Bobby Marchan

Bobby Marchan before.

Bobby Marchan after.

Bobby Marchan answering the musical question, where ya goin’ fat bitch?
Bobby Marchan, and a face full of make up early 50’s.
Onstage at the Tijuana Club, New Orleans, early 50’s.
Although forever equated with classic New Orleans rock’n’roll as lead singer for Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns, Bobby Marchan, (Oscar James Gibson, born April 30, 1930) was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio (today, best known as the home of Truckworld, the world’s largest truckstop).
As a teen he began hitting the local drag shows (Youngstown had drag shows in the 40’s? Indeed it did), and soon young Bobby began “dressing up” and performing in full drag. Influenced by another highly effeminate, Ohio born, rhythm and blues star of the era– Larry Darnell, now renamed Bobby Marchan, our hero, also started singing. By 1953 Marchan had formed a group of six female impersonators he dubbed the Powder Box Revue and hit the road. The drag tradition in blues and rhythm and blues is an old and grand one, which culminated in the rise of Little Richard, a subject I touched on partially in my posting on Billy Wright last year, if you care for more background on the subject. Marchan found his most receptive audience in New Orleans, a town where the best sepia room– the Dew Drop Inn had a full time female impersonator Patsy Valdalia as its emcee, and was host to such drag performers as pre-Specialty Little Richard (who also balanced a chair on his chin while he sang), Esquerita, and many others. Dr. John in his wonderful autobiography Under The Hoodoo Moon (St. Martins Press, 1994) remembered meeting a drag queen named Loberta, a few days later he met Bobby Marchan, he had no idea they were one and the same. Although Marchan occasionally worked the Dew Drop, his main outlet was around the corner at the Club Tijuana, an important R&B venue where Guitar Slim, Earl King, and Marchan’s soon to be partner in sound Huey “Piano” Smith all began their careers.
Bobby Marchan began his recording career in the fall of ’53 when Aladdin Records recorded him in New Orleans, issuing a single– Have Mercy b/w Just A Little Walk in early 1954.
The disc was a typical R&B disc of the time, very much in the ballad style of Larry Darnell and it did nothing. Two songs from the session remain unissued until this day. Later that same year, Marchan recorded his second single for Dot in Nashville– You Made A Fool Of Me b/w Just A Little Wine, basically another Larry Darnell impersonation, it didn’t sell, nor did it hint at what was soon to come as Marchan found his own voice and style in the coming years.
Performing in drag at the Tijuana, he fell in with Huey “Piano” Smith, who after an apprenticeship with Guitar Slim, and some touring with Earl King and Shirley & Lee, was working for Johnny Vincent who had been fired from his A&R post at Specialty Records and was just launching his own Ace label, based out of Jackson, Mississippi, but using mostly talent from New Orleans. Marchan’s first record for Ace, with Smith on the piano with Lee Allen (tenor sax), Edgar Blanchard (guitar) and Charles “Hungry” Williams (drums) was issued under the name of Bobby Fields (probably because he was still under contract to Dot at the time)– Helping Hand b/w Pity Poor Me. Again, this disc only hint at the glories to come. But he was getting closer.
Meanwhile in 1956, Huey “Piano” Smith, with the vocal group The Clowns had cut two excellent singles for Ace before Marchan joined as lead singer– Everybody Whalin’ b/w Little Liza Jane followed up in early 1957 with Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu pts 1 and 2. In 1957 Marchan cut another solo disc for Ace, with Smith and his band in support– Little Chickie Wah Wah b/w Don’t Take Your Love From Me, the same  year he joined the group full time.
As a member of Huey Smith & the Clowns , he  re-organized the vocal group–  the Clowns, with himself as one of the lead singers, he added Geri Hall (an out of the closet bull dyke who often bragged that she was the most masculine member of the group), John “Scarface” Williams, bass singer Billy Roosevelt and Eugene Francis, who couldn’t sing much but with his dyed green hair, added much stage presence. Bobby Marchan’s first record as a member of Clowns was I’m Just A Lonely Clown b/w Free Single and Disengaged, a good harmony number, with Huey Smith’s rolling piano, they were now closing in on their unique sound.
