SOUND OF NEW ORLEANS
PO Box 770616
New Orleans, LA 70117
(504) 352 1303
About Sound of New Orleans
Sound of New Orleans
“Getting to know [New Orleans gospel] musicians better, traveling with them to overseas gigs, I began to appreciate their deep commitment to the music ...
[It] was not just a business, but more of a spiritual calling.
That really affected me.”
-- Gary Edwards, owner and producer, the Sound of New Orleans label
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – What does it take to run a one-man record label?
You’ve got to be musically inclined, of course.
And if you produce your own recordings – especially if you produce them in your own custom-built studio – you’ve got to be technically accomplished. And then, to survive for more than a quarter-century in a business rife with untrustworthy characters and small profit margins during a time when local labels have practically grown extinct? Well, you got to have some pretty strong business savvy, too.
And to produce a body of work that extensively documents the vernacular music of one of the most musical cities in the world? Well, you probably need to really care about the music you’re recording and the musicians who make it.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story behind New Orleans native Gary J. Edwards and the success of his Sound of New Orleans record label.
Gary Edwards literally can’t remember a time when he was not surrounded by music. Several members of his extended family were musicians who played guitar and fiddle regularly for local country dances, and Edwards remembers as a boy listening to broadcasts on WLAC, the Nashville station that featured R&B music, but only at night. He also remembers ordering records from Ernie’s, a prominent Nashville music store.
By the time he entered high school, Edwards had obtained a guitar, had begun playing along with Elvis Presley hits on the radio, and nurtured the desire to join a band.
Recognizing that the greatest need among teenage bands was for bass players, Edwards proceeded to construct his own instrument in the well-supplied, all-purpose workshop adjacent to his father’s country grocery store. He had already gained a rudimentary understanding of the electronics involved from Popular Mechanics, a widely distributed magazine of the 1950s published for the technically inclined.
After forming a band and playing his first few paying gigs, Edwards quickly realized a fact that would change his life forever: he could make more money in a week playing music than his father made running his country grocery store.
Endowed with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, Edwards eventually turned that life lesson into a music-business career that started not long after high-school graduation. As band manager, he handled business arrangements for his band, a role that quickly led to an offer to book talent for a local music venue. Following a move to a Bourbon Street apartment in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, Edwards’ talent for working with electronic instruments and sound-amplification systems eventually led to partnerships in local retail outlets that sold, repaired, and rented instruments and sound systems.
The twenty-something entrepreneur soon found himself in the midst of New Orleans’ rich and dynamic music scene, where renting equipment or supplying sound systems led to a variety of associations in the music business, but most with outstanding New Orleans musicians. Relationships with two influential figures especially -- Ellis Marsalis, master jazz pianist and patriarch of the musical Marsalis clan; and Sherman Washington, leader and manager of the Zion Harmonizers, New Orleans’s most prominent and most accomplished gospel group – would leave lasting impressions.
Through Marsalis, Edwards was introduced to New Orleans’ burgeoning 1960s modern-jazz scene, where talented locals like Marsalis, drummer James Black, and others captured the attention of national figures like trumpeter Lee Morgan, drummer Art Blakey, and the Adderley brothers, Cannonball and Nat, who came to New Orleans to record an album, released on LP as The Adderley Brothers in New Orleans and on CD under Nat Adderley’s name as In the Bag.
But the audience for modern jazz in New Orleans was still quite small, so eventually Marsalis took a job on Bourbon Street with a traditional New Orleans jazz band.
“I couldn’t understand what he was doing,” Edwards remembers. “I’d never paid much attention to the traditional jazz scene in New Orleans, but my impression was the sound was old-fashioned, and the music too simple to be interesting. Ellis convinced me to come hear the band play, and he said, ‘You’ve got to listen more carefully, and pay attention to the small details and nuances.’ Well, it wasn’t long before I was hooked, and had added a whole new genre of music to my understanding of New Orleans music.”
As a result, Edwards began producing his own records for the first time, producing a total of five traditional New Orleans jazz albums for sale in the stores he was associated with and at the musicians’ Bourbon Street gigs.
It was Edwards’ exposure to black gospel music, however, that made the greatest impression, convincing him to formerly start his own label and to record local gospel groups who had released very few records and were seldom heard outside church-related environments. The circumstances for that initial exposure was a two-day music festival held in 1969 as a precursor to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which formally celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. The 1969 gathering featured four stages and Edwards had been hired to provide sound amplification for the entire event.
