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  Congo Square

 

      The genesis of rhythm and blues in New Orleans can be traced back much further than J & M Recording Studio; back to 1724, in fact, when the Code Noir or Black Code, was enacted into law in 1724 in the French colony of Louisiana. It required that slaves be given a day of rest on Sundays and Catholic Holy Days. Africans and their descendants would enjoy this one day of temporary freedom by gathering on Sundays to sing and dance to African-based music and rhythms. For some eighty years, these celebrations would occur at various places around New Orleans and neighboring plantations, until 1817, when they were confined by the city government to one location, just outside the old "ramparts" of the city.

     The selected site was a bare, open field on North Rampart Street, a city block in size. Slaves had been gathering in that general location for decades, and it was already known as "Congo Square."

     In addition to the celebrations of music and dancing, Congo Square also served as a market for slaves and free people of color to buy and sell wild game, fish, fruits, vegetables, steaming cafe' au lait, "Creole beer," and a wide array of cooked food items such as pecan pies, roasted peanuts, pralines, cakes and gingerbread. On Sundays, slaves would earn money to purchase these items by hunting, fishing, working for wages on their day off, and by selling crops raised on plots of land allotted to them by slaveholders. After selling their goods, the merchants would join in the dancing and music in the afternoon.

     The musical instruments used in the Square were made from the participants' memories of Africa, out of whatever materials were available. Drums, which were the foundation of the music and dancing, were made in various sizes from barrels or hollow logs, with animal skin stretched over one end. They would be beaten with hands, fingers and sticks, with drummers sitting astride the large cylindrical ones and the smaller drums being held between the knees.

     A string instrument called a banza, the precursor to the banjo, was also used in the festivities, and was made from a calabash (a large gourd), animal skin, and a piece of wood (which served as the instrument's neck). Gourds were used to make maraca-like rattles. Flute-like instruments called panpipes or "quills" were also created by tying several sections of cane together.

     There could be as many as 600 native born Africans and their descendants participating in the festivities in Congo Square on any given Sunday afternoon, separated into clusters of individuals, each cluster forming a circle around several musicians and dancers. The different clusters, in the early decades, were apparently comprised of members of distinct African nations.

     Those on the outside of a circle would accompany the dancers and musicians by clapping, singing, stomping their feet, shaking gourd rattles, and replacing dancers when they became exhausted. The core element of the celebration was rhythm, and there was spontaneity, improvisation and syncopation in the rhythmic patterns.

     Music and dance were inseparable in African culture and one of the popular dances in the Square was the "Congo," a dance brought to America by the people from the Kongo-Angola region of Africa. The blacks in New Orleans came from different regions of Africa and this cultural diversity was further enriched by slaves and free people of color who arrived in the city from the French Caribbean island of St. Domingue (Haiti) in the early 1800s. Thousands of these African/Haitians had initially gone to Cuba, a Spanish colony, after St. Domingue's slave revolt, but when war broke out between Spain and France in 1809, they left Cuba and arrived at their final destination, New Orleans.

     These African/Haitians added a Latin/Caribbean tinge to the city, although New Orleans already had some Latin in its resume, France having transferred Louisiana to Spain in 1766. It remained a Spanish colony until shortly before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

     The public displays of African culture in Congo Square would most likely not have been allowed in the Anglo/Protestant areas of the New World, but the Catholic French and Spanish allowed the gatherings to take place. After the Louisiana Purchase, the American authorities had no choice but to allow the celebrations to continue. The gatherings were more or less continuous through the mid-1800s.

     This taste of African culture in New Orleans drew tourists from around the United States. "Every stranger should visit Congo Square," wrote a journalist from Philadelphia, "once at least, no one will ever regret or forget it." Another visitor to the city in 1819 reported that the Africans in the Square, "rocked the city."

     Amazingly, J&M Recording Service, where the first rhythm and blues recordings would be made over a century later, was located on Rampart Street, just a block away from the site of Congo Square, within hearing distance.

     The first two New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festivals took place on a portion of the original Congo Square.

                            Nothing but a Foolhardy Confidence 
                          "We were just cocky. There was no justification for it."
                                  —George Harrison

 

     In 1958, John and Paul added George Harrison to their skiffle group, the Quarry Men. Although younger than both John and Paul, George played better lead guitar than both of them. Skiffle would go by the wayside and rock and roll and rhythm and blues would take control, mixed in with the occasional pop song. Stuart Sutcliffe, a friend of John's from art school, would be talked into buying a bass guitar from money he had won in an art show. Now they had three guitarists and one bassist—in a loose sense—as Stu did not actually know how to play his new bass. He did, however, strike an impressive James Dean-like-look on stage with his sunglasses, but he mostly turned his back to the audience to hide the fact that he really didn't play the bass that well. They had no regular drummer—temporary drummers came and went.    

     The group went through several name changes (The Japage 3, The Silver Beetles, Long John and the Beatles, Johnny & The Moondogs), before the final name, the Beatles, was decided upon. By 1960, the group was still a very amateurish assemblage of scruffy lads. Musically, they were not very good, and the gigs were few. They had nothing much going for them except a wholly unrealistic and foolhardy confidence that they would someday make it really big.