It  would be their next disc– High Blood Pressure b/w Don’t You Just Know It that the sound of Huey Piano Smith & the Clowns would finally come together. It was and is one of the most unique and recognizable sounding discs in rockn’roll history, as well as being their best two sider, it would become their biggest hit. What can I say? Just listen to it. The a-side is more of a gang chant than a group harmony sound, on the flip, with it’s nonsensical lyrics, The Clowns sound like the Little Rascals if they’d grown into teenagers and just huffed some glue– “A Ha Ha Ha Ha/dooba dooba dooba dooba/hey-ayo”! It was all set over Huey Smith’s rollicking, Professor Longhair influenced piano and Hungry Williams funky, second line drum beat, and sported a growling tenor sax solo from Lee Allen. It simply has never been topped. High Blood Pressure rose to #9 on the pop charts and the group hit the road. Huey Smith himself soon tired of touring and went back to New Orleans to work in the studio and eat beans and rice, a young James Booker was sent out as his replacement, the audience non the wiser. Meanwhile, Bobby Marchan had become the de facto leader of the group, on and off stage.  Although Marchan didn’t perform in drag with the Clowns, they were sharp dressers (“One night we went out in matching plaid suits with Bermuda shorts, the crowd went wild when they saw those outfits”), and Marchan rehearsed the group on the dances and comedy skits that accompanied the tunes.
Huey Smith and the Clowns attempted to follow up their hit with two excellent discs– Havin’ A Good Time b/w We Like Birdland in early ’58 followed soon by Don’t You Know Yokomo b/w Well I’ll Be John Brown. Both fine records, and good sellers around New Orleans, but neither made the national charts.  The first Clowns record to give Bobby Marchan top billing was You Can’t Stop Her b/w Rockin’ Behind The Iron Curtain, (these are alternate takes, as good as the issued versions). One of the groups toughest rockers– You Can’t Stop Her,  graced the a-side, while the flip exploited the ridiculousness of cold war politics in typical Clown fashion.  It was a decent size local hit, but again, it failed to chart nationally.
The record that should have sealed their fate as national stars however was hijacked out from under their noses by their own record company.  Everyone who heard Sea Cruise knew it would be a smash, however, Ace’s owner Johnny Vincent, in the wake of Elvis Presley’s unprecedented success decided that if he gave the tune to a white boy, he simply couldn’t miss.
He didn’t. The original master take, with Marchan and the Clowns harmony lead vocal was shelved and a local white kid named Frankie Ford, who sounded a lot like Marchan, was brought in to overdub his voice on to the master. It was one of the biggest hits of 1958 and Ford, who I like a lot, has been able to make a comfortable living off of the tune ever since. The same trick was used on the flipside– Loberta (Bobby’s drag name) on which Ford’s voice was also dubbed, with the name changed to Roberta. It was a decent size hit on it’s own. It sported one of early rock’n’roll’s best lines– “I pawned my pistol/I pawned my watch and chain/I’d of pawned Roberta but Roberta can’t sign her name”.  Huey Smith & the Clowns next disc was the below par Would You Believe I Have A Cold b/w Genevieve, they followed it up with the doo wop ballad Dearest Darling b/w Tub-Ur-Cu-Lucas and the Sinus Flu.  Ace issued Huey Smith and the Clowns first LP– Having A Good Time, which sported a photo of only Huey Smith on the cover, a move that stuck in Bobby Marchan’s craw. After all, it was him onstage, touring his ass off, holding the group together, and singing lead on nearly all their tunes. Also, from here Huey Smith & the Clowns singles would take a noticeable dip in quality, as Smith spent more and more time working with Ford and other acts, novelty and dance craze tunes like Beatnik Blues and Pop-Eye became the order of the day, although their were two more shining moments, the first issued under Marchan’s name was Hush Your Mouth b/w Quit My Job, issued in 1960 it would be the last disc issued on Ace under Bobby’s own name.  