Legendary New Orleans guitarist Irving Banister passed away on December 15, 2020. The heartfelt tribute below was written back in 2008 by his friend (and sometimes All-Star) Bret Littlehales, and is presented here on The Cosimo Code for the first time.
It's Saturday afternoon in the Quarter, about 3:45 PM. A non- descript blue Honda pulls onto the sidewalk in front of Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffet's tourist- filled monument to Tequila- induced oblivion. An improbable number of definitely non- tourist types tumble from the car, hauling amps, guitars and drums onto the sidewalk.
The driver, a small, spry, African-American man of indeterminate age wearing a black Stetson hat, a black 'Little Walter' T- shirt and a flowing white shirt over the T, urges the procession into the club, then grabs a guitar case and a Peavey amplifier from the trunk of his car. He leaves the vehicle on the curb, lights blinking, and strides into the club, plunks down his amp and case and then rejoins the car to begin his search for the elusive legal French Quarter parking space.
Irving Banister ("That's Banister with one 'n'," says Irving, "like the runner,") and the Irving Banister All Stars have arrived.
Irving Banister: the Catman, the Honeyboy, Heizman the Pipesman, the Singing Chinaman (!), Little Irving, or just Mr. Banister. A man of many names. A reluctant legend. Last of the Dew Drop Inn guitar players, compatriot of virtually every classic New Orleans Rhythm and Blues musician from the early fifties onward. The man who played those incredible licks on Danny White's "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye".
Still playing weekly at Magaritaville, every Saturday and Sunday night. If you want to hear real musicians playing real Rhythm and Blues, right now this is about the only gig in town. Everyone on stage is some sort of throwback to some other era of music: Lloyd Gaines, the working class drummer with the quizzical smile, Reginald Dickson, the bemused bass player who doesn't like to drink before ten PM ("because I'm trying to keep it under control"), the sartorial Charles Otis, Johnny Adams' heir to the perfect falsetto, whose pants legs are embroidered with treble clefs. Other cats sometimes sit in. Jimmy Carpenter from the Walter 'Wolfman' Washington Band. Ready Teddy, who likes to sing standing on his head, perched on a highback chair.
Irving presides over this only-in-New Orleans bunch like a semi-benign ringmaster, in turns tolerant, then impatient. Setting the groove, cueing in Charles who is momentarily distracted by a tableful of blondes on a bachelorette outing: an everyday pre-Tina Ike Turner, playing for tips at Jimmy Buffets' house of booze...
"Irving Banister is a treasure," says Allen Toussaint.
"I was in Little Richard's band with Jimi Hendrix," says drum genius Smokey Johnson. "He reminded me of Irving, but he didn't have as many notes. 'You gotta hear this guy in New Orleans,' I'd tell him. You could learn a lot."
"He was so tough, says Chuck Badie, the bass player on Sam Cooke's You Send Me, and AFO veteran. "You didn't mess with him. He didn't take anything from anyone."
"Well," says Irving, "I guess I was pretty tough back then. But you had to be, bro... people'd take advantage of you otherwise. Don't have to do that now."
Now that he's 75 years old, he doesn't have to be so tough. Born 16 February, 1933, he still plays his Telecaster, Edna, everyday, still has his health, still works as much as he can, cutting sessions with Ready Teddy, or playing the Pondersosa Stomp with Eddie Bo, and the occasional gigs at Guitar Joe's House of Blues or the jams at the Maple Leaf with 100 Runners, his son Honey's Mardi Gras Indian group.
Irving Banister was born in the Uptown section of New Orleans, and he still lives in the same house where he grew up. When he was still in high school, he joined the school band and learned to play trumpet. The band was highly competitive, and won several city and statewide competitions.
During his senior year at Booker T. Washington High School, Irving and some friends decided to start an R&B band. James 'Sugar Boy' Crawford, vocals and piano, the Myles Brothers, Edgar 'Big Boy' on trombone and Warren on piano and vocals, Eric 'Skee-za' Warner on drums, Alfred Woodard, trumpet, Nolen Blackwell, alto sax, Alfred Bernard, tenor sax, and David Lastie, tenor sax, practiced at Eric's house. James played piano and sang, and Irving, who by this time had stopped playing trumpet because of a blow to his mouth, became the default guitar player. Unfortunately he didn't know how to play guitar.
