Archibald: ‘Ballin’ With Archie’

DUE TO OUR tight schedule we had only one more day in New Orleans. It was all systems ‘go’ on Saturday from first light (almost) as we set out to find the pianist, Archibald. A quick examination of BLUES RECORDS (an invaluable research weapon, despite the occasional printing errors…) reveals that the man cut 13 sides for Imperial and his last session was way back, in 1952.

He was obviously a little surprised that anybody was interested in his records which were made such a long time ago, but after a hesitant beginning he soon warmed to our enthusiasm.

Archibald was born Leon T. Gross on September 14 1912. At 12.16 am to be precise just off Plumb and Hilary, New Orleans. He became interested in the piano at an early age and in the late ’20s and ’30s he was playing at tea parties and fraternity houses in what was the obligatory style of entertainment in those ‘wild days’ in New Orleans. In those days he was called “Archie Boy” – transposed to Archibald by the course of time. He lists Burnell Santiago, the self-styled “King of Boogie” as his prime influence. Santiago was born in 1904 and died in 1943 and was very much a “musician’s musician”. He also cites Eileen Dufeau, Miss Isobel and “Stack 0 Lee”. During the War years Archibald was drafted in the Army and can recall playing at a party in Bombay, which numbered Lady Astor (part of English aristocracy, folks!) amongst the guests. His first session was for Imperial in 1950. At that time, Al Young was very active in New Orleans arranging sessions for Imperial and Dave Bartholomew’s band were acting as house musicians.

In fact, Archibald cannot recall the lineup for his sessions, except that Bartholomew’s band provided the accompaniment and claims that Harrison Verrett played banjo on ‘Stack O Lee’. This became a big hit and in conjunction with Imperial, Dave Bartholomew and Pats Domino arranged a tour of the West Coast for him. It was Archibald’s great misfortune to fall sick with ulcers at this precise time, and he had to drop out of the tour. He was therefore unable to capitalize on his hit record. He never had another chance. Although he had five other singles on Imperial and Colony, including the rather fine ‘Shake Baby Shake’, they were not successes. Since then, Archibald has continued to work in and around New Orleans, on the tourist-orientated French Quarter and the numerous bars and clubs which scatter the city.

Although he has no regular work Archibald is still a member of the Union. He pays his dues and receives monthly newsletters in return. The frightening grip the Union holds over all musicians is illustrated by Archibald’s story when he once overplayed his allotted slot at a club to help the following act which was not ready to go on. A Union official in the audience took exception and Archibald was fined $250 for his good intentions!

Now, with the help of a bottle of whiskey from Leadbitter, and at our asking, Archibald sat down at the piano and proceeded to knock out some amazing barrelhouse piano in the good old N.O. tradition. His style is really a mixture of blues, jazz, and boogie wrapped into one, and full of improvisation. His vocals are in the Kansas City ‘shouting’ style and he is fond of scat singing. At our request he played ‘Stack O Lee’, ‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘Swanee River Boogie’ as well as ‘Early Morning Blues’, ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ (what an influential piece this was), ‘Muskrat Ramble’ and a Hadda Brooks-styled ‘Hungarian Rhapsody Boogie’. Archibald acknowledged us every so often with a glance over his shoulder and a winsome smile… even in his own home, he has tremendous ‘presence’ and one could easily envisage his popularity at the old fraternity house-parties in years gone by. The joint was really a-rockin’ and it was a pity that we had to bring our Saturday-morning session to a close. Mrs Gross came in at the end, and told us she could tell by Archibald’s actions that he really had enjoyed our visit. We left in the fervent hope that someone, somewhere will have the foresight to record Archibald once more. For, make no mistake, such an album would document an important stylistic segment of New Orleans’ musical history.

© John BrovenBlues Unlimited, October 1970

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