The other, issued in ’61, but I’ll bet was recorded much earlier was She Got Lowdown b/w Mean Mean Mean, the a-side being a tough, second line rocker of the highest caliber.  For all his hard work leading and touring with Huey “Piano” Smith & The Clowns, Bobby Marchan felt that he was getting little name recognition out of the deal. Both LP’s and the EP issued by Ace featured only photos of Huey, and when Marchan approached Johnny Vincent about recording his rendition of There Is Something On Your Mind, Vincent vetoed the idea, since Big Jay McNeeley’s version with Little Sonny on vocals was already something of a hit on the Swingin’ label.  Marchan began recording for Bobby Robinson (who had been in and out of New Orleans recording hits with Lee Dorsey), first releasing  Snoopin’ and Accusin’ b/w This Is The Life on Fire in early ’59,  a sort of cross between the Clowns and the Coasters styles, then the aforementioned There Is Something On Your Mind pts. 1 and pt 2, which he waxed in Chicago and leased to both Fire and Chess despite still being under contract to Johnny Vincent.  When There Is Something On Your Mind hit the charts in 1960 the lawyers went to work. Chess never released their version, and Bobby Robinson bought off Johnny Vincent for a reported $12,500. The record stayed in the charts for eleven weeks, peaking at #1 R&B (#31 Pop) on Billboard’s charts. With There Is Something On Your Mind, Bobby Marchan would leave the Clowns style behind, the disc is a throwback to his drag days, an over the top bluesy ballad with a campy, spoken word breakdown in the middle (on the 45, the spoken part starts off Pt. 2, which would be the hit side that was played on radio). Bobby Marchan would record for Robinson’s Fire label for the next two years including, recording an excellent proto-soul dance number The Bootie Green b/w It Hurts Me To My Heart with Allen Tousaint in support, and finish up his relationship with Bobby Robinson with a version of Guitar Slim’s The Things I Used To Do pt. 1 and pt. 2, done in the same histrionic style of There Is Something On Your Mind, it would be released on the Sphere Sound label, Fire having gone into receivership earlier that year. Excellent though it was, Robinson was in poor financial shape and had no money to promote the disc, and soon Marchan had moved on. He would record two for excellent singles for Stax in ’64 — What Can I Do  and You Won’t Do Right, one for Cameo (Shake Your Tambourine, a soul shaker and a minor hit in ’66), and then Dial where he cut several singles including the stomping  Get Down and Get With It which would be covered by Little Richard and later Slade (the writer’s royalties he made off the Slade hit would be the most money he’d ever earned off one of his records).  He toured heavily in the 60’s, working with everyone from Otis Redding to James Brown, but by the early 70’s demand had fallen off and he went back to working drag shows, becoming the regular emcee at Club Alhambra in New Orleans, then hosting a live, riotous version of the Gong Show at the Club 2400, appearing in a blond wig and tight, sequined cocktail dress. He kept his hand in the music biz, and in a way that has never been made quite clear was one of the original founders of the Cash Money label, the New Orleans hip hop (or as they call it down there, bounce) label that produced stars like Juvenile and Lil Wayne.  He also performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, back when local New Orleans legends were more welcome than Phish and Bon Jovi who seem to have taken the event over (which is why Ira Pandos and his Mystical Knights of The Mau Mau began the Ponderosa Stomp, going on this weekend down in New Orleans).  By the late 90’s his health began failing. He had to have a kidney removed (why isn’t that kidney on display at the rock’n’roll hall of fame?), and then was then struck down by cancer, dying on December 5, 1999.  The drag tradition in R&B continues on to this day in performers like New Orleans rapper Katie Red, but the real history of these “freakish men” has yet to be fully explored, and has never really been acknowledged. Of the many untold secrets that still hide up the rumbled skirt of R&B and rock’n’roll history, one suprise you will find is a black cock, and I’m not talking about roosters. 

