We were sitting at the back of this single-decker bus, parked in a muddy field in West Flanders, Belgium. The rain had settled in since those early morning showers and now it was getting on for torrential with no sign of any let-up.
And we could hardly have been more relaxed.
Cousin Joe from New Orleans was his usual ebullient, entertaining self, as always hopelessly optimistic, and we had fallen into a lengthy conversation with one of my all-time trumpet heroes. Clark Terry. To my initial surprise and subsequent amusement over their strategies to discover more, they had actually never heard of each other.
It was 1974 and the bus was intended to serve as a dressing room and general bolt-hole for the musicians scheduled to appear at what was, I think, the first Aalter Jazz Festival. The project was hugely ambitious, master-minded by Tony Gallen, the English owner of the only hotel in the village, The Memling, and Erik Carrette, the intrepid organiser of the widely respected Banana Peel Jazz Club in the neighbouring village of Ruiselede.
To put their courageous plan into perspective, Ruiselede is a village of some 5,000 souls, with Aalter boasting somewhat less. On the plus side Aalter sits comfortably on the main highway from Brussels, past Gent and on to Oostende, and Belgium does have a most intelligently constructed motorway network.
The bus was full of musicians from maybe five or six bands, mostly Europeans, all waiting patiently for the storm to pass, when there was a sudden commotion at the front of the bus. The newcomer was loudly gladhanding one and all, obviously keen to make his presence felt. As he neared out little party, Cousin Joe suddenly stopped chatting and shouted at the newcomer, “Where are my fucking suits?”
While Joe remained hostile, the loudmouth introduced himself as Babs Gonzales, a name I vaguely knew, but Clark, ever the gentleman, recognised him and invited him to join us.
Gradually the story unfolded. It was probably in 1942 that Joe and Babs were sharing a flat in New York, trying to make their way in the music business. Leaving hometown New Orleans in the late 1930s, Cousin Joe had spent some time in Dallas, tried his luck in Cincinnati and landed in New York where he quickly made his presence felt.
He played piano on recording sessions with Sidney Bechet, took care of the vocals on Earl Bostic sessions and featured with the band of Tiny Grimes. At the same time he was developing an interesting, but strangely random, recording career under a variety of names. As Pleasant Joseph he had some success with the 78, “Saw Mill Blues”, as Brother Joshua he recorded “Lightning Struck the Poorhouse” and there were further releases credited to Pleasant Joe and Smiling Joe on Gotham, Savoy and Decca.
In the meantime Babs Gonzales, born Lee Brown in Newark, New Jersey, in 1919, was to become a bebop singer, poet and self-published author writing mainly about the lives of struggling musicians in a world of club owners, DJs, liquor, drugs and racism, but at that time, rooming with Joe, he was just another scuffling musician. He had evaded military service by being declared unfit after turning up to the enrolment office dressed as a woman.
It would appear that the industrious Cousin Joe wasn’t getting on too well with the dilettante Babs and it all came to an end when Babs volunteered to take some of Joe’s suits to the dry cleaner’s – and that was the last Joe saw of Babs or his suits. Joe, ever the snappy dresser, had nursed that hurt for more than 30 years – until that meeting in a bus in Aalter.
Cousin Joe was born in Wallace, Louisiana, on December 20th, 1907. He spent his early teens cutting sugar cane, learned to sing in the Baptist Church, taught himself to play piano to accompany his singing and by his mid-teens was entertaining audiences in the saloons and bawdy houses of New Orleans.
After his sojourn in New York, he returned home to New Orleans, spending the next 15 years playing piano in The French Quarter, the gambling houses and riverboats, often in the company of his good friends, Danny and Blue Lu Barker, Billie and Dede Pierce, The Harold DeJeans Band and John Robichaux, and became a regular feature on the SS Dixie. His recording career continued with King Records with Sammy Price, Mezz Mezzrow, Sidney Bechet and Lizzie Miles.
His first European visit was with The American Folk Blues Festival of 1964 with Muddy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Reverend Gary Davis, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Otis Spann and more. The tour included Birmingham Town Hall as well as that memorable Granada TV show bizarrely, but effectively, filmed at a small disused railway station near Manchester with the audience on a platform on one side of the track, the musicians on the other.
It was in 1984 that I first brought Joe over from New Orleans to tour and record for Big Bear, but we didn’t get off to the best of starts. I was waiting for him in Arrivals at Heathrow early one morning as Joe came in on the Red Eye. He emerged bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, vivid red suit and hat, with colour-matching shirt, tie and shoes, immaculate as he always was.
Looking round expectantly, his gaze fell on me, grinning my broadest towards him, and his face fell. It has to be said that I hadn’t long been ejected from my role as manager of the chart-topping Black Sabbath and I was still wearing the rock’n’roll regulation battered jeans, denim shirt – and the hair!
As I reached him, he looked me up and down with ill-concealed disapproval before asking if I was Jim Simpson. He responded to my answer with, “I fly three and a half thousand miles just to find my manager’s a goddam fucking hippie!”
Things did get better as the tour progressed, though he was somewhat put out to find that the transport for the next six weeks was to be my Jensen Healey two-seater open-top, a lot smaller car than he was accustomed to. When he had become used to sitting so close to the road and got over the initial shock of my driving, he would happily introduce me to folks under the name of some American racing driver.
Joe and I would go on to enjoy a wild old time across a dozen countries and a total of eight tours which gave me plenty to share with you in a future Bluesletter. Alongside a few near-disasters and plenty of musical highlights, I listened in to an entire new ultra-hip vocabulary which I never quite had the confidence to put to use – plus being introduced to a mythology and life-style that was as fascinating as it was obscure.
For instance, I learned about Crying Emma, who cried to save the world, without having a clue who she was. I knew who Michael was, however, Joe’s son to whom his proud parent was so devoted that he would frequently claim, in typically colourful language, “I love that boy’s last week’s dirty drawers.”