The New Orleans brass band — a phenomenon kept alive, ironically enough, by the funeral processions that parade through the city's streets — got a big shot in the arm when Roger Lewis and his bandmates decided to inject the genre with a hefty dose of funk.
Lewis, who was born in 1941 and grew up listening to big bands, played baritone sax with a who's who of New Orleans R&B legends before co-founding the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in the late '70s. In the years since, the group has become a perennial favorite on the jam band circuit, recorded albums with Widespread Panic, and helped extend Crescent City music into the 21st century.
In the following interview, Lewis talks about his city's history of brass bands, drag queens and dirty old men.
Indy: You recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of your first album [My Feet Can't Fail Me Now]. Does the newly "remastered" version bring out anything you couldn't hear before?
RL: It sound the same to me, I mean, I can't hear no difference! When we first recorded it, we did it at Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, and they did a good job the way they mixed it. The first song we played was "Blackbird Special" [originally released as a 7-inch single], and it's weird the way we recorded it. The rhythm section was upstairs, and the horns was downstairs. So you would need some very sophisticated equipment to take that 45 and reproduce it where you could really hear everything.
Indy: Your most recent album was a [song-for-song] cover of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? album. What is it about his work that inspired you to do that?
RL: Well, Marvin Gaye was really socially active and he was concerned about a lot of political things that was going on at that time, like integration and the Vietnam War. People going over there and being sprayed with Agent Orange, and they come back and don't have the benefits that they should have.
And then there's "Inner City Blues" [which Dirty Dozen covered on its first album], about how we're not taking care of our own people. All of these were concerns that he put into his lyrics and into his music. He was very powerful, and so we decided that we should cover his works.
Indy: Speaking of inner city blues, how has New Orleans changed through the decades that you've been around there? Has it gotten tougher, easier, different?
RL: Musically speaking, when I came up playing music, there were more clubs and, you know, it was different because of segregation. So in the black community, you had more nightclubs, because blacks wasn't going to these white clubs. You had clubs like the Dew Drop, the Hi-Hat, and people used to dress up in evening gowns and tuxedos and they would have all these balls. We had a lot of big bands during that time. We had a lot of floor show places where you can go and watch exotic dancers.
Indy: How exotic were these dancers?
RL: Well, some of them was female impersonators.
Indy: That's pretty exotic, yeah.
RL: Yeah, you know? 'Cos I remember I was about 17 years old, man, and I was playing in this club on Rampart Street. And I'm up there playing rhythm and blues, the joint was jumping. And the whole time I'm playing, I noticed they had a big basket onstage. And I was wondering, why would anybody leave a basket on a stage?
Then Lady Dianne, who was a female impersonator, came out to do her act. And she start doing her little dance with the feathers, and she opened that basket and reached inside and pulled out the biggest snake I ever seen in my life. The stage was like five feet off the floor, so I don't know how I got to the front door so fast with my saxophone.
But when we run into integration, some of those clubs in the community just died out, because people wanted to go other places. Everything opened up, right? So when segregation ended, a lot of these clubs died.
Indy: So integration actually hurt that music scene?
RL: Yeah, somewhat, because integration put a lot of folks out of business. And then when disco came in, that was not a good time for musicians. They started doing the deejay thing, which changed the music scene.
The way it is now in New Orleans, you got the strip on Bourbon Street and then you got Frenchmen Street, and you got one black club in the city that has traditional music every Wednesday night. Traditional music meaning brass band music. It's a club called the Candlelight in the Sixth Ward, the Treme Brass Band plays there. I'm in that band also.
Indy: How did you get started out in music?
RL: I played with Eddie Bo, the pianist, and then I eventually wound up playing with Fats Domino, from back in 1970 all the way up until he got Alzheimer's and couldn't perform anymore. And yeah, I also played with Oliver "Who Shot the La La" Morgan. And Irma Thomas, I played with Irma for almost 10, 15 years.
We started the Dirty Dozen in 1977. But when I wasn't playing with the Dirty Dozen, I was still going out with Fats, 'cos I was his favorite baritone sax player. So I was going in and out of all these different bands, you know?
Indy: Just like John Medeski, who you've worked with through the years, your band has been embraced by the jam band community. When you play for that kind of audience, do your songs go longer?
RL: Uhhhh, not really. After you've played music for a long period of time, you know how to play for different audiences. But usually, we play the same repertoire for everybody, we don't change that much. People just seem to like what we do, whether they old or young.
Indy: On your website, you call yourself "Dirty Old Man." Is there something here we should know?
RL: Well, I'm gonna tell you how that whole thing came about. It's Dirty Old Man like in Dirty Dozen Old Men.
We was doing this gig, I don't remember exactly where it was, and people wanted an encore after the band left for the dressing room. And I'm standing on the stage, because I usually promote CDs and T-shirts out there. I'm standing up there with a house full of people that want to hear one more, so I just start playing this bass line on my baritone, you know? And people started dancing to that, I mean, they started getting down, it was a serious groove.
It was really working, so I started saying, "I'm a dirty old man, I'm a dirty old man, I feel like SPANKIN' somebody!" And before I know it, I had the rest of the band and about three or four ladies up onstage. And now it's a part of the show, and everybody's requesting it. So I started something I can't get out of.