Earl King

A Young Earl King doing his best Guitar Slim impersonation.

Some early Ace 45’s, nice to look at.

Earl King’s debut, with Huey Smith and Lee Allen in support.

It’s hard to keep suits pressed on the road.

Earl King with a bad case of blues guitar face.

Nearly a hit, and an out of tune classic.

Earl whistles along with Dr. John, Professor Longhair, and the Meters, than becomes a mike stand.
Earl King was born Earl Silas Johnson, February 7, 1934 in New Orleans and grew up in the Irish Channel, at 2834 Constance Street (I shared an apartment at 1430 Constance for a while). His father, who was dead by the time Earl was two, played blues piano and was an occasional preacher. His mother, known as “Big Chief” (later the inspiration for the tune King wrote for Professor Longhair) sang in the Antioch Baptist Church, where Earl too put in some time singing in the choir as a tyke. By age fifteen he was playing blues guitar, forming a group called the Swans that won the amateur talent show at the Dew Drop Inn (Ernie Kador, later K-Doe was the emcee) one night, grand prize: $5, cash money. Soon he fell under the spell of Guitar Slim (“the performanist man I ever knew”, he recalled, inventing a word in the process), then on top of the blues world with The Things I Used To Do, a tune Earl would keep in his setlist until his final days. He took a few guitar lessons from the flamboyant showman, who gave him a Les Paul guitar.
His other guitar tutor was Huey “Piano” Smith, who according to King, “Can play guitar exactly like Guitar Slim”, although Smith has never recorded on guitar, and never played it onstage.
When Guitar Slim was laid up after a car accident (he ran his Caddy into a bulldozer) in the mid-50’s, promoter/Dew Drop owner Frank Pania sent Earl King out on the road in his place, not bothering to tell anyone that he was sending a substitute, Earl appeared as Guitar Slim, and having learned every nuance of his style, no one in the audience was any wiser. In Atlanta, they showered him with dollar bills and carried him offstage in triumph.
It was around this time (1953) Earl, under his real name Earl Johnson cut his debut disc for the Savoy label. Backed by a dream band made up of Huey Smith on piano, Lee Allen on tenor sax, Roland Cook on bass and Charles “Hungry” Williams on drums, he waxed a solid R&B rocker called Have You Gone Crazy backed with a Fats Domino styled ballad Beggin’ At Your Mercy. These sides sold naught, which was all for the best since Savoy’s owner, Herman Lubinsky was a cheap prick who never paid anyone, anyway. Back in New Orleans, Earl took a regular gig at the Tijuana Club on South Saratoga St. as well as gigging with Huey Smith at the Dew Drop on LaSalle.
That year he had caught the ear of Johnny Vincent, A&R man for Specialty Records (the man who’d signed Guitar Slim), and Earl cut his first session for Specialty in March of ’54, again backed by Huey Smith and Lee Allen along with Alvin “Red” Tyler on tenor sax, and the monstrous Earl Palmer on drums. Four sides emerged from this session, all in the Guitar Slim vein– A Mother’s Love b/w I’m Your Best Bet Baby, which became a minor Gulf Coast hit, and What Can I Do b/w ‘Til I Say Well Done.
A Mother’s Love was to be issued under the name King Earl, but when a printer’s mistake reversed the order, Earl Johnson had a new name– Earl King
A second Specialty session produced No One But Me b/w Eating and Sleeping, and issued under the name The Kings– Sitting and Wondering b/w Funny Face, his final disc for Specialty.
Soon after, Specialty owner Art Rupe sent Johnny Vincent packing. Vincent promptly returned to his home in Jackson, Mississippi to strike out on his own with the Ace label.
Since Guitar Slim was said to be none to happy to have his protege and imitators discs competing with his own for the same label’s promo attentions, Earl King would follow Johnny Vincent to Ace.
In 1954, Earl and Huey Smith were sent by Vincent to Jackson, Mississippi to record under the aegis of Trumpet Records’ Lillian McMurray at her tiny, one track studio, backed by Joe Dyson’s band.
The first issue from that session, the gloriously out of tune swamp blues ballad Those Lonely, Lonely Nights b/w Baby Get Your Gun was a big regional seller, and would have been a national hit if Johnny Guitar Watson’s cover version on R.P.M. hadn’t received more promotion, and better national distribution, hence outselling the original. As much as I love Johnny Guitar Watson, I prefer Earl King’s version. Actually, I favor the b-side, which rocks harder than any of his previous sides thanks to Huey Smith’s two fisted piano pounding.
The follow up Mother Told Me Not To Go b/w Is Everything Alright show King growing into his own style, and evolving as an excellent songwriter (“He was a bitch of a writer” remembered Johnny Vincent, who well understood the real money in the music biz was in song publishing more than record sales, it still is). His next release would come out on Ace’s Vin subsidiary and be credited to Handsome Earl– Everybody’s Got To Cry b/w I Met A Stranger.
Also in 1955 came two more singles on Ace proper— Little Girl b/w My Love Is Strong and It Must Have Been Love b/w I’ll Take Yo Back Home. None of these discs were hits, but they were all good local sellers, and Vincent kept recording Earl King for the next five years releasing roughly one disc every year, in order came You Can Fly High b/w Those Lonely Lonely Feelings, Well O’ Well Baby b/w I’ll Never Get Tired, Everybody’s Carried Away b/w Weary Silent Night, Buddy It’s Time To Go b/w Don’t You Know Your’re Wrong, and on the Rex subsidiary Darling Honey Angel Child b/w I Can’t Help Myself, issued to compete with his first Imperial disc, since it was an embryonic demo version of the same tune. A couple of great tunes were remained in the vault, including I’m Packing Up, a secular re-write of the Ward Singers’ gospel classic that is one of King’s best rockers and the swamp pop ballad Nobody Cares. They would eventually be issued by the UK Westside label in 1997, although his Ace sides are currently out of print since Westside went under.
