Live At The Ponderosa Stomp- 2009
Most of the musicians I’ve been writing about in this blog over the last fifteen months are long gone, dead and in the ground with only a handful of obscure sides and sad story left behind.
But not all of them, and here’s one who is not only still alive, he’s still rocking, playing as well or better than he did when cut his rare and wonderful (and too few) discs. Classie Ballou may not be very well known, but life is strange, so that can change at any moment, and here is where I put in my three cents (inflation) in hopes that he will find the notoriety and cash he deserves, because he may very well be the greatest rocker in the world at this moment in time.
Classie Ballou was born in the tiny country town of Elton, Louisiana in 1937. He folks sharecropped cotton, potatoes, and corn, he was one of two children, although his younger sister passed away at the age of six months, leaving him an only child. Classie learned to play accordion from an uncle, and joined his first band at age nine, playing the rubboard.
He soon picked up the guitar, and in 1952 the family moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana. In Lake Charles he acquired the Fender Telecaster seen in the above photo and hooked up with a drummer named Kee-Dee, and soon the two were appearing in night clubs in Lake Charles, although Classie also had a day job in construction. Technically he was still too young to play in clubs but nobody seemed to notice, and he found regular work plentiful, even putting in a stint with Clifton Chenier’s band for six months. Lake Charles had a rich R&B scene at the time, and young Classie was soon playing with Shelton Dunaway and Ernest Jacobs (later of Cookie & the Cupcakes of Mathilda and I’m Twisted fame), and then formed his first band– Classie Ballou and the Tempo Kings which featured Dunaway on sax and vocals, another sax player known simply as Biscuit, and eventually Cookie Thierry himself joined the group. They played John’s Bar and Ball’s Auditorium, doing covers of tunes by Fats Domino, Guitar Slim and Gatemouth Brown. Soon he was the hottest thing in Lake Charles. Eddie Shuler, owner of the Lake Charles based Goldband label, one of the greatest recording companies of all time with a mind numbing number of great records (blues, R&B, cajun, country, rockabilly) and artists (including a young Dolly Parton), got wind of Classie through Guitar Gable and hired him to play guitar on Boozoo Chavis’ chaotic classic Paper In My Shoe (the recording of which ended with Boozoo falling off his stool, accordion and all), the record that would be the blue print for all zydeco music to come.
Classie cut his first disc for Goldband 1956– Lovin’ Huggin’ Kissin’ My Baby b/w D-I-R-T-Y Deal (Goldband 1037, the a-side was covered on RCA by rockabilly Milton Allen, my copy of that 45 seems to be MIA at the moment, these came from Eddie G).
A year later (’57) he was recorded by Jay Miller (producer of Slim Harpo, Lightnin Slim, Lazy Lester, Al Ferrier, Jimmy Anderson and many others) in the studio in the back of his Crowley, Lousiana record store. This session was sold to Nasco who issued two tunes— Confusion b/w Crazy Mambo (Nasco 6000) the same year (a, faster, alternate take of Crazy Mambo later surfaced on a Flyright CD in the UK, as did this wonderful French rocker Hey Ma Ma). Both tunes are wild guitar dominated instrumentals with pronounced Afro-Cuban feel to them. This coming via the influence of Xavier Cugat, one of Classie’s favorites. In 1958 he recorded one last time for Miller, in a session that included the great Jockey Etienne on drums and Tal Miller on piano, these sides were released on Nasco’s sister label Excello with it’s classic blue and orange label– Hey! Pardner b/w Dream Love (Excello 2134). The a side was another wild instrumental, the flip a swamp pop ballad in the classic south Louisiana mold. These three singles are the entire 50’s output of Classie Ballou, he would not record again under his own name until 1968 when he cut Classie’s Whip b/w Soul Philly (Soulsville 1001) for a tiny, San Antonio based label.
From there Classie headed for Dallas where he went to college and worked for a promoter named Howard Lewis who had him backing up touring artists like Floyd Dixon, Wilbert Harrison, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and whoever else came through town without their own band. He put in some time touring in Rosco Gordon’s band, playing on his Vee Jay hit– Just A Little Bit, that’s Classie playing the classic guitar lick, as well as Gordon’s remake of No More Doggin. The Blues Discography credits Lefty Bates with playing on Just A Little Bit, but Classie says that it’s him, and I believe him.
In the late 50’s Classie Ballou was based out of Little Rock, Arkansas, where he held a three year residency at the Flamingo CLub, playing with the likes of Fenton Robinson, B.B. King, and Wayne Bennett (long time guitarist with Bobby “Blue” Bland and later Ray Charles). He moved to Los Angeles in ’62 where he cut some sides for Token (which I’ve never heard or seen), then settled in Waco, Texas where he’s been playing six or seven nights a week ever since. He made an excellent 45 for Lanor in ’83– All Night Man b/w Jealous Woman (Lanor was one of those strange southern labels that seemed to exist in a time warp). This record sounds like it could have been recorded in the fifties, All Night Man is a hard grinding blues with a shimmering slide guitar solo from Classie, while Jealous Woman is an uptempo rocker with funny lyrics about not wanting to watch Dallas and Dynasty with the old lady. He started his own label–Yeah, Baby in 1994, releasing a bluesy disc called The Real Deal produced by his son Cranston.
Family is extremely important to Classie, who raised his own band, these days, billed as The Classie Ballou Family Band he works with his son Cedric (bass), grandson Cedryl (accordion, drums), and daughter CeChaun (drums, sax, accordion, she also fronts her own all girl Zydeco band– the Zydeco Posse when not working with her father). Although it’s not unusual for them to switch up instruments if someone has to take a piss or get a beverage. His wife mans the merch table. Playing mostly in the greater Waco area they can call up tunes from Brick House to Sweet Home Alabama and give them all Classie’s unique stamp. Of course they play his own classics– Crazy Mambo, D-I-R-T-Y Deal, etc., but can pull nearly any good song from the last half century– Honky Tonk to Jambalaya out of the hat, they’ll stomp it out until the dance floor’s worn through.
When we opened the Circle Bar in New Orlean back in ’99, me and my partner Kelly Keller (the place soon had as many partners as customers) became acquainted with Ira Padnos aka Dr. Ike who was then just laying the ground work for what became the Ponderosa Stomp concert series, now a New Orleans tradition, as well as bringing shows to Austin, Memphis and New York City. One of the first artists Ike brought into the Circle Bar was Classie Ballou. After his first successful weekend stint, Classie became quite fond of Kelly, and would often call to book shows, especially around Mardis Gras and Jazz Fest time. I remember how Kelly would put the phone on speaker when he’d call, and his voice would boom through the office–“KELL-EEEE!
It’s CLASS-EEE!” A nicer gent you’ll never meet, with a larger than life personality both onstage and off. The Ponderosa Stomp has been good for Classie, spreading his name to the four corners of the globe, I hope somehow, someway, something big comes his way. He deserves it and more. He’s as close to a national treasure as exists in American music these days, he deserves some sort of big break, or at least a MacArthur Foundation grant.
Addendum: I forgot on another on of those 80’s Flyright LP’s (now long out of print) of Jay Miller’s un-issued recordings was Classie Ballou’s fantastic rendition of Lucille. So here it is.
This entire series of discs which feature un-issued and alternate takes of Jay Miller’s entire stable, some of it things that were rejected by Excello and Dot (labels he leased his sides to when he wasn’t putting them out on his own labels like Feature and Roscko) can be found over at Uncle Gil’s Rockin’ Archives, link on the right side of this page.