Obituary: Bobby Marchan

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The Independent Culture
THE NEW Orleans rock'n'roll music of the mid-1950s was simple, infectious and total fun. Little Richard, Fats Domino and Lloyd Price sounded like they were holding parties in the studio, and the sheer joie de vivre of New Orleans' music can be heard in Bobby Marchan's various recordings, the most significant being as lead vocalist with Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns.

Marchan was born Oscar James Gibson in Youngstown, Ohio in 1930, and grew up with adolescent loves of blues music and men in drag. By 1953, he was working in a troupe of female impersonators known as the Powder Box Revue, who came to New Orleans to perform at the Dew Drop Inn. He liked the city's liberal attitude and decided to stay. Marchan became the MC at the Tiajuana Club, where he discussed make-up with Little Richard.

He made two records in 1954 ("Just A Little Walk" for Aladdin and "You Made A Fool Out Of Me" for Dot), but they made little impact. The New Orleans pianist Huey Smith took Johnny Vincent of Ace Records to see Marchan at the Tiajuana. Vincent gave him $200 and a record contract, thinking that he had signed a female vocalist.

In 1956, Marchan's recording of Smith's novelty song "Little Chickee Wah-Wah" sold reasonably well and he appeared at the Apollo Club in Harlem and at the Brooklyn Paramount. He and Smith decided to work together by forming a group, Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns. Smith would write, arrange, record and play piano while Marchan would sing.

Dr John wrote in his autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon (1994), "I remember the first time I met Bobby Marchan: he was in drag, and Huey Smith introduced him to me as Roberta. Later I met him as Bobby and I had no idea it was the same person."

Johnny Vincent liked a phrase in Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven", "I got the rockin' pneumonia", and he asked Smith to write a song around it. Smith responded with "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu". The record sold well and is regarded as a rock'n'roll classic.

The Clowns were well named, as they fooled around both on and off stage. Although Marchan did not wear drag for their shows, the Clowns made camp gestures, and their backing vocalist, Gerri Hall, maintained that she was more man than the rest of the Clowns put together.

In 1958 Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns released one of the greatest double-sided singles in rock'n'roll - "High Blood Pressure" and "Don't You Just Know It". The latter, with its call and response chorus, was written around a phrase used by their coach driver. The single climbed to No 9 in the US charts. Their album, Having A Good Time, shows that Smith knew how to write for Marchan's soaring high-pitched vocals, but Marchan was not happy at seeing only Smith's face on the cover. The Clowns, who included such colourful characters as Scarface Williams, Peg Leg Martin and Eugene Francis, who had green hair, may not have been photogenic enough.

As a result of Marchan's dissatisfaction, two singles were issued under the name Bobby Marchan and the Clowns - "Rockin' Behind the Iron Curtain" is a nonsensical look at Communism, while "Would You Believe It (I Have A Cold)" was based on a commercial. Marchan had hoped for exposure on Dick Clark's show American Bandstand, but Clark thought the reference to "drinking Tequila all day" in the latter song might corrupt teenagers.

Smith recorded his best song, "Sea Cruise", with Marchan, but Johnny Vincent thought it would suit a new white vocalist, Frankie Ford. He removed Marchan's vocal and added Ford's, doing the same with another track, "Roberta". Ford's record became extremely successful and meant that Marchan was bound to leave Ace Records.

Unfortunately, when he made his first recording for Fire Records, they did not appreciate that he was still under contract to Ace. His fecklessness almost jeopardised his epic version of Big Joe McNeely's "There Is Something On Your Mind". Ace tried to prevent the record reaching the shops, but it became very popular, especially its Part 2, in which Marchan narrates with increasing passion what he is going to do to his woman. The record made the US Top Forty, but its follow-up, a dance song, "Booty Green", was less interesting.

In 1964 Marchan toured with Otis Redding, who recommended him to Stax, where he cut two singles, "What Can I Do" and "Mary's Little Lamb". He moved from label to label and recorded the original version of what later became Slade's first hit, "Get Down and Get With It". By the mid-1970s Marchan had returned to work as a female impersonator, although he regularly played the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He was also working as a talent scout, looking for rap acts for Manicure Productions.

In recent years, Marchan developed cancer and had a kidney removed. He worked when he could and Westside Records had rush- released a Bobby Marchan CD, Clown Jewels - the Masters 1956-75, so that he could see it before he died.

Marchan was proud of his music, saying "I thought we made records that were different from everyone else in the 1950s."

Oscar James Gibson (Bobby Marchan), singer: born Youngstown, Ohio 30 April 1930; died New Orleans, Louisiana 5 December 1999.