- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
Seated below the pink-and-blue "Jack Dempsey's" neon sign above a small bar, Jimmy Horn leans both elbows on a tall table near the door and pours a bottle of Heineken into a frosted glass. Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" plays in the dining room at the restaurant on Poland Avenue, occupied by only one family sitting at a table enjoying a long late summer afternoon as if Jack Dempsey's restaurant was the family dining room. Dressed in bright white coveralls, Horn could be mistaken for the owner. His gold tooth catches the glow from the bar.
"There are only two types of music," he says. "There's spiritual music and there's secular music. You're either playing music to entertain people, or to lift people's spirits. Sometimes they can happen simultaneously, but yes, there's a definite separation there. It's a different impetus. You're doing it for different reasons.
"Some music's good for ironing your clothes to. Some of it's good to clear a space and gather your thoughts and reconnect with nature. Some of it is to take to your car, open up the carburetor and blow that shit out of there."
The best kind of music covers both, he says. Maybe that's Sledge. Horn's King James and the Special Men falls "solidly on the devil's music side," he says.
"I might be playing the devil's music, but I'm doing the Lord's work."
Act Like You Know is the first full-length album from King James and The Special Men, named as sort of an homage to the Frankie and Johnny's Furniture commercial — though Horn says he's the group's cowboy hat-wearing, cigar-smoking Lester Love Sr., and the band collectively are the commercial's dancing pitchman Frank Trapani. Apart from a few singles, the album is the first from a band that has played together, with changing lineups and repertoire, for nearly two decades as the city's preeminent disciples of New Orleans rhythm and blues.
The Special Men — powerhouse players Chris Davis, John Rodli, Robert Snow, Ben Polcer, Dominick Grillo, Scott Frock, Jason Mingledorff and Travis Blotsky, with bandleader Horn — has anchored countless long Monday nights at venues across town, fueled by cheap beer, red beans and the music itself. They've held residencies at the former Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge (now Kermit's Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge), BJ's Lounge, Sidney's Saloon, and now the Saturn Bar. They play rock 'n' roll — raw, irreverent, imbued with a respect and admiration for the precedents set long before them.
Act Like You Know was recorded with Andrew Gilchrist at his Bywater studio House of 1000hz, where records tile the ceilings and a drumset chandelier lords over the space. Horn wrote and tracked the bones of each song with a rhythm section or percussion, from building up the Professor Longhair-inspired shuffle on opener "Special Man Boogie" to the 14-minute Side B-encompassing "9th Ward Blues," a multilayered, blown-out street parade with a brass band coda.
The album also is the first release under the label Special Man Industries, which will release singles from Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra, followed by albums and songs from Leyla McCalla, Lost Bayou Ramblers' Louis Michot, and Young Seminole Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, among others. Horn wants the label to resurrect New Orleans' one-stop shop rock 'n' roll and R&B studio experience — a la Cosimo Matassa's J&M Recording Studio, Allen Toussaint's Sea-Saint Studios — with the Special Men as the house band.
"We got the songs, we got the band, we got the studio, there's a record press on Montegut [Street] — it's all on this side of the tracks now, bruh," Horn says. "I'm trying to make Daptone [Records] look lazy in five years.
"That's no diss to them. It's a goal."
- PHOTO BY AVERY LEIGH WHITE
- King James and the Special Men resume resume a Monday night residency at Saturn Bar in September.
Floated by Specialty Records in 1955 after a promising demo, Little Richard recorded "Tutti Frutti" at J&M with Matassa at the helm and musicians like Justin Adams, Lee Allen, Huey Smith and Earl Palmer backing the track in the studio with Dave Bartholomew. When he heard it roughly 20 years later, long before he knew he'd be moving to New Orleans, Horn immediately fell in love.
"I skipped the whole 'let's make friends' shit and was just devouring recorded music," he says. "Four, five years old, had my guitar already, my record collection was starting, my father was a '70s audiophile — it was very natural. I had that shit in the crib."
