Wardell QuezergueNew Orleans music arranger, dies
Wardell Quezergue Sr., the bandleader, producer, composer, arranger and educator whose contributions to a plethora of New Orleans rhythm & blues classics earned him the moniker "the Creole Beethoven," died Tuesday morning at East Jefferson Hospital of congestive heart failure. He was 81.
As an arranger and, occasionally, as a producer, Mr. Quezergue (pronounced ka-ZAIR) dressed up recordings with horns and other embellishments. His credits include Jean Knight's smash "Mr. Big Stuff," the Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko" and "Chapel of Love," Professor Longhair's recording of "Big Chief," Robert Parker's "Barefootin,'" King Floyd's "Groove Me," Dorothy Moore's "Misty Blue" and Dr. John's landmark 1992 album "Goin' Back to New Orleans."
He also worked with Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, B.B. King and Willie Nelson, and co-wrote It Ain't My Fault, a funky standard of the New Orleans brass band repertoire that has been sampled by various rappers.
Indicative of his status, in 2009 the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation staged a tribute to Mr. Quezergue at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in New York. Dr. John, the Dixie Cups, Knight and many others performed his arrangements. That same year, Loyola University awarded Mr. Quezergue an honorary doctorate.
Mr. Quezergue grew up in a 7th Ward household filled with music. His father played guitar, his mother played clarinet and an older brother was a trumpeter. Mr. Quezergue picked up on trumpet and notched his first professional gig at age 12.
He aspired to do more than simply perform. "When I heard the music, it was always a mystery to me on how it got on the paper," he said in a 2001 interview.
He wrote his first composition, "Harry Jones' Back Beat Boogie, " for the Xavier Prep band when he was still in high school. He quit school his junior year and entered the Army. He performed in and conducted numerous Army bands in Tokyo during the Korean War.
He returned to New Orleans in the mid-1950s, enrolled in a 7th Ward music school for service veterans, and started the Royal Dukes of Rhythm with fellow servicemen. The band became popular at school dances and proms. In a recording studio, Mr. Quezergue discovered he also had a talent for producing and arranging other musicians' music. Arranging horn charts became his specialty.
"I hear with my eyes, " he said in 2001. "I can look at something, and, before I write another part, I scan it with my eyes. My eyes read, then I hum the other part. That way I can look at one part and write another."
He taught music and directed the school band at St. Mary's Academy. His band Wardell & the Sultans recorded for Imperial Records with producer Dave Bartholomew in the early 1960s. He co-founded Nola Records in the mid-1960s. The label released key singles by the likes of Parker, Eddie Bo and keyboardist Wilson "Willie Tee" Turbinton.
His greatest success as an arranger and producer was in the service of Jackson, Miss.-based Malaco Records. He oversaw the sessions for both "Groove Me," a No. 1 hit on the national R&B chart, and on the same day, Mr. Big Stuff
He continued to produce and arrange for various labels and lead his own big bands. He charted the horns on Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's acclaimed 1999 album "American Music, Texas Style."
In 2000, Mr. Quezergue released an album, "A Creole Mass," that was based on his experiences during the Korean War. His Tokyo-based unit was eventually deployed to the front lines in Korea, but at the last minute, Mr. Quezergue was pulled from the unit in order to continue his work as an arranger for army bands. The man who replaced him was killed in combat. Mr. Quezergue started writing "A Creole Mass" as a thanksgiving prayer. In its finished form decades later, it included parts for an orchestra, a classical symphony chorus, a Negro spiritual chorale, a children's choir, a brass band and eight vocalists.
In recent years, diabetes cost him his eyesight. Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters destroyed his vast collection of musical scores. He was a party to a years-long lawsuit against Tuff City Records, a New York-based label that reissued "It Ain't My Fault," along with many other, more obscure recordings from his catalog.
Mr. Quezergue co-wrote "It Ain't My Fault" in 1964 with drummer Smokey Johnson. Their attorneys contended that Tuff City did not properly obtain the copyright for "It Ain't My Fault," and did not pay the songwriters all royalties due after rapper Silkk the Shocker and pop star Mariah Carey sampled the song. Tuff City disputed those claims; the suit was finally settled early this year.
In 2010, the song was reborn to benefit the Gulf of Mexico oil spill clean-up effort. That version featured Lenny Kravitz, Mos Def, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, actor Tim Robbins and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Mr. Quezergue remained active, working with musicians as his health allowed, often with his son Brian assisting with transcriptions. In 2009, he arranged and conducted the big band featured on singer Luther Kent's "The Bobby Bland Songbook." That same year, he arranged horns for "Here Come the Saints," a collaboration with Big Chief Howard Miller of the Creole Wild West.
In May, his wife of 60 years, Yoshi Tamaki Quezergue -- a native of Japan whom he met while stationed overseas -- died.
Survivors include five sons, Donald, Wayne, Victor, Martin and Brian Quezergue; eight daughters, Violetta Johnson, Gaynelle Mitchell and Iris, Diana, Yoshi, Helen, Ramona and Leslie Quezergue; and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.
A funeral Mass is scheduled for Monday, September 12 at 11 a.m. at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, 2022 Saint Bernard Ave.
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