Johnny Vincent had recognized that Earl King was a multi-talented artist, and soon was placing his tunes with other singers and using King as a producer and arranger in the studio (Jimmy Clanton’s mega-hit Just A Dream is one that King claimed to have produced, uncredited), but by 1960 Vincent and King had parted ways.
What should have been Earl King’s big break came in 1960 when he signed with Lew Chudd’s Imperial Records, the label that brought Fats Domino to stardom and had recorded many of the greatest New Orleans R&B and rock’n’roll records of the era including Archibald, Sugar Boy Crawford, Smiley Lewis, and Dave Bartholomew’s band (who backed most of these artists in the studio). Working with Batholomew as producer, his first session for Imperial, from the fall of 1960 produced a two part minor hit– Come On pts. 1 and 2 (Let The Good Times Roll), followed by a cover of Guitar Slim’s The Things I Used To Do b/w Love Me Now, using a band that featured James Booker on piano and future Meters’ bass player George Porter Jr. Come On would be particularly influential, showing Earl King’s fully developed unique style at its best (Jimi Hendrix would cover it on the Electric Ladyland album). Six months later in the spring of ’61 he was back in the studio, backed by Dave Bartholomew’s band. Many of the first string, famous names (Lee Allen, Earl Palmer) in Bartholomew’s band were gone by that point, relocated to L.A. and big time session man paychecks, but Bartholomew always had great bands and those heard on Earl King’s discs included Wardell Quezergue on trumpet (who co-arranged with King), James Booker on piano and the underrated Robert French on drums. The first single from this grouping was the excellent Come Along With Me b/w You’re More To Me Than Gold. His next Imperial single You Better Know b/w Mama and Papa appeared in ’61, followed by Case Of Love b/w Come Along With Me which had appeared earlier the same year as the flip side of a re-recording of A Mother’s Love. Earl King ended ’61 with what would become his signature tune and should have been a monster hit– Trick Bag, the flip side of which Always A First Time had a brief chart run. Trick Bag would become an R&B standard, but by the time it was released Lew Chudd was fast losing interest in the record business and had put Imperial up for sale. The disc got little in the way of promotion, although it remains a gulf coast juke box favorite to this day, down there it’s probably Earl King’s best known song.
Commercial success never happened for Earl King. A brief fling at Motown resulted in one un-issued session and contract hassles . He produced, wrote and recorded a few soul discs for the small New Orleans labels NOLA and Watch, wrote tunes for Smiley Lewis (I Hear You Knockin’), Professor Longhair (Big Chief), Lee Dorsey (Do-Re-Me), Fats Domino (Teenage Love) and the Dixie Cups (Ain’t That Nice) as well as having his tunes covered by lots of people including the aforementioned Hendrix, Dr. John, Robert Palmer, et al. His next shot would come in ’72 when Atlantic signed him, and had Alan Tousaint produce an LP with the Meters in support, unfortunately they’d never release Street Parade (the title track came out as a single on Kansu and was something of a local hit in New Orleans) which was finally issued in ’81 by Charley in the U.K., Street Parade was a great record, it might have made some noise if it had been released and promoted when it was originally recorded, why Atlantic never issued it is unclear. His final years saw him cut three albums for Black Top– Dazed, Sexual Telepathy, and Hard River To Cross, all three suffer from mediocre production, but they all have a few hidden gems, my favorite is Time For The Sun To Rise, a world weary tune about seeing the sun come up from the wrong end, after yet another night of partying.
While at Black Top my friend, the late Kelly Keller, got to know Earl pretty well, so once in a while I’d tag along when she’d visit him. He hung out at a donut shop, and that’s where we’d go see him, or else drop by his house. He was a nice man, full of the lore and history of New Orleans music, always with a funny anecdote about whoever’s name we’d bring up. The last time I saw Earl was in 2001, he was playing at a club in the French Quarter called Storyville.
We’d spent the day before hanging out with him and his was funny, but quite frail, he was diabetic, and his penchant for drinking and drugs wasn’t helping his health one bit. When we got to the club we saw him sitting at a side table, resplendent in a red suit, watching his band warm up. He didn’t remember us. I can understand him forgetting me, but Kelly was a close friend, he looked at her as if he’d never seen her before. It wasn’t long before we realized he didn’t even know who he was. He was so fucked up, when it came time to play, he walked onstage, forgot to plug in his guitar, and simply wandered around the stage for a minute or two (it felt like an hour), before shaking his head, mumbled an apology into the mike and stumbled offstage. Back in his seat, the club owner came over to tell him he wasn’t going to pay Earl as he’d have to refund the money to the paying customers. Earl just stared straight ahead, not acknowledging what he’d just heard (or didn’t hear). It was so sad I just wanted to go home and throw up. A few months later, while touring New Zealand he had to be hospitalized and sent home. In 2002 local New Orleans radio station WWOZ announced on the air that Earl had died, but it was a bit premature, he was just missing for a few days. On April 13, 2003, however, he really died, from the complications of his diabetes. He got more attention in death (including finally getting a cover story in Offbeat, the local New Orleans entertainment magazine) than he had gotten in life for many, many years. But that’s always the way, isn’t it?
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