Slumber Parties, Death Songs and DNA
I was at French Quarter Fest and over the speaker came a song I knew all the lyrics to: Who Shot the Lala by Oliver Morgan. I didn't identify the singer at the time just knew all of the lyrics. Like automatic pilot they came spilling out of me onto the grass. There were others of my vintage singing along as well. “I heard it was a .44.”
I was a lucky kid. On top of our fridge was a radio. AM radio. My mama had it on as we ate our cereal, fruit juice, milk and the One a Day vitamin that lay in our spoons as we headed off to school. I heard all the latest and greatest. Not sure to this day if Mama knew how much she was shaping me and my musical tastes. (It was thanks to that fridge radio that I first heard the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.) The poor lady had no sense of rhythm but seemed to like music, although fact is I don't know if she listens to music for fun now. I'll have to ask her. But back then she played the radio and had a few albums. Hell, she turned me onto Harry Belafonte without realizing it. Nevermind it was next to the Mills Brothers and Mario Lanza (Drink, drink drink!). That AM radio and the Ed Sullivan Show planted a lot of songs and artists in my head.
So somewhere in my psyche lay Oliver Morgan and Lawrence “Lala” Nelson and the .44. I heard it that day and I realized that I had no earthly clue who or what the “Lala” was. So I set about investigating (which got bonus points for justifying my procrastination on a bigger project). In the process I uncovered a possible murder mystery embroiled in the entire New Orleans dynastic music scene. It was a joy. Forget that everyone else I know seemed to already know the story. Lawrence “Lala” Nelson was the brother of “Papoose” Nelson, the guitar player for Fats Domino—and the pedigree and totally overlapping business that is New Orleans musical dynasties goes on and on. I now am the proud owner of an Orpheus oversized doubloon with Oliver Morgan on it, and the title of the song as well, along with a pristine .45 (no NOT a gun) record of the song. I can't wait to hear it on a turntable.
But how'd I get there? Why was I so curious about the Lala?
Well, I was listening to the songs on the radio over my pineapple/orange juice. We heard the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, all the Motown stuff, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Otis Redding. That list is actually much longer. But a lot of the songs we heard were about death. Really romantic death—or so it seemed at that age.
Jan and Dean's Dead Man's Curve with the doomed race between a Corvette and a Jaguar. Last Kiss with Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers (about 1964, I was in fourth grade) about the car crash, him holding her tight and losing his love, his life, that night. Nevermind Tell Laura I Love Her. They were all sort of mysteries. (I mean they were young and they died! That in itself was the mystery since only old people died.) Romantic mysteries to be sure, but mysteries that didn't send me off to Google to find out who died/cause of death/was it a who or a what: indeed was it real. Most of those were mysterious only in their idiocy, as in “guess I'll enter a race to buy you a wedding ring.” Pfffft! Kids!
I heard Stagger Lee, the Lloyd Price version, back then. I knew completely that Lee shot Billy over a Stetson hat with a .44. The first version of House of the Rising Sun that I heard was the Animals: Eric Burdon plaintively wailing about his sins, not technically a death song. Although certainly at that age I could only imagine what those sins were, they were clearly romantic and probably deadly. (Most certainly deadly in the sinnin' way if I had asked the local priest.)
But at every slumber party, .45's like Last Kiss were played. There we were, with rollers in our hair, boobless chests heaving, tears welling up in our eyes, it was too, too too too romantic to stand. Oh, just so :::sob:::