Johnnie Allan: A Swamp-Pop Special

I’VE A CONFESSION to make. I know nothing about rockabilly (you guessed huh?). All these years I’ve been into blues, soul doowop and swamp-pop, especially swamp-pop. The glorious rolling sounds of Jivin’ Gene, Joe Barry, Cookie And The Cupcakes. Rod Bernard, just about anything that sounds like a classically doomy Louisiana ballad. When the entire school was fixated by Presley’s Neopolitan balladry I’d be monopolising the communal Dansette with ‘This Should Go On Forever’, ‘I’m A Fool To Care’ or ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’, revelling in the secret loveliness of it all. Where those records actually came from was anybody’s guess but now we know better.

Between Port Arthur, Texas in the West and New Orleans in the East, there’s 400 miles of U.S. highway – take a peek at the back of Another Saturday Night (Oval 3001) for a handy map. On either side you’ll find the townships of South Louisiana: Lake Charles (the home of Goldband and Khourys), Ville Platte (the Jin and Swallow labels), Abbeville (where Bobby Charles lives in hermit-like seclusion), New Iberia which spawned The Cajun Twist, Crowley where Jay Miller recorded the finest Ex-cello blues, Lafayette (Carol Rachou’s La Louisianne records), Church Point ( Lee Lavergne and Lanor), swampland’s outer extremities like Cut-Off where Joe Barry came from, Mamou, Thibodeaux, Sulphur, Opelousas and all the other settlements which spring to life in the songs and stories of rock ‘n’ roll, cajun or swamp-pop style.

During 1958-62, the U.S. charts were alive with white Louisiana boys – Joe Barry, T.K.Hulin, Warren Storm, Rod Bernard and Jivin’ Gene were five of the biggest – and for a brief period these genuinely unaffected singers captivated American record-buyers with a sound that was usually, and hitherto, indigenous to Louisiana and alien to the general mainstream of popular music. It’s been called a number of things – swamp-rock, cajun-pop and bayou-beat – but Johnnie Allan who was here recently in order to promote the re-activated Promised Land, has a less expansive phrase : “We call it South Louisiana music and I guess the only way to describe it is to say that it’s the musicians who make the sound different. Those guys, Jivin’ Gene, T.K., virtually all of them speak French. All of their family names are French and some of them played in French accordion bands just like I did. Consequently I think we all kept part of this French-Cajun music ingrained in us, you can almost detect it, something of a cajun flavour in the song.”

The Cajuns of South-West Louisiana are unique. Banished from Nova Scotia, these French settler-descendants arrived in Louisiana in the 1760’s, developing a distinctive and colourful music in virtual isolation. Cajun enthusiasts differentiate between the traditional music, played on accordion, fiddle, rhythm guitar and triangle with French patois lyrics, and a modern but still authentic strain which encompasses a strong hillbilly influence and can lead with the fiddle instead of the accordion. Steel guitar, bass, drums and, very often, English lyrics can be heard. Joe Falcon is synonymous with traditional Cajun while most of today’s Cajun groups play in the modern but authentic style. Personally. I’d add a third category: Pop or Nashville-cajun for performers like the Kershaw Brothers or Jimmy Newman; Louisiana Man is perhaps the most commercial example. It refers to the time honoured method of curing muskrat skins and children like Ned or Mae who fish from a pirogue and accompany Papa Jack on his trips to town.

Johnnie Allan is Cajun and proud of it. His grandfather once told him a story about two draft-dodging brothers who escaped the guillotine and eventually settled near Thibodeaux at a dent in the road which came to be known as Brulle de Guillot. Hence his real name, John Allen Guillot, pronounced like “guillotine” but without the “ine”. Was it true? Johnnie smiles, “That’s what he told me before he died. I’m French on my father’s side while my mother’s folks came directly from Spain.”

Born on 10 March 1938 in Rayne, Louisiana – on the main highway between Crowley and Lafayette – Allan spent most of his childhood working the fields near the oil-town of Bosco. At six, he spoke no English – his parents spoke nothing but French and his brothers and sisters were brought up to do the same. Although his father was a sharecropper, the picture Johnnie paints is a romantic one, far removed from the memories of the first raggedy-poor rockabilly immortals: “I was about six when I got my first guitar. My brother and I would sell garden seeds to the neighbours and I finally got half the money together. One day my brother and I were out in the field and my mummy and daddy came back from Lafayette in the horse and buggy. I went back in and there was the guitar on my bed.”

