They were all teenagers playing in the hottest band in town, the Hawketts. And one day a WWEZ disc jockey named Jack the Cat called them to record an unlikely country song in a radio station on Canal Street. Fifty years ago, those kids assembled and made New Orleans music history with their song, "Mardi Gras Mambo."
"(Jack the Cat) approached our leader, who was Carol Joseph at the time," recalls Hawketts drummer John Boudreaux, who played with AFO Records, Dr. John and many others. "Carol Joseph was the trombone player in the Hawketts, and he was the leader of the group. We were playing around New Orleans in dances for after football games. ... (We) were popular around New Orleans (in the 1950s).
"(Jack the Cat) said that this song was a country-and-western song before we did it, and we put a whole other spin on it," says Boudreaux, who now lives in Los Angeles.
Keyboardist and singer Art Neville helped start such seminal New Orleans bands as the Meters and the Neville Brothers, but it was with the Hawketts that he got his start, singing the lead on the song. He remembers recording the song with Jack the Cat at the radio station. "We had one mic set up, and I had one mic that I was singing in and playing piano," says Neville. "It was all in this one small room ... ."
According to Neville, Israel Bell and August Flurry performed the trumpet parts, while Morris Bachemin (tenor) and George Davis (alto) played the saxophone parts. Davis, who now lives in Atlanta, also gained fame for writing "Tell it Like it Is," which Art's brother Aaron (and later the rock group Heart) turned into hits.
The opening of the song is distinct both for its simple saxophone piece, punctuated by a grunt by everyone but Boudreaux, who says he was too busy drumming to chime in.
"We fiddled around for a minute or so, and George Davis and Morris Bachemin came up with the idea for everyone to sing in the beginning," Boudreaux says. "Of course, I didn't do too much singing on it, but everybody else did. I was busy trying to play a drum rumba, so to speak. We used to do calypso/rumba types of stuff because that came off of Professor Longhair's music, so it was easy to go in that direction. ... He had a rumba rhythm with another kind of New Orleans-type drum sound. 'Mardi Gras Mambo' wasn't exactly like that, but we were trying to play a calypso-type style."
Boudreaux laughs. "If you notice, we didn't have a bass player on there. We were young, and we didn't know that a band was supposed to have a bass player. I didn't even have a sock cymbal at the time."
Art Neville was enthralled with the local vibe of the song, noting how it refers to several neighborhoods in town -- a cornerstone of New Orleans geography and culture. "It's always about something," Neville points out. "Just like in 'Mardi Gras Mambo,' 'In Gert Town,' you know, in the back part of town where the cats all meet. The cats.
"Now, you know who the cats are. I'm not going to go no further than that."
When "Mardi Gras Mambo" came out in 1954, it was an immediate, surprise hit. "We were right out of school so we weren't expecting nothing really big," Boudreaux says. "I guess Jack the Cat was such a popular disc jockey that he got it to the right people."
Boudreaux cites the uniqueness of the song as one of the reasons for its popularity. There were only a few Mardi Gras songs being played at the time, and even Professor Longhair -- author of perhaps the most popular Carnival song, "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" -- was not yet popular.
Both Neville and Boudreaux say that neither of them received much for the song -- Boudreaux says he was paid $40 for the session but nothing more. But any bitterness of the lack of financial gain is overshadowed by their pride in what has become a timeless piece of Mardi Gras' heritage. "Here these young guys did this song way back then, and it's still being played," Neville says. "I love playing it. I'm proud I did it and that I was part of the group that did it, and that it's still around. I am still here to listen to it. It's stuff that just feels good, and we grew up on that. I grew up running behind parades, ducking under floats. It was the same thing with people stepping on your hands for doubloons. The flambeaux will set you on fire if you get too close to them.
"It's fun, and I'm glad that 'Mardi Gras Mambo' has lasted that long."
When "Mardi Gras Mambo" was released in 1954, it was an immediate, surprise hit.
Record courtesy Jim Russell Rare Records