Horn's egalitarian thirst for music spanned classical, punk, jazz, Chinese opera — Horn loves both the record and the pursuit.
"To me, the art of music involved making records," he says. "'Here's the records I like. There's nothing after these records because these are brand new records.' The only direction to go is backwards. If I liked my dad's Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin records, what were they listening to? If I liked my mother's Beatles records, what were they listening to? Right away it was pretty obvious it was 'Tutti Frutti' and Link Wray. What were they listening to?"
Horn grew up on a farm in Utah before his family moved to Illinois. He largely kept to himself and his records when his parents split and moved him to Pennsylvania and a town outside Seattle. "I was never anywhere more than five years until I got here, and I've been here ever since," he says of New Orleans. In Seattle, he found himself "completely and totally bored," feeling out of place and exhausted by a spurious counterculture. Then a friend called him to "do something fun.
"That usually means we'll grab a bum jug of Carlo Rossi and climb a tree in Volunteer Park," he says. "Instead she picked me up with a Chevy Citation packed to the ceiling with stripper clothes, and we left Seattle with a blown gasket. She says, 'I'm going to New Orleans, want to come?' I had never considered this place in my life. I was deep into chewing up old blues records. I was very into Mississippi at the time."
They slowly made their way across the country, stopping frequently to rub the car for good luck or fill it with gas with the engine running. Sometimes they'd park for several days until it started up again.
"I called my boss from Venice Beach (California)," he says "I said, 'I'm sorry I'm late today, but I'm actually on Venice Beach, and I quit. Can you wire me my check?' I left on the last day of the pay period, so it was perfect. That was how I got here on that check. It was $400, which was a lot of money for a 19-year-old kid."
The car "literally stopped" when it got to New Orleans. His friend left town within a few days of their arrival. A note from her said he could keep the car.
By luck, or serendipity, and by "walking around bumping into things like a pinball," Horn met New Orleans staples like Washboard Lissa Driscoll and Nervous Duane, who traded a beat-up '50s Stella acoustic guitar for Horn's saxophone. "I see this cat I had seen playing this tenor in Seattle playing a messed-up clarinet with a really rickety blues band in Jackson Square," Horn remembers. "I just zeroed in on him."
Horn busked and made deliveries by bicycle, and within a year he bought a house on Montegut Street in St. Roch with a monthly mortgage of $80.
"People ask me, 'Jimmy, why didn't you start making records a long time ago?' Or, 'Why didn't you take this business thing seriously a long time ago?' I was busy enjoying every moment in my life," he says. "If it weren't for New Orleans, who knows where I'd be. It's afforded me my entire lifestyle."
Special Men drummer Chris Davis has played with Horn nearly as long as Horn has lived in New Orleans. Together they backed former Sun Ra saxophonist Rasheed Akbar, with Horn on upright bass, but often they were ready for rehearsals to finish as soon as they started.
"We were dirtbags who just wanted to drink High Life and smoke weed," Horn says. "We were young and dumb. We just wanted to party. And I said, almost word for word, 'Chris, sometimes I wish we had, I don't know, a Fats Domino cover band where we could drink High Life and have fun.' Within a week or two, we had stuff set up. Sessions, rehearsals, a gig at the Mother-in-Law ... If I love Poison Idea as much as I love Charles Mingus and Sun Ra and Dave Bartholomew, the answer to me is to just play rock 'n' roll."
At Mother-in-Law, Horn and bandmates endeared themselves to Antoinette K-Doe, who took on a managerial role as the band established a home at the bar on Wednesday and Friday nights. She died on Fat Tuesday 2009.
"I would ask her questions," he says. "'What about this? What about that?' She was like, 'First of all, which question do you want me to answer first? Second of all, none of your damn business.' If it weren't for Antoinette being patient with me and understanding that I didn't know how things worked here and graciously and lovingly bringing me into the fold and under her wing — she didn't say 'This is how you cook'; she cooked in front of me."
But Horn had to go to Mississippi to become King James.