At thirteen, Allan joined Walter Mouton and the Scott Play boys as a rhythm guitarist. He was surrounded by cajun music and it’s a subject on which he enjoys holding forth: “I grew up with it and when I say that I’m referring to the authentic cajun music. Authentic cajun comprised of accordion which is the dominant instrument, a rhythm guitar mostly a box guitar (not amplified) and a fiddle. This was the conception in the early twenties. As time progressed they added drums, steel guitar and now they’ve added bass guitar also. To be authentic to me the accordion has to be in it. My great-uncle, whose name was Joe Falcon, recorded the first French song that was ever recorded. He went up to New York in the late 20’s and my mother’s daddy used to play fiddle in that band. I don’t wanna sound like I’m bragging ‘cos he is related to me but Joe Falcon will go down in history, he is the guy that’s mentioned in any book about Cajun Louisiana when you talk about French accordion players.” All of which is indisputably true; Falcon who died in 1965, first recorded in New Orleans In 1928 – the first disc was Allons A Lafayette – and in New York later the same year. It’s said that Cajuns bought several copies of his records so they’d never be without one wherever they were.

The Scott Playboys were not recorded and, at 15, Allan switched to steel guitar and joined Lawrence Walker, another famed Cajun accordionist who died of a heart attack about 3 years ago. Johnnie recalls a session with Walker at Radio KEUN in Eunice, Louisiana. It’s just possible that he appears on Walker’s finest rocker, ‘Allons Rock And Roll’ (La Louisianne 8019) ; the session was his first studio experience, he remembers an uptempo number and the date fits (’57).

Swamp-pop, bayou-beat or South Louisiana music was born of many things. In the form that finally spilled onto the American pop charts in 1958 – Rod Bernard’s ‘This Should Go On Forever’ was the first big hit though Warren Storm’s ‘Prisoner’s Song’ made the Hot Hundred the year before – the roots lay as much in the intensity of early Elvis and the black music of Fats Domino as the French-Cajun styles of Joseph Falcon or Lawrence Walker. Somehow, within the isolation of the fundamentally French culture, Allan heard little or no black music until he graduated at 18: “That’s when I really got interested in rock ‘n’ roll music. Fats Domino – he was the big thing and I was also very fortunate to have heard Elvis Presley before he was ever really popular. He appeared on the Louisiana Hayride which was the only time I ever saw him perform live. He sang ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ which he was going back to Nashville to record. He really impressed me. It was my senior year in school; I was doing agriculture and the professor took us on a field trip and that was part of the trip, just a little lonyup as we say in Louisiana.”

Rock ‘n’ roll had a devastating effect on French-Cajun musicians. Western swing and hillbilly – the oil industry attracted many outsiders – had already altered its character particularly in the thirties when many string bands eliminated the accordion altogether. And after the Second World War, country fiddler Harry Choates, who was not, in fact, a true Cajun, did much to revitalize Cajun music with his recording ‘Jole Blon’. Choates did not usually feature an accordion and he was a “little more progressive” to Johnnie’s ears. The impact of rock ‘n’ roll was infinitely more drastic; when Chris Strachwitz stopped at a bar in Lafayette in 1960 he heard “only a band trying to imitate Fats Domino”. Johnnie Allan, and many of his French-speaking contemporaries, had already crossed over.

In 1957 the nucleus of Lawrence Walker’s band dropped the French accordion knees-up and began to play straight down the line rock ‘n’ roll. Al Foreman (lead guitar), U.J.Meaux (Huey Meaux’s first cousin who played fiddle with Walker but now switched to piano), Bhuel Hoffpaur (drums) and Johnnie, who reverted to rhythm guitar, became the Krazy Kats. They added a bass guitarist, Mickey Stutes, and a tenor-player, Leroy Castille. Apart from Johnnie, the band had local luminaries in Castille, who recorded as Lee Castle, and Foreman who played lead guitar on Rod Bernard’s ‘This Should Go On Forever’ and a whole host of Jay Miller’s Excello rock and blues sessions. The Krazy Kats recorded a demo of two songs which Johnnie had written – ‘Lonely Days And Lonely Nights’ and ‘My Baby’s Gone’ – at a friends house in Lafayette and the tape was taken to Floyd Soileau who liked the material. Since Jay Miller operated the area’s only bona fide recording studio in nearby Crowley, Floyd Soileau paid for a session which Miller engineered. Publishing was spill between Flat-Town (Soileau) and Tamil (Miller). Although Soileau issued the disc on his own label, Jin, it was leased to a major corporation, MGM, in 1959.

