Eddie Bo, checking out his favorite New Orleans park. He was always one good foot ahead of the groove.
1:45 p.m. April 16---
I had not learned of the death of Edwin Joseph Bocage, Sr. (a.k.a. Eddie Bo) until last week when I visited New Orleans. The visionary Crescent City piano player had a 1962 hit with "Check Mr Popeye," updated by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Little Richard recorded Bo's "Slippin' and Slidin' and Etta James had a hit with Bo's "Dearest Darling." His sense of wordplay in tunes like "Pass the Hatchet" are a precursor to hip-hop.
Bo died of a heart attack on March 18. He was 79.
In 2006 I talked Bo into taking a break from a busy New Orleans Jazz Festival weekend to meet me. I was on vacation, but I wanted to see Bo to preview his first-ever appearance in Chicago at the 2006 blues festival.
There was only one caveat: Bo insisted that the conversation take place on a Sunday morning near a small lake in Audubon Park........
"I come here to relax," Bo said while sitting on a park bench. "Music is a series of mathematical sounds that get to your emotions. It soothes people for a short while, anyway. If I didn't have music, I'd be like other people, jumping off bridges or whatever."
Katrina was still on his mind.
Bo looked around the park. It was quiet. Bo spoke in the rich, syncopated rhythms that underscore his music. His hit "Check Your Bucket" has become a staple of sets by Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans.
"Check your bucket?" Bo asked. "What does that mean? If your kisses fail to move her and your rap don't seem to groove her and your touch don't turn her on, you got troubles. You better check your bucket. That's what it means.
Bo checked in at Charity Hospital in New Orleans and was reared in Algiers and the 9th Ward. His remarkable resume included production credits with Irma Thomas, Art Neville and Al "Carnival Time" Johnson. He had his own 1962 hit with "Roman-Itis" and also wrote the 1963 Oliver Morgan smash "Who Shot the La La," which was a jazz fest standard until Morgan suffered a serious stroke. Bo cut a few sides with bandleader Paul Gayten for Chess Records and had many hits on the regional Ric and Cinderella labels out of New Orleans.
During the mid-1950s, Bo played in the New Orleans house band at the Club Tiajuana, a sister club of the legendary Dew Drop Inn near Charity Hospital. Soul singer Joe Tex lived above the Dew Drop Inn and Bo would catch Ray Charles when he passed through town. The Dew Drop Inn was open between 1938 and 1969. Little Richard was discovered there. It was one of the most important music clubs in the Deep South.
"People just don't get that type of experience anymore," Bo told me. "There's no hangout place. I was beginning. After the gig, there were at least 10, 15 trumpets, saxophones, maybe a dozen bass players. Everyone came to that one place because we couldn't go anywhere else. Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan. I couldn't keep up. Dinah would play as much piano as you wanted to hear. We enjoyed what we did because we passed things on to each other. We'd hang out until daybreak.
"Ray Charles was playing with Guitar Slim. One day, we were rehearsing in an outer room upstairs at the Dew Drop. Ray was playing piano and crying. I said, 'What's the matter?' He kept playing and then he paused for a minute and said, 'If I could only hear my mother pray again.' That moment put me in a different frame of mind musically, because what he played was from his heart. He was crying and playing. I can't begin to explain the experience."
Bo eyed the lake. Swift ripples were being formed by a lean second line. "Look at that," he declared. "That's a water moccasin. That is no water to play in."
In 1989 Bo studied at the Yaweh Institute in New Orleans. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune he said the institute "teaches en that we should seek love and distribute love, and seek to be moral." During the early 1990's Bo's early evening piano gig was a staple at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville in the French Quarter.
Bo was called "The Thelonious Monk of New Orleans R&B" due to his intricate exploration of rhythm schemes. He's also an accomplished carpenter. His family comes from a line of shipbuilders, and Bo rebuilt a former New Orleans doctor's office into the Check Your Bucket Cafe, which he ran with his sister Veronica Randolph for two years before the club was taken out by Hurricane Katrina. They did not reopen.
Bo equated carpentry with music.
He leaned over and told me, "You need a mathematical mind for both. You need to know the 16/18/20 beats. You need to know how to voice horns and strings and where to put them on the track. You don't have to write charts when you're dealing with minds that are good with rhythmic patterns."
Bo's studo was in a century-old New Orleans firehouse with separate rooms for guitar, drums and piano.
"During Katrina my roof decided it liked another neighborhood, so it left," he said. "I'm in the process of putting on another one." Bo lost his previous Tulane Avenue studio in a fire. "Katrina is going to bring a lot of things together," Bo continued. "And things have to come together to be successful. We've been divided in different areas for so long. Music and politics definitely don't go together. Musicians are free to observe what's going on and to try to give people some healing. And as far as I'm concerned, I'm just starting."