     Then came the opportunity in August of 1960 to play for two months in a club in St. Pauli, the wildest and seediest section of Hamburg, Germany, for what seemed like a good amount of money. But it required a drummer; they had none; and were leaving in a matter of days.

     The Beatles had played many times previously in a teen club called the Casbah, operated by Mona Best in the basement of the Best home. John, Paul, and George knew that Mona's son, Pete, had a drum kit, and two days before their departure, Pete was requisitioned to join the band for the trip.

     Their engagement in Hamburg was extended through November, but would end in somewhat of a disaster when George, Paul, and Pete were all deported; first George for being underage, and then Paul and Pete for setting fire to some condoms in their squalid sleeping quarters in the back of a movie theater. Their deportations were all instigated by the disgruntled bar owner who had fired them from their first Hamburg gig, but wanted to prevent them from playing at a rival club.

    By December 8th of 1960 they were all back in Liverpool, except for Stu Sutcliffe, who had stayed behind in Hamburg with his German fiancée, Astrid.[1] Broke and discouraged, they now faced the dreaded prospect of packing it all in and having to get "proper jobs." But the trip to Hamburg turned out to be a career-saving experience. Being forced to play 4 ½ to 6 hours a night, six days a week, for almost fourteen weeks, had transformed the musically unaccomplished rag tag group of young Liverpudlians into an incredibly tight band.[2]

     On December 17th, Rory Best, Pete's younger brother, was in a pub down the street from his home "having a pint" when someone came running in, telling him to come back home to hear the Beatles—that he wouldn't believe it. Mona Best had booked the Beatles to play in her basement club; it was their first booking since returning from Hamburg. Rory and everyone else in the Casbah that night were astonished at the group's transformation. Mostly unknown and hardly missed during their absence from Liverpool, they were now one hell of a band.

     The first part of 1961 saw the Beatles' stock rise meteorically in and around Liverpool and bookings became plentiful. On February 9th, they made their first appearance at the Cavern Club.[3] The Cavern, located in the middle of Liverpool's business district, was an old fruit cellar that had been used as an air raid shelter in World War II. In 1957, it was converted into a jazz club, and it was now making the transition to rock and roll.

     Upon returning from Hamburg, Paul, under pressure from his father, had taken a job at Massey & Coggins, Ltd., winding huge coils for electric motors. At this point he was the only Beatle who had a real job, working by day and playing at night. But by February of 1960, a choice had to be made as the bookings became more numerous. They had at least one performance almost every day that month, sometimes as many as three a day when they made a lunchtime appearance at the Cavern. It was a lunchtime booking at the Cavern on February 28th that brought about an ultimatum from John to Paul—either quit winding coils or quit the band. Paul decided to unwind himself from the coil winding business.

     The Beatles might have remained only a local phenomenon had a young man not walked into NEMS record store in Liverpool a year and a half later to ask the manager, 27-year-old Brian Epstein, for a record, "My Bonnie," by a group called the Beatles.[4] Then two girls walked in asking for the same record. Brian then remembered that the Beatles were a Liverpool group that he had heard of previously, but hadn't given much notice up until now, when people were asking for their record.[5] The fact that this local group had actually made a record that people were now requesting piqued his interest, an interest that could be conveniently explored, for the Beatles played regularly at the Cavern Club, a short walking distance from his City Centre store.

     And there Brian went to catch a lunchtime Beatles performance in November of 1961, dressed immaculately, as usual, in a tailored suit, down the greasy stairs to the dingy, smelly, smoky, dank, condensation-dripping-from-the-ceiling Cavern, which he would later describe as a "dungeon." The classic-music-loving Brian was immediately enthralled by the Beatles' looks, charm, charisma, humor, and the rapport they had with their audience. Like so many others, he was hooked. Impulsive by nature, he was immediately interested in managing them. "I never thought that they would be anything less than the greatest stars in the world," he would say.

     Brian would see them perform several more times in the Cavern and elsewhere.[6] After some informal conversations with the group, a meeting was arranged at his office to discuss possible management. A half hour after the appointed meeting time, Paul had still not arrived. Brian asked George to ring Paul to see why he was late.  After calling Paul, George reported that Paul had just gotten up, and was having a bath. "This is disgraceful, he's very late," said Brian. "And very clean," replied George.        

     Despite Paul's tardiness, Brian offered to manage them. "Right then, Brian—manage us," replied John. Although Brian had no prior experience managing any type of artist, he did have an incredible faith in the Beatles. They would be big, "bigger than Elvis Presley," he would say to anyone willing to listen.

     Brian assured the Beatles that he would not tamper with their music, but there would be no more smoking, swearing, eating, and drinking on stage. The days of performing in scruffy clothes were also numbered. Leather jackets and jeans would soon be replaced by tailored suits.

     In 1962, Epstein would get bigger and better-paying bookings for his group, as well as "appearances" on BBC radio.  But his primary objective was to get "his boys" a recording contract. Through his record store contacts, he arranged for an audition with Decca Records in London on New Year's Day 1962. The nervous Beatles taped several songs in the ice-cold studio but heard nothing until March when Brian was told that Decca didn't like the Beatles' sound and that guitar groups were "on the way out."    

     But Brian's persistence in the face of rejection was rewarded in May when Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI Records run by 36-year-old George Martin, agreed to give his boys a go in the recording studio.[7] Martin was a tall, elegant, well-educated, and well-spoken gentleman born and raised in London. Although trained in classical music, he had achieved much of his success at Parlophone producing comedy and novelty records, including recordings by Peter Sellers, which was most impressive to John.

     The Beatles' first "test session" took place at Abbey Road Studios in June. After recording several songs, the group was ushered up the long stairs to the control room which towered above the large studio. George Martin cut quite an intimidating figure to the Beatles who, up to that point, had hardly said a word. In the control room, Martin proceeded to give them a long lecture on the intricacies of the recording equipment and explained what would be required of them in the studio. Then, to put them at ease, Martin told them to let him know if there was anything they didn't like, to which George Harrison replied, "Well, for a start, I don't like your tie."

     After a tense moment, the control room exploded into laughter. For the rest of the session, Martin and the recording engineer, Norman Smith, were thoroughly entertained by the spontaneous wit of John, Paul, and George. "When they left," recalled Smith, "George [Martin] and I just sat there saying, 'Phew! What do you think of that lot then?' I had tears running down my face."

     Like Brian Epstein before him, George Martin was bowled over by the boys' charm and humor. Although he recognized their musical potential, it was their personalities that won him over. "It was their charisma, the fact that when I was with them they gave me a sense of well-being, of being happy," he would say. "The music was almost incidental. I thought, 'If they have this effect on me, they are going to have that effect on their audiences.'"

     Martin took them on, and there could not have been a more suitable producer for the Beatles. In addition to his musical expertise, he was innovative and open minded—always willing to try something new and different.

     At the end of that first session, none of which produced any useable material, Martin told Brian that he was not impressed with the drummer and would have a session drummer brought in for the next recording session. It was not the first time a record producer had called into question Pete Best's drumming skills. When the Beatles backed up Tony Sheridan on the "My Bonnie" recording sessions in Hamburg, the successful German producer, Bert Kaempfert, also deemed Best's drum work not up to snuff for recording purposes.

     Aside from his drumming skills, or lack thereof, personality wise, Pete had always been the quiet, conventional one, in contrast to the comedic and outlandish personalities of John, Paul, and George. On stage, while the rest of them were joking around, Pete would play on, expressionless, almost sullen. He also tended to be a loner. During their trips to Hamburg, the other Beatles would often hang-out with another drummer from a different Liverpool group, while Pete went his own way. That drummer, Ringo Starr, even sat in with the Beatles on occasion when Pete Best was unable to make performances, both at Hamburg and at the Cavern. "It was an OH MY GOD moment…Yeah, this is it!" recalls Paul of the first time Ringo sat in. "When there were the four of us with Ringo, it felt rocking," said George Harrison. Ringo was without a doubt the best drummer in Liverpool, and he was a natural fit for the other Beatles. Now they had their record contract, but the comment by George Martin led to the inevitable—John, George, and Paul told Brian they wanted Pete out and Ringo in.       

     By October of 1962, the Beatles had recorded and released their first record, "Love Me Do," backed by "P.S. I Love You," both Lennon-McCartney compositions. By the end of 1962, "Love Me Do" had reached #17 on the British charts. The Beatles were on their way, at least in their own country. "Love Me Do" would be followed by three #1 hits in England ("Please Please Me," "From Me To You," and "She Loves You." But it would be another year before anyone in America would know the Beatles from an insect.



[1] Stu, John's close friend, would eventually leave the group altogether and stay in Germany to study art. He tragically died in Hamburg on April of 1962, at the age of 21. He had been suffering debilitating headaches and convulsions for months. Cause of death was believed to be a brain hemorrhage.
[2] It is estimated by Beatle historian Mark Lewisohn that they played 415 hours during that first trip to Hamburg.
[3] The Quarry Men had played the Cavern in 1957, prior to Paul joining the group. Little is known about this appearance, except that the owner sent up a note to John to "Cut out the bloody rock."
[4] It was actually a single by another British singer and guitarist, Tony Sheridan, backed by "The Beat Brothers," (John, Paul, George, and Pete), which had been recorded in June during the Beatles second trip to Hamburg.
[5] Since July, Brian's store had sold hundreds of copies of the Liverpool music publication Mersey Beat, and the Beatles were prominently featured in every issue. Brian himself had been writing a record review for Mersey Beat since August 3rd.
[6] The Beatles would acquire a loyal following at the Cavern, where they would appear an estimated 257-292 times.
[7] George Martin, as integral as he would be to the success of the group, could never claim to have "discovered" the Beatles. Epstein had earlier met with Martin, and played him some of their music, but Martin was not impressed. The group was later awarded a recording contract by the managing director of EMI at the urgings of those in EMI's publishing division, in exchange for the publishing rights to an early Lennon-McCartney composition, "Like Dreamers Do".