“Huey Meaux and I are real good friends”, said Johnnie, “but I’m the sole writer of ‘My Baby’s Gone’ and if you notice he stuck his name on it and that was part of the deal to get on MGM. I don’t know the exact details but Floyd went through Huey Meaux and Bill Hall. Nationwide ‘Lonely Days And Lonely Nights’ was my best seller although others have sold more among the Gulf Coast states. I went on a tour from Florida, through Texas, Arizona and into California. It was partly promotional and partly paying. We stopped off in Houston where I did the Larry Kane TV show. The disc wasn’t a monster; it was bubbling under but never did crack the hundred mark.”

As his debut disc ran out of momentum, Allan recorded a follow-up in Bill Hall’s Beaumont studio with bandsmen from combos led by Jivin’ Gene and Gene Terry. Since Hall and Meaux were responsible for placing most local acts with Mercury (Johny Preston, The Big Bopper and others were doing better than anyone on MGM) they followed suit with Allan’s second disc, ‘Angel Of Love’ c/w ‘Letter Of Love’. These sides, mournful and nearly identical, were very close to Jivin’ Gene’s sound – mouth full of marshmallow and heavy on the Domino pronunciation. Like all Mercury’s debut swamp-pop records there are none of the strings with which they…er….. swamped subsequent releases by other artists particularly Elton Anderson and Rod Bernard.

Ever since the Mercury disc Johnnie has recorded with his own band. Al Foreman joined Warren Storm in 1960 and was replaced by Hank Redlich whose brother, Dago, owned the tiny Viking label and subsequently produced Beiton Richard for Chamo. Allan gravitated to Viking mainly as a favour to Hank. The Redlichs treated him very well but record sales were not spectacular and he obtained a teaching post. Both the Viking period and his new career were interrupted by army service; ‘Your Picture’ was getting some reaction in the South but he couldn’t promote it. When he came out after a year at Fort Sill he retired to teaching and reorganised the Krazy Kats. Lee Castille, who worked with Warren Storm at Lafayette City printing plant and is now in a mental institution, was replaced by Harry Simoneaux. Generally, all the band held day jobs; Johnnie taught the 5th grade (10 to 11 year olds) in Lafayette. Apart from a session with Pic, owned by Huey Meaux and cut at La Louisianne, the singles kept coming on Jin and the Krazy Kats played weekends for six years without stopping : The Green Lantern in Lawtrell on Thursdays and Sundays, The River Club, Mermentau on Fridays and The Jungle Club, Ville Platte on Saturdays. In 1967, Johnnie quit music and returned to college where he obtained a masters’ degree. Two years later he was out of the classroom altogether.

Johnnie Allan is now Vice-Principal of the Acadian Elementary School in Lafayette. On stage he is still Johnnie Allan. At school he’s Mr. John Guillot; he doesn’t let one interfere with the other but music remains an industrious side-line. The unending flow of singles has now been joined by no less than six albums: South To Louisiana, Johnnie Allan Sings, Dedicated To You, Portrait Of Johnnie Allan, Another Man’s Woman, and Greatest Hits.

I’m not able to comment on the last three but if you do not have any at all I’d strongly recommend you get the second album from Flyright who act as Floyd Soileau’s English distributors. Apart from ‘Somewhere On Skid Row’ it doesn’t have the songs that Johnnie identifies as his Gulf-Coast best-sellers – ‘Your Picture’ and ‘South To Louisiana’ – but it does have an abundance of goodies including ‘Promised Land’ (with the kind of accordion solo that makes Charlie Gillett rip the cloth off snooker tables). Little Willie John’s ‘Talk To Me’ and two classic Louisiana ballads, ‘Secret Love’ and ‘You Got Me Whistling’. Don’t write in to tell me that the last-named was cut on the West Coast; thousands of people think it’s a Louisiana ballad and that’s what counts.

South To Louisiana has the early near hits and most of the Viking material including the title track which, if you’re not sure, is ‘North To Alaska’ with different words, Dedicated To You verges on Nashville easy listening (and has an Engelberty type pose from Johnnie on the front sleeve) but it does contain one top-flight track, a revival of the Jivin’ Gene rocker, ‘I Cried’. This is so hummable it makes even ‘Promised Land’ sound dull and if someone’s looking for a follow-up over here they could do worse than pick that.