"I only knew bass lines," he says. "Our songs were all in Bb, so I tuned to Bb. I'd play the bass lines behind the band, 'cause that's what was going on then. First time I played behind a woman who wanted to sing in F, I said, 'Uh oh!' But I made it through."
Eric, the drummer, whose father and older brother were active in the Mardi Gras Indian movement, began incorporating the second line drum rhythms into his own playing. Although only fourteen, his drumming had a profound effect on the sound of the band.
"Seemed like, before Eric, they were all playing this swing kind of sound. Dave (Bartholomew) and Earl (Palmer) and them, played like big band. That was how it was going back then. Eric played the second line beat, because he was raised by the [Mardi- Gras] Indians," says Irving.
Armed with Sugar Boy's charisma and Eric's rhythm, the band approached Vernon 'Dr. Daddy-O' Winslow, a well-known DJ at the time. Dr. Daddy-O named them the Chapaka Shawees because it sounded Indian, and gave them a Sunday morning slot on his station. Every Sunday the kids ("youngest band ever to join the musician's union") played for a mystery audience that turned out to include uber- bandleader Dave Bartholomew and his drummer Earl Palmer. Finally Dr. Daddy-O told them to stop playing their originals, because other bands were copying them from the radio.
On November 23, 1952, the group recorded four songs at Cosimo Matassa's N. Rampart Street studio under Bartholomew's aegis that were released on the Aladdin label, You Made Me Love You, Early Sunday Morning, No One to Love Me, and Feeling Sad. Just as "No One to Love Me" began to sell, Irving was drafted. "I weighed 126 pounds then. One less pound and they wouldn't of taken me. Of course, I didn't know that or I would have starved myself going in," laughs Irving.
Instead of Korea, he ended up stationed in El Paso, Texas. He learned to cook for literally hundreds of men.
"When I was growing up, Mother made the food and left the pots on the stove, so I had to learn to cook if I wanted to eat. When I got to the Army, I said I could cook and that was a very good deal, because the cook had every other weekend off, so I could gig. That's when I became the chef."
A fellow soldier ("I think he was a Mexican", says Irving) taught him to correctly tune the guitar, along with a few chords. He had plenty of time to cook and re-learn the guitar. While he was in the army, Sugar Boy Crawford and the Cane Cutters (as the band was now known) released Jock-A-Mo, Sugar Boy's re-interpretation of a Mardi Gras Indian chant sung frequently around their neighborhood. It was a massive hit on the local charts, but Irving Banister was still in the Army. Ferd 'Snooks' Eaglin played guitar on the record.
Once Irving decided he had learned enough guitar, he began playing gigs in the El Paso area, often just avoiding being AWOL. He called his band 'Honey Boy and the Drifters'. "If Sugar Boy could be Sugar Boy, why couldn't I be Honey Boy?"
One night he saw fellow New Orleanians Lloyd Price and Smiley Lewis perform. "It made me homesick," he says. Shortly after B. B. King's band came through with Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton. Johnny Ace was in the band, playing an electric bass. "It was the first I'd ever seen. Johnny Ace was a piano player, but he said he could make extra money playing bass, so he picked it up. Right after that I heard he was killed." Ace allegedly committed suicide while playing Russian Roulette backstage at a Texas show, one of the most unforgettable career moves in Rock and Roll history.
Upon his honorable discharge, Irving stayed in Dallas for a week, playing in clubs and then got an offer to go to Fort Worth.
"There were lots of gigs, where it would be just guitar and drums. They love blues guitar in Texas and I was real hot. Played everywhere and made a lot of money. Guitar was cool in New Orleans but it was hot in Texas. I'd left the one gig and got another for more money just like that."
Texas guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown influenced his playing. He also listened to Johnny Otis' guitarist, Pete 'Guitar' Lewis, and session man Mickey Baker. He developed his rapid-fire, single-notes-between-the-chords style in El Paso.
Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, the Cane Cutters had signed with Chess Records and were cutting at Cosimo Matassa's newer studio on Governor Nicholls Street. Snooks left the group, so Irving rejoined the band upon his return to New Orleans. He was now a seasoned veteran of 22, in more ways than one.
He split his time working in the carpentry and remodeling business with his father. He also found time to marry LitDell Schneider, his high school sweetheart.
Sometime in there he began playing with Eddie Bo.
Eddie Bo (born September 20, 1930 as Edwin Bocage) comes from one of New Orleans' great musical families. Also a graduate of Irving's Alma Mater, Booker T. Washington High, and the Army, Bo, like many post-Korean War veterans, studied music at the venerated Grunewald's School of music under the GI Bill. He has been recording, songwriting and producing regularly since the early 1950's, sometimes under other names, and is credited with some of the most influential recordings to come out of New Orleans, including Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'" (originally titled I'm Wise by Eddie, featuring Irving on guitar), "Check Mr. Popeye", and the funk tour de force "Hook and Sling".
Irving joined Eddie Bo in 1955, and for the next few years they toured the U.S., backing up different R&B stars, including Little Willie John, Ruth Brown, Smiley Lewis, Amos Milburn and Charles Brown, among others.
In 1956 Bo cut I Cry Oh and Hey Bo for the obscure Apollo label. Irving's guitar stands out- his style is now fully matured and in place, especially on "Hey Bo", a blazing instrumental featuring a beautifully composed guitar break that, according to Irving, became the model for the Champ's hit, "Tequila". "I Cry Oh" features Irving's trademark rhythm guitar style, which he based on the piano comping he had heard in earlier R&B records - a kind of flat-tire or 'Texas Beat' style that propels the song forward like a marching platoon.
On the way to a gig with Ruth Brown at the Apollo in New York City, their car broke down in the Holland Tunnel and the band missed the gig. Ruth Brown fired them the next day as Irving sat in a courtroom in Manhattan, trying to explain why he was driving Edwin Bocage's car and using Edwin Bocage's license. "I couldn't remember that Eddie Bo's name was Bocage. 'Mr. Bocage,' they kept saying, and I kept looking around to see who Mr. Bocage was," laughs Irving.
Most of the gigs went smoothly though, and Irving stayed on the road with Eddie for the better part of three years. He also developed his showman-like style of playing behind his head and legs, which still kills 'em at Margaritaville to this day. One night in Florida, they saw a guitarist hang from the rafters, something Irving had watched Guitar Slim do back in New Orleans. "He was hanging but he was just chording in E Natural. So I figured I'd play behind my back and play a whole lead that way." A trademark was born.
"Do you have to do that all the time?" asked Eddie Bo once, at a Rock 'n' Bowl gig, years later. "Yeah, I do," replied Irving
"Irving used to stay up late, practicing in the mirror," says Ladelle Banister, "That's when he developed that behind-the-back style."
"That's bullshit," says Irving. "I never did that."
"We stayed out until Amos (Milburn) and them cooled down. Amos cooled down fast. One day he was the biggest thing around and then he was done. No more gigs. We all went home."
Irving rejoined the Cane Cutters in 1960 or thereabouts, but hated to go on the road with them. He tried to play only the local gigs, and established himself as a solo act at a club on Chef Menteur on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
In 1963, while heading to a gig in Northern Louisiana, Sugar Boy Crawford was dragged from his car by a white State Trooper and severely beaten. Irving says the police thought the band's female singers, the Sugarlumps, were white. They weren't.
Sugar Boy went into a coma and, although he regained consciousness several days later, he was unable to play and sing as he had done before. "His hand shook and he had trouble talking," remembers Smokey Johnson, the band's drummer. Sugar Boy stayed in the hospital for a long, long time.
The Cane Cutters began getting club dates from the Marcello Brothers, Carlos and Pete, alleged Mafiosi, and club owners out on the Chef Menteur Highway. It was through 'One Eye' Pete Marcello, in 1959, that Irving came to the attention of Danny White (1931-1996), a talented singer and front man who played the Golden Cadillac on Poland Avenue and the Dew Drop Inn, a legendary black Uptown club owned by a man named Frank Painia.
