BILLIE and DEDE PIERCE: blues in the classic tradition
Billie Perce (p, vcl) Dede Pierce (cnt except on Side 2, #5) Albert Jiles (drs)
Recorded in New Orleans; January 27, 1961
St, Louis blues (6:22) (W. C. Handy)
Goodbye Daddy Blues (4:44) (Billie Pierce)
Careless Love (3:42) (traditional/ arr. B. Pierce)
Brickhouse Blues (4:20) (Billie Pierce)
Algiers Hoodoo Blues (4:44) (Billie Pierce)
Slow Tonk Blues (4:00) (Billie Pierce)
Gulf Coast Blues (3:37) (Clarence Williams)
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out (4:14) (James Cox)
Love Song of the Nile (3:49) (Brown – Freed)
The singing of the blues to the accompaniment of cornet and piano was one of the earliest forms taken by Negro jazz when it first found its way onto phonograph records in the 1920s. the records of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox are examples of “classic” blues, and thirty-five years ago the “race’ catalogues of record companies were full of them. To most collectors of such records, the “classic” blues style is fascinating – and all but extinct. But in New Orleans, thanks to a durable couple named BILLIE and DEDE PIERCE, and also to a rather fantastic little dance hall named Luthjens, this tradition ahs been kept very much alive.
A ramshackle little bistro on downtown Marias Street – which, sadly, exists no more – Luthjens was clearly an anachronism during its last years of operation. It was a most modest club, a flimsy clapboard and tar-paper structure sporting a sign advertising “dancing three nights a week.” But it was a gathering place for the white working-class people of the neighborhood, and old Mrs. Luthjens did her utmost to keep it respectable. Placards on the wall proclaimed: “Women in shorts or slacks not permitted,” “No jitterbugging allowed” and “Do not smoke while dancing.” In the last years, nothing harder than beer was served; Mr. Luthjens felt that liquor caused fights. In New Orleans, where dancing remains deeply ingrained in the social life of the community, the middle-aged and the elderly filled the dance floor at Luthjens on weekends (causing the hall to be widely known as “the old folks home”).
Without anyone’s ever having intended it, Juthjens also became one of the last and most important outposts of archaic jazz in New Orleans. Against one wall was a small bandstand, on which “Big Eye” Louis Nelson and Emile Barnes would rest their long old-style clarienets, and you might also find Peter Bocage or George Lewis in the four-piece group playing for the dancers. But more often than not, the band in attendance belonged to the Pierces. For over twenty years Billie ad DeDe found at Luthjens more than just a steady job. For the little dance hal also provided them with a receptive audience for their classic interpretations of the blues long before this form had taken on its present respected status as something of a combination of folk and art music. At Luthjens, Cajun tunes and old standards were popular, but every few numbers there was sure to be a long blues.
Billie Pierce, 54 years old at the time of this recording, has learned from the best. When she was fifteen, Bessie Smith played Billie’s home town of Pensacole, Florida. Bessie’s regular accompanist, Clarence Williams, took sick and or a week Billie replaced him. She was known as a top band pianist in West Florida and Alabama before she first came to New Orleans in 1929 to temporarily replace her sister Sadie in Buddy Petit’s band on the steamer Madison. The following year she came back to stay and soon had her pick of “jitney’ job all over New Orleans. Her favorite accompanist was a French-speaking red-hot cornet player named Joseph LaCroix “DeDe” Pierce. They were married almost thirty years ago, while they were working together at the Blue Jay, on the corner of Ursulines and Decatur, across from the old French Market.
DeDe, born into a New Orleans Creole family in 1904, first played with Arnold Dupas’ Olympia Band in 1924. He often worked as second trumpet with Kid Rena, and learned a lot by listening to the city’s greatest blues trumpet of that day: the legendary Chris Kelly. With Billie, DeDe developed the sensitive and tasteful low-keyed variations that are still a hallmark of his style. Ida Cox picked the Pierces as accompanists on her last tour of the South – certainly an indication that they were held in high regard.
The husband and wife team were at Luthjens off and on (mostly on) from about 1935 until very serious illnesses forced them both into the hospital in the mid-‘50s. But when we came upon them, both had completed splendid recoveries, had regained weight and strength and were again the cheerful and hearty pair that the patrons of Luthjens once knew. DeDe, blind for the past six years, could not resume his trade as a bricklayer, but they have been able to begin a comeback in music. At a Tulane University concert in 1960, they surprised everyone by all but stealing the show from the powerful Kid Thomas band. They are getting a few jobs now at fraternity dances and Negro social club dances, but plans for a return to Lughjens were thwarted when the dance hall burned down in January of 1960.
Billie likes to work with a drummer, especially when she has a lot of singing to do, and so Albert Jiles (a frequent Pierce associate on Decatur Street and at Luthjens) was added for the record date. A blues is simply a blues to Billie, who is not a concerned with titles and sings verses as she remembers or invents them. Consequently, no second “take” on this session had much more than a passing resemblance to the first. We soon learned to keep the tape machines running throughout the entire session, because Billie often decided to begin a blues quite suddenly –sometimes with no warning at all, while apparently just striking a few random chords as she chatted with DeDe or someone else. Algiers Hoodoo Blues begins in precisely this manner, and this take has been included here both because of its high musical value and as a concrete indication that the tape recorder was no more intimidating to Billie than a Saturday night crowd at Luthjens. A rare spontaneity pervaded the entire session. St. Louis Blues, for example, was intended as a practice number. Jiles had set up his drums and then stepped outside the hall of the Societe des Jeunes Amis (where all of the Riverside’s New Orleans recording was done). Hearing Billie and DeDe start, he came in, quietly sat down at his drums, and began to play. His entrance comes about halfway through the number, but the take was so satisfying that nobody wanted to do it again.
Billie and DeDe were in their best form in years. A few days before, their friend Tom Woods had given a new cornet to DeDe and an old upright piano to Billie. The two had fun practicing at home, and DeDe much prefered the shorter, heavier cornet to the worn trumpet he had bee using. (“I can hold it in my hand and feel it shine,” he said.)
Billie’s comment after the session seems to sum up the spirit of the whole proceedings. She noted that her many years in show business – dancing in a chorus line in Ma Rainey’s show, playing with Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, and of course singing herself – had taught her something: “You can keep up to date and learn all the new numbers if you want to, but what the people like best is just a gang of good old blues.”
This album is part of an extensive group of recordings of traditional jazz as played today made by Riverside in New Orleans during January, 1961, and issued under the general series title, “New Orleans: The Living Legends.” Sweet Emma and the musicians featured with her can also be heard in the first release in this series, which is an overall survey of the current Crescent City Scene –
NEW ORLEANS: The Living Legends (RLP 356/357; Stereo RLP 9356/9357 – a two-LP set)
Produced by CHRIS ALBERTSON
Notes written by HERB FRIEDWALD
Cover designed by KEN DEARDOFF
Cover photos by RALSTON CRAWFORD, back-liner photos by FLORENCE MARS
Recording Engineer: DAVE JONES
Mastered by JACK MATTHEWS (Components Corp.) on a HYDROFEED lathe
Riverside gratefully acknowledges the valuable assistance of Herb Friedwald in the in the planning and recording of this project. We also wish to express thanks for the cooperation extended by Henry Zaccardi, assistant to the president, American Federation of Musicians; and by New Orleans Locals 174 and 496, A. F. of M.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street New York 36, New York