Cousin Joe from New Orleans must be one of the most fondly remembered of all the American bluesmen we toured and recorded. Musicians, promoters, journalists and fans who saw him perform still email or talk to me about their own Cousin Joe memories.
He wasn’t a bluesman who could be easily pigeonholed. His sophisticated vocals, clever songs and hip comments were underpinned by his two-fisted, knocked-out New Orleans piano playing – an irresistible combination.
And he was cool.
When folk complimented him on his performance, he would respond with, “Sure, man. I’m hip to the dip and I ain’t no drip,” before wandering off chortling to himself. When a venue owner would thank him for his show, he would say, “That’s what you booked me for, to swing the room into bad health.”
Invited to dinner with President Nixon, Joe was unimpressed:
“Man, that guy’s got no table manners, eats his food with his hands! I wouldn’t mind…but soup?”
I cannot claim that I understood the exact nuance of some of his sayings, but they always sounded good.
The Guardian critic had no doubt of his special qualities:
“A fine piano player, humorous gritty singer. He wears the sharpest of suits, looks unbelievably young and has the hippest line of jive talk you’re ever likely to hear.”
Cousin Joe was born Pleasant Joseph on December 20th 1907 in Wallace, Louisiana, some 30 miles upstream Mississippi from New Orleans. He sang in church, as a youngster wrote hymns, began to play ukulele as a child before taking up guitar, singing, playing and entertaining on street corners from the age of twelve. Four years later, having taught himself to play piano, he was playing gambling houses and riverboats for tips. Talking about those early times, when he worked days in the fields cutting sugar cane, he said, “That wasn’t for me, man, those fields ain’t even air-conditioned.”
By the 1930s, Joe had at various times in his career employed the names Smilin’ Joe, Pleasant Joseph and for his gospel work, Brother Joshua. He travelled to Dallas, then Cincinnati, playing clubs and bars before returning home to New Orleans where he formed his own band which he took into the Black Gold Club, The Grand Terrace, The Gypsy Tea Room and on to the Steamship S.S. Dixie. Come 1939, he went into a residency, fronting the Joe Robichaux Band, singing and dancing at The National Theatre in Havana, Cuba. When I worked with him some 35 years later, he still carried with him a photograph of himself in a chintzy Havana club, posing with an impossibly glamorous chorus line of Cuban dancers. He appeared to be precisely in his element.
1943 saw him featuring in New York clubs including Small’s Paradise, The Downbeat, and The Onyx, recording and gigging with mostly jazz musicians including Sidney Bechet, Earl Bostic, Tiny Grimes, Pete Brown, Mezz Mezzrow, Lizzie Miles and more. By 1948 he was back in New Orleans, recording with Paul Gayten, taking an extended residency at The Absinthe House and making the occasional out-of-town forays, significantly as part of the 1964 American Folk Blues Caravan European tour which included Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe – that was when I first met him. We stayed in touch, and in 1973 he called me from a drugstore payphone in the Vieux Carre district of New Orleans to say that he had heard that I was bringing over blues musicians, and why not him?
I didn’t need any persuading, and the following year brought him over as part of our annual American Blues Legends tour, along with Eddie Playboy Taylor, Big John Wrencher, Doctor Ross and George G.P. Jackson.
Together we made 14 tours and many recordings, plus several TV and radio broadcasts. He was a genuine pleasure to work and to be with and his vocabulary was the hippest I ever encountered. Always the sharpest of dressers with matching suit, shirt, tie, hat and shoes, whenever anyone would complement him, he would growl, “I ain’t so foolish as I’m badly dressed”, followed by the trade mark Cousin Joe chuckle.
When he played the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland, opening the show for B.B. King, he got invited into the great man’s dressing room pre-show. I just sat in the corner as unobtrusively as I could make myself, but those two were as thick as thieves. Telling stories, laughing wildly, back-slapping. Joe was totally at ease with B.B. not in the slightest overwhelmed. Unlike me.