Danny White needed a guitar player and Irving Banister needed a singer. They stayed together for more than eight years
"Of all the people I ever played with? I guess Danny was the best. We was burning it up, man. Every night, burning it up."
"Danny White and the Cavaliers were the hottest band in town," says Allen Toussaint, matter-of-factly.
They tore it up at the Dew Drop, where the M.C. was a convincing female impersonator named Patsy Valdalia, the 'Toast of New Orleans'. (Evidently, a popular Madam named Norma Wallace called her customers valdalias after the tomato, and that meaning caught on throughout the city.)
They tore it up at the Sho Bar on Bourbon, where the band didn't even go on until 2AM, and lines stretched out the door.
They tore it up at the Dream Room on Canal Street, where Sam Butera of the Louis Prima Band soaked up Danny's moves, and they tore it up at various fraternities throughout the south "...where a lot of black bands couldn't go," according to Danny.
They tore it up at the Safari on Chef Menteur, where they came to the attention of Connie LaRocca, an enterprising record label owner.
Connie had come from San Francisco and married Pete LaRocca, the nephew of controversial trumpeter Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The LaRoccas owned Jim's Fried Chicken restaurant on Carrolton Avenue. Mrs. LaRocca was looking for a diversion from the batter.
So Danny White and the Cavaliers signed with Frisco Records.
In September of 1962, the band went to Cosimo Matassa's studio on Governor Nicholls, and cut an Allen Toussaint song, The Little Bitty Things and a song by local songwriter Al Reed called Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. The sessions were produced by Wardell Quezergue and the personnel was Curtis Mitchell on bass, Ernest Hollins on tenor, Henry 'Hawk' Hawkins and Franklin Ryland on trumpets, Joe Fox on drums, Leonard Truillet on piano and Irving Banister on guitar. Querzergue sweetened the group with additional musicians, along with high school girls the Rouzan Sisters, later to have records of their own.
Initially, it looked like Toussaint's song would be the breakout hit the band sought, but it turned out that "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" was the one that put Danny White and the Cavaliers (his cigarette brand) on the map.
And no wonder - it's one of those perfect records, a tight little miracle of music. From Curtis Mitchell's opening horn arrangements to Irvings stinging note clusters, to Danny's sparse, on-key, tersely phrased ("our wedding... day") vocal, to the Rouzan Sisters' church-like background harmonies.
"Al Reed wrote it uptempo. I said, 'If I was going to record it, I'd slow it down.' Connie said, 'Well, why don't you cut it that way?'", said Danny.
"Al Reed taught it to Danny. He read the lyrics from a sheet in the studio. Took him awhile to get it," remembers Irving.
In many ways, Danny's time would be the highlight of Irving Banister's long career. Everything he had done musically up to that time had finally come together in the Cavaliers: the Texas-style note picking, the behind-the-back playing and all the endless nights of touring, not to mention his tenure(s) as a bandleader.
"He was so serious," said Bob French, the drummer who replaced Eric Warner in Sugar Boy's band. "We'd be sitting around at a table, fighting or drinking or something and he'd come by and look at us. 'You all get back to work and stop fucking around.' I was amazed he was so focused and so young."
It was also a time of women, and lots of them. Without going into deep and potentially embarassing detail, it's the time when Irving acquired the name 'Heizman the Pipesman'. Smokey Johnson still calls Irving 'Heizman'.
The Cavaliers stayed together until 1968, when gigs dried up and clubs closed down. As more than one R&B musician has pointed out, the British invasion tore through the music scene like Harry James blew through that Kleenex on TV. Danny eventually left New Orleans ("They put him on a bus", says Irving mysteriously. Why? "Women," says Irving.) He died in 1996 in Washington DC, which would ironically briefly become Irving's home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Irving redoubled his carpentry efforts, and with his father acquired several contracts managing and maintaining different rental properties. He also rejoined Sugar Boy, who was somewhat recovered, but very discouraged.