You’ll have noticed the breadth of material; not just Chuck Berry but Little Willie John, Elton Anderson, Johnny Fuller, Jivin’ Gene, Johny Horton. The best record collections are full of discs by these underrated and largely un-interviewed giants of southern music. Jimmy Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, Bobby Charles, Eddie Futch (now known as Eddy Raven), Lefty Frizzell; Johnnie has interpreted songs by these and many more tasteful trend-setters. He has an almost scholarly intuition for choosing the best songs:

“Having played throughout South Louisiana, I’ve developed a knack of finding out what sort of music the people wanted to hear. Every now and then I’ll go the to Floyd’s and go through his enormous stack of records and pick out those I want to record – say Frankie Lowery’s ‘She’s Walkin’ Beside Me’ – Frankie played The Golden Rocket in Lake Charles – it’s a great song and that I have to do. Then ‘This Life I Live’ was written by Rocket Morgan who got on a religious kick and went out on the road as a preacher about 12 years ago. And I heard Guitar Junior play ‘Family Rule’ at a club on the Texas/Louisiana border and although his version sold good around Port Arthur and Orange it never did get into Louisiana so I recorded it specially for South To Louisiana. ‘Love Me All The Way’ was taken off a Percy Sledge album and ‘Somewhere On Skid Row’ came from a Merle Haggard LP.”

The Other Song Of The South – Louisiana Rock’n’Roll, the album I compiled for Phonogram, sold no more than 1,500 copies. It includes Jivin’ Gene, Guitar Junior, Rod Bernard, Elton Anderson, Phil Phillips and would have included Joe Barry had the rights to his Smash-distributed hits not reverted to Jin. Since it contained a lot of the real cream and still managed to crap out, there doesn’t seem to be much scope for reissues of this material. Which, incidentally, pisses me off no end ‘cos Mercury have trunkloads of it and the Jivin’ Gene stuff (‘You’ve Got A Spell On Me’, ‘You’re Jealous’, ‘Gini Bon Beni’, ‘I Cried’, ‘My Need for Love’ etc) is particularly magnificent.

Swamp-pop has now been relegated to the backwaters of pop appreciation and the a music would appear to have few devotees outside Louisiana and Flyright’s mail-outs. Its foremost practitioners retired to play in the clubs and bars of Louisiana and East Texas as soon as their Mercury recording contracts expired and in some cases, they’re reputed to have resisted efforts to persuade them to record for labels again, Jivin’ Gene (back in Port Arthur and not recording), Joe Barry (heavy drink problems), T.K.Hulin and others are pretty well out of it now including the smaller fry like Gene Terry (a policeman in fort Arthur), Phil Bo who works in Lafayette in a TV store, Lee (Leroy) Martin, now a dee-jay in Thibodeaux, and Jerry Starr from New Iberia who’s confined to a wheel-chair.

Johnnie Allan’s perseverance has paid dividends. He never had what you would call a national hit but, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he’s never had to live up to the bally-hoo of “Bandstand” appearances nor had to adjust to follow-ups which failed to repeat a chart-busting debut disc. He sells about 5,000 to 6,000 copies of each new album and although he might not dent the Top Forty the situation is a happy one for all concerned. The music of South Louisiana is in good hands.

Notes

(1) Rod Bernard, Lee Martin, Phil Bo (real name Phillip Boudreaux). Jivin’ Gene and, of course, Johnnie Allan, can all be heard on A Rockin’ Date With South Louisiana Stars (Jin LP 4002). Apart from my understandable bias towards The Other Song Of the South it’s the best swamp pop compilation money can buy.

(2) Since the accordion is a limited instrument – two chords and one key – many listeners find traditional and authentic Cajun music best enjoyed in short bursts or in compilation form which allows greater variety. Lawrence Walker has his own albums but he and other authentic performers appear on The Best Of Cajun Hits Vols 1,2,3 (Swallow 6001, 6003 and 6007), all of which are highly recommended. Walker is also featured on the Khoury/Lyric anthology from the early fifties (Arhoolie 5008) while Joe Falcon’s last performances are also his most accessible (Arhoolie 5005)

© Bill MillarNew Kommotion, 1978

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