By Justin Morris
Some musical sounds are implicitly tied to the place and time they came from. The music of the late ‘50s and ‘60s was certainly that, particularly in the South, and even more so in Louisiana specifically. While Beatlemania and the subsequent invasion were sweeping the nation, many acts here found their reach going only as far as their label’s influence, which was regional at best.
But some of those swamp pop sounds and names made their way past the Bayou State’s borders. They were guys like Phil Phillips, with his hit “Sea of Love.” Percy Sledge and Fats Domino topped the charts, while others, like Lil’ Alfred, Johnny Allen and Charles Mann remained more hometown treasures, even though they were incredibly influential on the genre.
One act that had more than just a local influence was The Boogie Kings, which originated in lil’ ol’ Eunice, La. Founded in 1955, The Kings started off as a quartet of teens: Doug Ardoin, Skip Morris, and brothers Bert and Harris Miller. The number of people in the band had grown to 10 or more by the Boogie Kings’ heyday in the mid- to late-‘60s.
At that time, power front men like Clint West, and later the team of G.G. Shinn and Jerry Lacroix, helped put a “blue-eyed soul” slant to the band’s swamp pop sound — one that led the band to Las Vegas, where they tried to make a national break in 1966. Though they were unsuccessful in that venture, the time in Vegas did give the band exposure and led to what many consider the definitive line-up of The Fabulous Boogie Kings.
One of the members of that line-up was Bryan Leger, whose 11-year run with the Kings began in 1958. A then-member of Rob and The Rhythm Aces, Leger met Bert Miller when Miller filled in for Rob on drums and vocals on a gig. Miller invited Leger and his tenor sax out to The Evangeline Club in Ville Platte to audition for the Kings, who were down to a three-piece at the time. The addition of Leger, a new bass player, a few more horns and some ace singers, and the Boogie Kings quickly became the band to see throughout a large portion of the state.
Leger, a Palmetto native who just celebrated his 76th trip around the sun, now resides in Sulphur. He has continued playing and making music all these years. Over the last couple, he’s released two albums: the jazz fusiony, bluesy You Look So Good (2016) and the brand-new Mélange, which he took some time to talk about after we chatted about the Boogie King’s days gone by …On swamp pop And The Boogie King’s Sound.
“You know, at the time we started, ‘swamp pop’ didn’t exist as a name,” says Leger. “I think the name was coined by somebody in England, actually … But what we were doing was black music by white guys. Hardcore blues.
“A lot of the music we played was Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters … We did all the New Orleans artists; Kansas City and Memphis blues. I guess you could say that we were a pretty advanced cover band by today’s standards. But we had a code about the songs we did. If we couldn’t do it as good or better, we wouldn’t do it.
“And a lot of that music had instrumentation that we didn’t have. In the late ‘50s and early or mid-‘60s, they started using strings quite a bit. So, we would cover the string lines in the horns.
“Swamp pop was really just a sophisticated but simpler form of R&B. It’s a simple blues three chord progression that it was built on. If I had to call it, Fats Domino was the one that laid down the whole foundation for us. Everything there was built off of triplets, and Fats had some pretty nice arrangements by (Dave) Bartholomew. They laid the groundwork for the genre.”
On His Time In The Band
“I played saxophone for the first five years I was in the band. We had a situation where we had a keyboard player that was really not performing properly, so we canned the keyboard player and I bought an organ and started playing keyboards.
“At that point, it was time to make some pretty major changes. As a result of an auto accident, two or three of the guys were out of business for three or four months, I guess, so we had to hire some more people and there was a split.
“But from that point forth, the band really started to see some remarkable growth. We learned what it was really like to put a show together. So, we started putting a better show together, and we really did become a powerhouse show band at that time. It was a really high, high energy thing, and it really worked well.
“We did reach a point where we realized we were going to need more singers, though. We knew that we could pull off a really high-energy night doing 45-minute sets with three singers doing 15 minutes each. It kept them fresh and allowed them to blow it out every song. Not to mention the fact that they were horn players as well. They could drop back into the rhythm section when they weren’t singing. That’s what I think made the group really pop, was that dynamic with the singers.
“The ones we hired were really top notch. Clint West kind of carried on that original drummer/singer thing from Bert Miller. And then at this point, we were moving into the era of G.G. Shinn, Jerry Lacroix, and a little later, Duane Yates. And that was the time that we really snapped to what we needed to do.
“For at least the next six years that I was there, we did three west coast tours that lasted a couple months each, and we made some good progress out there. It was pretty early for the west coast to understand what we were doing with a big R&B band. They’d never heard anything quite like that, because the big R&B bands didn’t go out west at that time, and that was really what we were doing. We did the whole James Brown at the Apollo record cover to cover. That was a big highlight of the shows …
“But at the end of the day, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with the caliber of musicians we had. I probably saw 50 people come through the band in 11 years, and there were probably 200 after that (laughs).
