Here's a list of the best Mardi Gras oldies, in no particular order, as picked by me, your Oldies Guide at About.com. It's subjective, of course, but it covers the 50s, 60s, and 70s in search of what your Guide considers the classic Carnival hits of New Orleans -- funk, rock and roll, r&b, brass band music, and more. If you have any suggestions for this list, feel free and e-mail me!
There are many different versions of this song: Fess himself even cut an earlier version called "Mardi Gras In New Orleans." This is the one you want, however, the king of all Mardi Gras songs, the one with the breathtaking piano intro, the impossibly realized whistling solo, and God's own shuffle beat. This song actually sounds
like a parade coming down your street, which may be why, for locals, it's completely impossible to imagine Mardi Gras without it.
The strongest of several Mardi Gras classics by these masters of funk during their mid-'70s period. With a microscopically accurate second-line beat, boogie-woogie piano New Orleans style, semi-nonsensical lyrics, and loads of thick funk on top, this sums up the bohemian essence of the celebration. In fact, this adaptation of a traditional parade chant is so infectious in its joy, it's hard not to grin while listening to it. Sampled by the Beastie Boys and often covered by the Grateful Dead.
You may know blues guitarist King from his 1962 hit "Trick Bag," or from his vocal on Professor Longhair's "Big Chief," but his career stretches out far before and after that; in fact, the LP of the same name is widely considered one of the great funk albums of all time, and not just because the Meters are there as back up, either. Not as well known as the other songs on this list, this track nevertheless manages to capture the loose feel of a second-line better than any other.
Even in New Orleans itself, Al's only known for this one song, which, like many on this list, feature the deathless piano of Professor Longhair. But it's such a fine testimony to the season's debauchery, not to mention a snapshot of a Claiborne Avenue scene destroyed by the Interstate highway system, that this one hit was all he needed to sustain a decades-long career: to this day, he bills himself as Al "Carnival Time" Johnson. This prime slice of Crescent City rock is just that hot.
You've no doubt already heard countless variations on the standard "Iko Iko" -- more than likely the hit '60s version by the Dixie Cups, which has been featured in several movies. That was bubblegum, however; this
is what the song originally sounded like in the decade preceding it. Raw Fifties R&B that effortlessly skips back and forth between a parade-style rhumba and a hot jump blues, it's also a field guide to the kind of (once violent) street warfare the Mardi Gras Indians tribes practice.
The man they call "Fess" was a legend, both inside and out of the city, and during his lifetime he created several timeless classics for the Carnival season. This one is actually the second half of an instrumental, yet with added vocals on the flip (a common practice at the time; Earl King handles the lead here). Fess' playing defines New Orleans' piano, and the lyrics are the best recorded tribute to the rich Mardi Gras Indian subculture -- a whole article in itself, and then some.
Okay, this mid-Nineties cut is not an oldie per se, but Rebirth's take on traditional jazz is timeless anyway, and certainly emblematic of the city's rich brass-band tradition. This isn't Dixieland, though (and, despite what they tell you, most New Orleanians don't celebrate with that anyway); it's street funk done with trad-jazz elements. And it smokes with the fire of a dozen street battles. Few people can resist the urge to shake... well, the song will let you know.
The Meters are responsible for three items on this list, all dating from the city's fertile early '70s homegrown funk period. This rather silly song has nothing lyrically to do with Mardi Gras -- it's practically a children's song, when you get down to it -- but the orchestration and especially the beat make it a perfect soundtrack to strutting down the street, and it's therefore become much beloved by the locals. Also features authentic (that is, technically incorrect English) dialect.
New Orleans is small as metropolises go, which is why so many of the songs on this list share musicians, vocalists, and songwriters. In fact, this high school group -- which recorded the original version of this classic in the Fifties -- would go on to mutate into the Neville Brothers. As a mambo, this isn't one; as a living distillation of the holiday's ethic, it's undeniable. The lyrics are great, too: "Down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn." True.
To "second line" is to march/dance in a certain fashion during a Mardi Gras parade. (If you're actually a part of the parade, you're the first line; if you're just drunk and dancing behind it, you're in the second line.) Indeed, the march and the song are synonymous, and go back decades. When, in the '70s, it was discovered that there were no existing recordings of the song, a group of session musicians stepped in and produced this, the most popular recording to date of this brass-band standard.