Music News


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."

Like many pioneering black artists, King Karl says he was taken advantage of--to put it mildly--by a more business-minded individual. In this case, he was a studio owner, songwriter and manager of talent named J.D. The main quarrel centers on a song called "This Should Go On Forever" that somebody wrote; it was recorded by Karl in 1957, but, at J.D.'s behest, stayed in the can for two years until a version by Rob Bernard was released by Chess Records. And yes, it did very well.

According to Bruce Bastin's liner notes for a 1983 compilation, J.D. was "asked by Jolivette to write a song using that title, which I did. . . . I did make him co-writer, but he later sold his portion to me." Oh really?

"I wrote the song!" Karl demands. "You see what the crook would do? He'd put his John Henry on the songs he thought would make it. He was tricky!" Though the King never got what was apparently coming to him, he still has contact with ol' J.D. "He called me just before I left [Louisiana] and said, 'Come see me, I'm down in the dumps, my wife's sick and I just lost a $50,000 lawsuit.' Ha! He should have lost a $150,000 lawsuit! Everything he got, he made off us."
The Musical Kings went their separate ways in the early Sixties, and Karl continued to perform as a solo act until things tapered off in the early Seventies. "There was no money in it for me," he says. "The only guys making money in the Seventies were the blues guys who left Louisiana and played overseas." He worked as a night watchman and tended the garden, living with Georgette in a big, old Louisiana house on two and a half acres.

They miss it.
"A lot of things we could get at home we can't get here," she says. "No crawfish, no catfish. And everything would grow down there. You could put a piece of dried stick in the ground and the next week there'd be buds on it. But don't try that here!" And as for Karl? "Figs, that's one thing I miss. And pears. I can em both, but figs are still the best preserve."
For Karl, performing these days is in the category of "just for fun," he says. "I ain't got time to miss it." He only plays his old songs. "I remember em, sure. It's not hard if you wrote em. You can go years and years and they stick in your head."

He doesn't pay any attention to what's happening in music now.
The only songs he's written lately have been religious. "Yeah, I been writing some gospel," he admits. The couple is born again, Georgette adds. But doesn't that put soul music off limits? "If it don't cause him to sin. If he plays in the house, it don't cause him to sin." Yet he's performing soon at a wicked, smoky nightclub. The man from Opelousas shrugs, still cradling his guitar. He's got a gleam in his eye, maybe thinking about those Southern nights so many years ago in wicked, smoky nightclubs; maybe thinking he's not quite ready to call it quits.

"I'm only playing an hour," he says softly. "Maybe something can come out of it, let the people know I'm here." Karl smiles and starts strumming.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap