Two guys in the john at Mo’s Chalet dance emporium in Metairie are comparing their triple-bypass scars. One of the guys has a cigarette bobbing up and down between his lips and is advising the other as to how his doctor told him that “nahhhh, smokin‚ ain’t gonna botha you none.”
Outside, the drink glasses and bottles are vibrating on the tables around the bandstand. Sure, they come to shake it to Harvey Jesus, Summer Breeze, Jake and the Nifty Fifties, and Monster Crawfish, but for the real aficionados, the diehards of ya mama’s rock ‘n’ roll, there’s really only one god: Eddie Powers, the guru of the boomers‚ the man who slammed it home with the Jokers at Redemptorist, St. Henry’s, Valencia, St. Dominic and Sacred Heart back in the ’50s and ’60s.
The time of ’57 Chevys and making out in the parking lot at Lenfant’s.
Powers was the guy who pushed Elvis aside back in those steamy summer days when AM radio was king and white lightning and bolts on black shoes were de rigueur for the guys. “Most of the guys who did rock ‘n’ roll back then, guys with the Jokers, the Corvettes, the Counts, the Nobles, and others, they’re dead or left the business a long time ago,” Powers says with a tinge of sadness in his voice and a 1,000-yard stare in his eyes. The stare is for the other guys, the dead ones, the ones no longer behind a mike somewhere.
It’s not for Eddie Powers, the kid who grew up in the 9th Ward and all over New Orleans, and who bumped into music in the damnedest of ways – as a 14-year-old busboy at Fontana’s Seafood Restaurant in West End.
He’s in it for the long haul. “My mama owned Fontana’s,” Powers says. “She was friends with the parents of the drummer for the Nobles. She found out the band was looking for a singer, so one day when I was bussin’ tables, she brings me over and talks them into gettin’ me a tryout with the band. They invited me over, and I was good enough to make it. First thing, I’m singing at Germania Hall, St. Henry’s. The band made $56 a gig, which means each of the seven in the band of us made $8 for a night’s work. Then we’d kick back four bucks to the drummer’s mom and she’d use that to buy hot dogs and drinks for when we came over and rehearsed.”
Powers is gulping down his third cup of coffee and is on a roll as he recalls the “Battle of the Bands” at Fortier High School and Our Lady Star of the Sea. It came down to the Jokers, the Esquires and the Counts. “The Counts had a guy named Al Farrell, and he’d do all that Ray Charles stuff, and they’d win. But we beat ’em at Our Lady Star of the Sea. Man, we had fun.”
But back then, for every guitar picker who thought he’d be the next Elvis, there was a high-school-dance band rock ‘n’ roll singer who just knew that if the planets were all aligned, this gig would be the one that would lead to a personal invitation from Dick Clark to perform on “American Bandstand.” When it does happen, sometimes the guy at the mike can’t believe it all just fell into place. For Powers, it did in the summer of ’63.
“I had written ‘Gypsy Woman,’ and we were going down to Cosimo’s (Matassa, renowned recording studio owner and promoter),” says Earl Stanley, a longtime friend who has guided Powers’ career at various points. “Well, the guy who was supposed to sing got drunk the night before, and he couldn’t make it. I wanted to kill him. Then somebody who had heard Eddie says, “Hey, what about that Powers guy?’ ” Powers jumps in: “I was home on Saturday morning, and I get a phone call: ‘Can ya come down right now to cut a record?’ ” I thought I was dreamin’. I flew down to Cosimo’s, nervous as hell. Here I am, 22 years old, and I’m cuttin’ a record at Cosimo’s. The night before, that would’ve been the last thing on my mind. I did a couple of read-throughs, and then we did it. We cut ‘Gypsy Woman.’
Fame and fortune and a spot on “American Bandstand”? “Not exactly,” Powers says. “I’m told ‘Gypsy Woman’ sold 650,000 copies, and I wound up making a grand total of $562. I remember that distinctly. In the music business, you sign this contract and that contract. I’ll give you an example. A record company in Nashville sends me something like $7,000 to go up there and cut a record. Boots Randolph is in the band; There are violins, the works. Well, then those contracts kick in. The company charges me for hotel, air fare ... by the time it was over, I was broke. I actually thought I’d owe them money.”
Nor were the chicks back in New Orleans exactly throwing hotel-room keys at Powers either. “This was right when the payola racket was breaking,” Powers says. “It was tough as hell to get air time, and you couldn’t pay for it for obvious reasons. We had this black guy, Henry Hines from Greenville, Miss., pushing ‘Gypsy Woman.’ It was No. 1 on WTIX and WNOE and then was played on WYLD. This was unheard of for white music‚ to be played on a black station back then. Well, I found out how Hines pulled that off. We’d go to a gig, and these black kids would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, man, you white! I thought you were black!’ Hines was getting us on WYLD by telling the station manager that I was black.”
“A Million Tears Ago” brought no big checks either. In 1977, Eddie Powers knew he wasn’t getting rich on royalties, and the cost of electricity was going up, so he opened Mr. E’s, a poor-boy restaurant in Fat City. This was grueling: 16 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, for 27 years. (Now you know one of the guys showing off his bypass zipper in the john at Mo’s.) Still, he kept his heart in his beloved rock ‘n’ roll.
“I couldn’t give up my music any more than I could give up breathin’,” Powers says. “Even when I was working all those hours, we played. We played the BYOB joints, the clubs on Bourbon, any place that would have us. We backed up Benny Spellman for six weeks at the Original Poppa Joe’s.” A cab driver in his late 60s with a paunch walks past the table and flashes Eddie Powers one of those “Hey, don’t I know you?” looks. It happens quickly, a nanosecond event that means all the world to a performer. Powers smiles at the guy, but no words are spoken.
The “Gypsy Woman” may soon be on the lips of New Orleanians again because Eddie Powers re-recorded the 1960s hit for his new CD.
“Hey, look at me,” Powers says. “I’m 63 years old, and I’m going to have my first CD out pretty soon. Ain’t that something? I’ve never done an album. My own CD! Earl has his songs on it. And of course, I’ll have “Gypsy Woman” and “A Million Tears Ago” on it. I’m really excited about that.”
Later in the week, it is a warm, muggy night; at 9 p.m. The crowd is already at the bar at Mo’s. Eddie Powers and the band take the bandstand.
“I’m going to do a number I made famous a long, long time ago,” Powers says. There is so much applause no one can hear him finish the sentence with “Gypsy Woman.”
Even when the show’s over, the music doesn’t stop.