With the band on break, Horn, a Mississippi blues obsessive, had hoped to record a song by hill country blues legend Jessie Mae Hemphill, who retired in the early 1990s following a stroke. Horn called directory assistance hoping to find her and get her permission. The operator couldn't find a Jessie Mae Hemphill in Como, her hometown. But they found one in Senatobia.
"I called her up and lied to her," he says. "It was a little lie: 'I was planning on being in your area.' Six hours away. I bent the truth a little bit. 'And I was hoping I could stop by.'"
Horn expected a short meeting over a cup of coffee that he hoped would end with Hemphill's blessing to record one of her songs. "I found a woman in desperate need of a friend, who hadn't eaten in three days and was living by herself in a trailer and chopping onions with a hatchet," he says. "She's the one who said, 'You're King James now.' I was like, 'That's a little much. That's a little pretentious, don't you think?' She said, 'You'll grow into it.'
"We'd sit around playing guitar all day every day — just blues, blues, blues, blues, blues. Then we'd go to church and she goes, 'And now for something completely different.' And we go in there, and it's the exact same thing. There's no difference except the words."
With King James and the Special Men, Horn is both the maestro and the entertainer, jester and singer, delivering new standards and faithful originals with a big-hearted, imperfect growl between a morose joke or two. "I love music, and my band is made up of my favorite musicians, but I don't mind being an entertainer," he says. "It's another instrument."
As he did when Horn learned to find his voice, Davis still ribs Horn with a sarcastic, "Well, Jimmy, you really hit those notes."
"That's the floor. That's where we start," Horn says. "I used to think it was physically impossible for me to do it, to sing that way I like people singing. It was a very drunken night when I remember calling up a friend, 'I can do it now! Check it out!' I was very pleased with myself."
The band's Monday night show starts with a pot of red beans, a tradition carried over from the Mother-in-Law, where Antoinette K-Doe cooked. (Why a Monday show? "I'm not trying to bring sand to the beach," he says.)
"Funk and jazz are well taken care of. Where's that downtown rock 'n' roll though?" Horn says. "You take a jazz band and they play some old song, and they go, 'Oh, that's tradition.' You see the Special Men play some Dave Bartholomew joint and they go, 'Oh, that's a cover.' What's up with that? This is a tradition. That's what separates New Orleans from all these different cities where people are wearing hats and trying to play some part, trying to exhume the corpse of some dead music. Here it's alive, and it never did die."
Horn is careful to embrace tradition and history, as vital to New Orleans music as its jazz and brass bands, while generously leaning forward — a downtown band amid a changing tide in Bywater, threatened with the erosion of cultural landmarks and tradition, but one where Horn could see Fats Domino in public, or play a packed house on a neighborhood corner bar after midnight on a Monday.
New Orleans isn't over, he says, but if it is, it's your fault.
"There's this perception among us, even as artists, there's us and there's the greats we look up to and idolize and immortalize and mythologize," he says. "There's this chasm between the way we see ourselves and the way we view our idols. ... People are people. What they don't deserve is to be dehumanized through idolatry. Not only is it a disservice to them, it's a disservice to you, by separating yourself from the greatness you admire."
In 2010, the band established its Monday night residency at BJ's, a dim, formerly smoke-filled crawl- space where the band spread out from one back corner into the other, a gig Hurray for the Riff Raff would rather be watching on its 2014 song "Crash on the Highway." The Special Men moved the show to Sidney's on St. Bernard Avenue in 2015. After a summer break, the band returns to its residency at Saturn Bar on Aug. 7. They'll be there, or somewhere, anywhere, in New Orleans every Monday, indefinitely.
"Forever," Horn says. "I'm going to do that for as long as I f—ing can. Things can come and go, we can travel, we can go overseas, we can do whatever and make more records. My end game involves Monday nights in New Orleans. Maybe a little oyster bar to call my own. It's right here in the neighborhood. ... I want you to forget your troubles for a little while. Meet a lady or a dude or whoever. Get drunk. At least, get in a fight."