By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
Three tiers of exotic plants, two fish in a big aquarium and a bright green bird are the things that greet you upon entering the home of King Karl. Karl is a soul singer from Opelousas, Louisiana, moved up here to Mesa a few months ago for his health. He doesn't say much. When he does, the 62-year-old King's voice is thick with the soft, rippling mumble of French Creole. It's kind of soothing and sometimes hard to understand.
Then there is Georgette, eased back in a recliner, wife of King Karl for 22 years. Where her husband is reticent, she is not, and she talks in a manner that makes you glad she's not scolding you. There is no problem at all understanding her, and while Karl sits in the corner of the spare living room, plucking a slow blues on his guitar, she'll tell you quite a lot. For instance:
Back in the Fifties, she used to go see Karl--Georgette calls him by his real name, Bernard--at the Moonlight Club in Opelousas, an easy walk from her house.
"He knew my brothers, but he didn't know me," she says. "I used to see him play, but when he was playing the music back then, he wouldn't have nothing to do with me. He thought he was Mr. Big Stuff, I guess." Karl smiles and keeps strumming.
The bird, whose name is Doc, climbs onto her head. Georgette claims that he loves to talk. "Sure he talks. He was laughing just a while ago," she scoffs, lifting him from her hair. "What's up, Doc?" Then, instead of talking or laughing, Doc bites her on the finger. Karl smiles and keeps strumming.
And those fish, they're a problem, too. "They're mean as hell and they don't have names," Georgette says, frowning at the murky tank. "I had an albino in there and they beat him up. They just killed another fish, that's the second one they killed. They're mean, you don't even want to put your hand in there to feed them." @rule:
@body:King Karl stops playing the guitar, but doesn't put it down, crosses his legs and leans back, ready to talk. Despite some respiratory trouble--That smog, it got to me; I didn't have sense enough to duck it"--he's in good shape. In pressed jeans, denim shirt and leather loafers sans socks, he looks more like a retired golf pro than one of the originators of what is now referred to as swamp pop.
The music is a mix of rhythm and blues and virginal rock n' roll, born in the Fifties and early Sixties and filtered through the native musical color of southern Louisiana. "Back then they called it rock n' roll, what I was doing," Karl says. "Swamp pop, that's what they callin' it now. I was more of a soul singer."
Bernard Jolivette, born in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, started playing guitar at 13, gigging occasionally with Creole accordion legend Hank Broussard. Five years later, he moved to Beaumont, Texas, in search of work, and found it as a relief singer for Lloyd Price (the New Orleans vocalist who would later have many Top 10 hits including "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "Stagger Lee"). "Lloyd was great! And I used to sit in with Larry [Slow Down"] Williams, too."
Then the Korean War came and off Bernard went. "I was in for two years," he says. "Two years too many." After his release from Uncle Sam's grasp, Bernard returned to his home state and formed a group called the Musical Kings with a local fellow by the name of Guitar Gable. That was 1955, the same year Bernard metamorphosed into King Karl. The band recorded a single that became an instant regional hit, "Congo Mombo," that featured a King Karl vocal on the flip side, "Life Problem." After that there was the Karl-penned hit "Irene." "You know how that came about?" chuckles the sly King. "I just based it on 'Goodnight Irene.' It was a switcheroo."
In those days, if you didn't perform live, you didn't amount to much. These are some of the places the Musical Kings were playing 35 years ago: the Hix Wagon Club in Ville Platte, Bubba Lurcher's in Lake Charles, the Re Bop Club in St. Martinville, Roger's Nite Club in Breaux Bridge and the Tuxedo Junction, which was all the way to Shreveport and paid $250 for one night. "From 1955 to the late Sixties, I made my living from playing," says Karl, who opened for guys like Percy Sledge and the late Albert Collins. "In the Fifties, we could have worked seven days a week if we wanted to, playing the clubs and colleges. . . . After I joined Guitar Gable, it was two years before we played in front of a black audience. With a white audience, well, that's where the money was." Despite the potential dynamite of an all-black band performing the devil's music in all-white, pre-civil rights Southern towns, Karl doesn't recall any serious trouble. "There were two places in Louisiana, one called Henderson and one called Catahoula. They used to put the chicken screen around the stage there. We played there two times. But those were the worst places and we didn't have an inch of trouble. In Catahoula, there wasn't a black person living there. In Henderson, when we played there, a black man couldn't go fishing there. The deputy had to meet us on the outskirts of town, then take us back out. But we never had any trouble."