New Orleans' Ponderosa Stomp: Bringing music history to life
Before “Kansas City” was recorded by everyone from the Beatles to Peggy Lee, the song was first released in 1952 as “K.C. Loving” by an obscure Houston pianist named Little Willie Littlefield. The single became a regional hit in the Los Angeles area, where Littlefield was recording for Federal Records, but it would be up to Wilbert Harrison, Trini Lopez, James Brown and Hank Ballard to turn “Kansas City” into a top 25 hit on the national pop and R&B charts. Littlefield remained a fascinating, mysterious footnote to pop-music history.
The annual Ponderosa Stomp festival in New Orleans exists to bring such footnotes to life. This showcase for the semi-legends of rockabilly, blues and R&B was founded eight years ago by Ira Padnos, a local anesthesiologist and record collector who goes by the moniker of Dr. Ike and favors thrift-shop fezzes and Indian headdresses atop his unruly bush of dark curls. His extravaganza has grown from a local bar to this year's two-night stand at the French Quarter's House of Blues, with 37 sets spread out over two stages.
And so, on Tuesday, the first day of the eighth-annual Ponderosa Stomp, there was the 77-year-old Littlefield, dressed in a dark-blue brocade blazer and grinning with delight beneath his comb-over. He sang “K.C. Loving” with a dark growl backed up by thick chord clusters unlike any of the familiar arrangements. But it soon became obvious that his heart was in the boogie-woogie piano style pioneered by childhood hero Albert Ammons, a style that peaked around the time of Pearl Harbor.
Littlefield, like a cave man thawed from the ice, brought that nearly forgotten age back to life. He rolled his left hand through the distinctive bass figures and raced his right hand up and down the keyboard, even rolling the back of his knuckles across the keys for a percussive effect. He took familiar songs, such as John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” kept the vocal melody and completely replaced the instrumental accompaniment with boogie piano of his own invention. And when he substituted an especially surprising chord, his grin got even bigger.
Howard Tate hadn’t performed in more than 20 years when Padnos brought him to New Orleans in 2001 for a pre-Ponderosa showcase, but his 1966-72 singles have long been treasured by soul-music collectors. The 69-year-old singer reappeared at Ponderosa Stomp on Tuesday night, half-bald and round in the waist, but with his strong, warm tenor intact. Better yet, he avoided the common R&B sin of over-embellishing vocals and used his buttery tone to carry the early verses, saving his gruff shouts for the climax. When he added some gospel testifying to “I Learned It All the Hard Way,” the reverberations from his lost years, including a stay in a homeless shelter, were hard to ignore.
Tate reprised his handful of hits — “Stop,” “Ain’t Nobody Home” and “Look at Granny Run Run” — as well as his original version of “Get It While You Can,” which Janis Joplin copied so successfully. But the organizers of Ponderosa Stomp want more than just the hits; they want to hear the obscure album cuts and B-sides too. So Tate announced, “I haven’t done this song in almost 40 years, but we’re going to do it for you tonight,” and belted out one of his earliest numbers, “Shoot ‘Em All Down."
Earlier on Tuesday night, rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins announced that he hadn’t played a full set with guitarist James Burton in 52 years. Burton was just 17 in 1957 when he recorded the unforgettable intro to Hawkins’ biggest hit, “Susie Q." Burton played it again Wednesday night on a black Telecaster painted with red flames, and Hawkins, looking skinny and white-haired following recent chemo treatments, yelped out the lyrics as if the two men were back in Shreveport, La., during the Eisenhower administration.
Hawkins and Burton were joined by the 40-year-old Deke Dickerson, a well-recorded figure on Los Angeles’ roots-rock scene. Part of the Ponderosa Stomp philosophy is to pair aging legends and semi-legends with younger roots-rock bands that are more interested in authenticity than nostalgia. Dickerson’s trio was the best of these young bands, and over the course of the two nights they backed up Hawkins, Long John Hunter, Carl Mann, Johnny Powers, Cowboy Jack Clement, Alton Lott, Roddy Jackson, Joe Clay and Wanda Jackson.
Burton also returned to the stage for Jackson’s set. That made sense, for not only had the two recorded together, but Jackson was also Elvis Presley’s ex-girl friend and Burton was Presley’s final guitarist. They did a trio of Presley hits together, and Dickerson steered them away from the overstatement of Elvis impersonators and into the understatement that made “Heartbreak Hotel” a smoldering song of insinuation. It was at moments like that — when the past dropped away and a song existed only in the present moment — that Ponderosa Stomp was at its best.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Photo: Howard Tate. Credit: Private Music