Last week I paid tribute to the recently departed New Orleans music giant Allen Toussaint. He was certainly one of the greats to emerge from the Crescent City, but not the only one. Another towering figure in the musical history of the city was Wardell Quezergue, who passed away in 2011.
Quezergue was so highly thought of that he acquired the title of the “Creole Beethoven.” Back in the 1940’s he got his start playing with Dave Bartholomew’s band before leading his own Dukes of Rhythm in the ’50s. During this time he also worked as an arranger for leading lights Fats Domino and Professor Longhair among other.
He created his own label, NOLA Records in 1964. The artist roster at NOLA included Eddie Bo, Willie Tee, and one Robert Parker. Parker had begun his career playing sax, and he can be heard in that role on Professor Longhair’s hit “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” He played with a who’s who of New Orleans musicians including Fats, Irma Thomas, and Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, and in 1958 he released his own record, the instrumental “All Night Long,” which was a local hit.
Parker signed with Quezergue’s nascent NOLA label in 1965, and that same year the label released what would be Parker’s biggest hit, “Barefootin’.” Quezergue himself produced the record, which rose to #2 on the R&B chart, and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. NOLA reported that “Barefootin'” sold over one million copies.
The song also spurred cover versions by Wilson Pickett, Alan Price, Brownsville Station, Pete Townshend, the Boomtown Rats, Rufus Thomas, Johnny Winter, and others.
Parker sought to match his success for a number of years, but never quite got there. His recording career basically ended in the ’70s, but he continued to tour for many years after that, finding a lot of fans in the UK. Parker was elected to the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Quezergue went on to record hits with Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” and King Floyd’s “Groove Me,” both of which had been initially rejected by major labels that found them uncommercial. He was an in-demand arranger, working his magic on Dorothy Moore’s smash hit “Misty Blue,” and creating stage arrangements for a number of Motown acts.
In 1992, Quezergue produced and arranged the classic Dr. John album Goin’ Back to New Orleans, which was a Grammy winner. More awards came his way as a result of his work with Will Porter in 2005. But that was the year of Hurricane Katrina, and Quezergue, who was legally blind by that time, lost pretty much everything. Dr. John did not forget his friend, and led benefit concerts to help Quezergue get back on his feet.
In 2009, Loyola University in New Orleans recognized Quezergue’s selfless dedication to the careers of others and gave him an honorary doctorate degree. That same year, Ponderosa Stomp paid tribute to him in a concert at Lincoln Center that featured Dr. John, the Dixie Cups, Jean Knight, and yes, Robert Parker.
Just before his death in 2011, Quezergue completed what he considered his most important works. One was his classical religious piece, “The Passion.” The other was Will Porter’s second album, which featured a powerful assemblage of the greatest talent New Orleans had to offer. No one would ever have said no to Wardell Quezergue. Many thought of him as their teacher.