I loved it when we encountered a fellow New Orleans musician on tour. These guys always addressed each other as “Hometown” – “How you doin’, Hometown?” It was particularly special when our tours crossed paths with those of fellow New Orleans pianist and singer Roosevelt Sykes, known to his chums as Dobbie. I would just sit there listening to their reminiscences about the characters, bars and the ladies who inhabited those earlier days in New Orleans. Dobbie had a special affection for Joe. Taking me quietly aside, he told me, “Take care of my boy, will you? He’s one of the last of his kind.”
If touring with Joe was something special, then recording was even more so. He was completely relaxed and at home in the recording studio, always happy to follow suggestions and change things and immediately welcoming to the other musicians on the session, though he had never met nor heard of them. His irrepressible good humour just relaxed everybody. He never ceased to entertain. One time during a break in recording the “Cousin Joe: Gospel-Wailing, Jazz-Playing, Rock and Rolling, Soul-Shouting, Tap-Dancing Bluesmen From New Orleans” album, he entertained the crew with his semi-spoken, semi-sung monologue, the hilarious “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark When You Come Round?” which corpsed one-and-all. It wasn’t scheduled to be recorded for the album, but I insisted he record it. He cheerfully agreed to do so and we nailed it in one take.
That was a particularly happy session. We roped in the vocal group Arrival, who had charted with their “Friends” single, essentially for our version of Joe Jones’ “You Talk Too Much” and it was during the recording of this album that he sort of met UK jazz trombone star George Chisholm.
I say “sort of” because Joe recorded the vocal on a day that Chis was recording a TV programme, and I had to wheel Chis into the studio to lay down his trombone part to the “Touch Me” track after Joe had returned to New Orleans.
Chis couldn’t stop talking about how great was Joe’s vocal, and, when Joe heard the finished mix, he went wild about the trombone solo – which was in fact only a little better than magnificent. On Joe’s next UK tour to promote the album, I invited Chis down to the 100 Club gig in London, and introduced them to each other.
The two them were inseparable that evening, so much so that I had to lever them apart to get Joe onstage. Even that didn’t fully succeed. Chis, ever the enthusiast, had brought his trombone along and joined Joe and the band onstage for a really memorable gig.
Joe had an insatiable curiosity and appetite for things musical that were not necessarily familiar to him. During our tours, he did shows with red-hot jazz tenor saxophone player, Dick Morrissey who had featured with the Average White Band, bluesman Alexis Korner, Cream founder member Jack Bruce and Stones drummer, Charlie Watts. His first UK backing band included top Birmingham musicians, Mike Burney, Roger Hill, Graham Gallery and the Spencer Davis Group drummer Pete York.
For a man of nearly 70 years of age, Joe displayed an unquenchable appetite for work, undertaking tours, seeking gigs to go to and jam on his rare nights off and even getting out there promoting his single releases with an enthusiasm that never failed to inspire. He had five singles on Big Bear, including “Lipstick Traces”, “You Talk Too Much” and “Hannah From Savannah” which all got releases not only in the UK, but also throughout Europe and received good radio play.
Then I introduced him to Muscles, with whom he quickly developed a great working relationship, with them writing songs for him and backing him on record.
Muscles were a leading UK blue-eyed funk and soul band who had toured UK & Europe supporting The Commodores, The Fatback Band, Kool & The Gang and Tower of Power, and were the UK/European rhythm section for hitmakers Disco Tex and The Sex-O-Lettes. The singles Joe recorded with Muscles were “I’m Cousin Joe From New Orleans”, and “You’re Never Too Old To Boogie” which both picked up a bunch of media coverage, releases through Europe and at times even threatened to chart.
Cousin Joe was a delight to be with and to work with, a most kindly man and that old-time New Orleans courtesy was always there. He just delighted in entertaining folk, both onstage and off. He was very much his own man, creating a special bond with his audience. One of his favourite routines, that he brought into play whenever the opportunity arose, was when an audience member got up to go to the bar, Joe would halt his performance, knock back the contents of his glass of wine, upend the empty glass on his head, and declare, “Best hair tonic in the world”, before handing the glass to the chap. Invariably, it was returned to Joe, filled.
Cousin Joe died in his sleep at his home in his beloved New Orleans on October 2nd 1989, aged 81.