The Ponderosa Stomp: A treasure trove of sound, and stories [Updated]
"It's a small town story, and probably a typical American story," said Ian Dunlop, telling the writer Holly George-Warren how he came to play bass in the International Submarine Band with the late Gram Parsons in the mid-1960s. Dunlop was already taking liberties with his narrative: Cambridge, Mass., where he and Parsons met, is hardly a backwater, and Dunlop is English by birth. "Typical" wasn't quite accurate, either; few knockabout rockers wind up running across genius, as Dunlop did when he met Parsons, whom many credit with inventing country rock.
By putting that axiomatic frame around his musical biography, Dunlop reminded the small crowd gathered in a back room at the historic Cabildo in New Orleans on Friday that everything we think of as classic or commonplace began as a series of specific experiences. Myths, rock and roll or otherwise, do not spring whole from some god's forehead. They're made over time from the dust piles of rumor and reminiscence that accrue around the cultural artifacts we love most.
One purpose of the Ponderosa Stomp, the Crescent City festival toasting "the unsung heroes of American Music," is to give both the fans and the creators of American roots music a chance to run their fingers through that rubble and uncover its gems. This takes place at the concerts that define the Stomp, featuring dozens of artists such as Dunlop: one-hit wonders, crucial footnotes and regional superstars.
This weekend, enthusiasts gathered at the House of Blues in the French Quarter to revel in the presence of not-to-be-forgotten types such as the Bay Area's 74-year-old red hot mama Sugar Pie DeSanto; the ax-wielding "King of Twang" Duane Eddy; the trumpet-blowing Dave Bartholomew; the barrel-voiced Cajun patriarch D.L. Menard; the suave Minneapolis surfers the Trashmen; and East L.A.'s own beloved party band Thee Midnighters. Fans howled when Roy Loney and Cyril Jordan of the Flamin' Groovies briefly took the stage Saturday (they played a longer club set for stragglers Sunday night) and whipped out their phones to capture images of Crystals singer La La Brooks rocking her Afro while belting out "Da Doo Ron Ron."
The shows were a blast -- a chance for some artists long out of the spotlight to revel in adulation, and for subcultural music devotees to worship together. Yet this pop generalist was as intrigued by what happened during the day, when the Stomp's official conference paired some of its notable participants with interviewers, to reflect upon colorful memories that were also often powerfully enlightening.
I was one of those interviewers, talking with Gloria Jones, known to Northern soul buffs as the originator of "Tainted Love," the song that became a smash for synth-pop duo Soft Cell in the 1980s, and as the companion of glam-rock guru Marc Bolan, with whom she had a son. Jones, it turns out, had much more to discuss than her best-known hit and her time with Bolan, which ended tragically when he died in a car crash that also seriously injured her in 1977.
She was a songwriter and producer in the Motown stable, cowriting such hits as Gladys Knight and the Pips' Grammy-nominated "If I Were Your Woman," and spending time in the studio with everyone from Marvin Gaye to Michael Jackson. She starred in one of the first productions of "Hair" -- as did Brooks, who shared memories of costars Diane Keaton and Keith Carradine during a panel discussion with the guitarist and singer Barbara Lynn. While at Motown, Jones made a great, eclectic album -- "Share My Love" -- that prefigured the genre-erasing music of Lauryn Hill and Janelle Monáe. She presented herself as living proof that the categories we devise to contain music and social history are deeply inadequate: Artists break them down as a matter of course.
Not that the wall-scaling didn't take effort. Texas wild man Roy Head was the only white singer on Peacock Records in the 1960s; speaking with journalist Andy Schwartz*, he recalled going onstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem shortly after his single "Treat Her Right" had been released. "It was applause applause applause, and then Gasp!" he said. "I just jumped on the floor and acted like I was having an epileptic fit, they started the melody and it was fine after that."
Throughout two days of sessions, the conference offered myriad examples of how music, and especially the pleasurable, strenuous work of creating it, pushed history forward. Tommy Brown, a grand old man of Southern R&B, recalled collaborating with Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the beginning of their career. "They didn't know black people when they first came into the studio," he said. "They were racist. But in two weeks, they got over it. They were wonderful people."
These intimate discussions also allowed artists to demonstrate their innovations without the din of a bar crowd around them. Eddy brought his guitar and an amp and showed how he came up with his trademark twang, using the whammy bar. Girl group empress Ronnie Spector, who packed the room late one afternoon, recalled her kindred-soul friendship with Joey Ramone, and then sang a bit of his song "She Talks to Rainbows," which she recorded in 1999. Jimi Espinoza of Thee Midnighters quoted mariachi songs to demonstrate how the Mexican style influenced his band's Chicano sound.
I could go on -- so many great tales, tall and short, were offered, along with seemingly infinite wisdom. The mentions of Sonny Bono alone could fill a book. (He was Phil Spector's "footstool," to quote Brooks, but he soon emerged triumphant with the producer's regular backup singer Cher in tow.) The sessions were videotaped, and selections were streamed on the website of Stomp co-sponsor and conference host the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; they're archived in the libraries of both the Rock Hall and the Stomp. The Rock Hall, in fact, will continue some of the conversations of last weekend when it honors Stomp regular Bartholomew along with his longtime partner Fats Domino in Cleveland in November, at its 15th annual American Masters fete.
It may seem awfully bookish to highlight discussion, instead of a music fest's usual business of dancing and shouting and turning the volume up to 11. But especially now, when so many founders of American music are entering their golden-to-platinum years, it's crucial to welcome their words as well as their music. The Stomp, alongside other institutions such as the Rock Hall, the Grammy Museum and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, do more than simply entertain when they shed light on the memories of music elders. They serve the only form of authenticity that's truly meaningful: what happened between real people as they created those songs, those stories, those dreams of sweet sound.
-- Ann Powers
*Updated: The original version of this post misidentified the journalist who interviewed Roy Head. It was Andy Schwartz, not, as originally written, Chris Morris.
Video: Sugar Pie DeSanto at Ponderosa Stomp.