"He promised his mother that if he ever played or sang again, it would be in church. I think he can play good now, but he only sings in church," says Irving. "He's a key man now." A what? "A key man, you know, a locksmith." Oh.
One by one the latter-day Cane Cutters left, despite Irving's efforts to keep the group together. That's when he formed the All-Stars, a group made of friends from other bands coming together to play available gigs. The All-Stars continue today, albeit with different personnel.
The All-Stars played clubs like the 808, and the Triple Crown, which Irving called the Triple Threat, because someone was always getting knifed or shot. George Porter, Jr. played bass in the All-Stars around this time, and Smokey Johnson played drums. George left to play across the street at a club called La Ray's on Dryades with Art Neville, located in a bowling alley. "George asked me was it okay, and I let him go. We were playing in a club that his future mother-in-law owned. This place with RT was supposed to be classier, you dig?" This group, the Neville Sounds, became the Meters. Smokey joined Fats Dominos' band where he stayed for the next 20 years.
By now, Irving's path was pretty much set: no touring, per se, unless the money was ironclad, mostly local gigs. Sideman work with Eddie Bo and others, including his friends Poppie and David Lastie, the steady All-Star gigs, the carpentry work, in which he still takes great pride, gambling joints and the occasional festival or high school prom. In short, anywhere the money was good and there was music to be played.
He turned down his friend Smokey Johnson's offer to join the Fats Domino band after Roy Montrell overdosed in Amsterdam, because he didn't want to be stuck playing bass lines on the guitar all night. "You come off the road from a gig like that, and your head is fried. First Papoose dies, [Walter 'Papoose' Nelson, Fats's first guitarist, overdosed in Harlem in the '60s; obviously Dutch-named cities are anathema to Fats Domino guitar players] then Roy - it's a tough gig."
He has traveled around the world with Eddie Bo: Europe, Asia and some Arab countries. He remains fascinated with these other cultures, but always stays true to his home in New Orleans.
Since the mid-90's, the All-Stars have been in residence at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, a gig that survived the hurricane. The management there held open Irving's slot until he came home.
After the Katrina evacuation, Irving and his 2nd wife Edna were shipped off to Washington DC. "They didn't ask us or nothing, just flew us to DC, gave us ration food and T-shirts." He left his family home on Gen. Taylor behind, but scrubbed it with bleach before he left. A boat picked him in front of the house up and took him and Edna to the evacuation grounds by the Convention Center. Irving was 72 at the time.
His niece and her husband took the Banisters in and gave them a basement apartment in their suburban Maryland house. The first thing Irving did was to repaint the couple's trim on the front of their house. "Had to do something," he chuckles.
The second was to find some music. Here, I have to mention, is where I come in, despite my best efforts as the anonymous narrator. Irving went to a local music store and inquired about jams or gigs he could attend. They gave him the name of a club owner whom Irving called and the club owner, Mark Gretchell, gave him my name and the name of the guitarist in our band, the Big Boy Little Blues Band, Rusty Bogart. Irving called Rusty, then Rusty called me.
"You know who just called me?" Rusty asked. "Irving Banister."
"'Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye' Irving Banister?" I asked. I was literally floored. I sat down.
"Yeah. He's living in your neighborhood. Call him and see if he wants to join the band."
He did want to join the band, and played with us for about a year and a half, until the day before he left to return to New Orleans. We bought a new amp and a new Telecaster for him with money from the Musician's Fund. In the process he became my very good friend. When I come to New Orleans, nowadays, I'm an Irving Banister All-Star.
Irving is back at Margaritaville, and you know what? - he'll be there this Saturday and Sunday. He's currently refurbishing a house for Edna's family. He played the Ponderosa Stomp with Eddie Bo around Jazz Fest time in April, and, as he put it, "tore it up."
He turned 75 last February, but you couldn't tell by looking at him.
The city of New Orleans gave him a plaque in 2007, and he's now in the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. "Now I got a plaque for my music, I should get a plaque for my other talents."
What would those be?
"You know - cooking, and the other thing I'm good at."
"You know," says the Pipesman with an actual twinkle in his eye.© Breton Littlehales 2008/2021