On Saturday, the Fabulous Fantoms are heading over to their old practice space to shoot some band photos. It's the garage next to sax player Milton Lewis' house near Fig and Cherry streets in the Hollygrove neighborhood, just beside the railroad tracks. It's the kind of backdrop that'll give the pictures some extra resonance for the band, which hasn't practiced there, or played together, in 30 years. Parker Shy, who played bass in one of the iterations of the group, is the youngest Fantom, and also the band's unofficial historian. 'I remember things about them they don't even remember," he says, thinking back to the days in 1967 and '68 when he'd hang out at the Hollygrove garage, watching his big brother Winston play drums. Parker wasn't allowed to start playing until he turned 17, but he paid close attention until his birthday came. The band's first real break, he recalls, was winning the N.O.P.D.'s annual talent show. 'Robert [Morgan, the band's manager] had got a bus for people from the neighborhood to come to the talent show," Shy remembers. 'To see my brother win was like seeing him win a Grammy." After that, work in the local clubs started pouring in. 'I missed my prom because we had a gig," he says.
The Fabulous Fantoms were a teenage, neighborhood funk act that, like their contemporaries David Batiste and the Gladiators, Art Neville's Neville Sounds and Chocolate Milk, came up playing dances and parties around New Orleans. But unlike the Allen Toussaint-produced Chocolate Milk and the Neville Sounds (which became the house band at Toussaint's Seasaint Studios and turned into the Meters) big hits were never in the cards for the Fantoms. For a decade or so, they were a hot ticket, with a standing gig at the Devil's Den on Banks Street and social aid and pleasure club gigs that were legendary late-night marathons. After a few attempts to get a record deal, the group finally put out a few 45s of jazzy, pleasantly lightweight New Orleans funk on their producer Marty Lewis' Big Deal label, and later on their own Power Funksion imprint. Shy remembers New Orleans soul and R&B luminaries like Art Neville, Ernie K-Doe, Professor Longhair and Zigaboo Modeliste as familiar faces in the Fantoms' audience before " by twists of fate " some players got married, some got drafted and some got famous.
'Zig told me this, at Willie Tee's funeral," Shy says, 'that a lot of his licks he got was from my brother, and my brother says the same thing about Zig."
According to Shy, both Modeliste and David Batiste will be sitting in at the Fantoms' reunion show Friday night at Tipitina's, as will Walter 'Wolfman" Washington, a former Fantom. The gig, says Shy, came about by chance when he stopped into Tipitina's to buy a T-shirt for his girlfriend back in Dallas, where he lived briefly after Katrina (he moved back to Kenner six months ago with the help of the Renew Our Music fund) and was recognized by talent buyer Jeremy Smith, a fan.
'I said, if you're telling the truth, then show me a copy of our CD," Shy says laughing. Smith did (a 2001 collection released by the Tuff City label) and they put the gig on the calendar.
In the decade or so that the Fantoms were together, a lot of musicians cycled through the band " particularly after the late '60s, when three of five original members were drafted to fight in Vietnam (one of those was former superintendent of New Orleans Public Schools Col. Alphonse Davis, who will be taking his place on trombone Friday night.) Shy worked the phones, Fantoms saxophonist Manuel Herrera got online, and the two managed to reassemble all the Fantoms still living, including two vocalists, Anthony Rainey and Roland Treaudo, now a minister and realtor respectively; guitarist Arthur Bell, who now plays with Irma Thomas' Professionals; keyboardist William Norflin; Lewis, who now plays with Rockin' Dopsie Jr.; trumpet player Maxie Washington, now an executive with Bank of America and others.
Back together for the first time in 30 years, the Fantoms have talked about recording again, Shy says, but for now just playing together again is enough.
'They look at me and say, "How come you got more gray hair than all of us?'" says Shy. 'I say, that's just wisdom, because I had the idea to put the band back together."
- For roughly a decade, the Fabulous Fantoms were one of the city's most popular funk bands.