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. 
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