New Orleans, Louisiana

Saturday - April 29, 2006

He was there when the beat began in the early days of New Orleans funk, and he's still pounding it out today

By Lynne Jensen

Reminiscing about 1950s New Orleans rhythm and blues triggered a smiling Eddie Bo to do things in the same old way. Vanishing into a private room of his Toledano Street firehouse-turned-recording studio, Bo returned to the piano wearing his signature turban, then ran the keys of the baby grand like a child playing hopscotch.

"You better check your spinach. Olive's in the danger zone," Bo chirped, singing and playing his hit "Check Mr. Popeye."

With or without the turban-wrapped afro that set him apart from other musicians of his day, Bo remains the guru of the New Orleans funk that flowered in the 1960s and '70s. This afternoon, he'll bring that sound to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

A prolific songwriter, his early works were recorded by artists such as Little Richard, who turned "I'm Wise" into "Slippin' and Slidin'," and Etta James, who recorded "My Dearest Darling."

Along with local hits such as "In the Same Old Way," sung by Tommy Ridgley, Bo blended the cultural gumbo that was New Orleans into iconic funk masterpieces such as "Hook and Sling," "Check Your Bucket" and "Pass the Hatchet."

Bo's tunes hint at his age, a number he refuses to reveal because, he says, it would "mess with my pituitary gland."

Funkster indeed.

Jacks of all trades

Born Edwin Bocage and raised in Algiers and in the 9th Ward, Bo's family was like many others in the city's blue-collar neighborhoods, where brick masons and carpenters became musicians by night.

"My uncle Peter was playing with Sidney Bechet," Bo said. "My mother played piano like Professor Longhair and she didn't go to school. They just picked it up."

Money was tight, Bo said, but it "looked like everybody in the city had a piano."

"We'd have piano players come around and they would talk and we'd watch them play," Bo said. "You might have 10 piano players at a supper."

Bo studied piano locally at Grunwald's Music Store and in New York before joining the ranks of New Orleans musicians who played regularly, but for little money, at nightclubs, school gyms and dance halls, including Germania Hall on Bienville Street.

At the end of a gig, in the wee hours of the morning, many gathered to play for one another at the Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street.

"Everybody'd conjure up right there," Bo said. "Me and Edward Frank and (Ellis) Marsalis. Every instrument you could name would be there. You might have 10 trumpets on the stage at one time. They would all come to play. Everybody would share with one another."

Big names from across the country also came to the Dew Drop, Bo said. "I got a chance to meet Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine, just to name a few."

Singers Big Joe Turner and Joe Tex lived at the inn, Bo said. "The Dew Drop was a place to stay, a place to eat and a place to jam. Now what else could you ask for?"

When it came to food, "red beans was the key to everything," Bo said. "Red beans and rice and hot sausage. Oh man. And we would go to Levata's for oysters before we would go to the Dew Drop."

Past and present

Gone are the Dew Drop, Levata's and Bo's own cafe on Banks Street, named for his hit "Check Your Bucket."

In 2003, Bo and his sister, Veronica Randolph, transformed a former doctor's office and salon into a haven for Bo's fans to eat, drink and hear him play, but the Bucket took on hip-high water after Hurri-cane Katrina.

"I've lost interest in it," Bo said on Wednesday, hesitating to enter the cafe, then climbing over top-pled chairs and tables inside the lifeless lounge. "There's no energy here."

Bo is busy repairing hurricane damage to his recording studio, where he lives part time, and his get-away, a secluded house east of Picayune, Miss.

"I'm trying to help myself come beyond Katrina, so I do the work myself," he said. "All of us were masons, bricklayers and carpenters."

Boys as young as 5 "had to go with the elders to their jobs," Bo said. "We had to pass the bricks and we had to fix the mortar and learn how to hold the saw."

Whether making music or mortar, Bo said, "It's all mathematics. Everything is mathematics."

But learning how to make money is harder than calculus for many musicians, Bo said. Some of the most famous R&B musicians of his day put their trust in shady promoters, he said.

"At intermission, we would look for the promoters in some of the states and they would be gone," Bo said.

But experiences are worth more than money, Bo said, and he trusts in a higher power. He believes that New Orleans is a center of a mysterious energy force, a force that drives the city's music.

A creative energy

"You've got to be out of your mind if you can't feel it, because people around the world feel it," Bo said.

"It's hard to play with other musicians when you are away from home," Bo said. "I mean they study; they have the art down to a science. But there's something here you can't explain. I've been trying to figure it out and I can't. And people ask and I tell them as well as I can that there is something here in New Orleans that just flows."

It's that energy that will draw musicians chased away by Hurricane Katrina back to the city, Bo said.

"Wherever you go, you're going to always want to come back to this feeling."

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