Eddie Bo: Singer, pianist, songwriter and producer who played a leading role in the New Orleans scene

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For three decades the singer, pianist, songwriter, producer and arranger Eddie Bo played an important part in the rich New Orleans music scene, making records in a variety of genres. He wrote and first recorded “My Dearest Darling”, which became a Top 40 hit in the US for Etta James in 1960, and “I’m Wise”, which Little Richard turned into “Slippin’ And Slidin’’ in 1956. A prolific artist, Bo released more than 50 singles, featured several times on the R&B charts, and worked on records by Oliver Morgan, Art Neville, Robert Parker, Tommy Ridgley, Irma Thomas, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Willy DeVille.

Born Edwin Joseph Bocage in 1930, he grew up in Algiers, Louisiana, and the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans where he picked up the family trades of music, masonry and carpentry with the various relatives who built houses by day and made music by night. One of his uncles played with Sidney Bechet, and his mother nurtured her son’s budding talent as a pianist. “She played piano like Professor Longhair,” Bo recalled. “We’d have piano players come around and they would talk and we’d watch them play.”

After spending time overseas with the US Army at the end of the Forties, he attended the Grunwald School of Music in New Orleans, where he studied composing and arranging, and further improved his already considerable skills as a pianist. He broadened his musical horizons and began mixing the bebop style of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson with the more syncopated playing of local hero Professor Longhair.

First known as Spider Bocage, he had his own jazz orchestra, before developing his own heady sound and adding a dash of rock’n’roll, rhythm’n’blues and soul and funk, to create a potent gumbo as Eddie Bo.

“There’s that mysticism, that little extra beat that you can always tell comes from New Orleans,” he said about the intoxicating nature of his music. “It’s an extra beat inside the beat that we can’t seem to explain to people. We call it a stutter step, that extra step that the second liners do [in the street parades]. We incorporate that from when we are children, and when you hear it, then you know it, ‘cause there’s only one set of people that’s able to incorporate that extra little thing that’s going on in there. Mister, you can tell New Orleans anywhere you go.”

Early in his career, Bo led a group of musicians backing singers such as Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Earl King and the Platters. From the mid-Fifties, he issued dozens of singles under his own name on the Ace, Apollo, At Last, Blue Jay, Bo-Sound, Checker, Chess, Cinderella, Ric, Rip, Scram, Seven B and Swan labels. His novelty record “Check Mr. Popeye” (1962) was inspired by the cartoon character and briefly inspired a dance craze, but versions by Chubby Checker – as “Popeye (The Hitchhiker)” – and Huey “Piano” Smith – under the title “Pop-Eye” – stole Bo’s thunder.

In the mid-Seventies, following the failure of El Grande, a club in which he had invested heavily, Bo went to live in Miami, where he worked as a carpenter, but he returned to the Big Easy and to music in the late Eighties. He

accompanied Willy DeVille on Victory Mixture (1990), the New York singer’s album of New Orleans rhythm and blues and soul covers which featured three Bo compositions – and sold 100,000 copies in France.

Bo started a health food store with one of his sisters but in 1999 a fire destroyed the building which housed it and where he also lived. He lost two keyboards, master tapes of released and unreleased material, musical charts and his collection of classic 45s.

The New Orleans music community rallied round and organised a benefit concert to enable Bo to buy new keyboards and he was soon performing again and building a small recording studio inside a former fire station in New Orleans.

He then opened the Check Your Bucket Café, named after his 1970 R&B hit. Unfortunately Hurricane Katrina put an end to that venture in 2005. Bo was playing dates in Europe when Katrina hit. Ever the handyman, he repaired the roof of his home in Picayune, Mississipi, on his return.

Bo was a regular at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and had fond memories of appearing there in 2007. “They had ‘Piano Heaven’. All in a row, they had me, Dr John, Fats Domino and Ray Charles,” he said.

Pierre Perrone

Edwin Joseph Bocage (Eddie Bo) singer, pianist, songwriter, producer: born New Orleans 20 September 1930; married (marriage dissolved, three daughters, two sons); died 18 March 2009.