That early attempt to highlight New Orleans’ rich music legacy was not a huge success for the producers or for Edwards. After two weekend days of inspiring performances, audience totals were lower than the number of performers who participated. And after Saturday’s activities, all the microphones Edwards had provided for the event, 20 in all, were stolen, thus requiring an emergency round-up of all available microphones to continue with Sunday’s schedule of activities.
But that Sunday, Edwards first heard the Zion Harmonizers, New Orleans’ premier gospel group. He also met the group’s leader, Sherman Washington, who impressed Edwards with his obvious devotion to music-making. And in turn, Washington introduced Edwards to his first European contact, laying the groundwork for Edwards’ booking agency, which, at its height, would arrange between 50 and 60 overseas gigs a year for New Orleans musicians, amounting to performances by more than 5,000 performances by New Orleans’ musicians over nearly 30 years.
“What impressed me the most about first hearing black gospel,” Edwards says, “was not only the close harmony of a quartet like the Zion Harmonizers, but the way they could alter those close harmonies in a very subtle way, almost like bending a note on a guitar by pulling a string just a little bit. This was something I knew almost nothing about, and I though it was just phenomenal. Then, getting to know the musicians better, traveling with them to overseas gigs, I began to appreciate their deep commitment to the music and to their mission of spreading God’s word through music.
“For them, making music, booking gigs, putting on performances was not just a business, but more of a spiritual calling. That really affected me.”
Almost from the beginning, Edwards began hatching plans to set up his own record label to record the Zion Harmonizers and other gospel groups who’d gone largely unrecognized and unrecorded. The small, local labels on gospel performers had depended on in the 1940s and 1950s had mostly disappeared, and the large conglomerates then dominating the music scene viewed New Orleans gospel records sold to New Orleans and overseas audiences as a small market without much profit.
And almost from the beginning Edwards knew he would base his approach on a third influence who figures large in formation of the Sound of New Orleans label, Cosimo Matassa, the son of a large French Quarter grocery family and a towering legend in the annals of rhythm-and-blues. Beginning in a small studio in the French Quarter on the corner of Rampart and Dumaine streets -- recognized in 1999 as an historic landmark -- Matassa helped record an extraordinary number of local and national hits for artists that included Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles, and many more.
Edwards would not only take Matassa as a role model, he also borrowed – with Matassa’s permission -- the name of a newsletter the New Orleans legend regularly produced called The Sound of New Orleans. But what really impressed Edwards, and the rest of the music world, was Matassa’s way of letting musicians dictate the course of a recording session, while he did his best to accurately capture a natural sound and music that sounded more spontaneous than polished recordings in big-city studios.
“During Matassa’s day in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, just as in the days of Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong, the sounds that emanated from New Orleans had a great influence on popular music all over America,” explains French label owner Patrick Frémeaux, producer of the 2-CD tribute Sound of New Orleans 1992-2005: The Story of the New Orleans Independent (Frémeaux & Associes, 2009) “Gary Edwards’ recordings have the same kind of spontaneity and natural feeling as those of the renowned New Orleans producer and engineer.”
Throughout his career, Edwards has remained deeply embedded in the New Orleans music scene. The early association with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival continued for nearly two decades as Edwards helped establish new stages for the rapidly growing event, but more importantly was given responsibility for the Festival’s series of music workshops with visiting musicians in local schools throughout the city. During the 1980s, he was stage manager for the world-renowned Blue Room nightclub of the Fairmont Hotel, a venue for touring national acts.
Following a series of gospel recordings in the early 1980s, Edwards began to recognize the international appeal of Louisiana music of all genres, which led to his exploring Cajun and zydeco music as well as local blues and R&B performers and, during the 1990s, the explosion of local brass bands blending old traditions with new sensibilities. Realizing he could record a wide variety of artists and that his label likely had a long future ahead of it, Edwards began construction of his own recording studio and offices in 1988, following a devastating fire that destroyed his previous office.
It was there that Edwards began creating the extraordinary series of recordings resulting in a catalogue of roughly 75 releases, 50 of them on CD, and still growing. Staying true to his original vision, selectively choosing acts to record and carefully producing each release, Edwards has vividly documented the richness of the New Orleans music tradition for more than 25 years. In the process, he has become a music-community resource, providing a platform for musicians who might otherwise go unheard while amassing a recorded collection of vernacular New Orleans and Louisiana Gulf Coast music unmatched by any label in the world.
