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New Orleans Legend Al "Carnival Time" Johnson and a Guilloteen's Swan Song

McManus plays his last Houston gig this week, while a Big Easy piano-pounder plays his first

If you have ever been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, your benders have been sound-tracked in no small part by temporary Houstonian Al Johnson's stone-cold classic "Carnival Time." The upbeat 1960 recording kicks off with a jolt — a trio of tenor saxes blown by Robert Parker, Lee Allen and James Rivers bluster a mighty fanfare, before the then-teenaged Johnson comes roaring in on the vocal: "The Green Room is smoking, and the Plaza burning down / Throw my baby out the window, let the joint burn down / All because it's Carnival time, ooooohhh it's Carnival time! / Oh, well it's Carnival time, and everybody's having fun."

Today, the song ranks with the Hawketts' "Mardi Gras Mambo," Stop Inc.'s "Second Line" and Professor Longhair's amazing duo of "Go to the Mardi Gras" and "Big Chief” in the consensus all-time top five of New Orleans carnival songs. That's not as faint praise as you might think — over the years, America's most musical city has made hundreds of attempts at that mountaintop.

When Johnson first recorded “Carnival Time” in 1960, the song sank without a trace, buried that Mardi Gras season beneath the landslide that was Jessie Hill's smash hit “Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo.” Discouraged, Johnson enlisted in the Army. Exactly one year later, his family started calling him with exciting news — “Carnival Time” caught on in 1961 the way it should have the year before. Johnson's commitment with the Army wasn't up until 1964, so he missed the first few years of the song's run. Worse still, he lost out on the chance to stand up and fight for the right to collect his royalties, and he didn't see a dime until 1999. Even today, Johnson isn't collecting as much as he thinks he should. The back royalties are long gone, for one thing. “Once it goes wrong for so long, it's hard to get it on the right track,” he says over the telephone from his home near the Budweiser brewery. “But we're workin' toward it and things are dwindling in.”

Like most Hurricane Katrina refugees, Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson is working hard to get back to New Orleans.
Courtesy of Al Johnson
Like most Hurricane Katrina refugees, Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson is working hard to get back to New Orleans.

It must be frustrating to hear one of your compositions played thousands of times and not got paid for it even once. I asked Johnson if hearing the song made him proud or angry. “I guess both,” he says. “It was unfortunate what I went through with it, but I guess that's just part of the music business. I was just out of high school when I recorded it. Now I'm 67. That's a long time, eh?”

And it still sounds great all these years later. While it's not exactly the right season for it, it's still a treat to hear it performed, and right now, Houstonians have that chance. Though he has only just begun performing here, Johnson has been living here since shortly after Katrina. His house on Tennessee Street in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward was utterly destroyed by the storm — all that remains of his home of 35 years is the number painted on the curb, and all that he could salvage of his possessions were a few laminated personal items.

A couple of weeks ago, Johnson released a single called “Lower Ninth Ward Blues.” The song matches lyrics like “I don't know which way to go / because my home is not there anymore / I'm calling it, ooh, ooh, I'm naming it / Lower Ninth Ward blues” with rollicking Smiley Lewis/Fats Domino-style Big Easy blues piano. As you can tell, it has pretty much the opposite vibe of his joyous “Carnival Time.”

“It is definitely the opposite,” Johnson says. “I wouldn't know where to fit it in at a show like Saturday's [at the Big Easy]. I guess it will have to cater to a certain group of people, you hear?”

Johnson was backed at the packed Big Easy show by Tommy Dardar and his band. Johnson was very pleased with Dardar, a gritty-voiced veteran local swampy blues-rocker. “He's tough,” Johnson says. “He knows all the stuff.” After Johnson joined the quartet already on stage, he led the band through Lloyd Price's “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Hank Williams's “Your Cheatin' Heart” (as filtered through Fats Domino's version) and a Smiley Lewis medley of “Don't You Hear the Bells Ringing,” “Tee Na Na” and “Caldonia's Party.” And, of course, “Carnival Time.”

Like virtually all of his exiled musician friends, Johnson is working hard to go back to New Orleans. But, as he puts it, “The road home is real slow for everybody.” He can never get back his house and his old oak tree on Tennessee Street, but he can move to a new house nearby. All the money he raises from shows such as this one and another earlier in the month at the Art League goes toward the purchase of his new home in the Musicians' Village, a partnership between Habitat for Humanity, Ellis and Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. that is rehousing storm exiles in the Ninth Ward. Seventy single-family homes are under construction around the development's focal point — the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. (Dave Matthews has donated $1.5 million toward the project.) Johnson is playing this Sunday at a benefit at Tipitina's in New Orleans with Damian Kulash of OK Go, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Indigo Girls that will also help house people like himself.

Also, he has other, more direct obligations. “I need to get over there next weekend so I can start doing some of those ‘sweat hours' for my place in the Musicians' Village,” Johnson says. (One of the conditions for acceptance in Musicians' Village is that the musicians help build their own houses.) “I might set up a piano up there while they workin' on it — I think I can do that. I don't guess it'll work, but I'm gonna see. 'Cause it might work, huh?”

In the meantime, he is willing to play for whoever will set him up a piano here in Houston, too, within reason. “Houston loves Al ‘Carnival Time,'” he says. “I guess I would like to play here some. I don't want to overdo it, though.”

Anyone needing a shot of Mardi Gras spirit need look no further. Before hanging up the phone, Johnson offers me one last word of advice: “Always remember, John, it's Carnival time, all the time!

Al "Carnival Time" Johnson is available for booking at 713-670-9653.Scuttlebutt Caboose

This weekend marks the end of the line for the Fatal Flying Guilloteens as we have known them. Guitarist and former Press Nightfly columnist Brian McManus rang in from Philly to say this will be his last Houston show with the band he cofounded in 1996 on the north side. This isn't the first time McManus has announced he was leaving the band, but he swears that this time, he's gone for good. “Quantum Fucking, the next album, is coming out in July, and I was just looking at all the commitment I would have to give it to make it work, and I just thought it would be best for both me and the band if I told them to get a replacement,” he says. “I would have to tour for weeks or maybe months. They've been getting a lot of great offers lately — the Hold Steady offered them an opening slot, Pelican has too. They are talking about touring Japan later with Les Savvy Fav. I really want to do those things, but I just can't. Basically, I sat down and saw 33 [years old] staring me in the face.”

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