death of Western swing legend Leon Rausch.  The Texas Playboys singer passed on May 14 in Fort Worth. He was 91.

Born in Billings, Missouri in 1927, Rausch grew up in the Show-Me State, singing with the family trio. After serving in the armed forces during the Korean War, he and his wife Vonda moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, with Rausch finding work in a glass factory and singing on the weekends with Johnnie Lee Wills, the younger brother of Western swing titan Bob Wills. The elder Wills recruited Rausch to the Texas Playboys in 1958 for a partnership that lasted until 1963, when Rausch left to form his own band.

The singer reunited with Wills for the latter’s final album, 1973’s For the Last Time. After Wills passed in 1975, leadership of the Playboys passed on to Rausch and steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe. Rausch continued to be the voice of Western swing, with and without the Playboys, until his death. He will be greatly missed.

“Leon was not only the voice of The Texas Playboys in their final days, he pretty much personified what made their music so much fun to listen – and dance – to,” remarked ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “Western Swing has lost a real champion.”

Rausch appeared on Austin City Limits four times, including the debut episode of ACL’s first season, and most recently with Asleep At the Wheel in Season 41. Below are a pair of clips from those appearances: “San Antonio Rose,” the first song from the Playboys’ first appearance on the show in 1976, and “Milk Cow Blues,” in collaboration with the Wheel in 2015.  

Austin City Limits #101: Texas Playboys – San Antonio Rose from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.

Austin City Limits #4102: Asleep at the Wheel With Leon Rausch – Milk Cow Blues from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.

Raymond D. “Son Geezinslaw” Smith 1942-2019

Son Geezinslaw, right; photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits was disheartened to learn of the death this weekend of Raymond D. Smith, AKA Son Geezinslaw of ACL three-timers the Geezinslaw Brothers, nearly a year after the passing of his partner-in-crime Sammy Allred. He was 77.

The Geezinslaws were one of Austin’s first breakout acts, with a career going back to the fifties and stints on the Louisiana Hayride with Elvis Presley. The pair released twelve albums over the course of forty-plus years, starting in 1963 with The Kooky World of the Geezinslaw Brothers and concluding with 2005’s Eclectic Horseman. The duo scored with cuts like “Five Dollar Fine,” “I Wish I Had a Job to Shove,” “Help I’m White and I Can’t Get Down” and unique takes on classic tunes like the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit” and Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Besides ACL, the band appeared on The Tonight Show, The Smothers Brothers Show and The Roger Miller Show. “As a boy. Son would walk down the streets of old south Austin to guitar lessons,” noted his obituary in the Austin-American Statesman. “As a man, he played before presidents, across the screens of America’s televisions, and with some of the greatest legends of Country and Western Music.”

Unlike Allred, whose radio career continued apace after the final Geezinslaws record, Smith stayed out of the spotlight once the band had run its course. “Son was easily characterized by his thorny exterior,” says the Statesman. “Perhaps we would call him the perpetual diamond in the rough, but after being preceded in death by his wife and daughter, those that really knew him could see that bashful self that had been singing us truths for the past sixty some odd years.”

“Son had the voice, Sammy brought the schtick,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “But seriously, Son was a great country singer, and combined with Sammy’s offbeat comedy, there’s been nobody quite like them ever since. In their own way, they were ‘keeping Austin weird’ even before there was such a thing.”

The Geezinslaws performed on ACL in 1982, 1986 and 1989. Below is a clip of the duo putting their own spin on My Fair Lady’s “On the Street Where You Live,” preceded by Allred paying tribute to his poker-faced compadre in his own unique way.

R.I.P. Whitey Shafer

Whitey Shafer on ACL 10

Austin City Limits was saddened to learn of the death of C&W songwriter Whitey Shafer on Jan. 12 after a long illness. He was 84.

Sanger D. “Whitey” Shafer was born in Whitney, Texas, where he first played in school bands. After touring the country with a then-unknown Willie Nelson, he moved to Nashville in 1967 intending to make it as a singer. However, it was his songs that caught the country music establishment’s ear, and before long he was scoring hits with George Jones (“Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong”), Moe Bandy (“Bandy the Rodeo Clown”), Keith Whitley (“I Wonder Do You Think of Me”) and Johnny Rodriguez and Merle Haggard (“That’s the Way Love Goes,” co-written with Shafer’s pal Lefty Frizzell). He also wrote two of George Strait’s iconic hits: “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” both number ones and both nominated for CMA “Song of the Year” awards.

In recent years Shafer continued writing for contemporary country stars like Lee Ann Womack, John Michael Montgomery and Kenny Chesney. In 2004, Shafer earned a different kind of hit, as his own recording of “All My Ex’s” appeared on the soundtrack of the hit video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Few country songwriters of his generation can claim that, and it’s one of many reasons we’ll not see his like again.

Shafer appeared on ACL in 1980 and 1981 as part of a two-part Songwriters Special, and again in 1985 under his own name. Here he is in 1985, singing “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind.”