Hurricane Katrina, which had been forecast to track northward along the U.S. Atlantic Coast before abruptly crossing the state of Florida and entering the Gulf of Mexico, took Gary Edwards, along with hundreds of thousands of other New Orleans residents, by surprise. Having very little time to prepare an evacuation, he threw some essentials in his van and relocated, along with his wife, Jennifer, to the greater Houston area. Behind, he left studio and offices eventually submerged under ten feet of floodwaters, destroying all equipment, files, and master tapes. A recently completed project with zydeco rising star Dwayne Dopsie, was completely destroyed.
Upon relocating, Edwards set out to do what he knows best, make recordings, book musicians, and help out where possible. To assuage his own sense of grief, and fearing he would never again have the opportunity to record authentic New Orleans gospel music, Edwards set about collecting the best and most moving tracks from his own gospel catalogue, releasing a CD called Gospel Favorites. At the same time, he made arrangements with Dwayne Dopsie and his band to use a Houston recording studio and re-create their lost release track-by-track, resulting in Traveling Man. He also made contributions to local New Orleans churches and helped them restore or replace musical instruments.
Returning to New Orleans in spring 2009, Edwards enthusiastically began to write a new chapter in the Sound of New Orleans story, overseeing the French compilation honoring his work and negotiating with industry veteran Tim Whitsett, based in Jackson, MS, to make nearly all existing Sound of New Orleans releases available as downloads, by the track or album, as part of Whitsett’s recently launched LocoBop Web site. He also planned to release a CD by local R&B artist Cluster Lee, based on the single unreleased master he’d been able to save, and immediately set to hatching plans for new compilations and new original recordings.
Like the city itself, the Sound of New Orleans label, which had triumphed in the face of adverse conditions, is ready to enter a new phase of post-disaster survival and success.
Returning to New Orleans in spring 2009, Edwards enthusiastically began to write a new chapter in the Sound of New Orleans story. Working directly with label owner Patrick Frémeaux, he helped assemble a 2-CD tribute released by the prestigious French label Frémeaux and Associates, known for its excellent taste in American roots music. Sound of New Orleans, 1992-2005: The Story of the Independent New Orleans Jazz, Blues, Zydeco & Gospel Label represents the best overview so far of the entire range of music recorded by Gary Edwards over the past two decades. As label owner Patrick Frémeaux says, “All these titles, rescued from the flood, bear witness to the strength, resilience, and unquenchable spirit of the people of New Orleans.”
At the same time, Edwards also formed an alliance with industry veteran Tim Whitsett to make Sound of New Orleans tracks from more than 50 albums available as digital downloads -- either as single tracks or whole albums – on Whitsett’s roots-music Web site LocoBop (www.LocoBop.com).
After that, it was back to the studio for Edwards and he began turning out in quick succession a series of soulful new CDs. Both Sweet Home New Orleans by singer and blues guitarist Cluster Lee and Back Home in New Orleans by vocalist Bobby Love and The Market Café Jazz Band represent loving tributes to the legacy of New Orleans music by two veteran performers who have long been favorites with local audiences and those throughout the Southeast. Up in Flames by rising young zydeco star Dwayne Dopsie and his smokin’ hot Zydeco Hellraisers demonstrates the ability of a new generation of zydeco musicians to incorporate “double-clutchin’” rhythms with contemporary urban beats.
Edwards also remains active in his role as New Orleans music ambassador, booking New Orleans-based acts in venues around the country and especially in Europe, where he’s been a regular part of the Umbria Jazz Festival scene, providing a wide range to both the Umbria summer and winter festivals. New Orleans performers tend to shine on European stages, where audiences are well-versed in their music, and at the summer 2009 Umbria Jazz Festival, Edwards says he witnessed an especially rocking performance by the new-generation Coolbone Brass Band, while Kim Prevost & Bill Solley, a funky, seven-string guitar and jazz vocal duo, proved top-notch audiences pleasers at the winter 2010 Umbria Jazz Festival.
What’s up next for the busy New Orleans music man? It’s back to the studio to work with two truly outstanding New Orleans veterans, keyboard player Richard Knox, a long-time mainstay of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s concert tours, and none other than Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, a New Orleans rhythm-and-blues pioneer whose infectious anthem to the city’s annual Mardi Gras celebration can be heard throughout the entire Carnival-time season. Five years after the monstrous damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina -- the massive BP oil spill of summer 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico notwithstanding -- Gary Edwards and the Sound of New Orleans record label, just like the city itself, is showing definite signs of renewed inspiration as both the label and the city enter a new era in New Orleans history, a 21st-century era of recovery and rebirth.
-- Roger Hahn