“The group started in ‘56, so in the, what, 65 years or so it’s existed, I was only there until 1969. I’ve gone back and played with them or a lot of the affiliated musicians at one time or another. But there are probably hundreds that I’ve never even met (laughs).”
On The New Release Mélange
“These days, I’m really just doing my own thing. I have a home studio and I write all my own stuff and arrange, produce and do the whole nine yards. With today’s technology, I can do the music that I’ve always wanted to do without having to hire people to do it.
“Mélange is the new CD. [Mélange] is the French word for ‘mixture,’ and [there’s] a mixture of singers on this album instead of me doing all the vocals. I did some; Bert Miller, the original singer and drummer of The Boogie Kings, did a couple of tunes. Lil’ Alfred, who also worked with The Boogie Kings, is on there. I resurrected a tune that I had recorded of him probably about 40 years ago that was on the brink of being lost.
“Dewayne Simmons (of City Heat) who, sadly isn’t with us anymore either, is on there. It took me two or three years of talking to him before I could finally get him over here to do a tune.
“I have ‘Blue Jean’ Jean Guillot, whom I worked with for over 30 years. He did all the vocals for my demos for the longest time, so I still had some of those tunes, as well.
“So, it’s called Mélange because it is that mixture … not only of artists, but some of these recordings are 40 years old or older. Just because they hadn’t been released yet didn’t mean that they weren’t good tunes or that the artist wasn’t any good. In the notes, I mention that a lot of times that’s what happens with recordings. It’s just part of the business. But I really didn’t want that to happen with these recordings.
“For example, the Lil’ Alfred tune. It’s called ‘Mississippi,’ and his vocal on it was really outstanding. But the recording was 40 years old, and I didn’t even have the original recording. I had to take it off of a cassette. But that’s how bad I wanted it. Alfred is gone now, too, so that took a lot of time and technical work to get what I got. If I’d had the original track, I could have done so much more. But I was pretty satisfied not with just that song, but getting the whole record to sound alike.
“But it was a chore all the way down to the mastering. I literally had to go in and duplicate all the kick drum and snare drum licks to put some ‘meat’ back in it. [I] added some horn parts that I could squeeze in there; some organ parts … things like that. I just worked with it until I could start to make it sound like a modern-day production. And I’m really pretty proud of it.”
On Music, The ‘Business’ And The Pursuit Of Quality
“I have probably a rather strange attitude about recording and retailing at this point in my life. It’s a lot less driven by the idea of wanting to make it big, so to speak, or wanting to sell records. My idea of recording is simply to provide a quality product. I have quite a lot of works to get out there, and if I don’t record them, they will never happen. And I’m concerned with whether it sells only so far as from a historical standpoint … [I’m] making sure that [the music] is available for future people who may be interested in my music and what I did in my lifetime.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you do this?’ I tell them that I don’t DO music. Music does me. It’s that kind of thing. I would be thrilled to death anytime anyone likes what I’m doing. That’s great … And the same goes for when someone sings one of my tunes. That’s a major accomplishment to me. I’m thrilled to death to have somebody care enough to take the time to do one of my productions.
“At this point in my life, I don’t mentally feel 76 years old, but I do understand the limitations that brings. Being a writer most of my life — since I was 12 — I looked at this entire process as just part of my music studies. And that’s the concept. I’m just furthering my music education and sharing it in the process.”
And while Leger may have moved on from the swamp popishness of his younger days, he looks back on those days with an obvious amount of fondness and respect. His personal work these days is a bit more reflective of his collegiate musical background and has delved into some jazzy sounds that I can compare to Steely Dan, Leon Russell and Michael McDonald, particularly on the 2016 release You Look So Good Tonight. And while Mélange features sounds and voices of a swamp pop history as of yet unheard, it still brings some of those more modern jazzier influences to bear in the production and additional instrumentation added during the creation of the record.
Leger is a tried and true artist who has come to embrace that concept of “artist” all the more as the years have gone by. While it’s critical that an artist be able to fund their art and survive or, dare I say, make a good living off their art, it’s more and more evident to me, from my conversations with the seasoned, lifelong artists, that the most important thing when it comes to art is that the art be done. Even when it is thankless, unappreciated and unreciprocated, it must be done. Music does you. Painting does you. Writing does you.
So, share with everyone who you are and what it is that you do. I’m glad guys like Bryan have and continue to do so, and I hope that you do, too.
Bryan Leger’s CD’s You Look So Good Tonight and Mélange are available now on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and CD Baby.