Harry Connick Jr. rolls out 'Smokey Mary' CD for Mardi Gras 2013
“It’s not plagiarized – it’s a stylistic thing. The Meters invented that sound. They kind of cornered the market on a certain sound. Me, like everybody else, is pissed off that we didn’t think of it first.”
Connick regrets not inviting at least one other prominent musician into the studio. “I could kick myself for not asking Mac (Rebennack, aka Dr. John) to sing on ‘Nola Girl’ with me. That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. It was built for him."
Though released through Sony, “Smokey Mary” is deliberately a low-key, limited release. Connick’s next project, scheduled for May, looks to be even more diverse. One song features his jazz trio, strings and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; others are “straight-up country.”
Harry Connick Jr. was watching parades at Gallier Hall last year when Sonny Borey, the captain of the Krewe of Orpheus, pitched an idea. Borey wanted Connick to write a song about Smokey Mary, Orpheus’s signature train float, in time for the krewe’s 20th anniversary during Mardi Gras 2013.
He even suggested a title: “The Smokey Mary Boogie-Woogie Choo-Choo Train.”
“Sonny was my drama teacher in high school,” Connick recalled this week. “He’s always been incredibly creative and fun, and he’s been a really good friend for more than 30 years. But I kind of laughed about it. I didn’t really take him seriously. Everybody was a little bit lit up.”
Publication: The Times Picayune
Author: Keith Spera
Date: February 7, 2013
Back home in New York, Connick decided to give it shot. And sure enough, a song about Smokey Mary emerged as part of a batch of two dozen new compositions.
“I was just writing – I wasn’t thinking about what kind of tunes they were going to be,” Connick said. “A lot of them were coming from a place that I remembered from a long time ago, shuffles, funk stuff, gospel stuff. It seemed like an album was forming without really trying to do it.”
That album became Connick’s new, limited release “Smokey Mary.” Though it can be ordered online and in digital form, the CD itself is only available in stores in the New Orleans area.
“The album just kind of happened. I thought, ‘Well, Mardi Gras’s coming. And these are all party tunes. So let’s do a CD with no slow songs, no ballads, that people could play at a parade.”
He plans to showcase much of the “Smokey Mary” material when he performs at the Orpheus ball after riding in the parade on Monday night.
Rounding out the nine new tunes on “Smokey Mary” are two previously released songs: “Mind on the Matter” and “City Beneath the Sea,” both from his 1996 funk album “Star Turtle.” “Basically, we didn’t have enough (new) music,” Connick said. “They seemed to fit well with the record.”
Most tracks feature a core New Orleans funk band anchored by bassist Tony Hall, drummer Raymond Weber, guitarist Jonathan Dubose, trombonist Mark Mullins, trumpeter Mark Braud and saxophonist Jason Mingledorf. Trombonist Lucien Barbarin, percussionst Bill Summers and Meters bassist George Porter Jr., among others, contribute.
Connick initially imagined the Eagles’ Joe Walsh playing slide guitar on “Angola,” but Tracey Freeman, Connick’s longtime producer, suggested they use south Louisiana’s own Sonny Landreth instead.
“Hurricane” is based on the Meters’ signature sound. When Porter came to the studio to record “Angola,” Connick screened “Hurricane” for him.
“I said, ‘George, I want to tell you personally that I completely ripped ya’ll off. There couldn’t be a more blatant stylistic rip-off of one artist to another.’ He started laughing.
But this weekend, he’s celebrating the music of “Smokey Mary” and reveling in Mardi Gras. He’ll have two of his three kids along with him to catch the parades.
“I remember watching Bacchus last year, with Will Ferrell. I just love watching (parades). I think they’re all great.”
He co-founded Orpheus in 1993, after riding as the king of Bacchus. Seeing the diversity along the Bacchus route inspired him to start a super-krewe that would be open to all – men and women, black and white.
“I remember being on the float in Bacchus looking down and seeing all these (black) kids and thinking, ‘What are they thinking about?’ They see all these glittering, pretty costumes with all these white people, and the only black people they were seeing were in a marching band or flambeaux. And my wife couldn’t ride with me.”
Bacchus, like most parades, “was an all-male, all-white krewe,” Connick said. “I get it. I got no problem with that, just like I got no problem with an all-female krewe, or Zulu. Those cultural clubs, I don’t have a problem with any of them.
“But the problem was there was nothing representing our city as a whole. I thought there should be at least one parade that had everybody. I wanted to see Mardi Gras through a different lens.”
The day after his Bacchus ride, he said, he met with his father, former district attorney Harry Connick Sr., Borey, and several other relatives and friends, and Orpheus was born.
The parade’s massive, multi-unit Smokey Mary float was named for the coal-burning train that, in the 1800s, shuttled New Orleanians across the swamps to the Milneburg entertainment district on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.
Connick was not aware that Endymion will raise the stakes this weekend with the debut of what is reportedly the largest float ever: a 325-foot-long, eight-unit behemoth that salutes the old Pontchartrain Beach amusement park.
“That is so cool,” he said. “Pontchartrain Beach was my jam. That was right down the street from where I grew up. The memories I have of that place…unbelievable. It was the best.
“I think it’s terrific. But that just means we’re going to have to add five more floats to Smokey Mary next year.”
He is well aware that the parade he created can now survive without him.
“It’s been able to do that for years. All I really do is talk about it. Sonny runs it. There’s a huge group of people that volunteer so much of their time. I wish I could take credit for it. I’m just the dumb guy who waves on the float. It’s going to outlive me.”