Hoodoo bluesman has died
Hoodoo bluesman Coco Robicheaux collapsed Friday evening at the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street and was taken away by ambulance. He was reportedly pronounced dead after arriving at Tulane Medical Center. He was 64.
Mr. Robicheaux was not performing at the time he was stricken; he often held court outside the Apple Barrel on his off-nights.
Known for an especially gravelly voice, a swamp-blues guitar style and a fascination with subjects of a spiritual and/or mystical nature, Mr. Robicheaux lived an especially colorful life, even by the standards of a New Orleans musician.
He released several albums over the past two decades. He was a mainstay of the Frenchmen Street entertainment district, a familiar figure both on- and off-stage, even as he also performed around the globe. He was a regular on the schedules of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell and the French Quarter Festival.
Mr. Robicheaux made a memorable appearance during the opening scene of the second episode of the first-season of the HBO series “Treme": He sacrificed a rooster in the studio of community radio station WWOZ-FM.
He was also a visual artist, sculptor and painter. He created the bronze bust of Professor Longhair that stands near the entrance of Tipitina's.
According to the self-narrative of his life, he was born alongside a California desert road while his parents where on vacation. A military brat, he spent his childhood on the move. At 13, he settled on the family farm in Gonzales, where he grew close to his great-grandmother, whom he described her as a gris-gris healer.
After moving to Slidell in high school, he played trombone in various blues, soul and R&B bands. He served as "creative director" for one of the area's first psychedelic nightclubs, the Purple Pickle, in Slidell. He was drafted during the Vietnam War but discharged, he said, after an Army physician detected an irregular heartbeat.
"He said it would not keep a military beat," Mr. Robicheaux recalled in 1996. "Maybe it's got like a second-line kind of thing. It don't keep that left-right, left-right."
After his discharge, he and a buddy labored as migrant workers. He settled in California, got married, fathered a daughter. By the time he moved to Colorado, the marriage had broken up. He returned to New Orleans around 1970 and assembled a short-lived band.
He became the victim of identity theft, he said, as a result of lost identification papers. A series of violent crimes were committed by someone using Mr. Robicheaux's birth name, Curtis Arceneaux. This led to numerous incarcerations and border interrogations as he lived like a fugitive, working odd jobs throughout the Southeast and Texas. Along the way, he performed in honky-tonks.
In the early 1990s, after the dissolution of his third marriage, he returned to New Orleans. He had recorded some 45s in the 1960s, but never a full album. After the soul singer Mighty Sam McClain covered a composition by Mr. Robicheaux called "Crying Inside," Carlo Ditta, owner of the local Orleans Records, offered him a record deal.
"After 30 years, I had quite a stack of songs," Mr. Robicheaux said. "My daughter said, 'If something happens to you tomorrow and I wasn't there to go through your stuff, people would be like, "What's this - it looks like a bunch of poetry" and toss it.' That was the final decision to go with this project."
Orleans Records released "Spiritland," Mr. Robicheaux's full-length debut, in 1994. It showcased his menacing style of electric blues, marked by a deep, dramatic bark of a voice that recalled that of Tom Waits.
For much of his life, Mr. Robicheaux struggled with substance abuse. He got sober while making "Spiritland." "For 35 years I drank heavily," he said in 1996. "But I had a spiritual revelation in a dream, and I knew I was at a crossroads as far as my drinking."
For many years, he maintained a spiritual shrine in a small, incense-drenched room in his Faubourg Marigny apartment. The walls were covered with religious icons, photos, vials, totems and trinkets, a mystical stew drawn from many religions and belief systems, including Christianity, Hinduism, voodoo and the teachings of his Native American ancestors. Mother Theresa, Jimi Hendrix, Buddha, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Janis Joplin and Mr. Robicheaux's grandmother were all represented.
The musician would retreat to the room at least once a day, and always before gigs. He thought of the room as "a station, a border (between the physical and spiritual worlds)."
"Spiritland" was well-received, especially in Europe, where Mr. Robicheaux performed to appreciative crowds in the 1990s. He released several more albums, including "Louisiana Medicine Man" in 1998, "Hoodoo Party" in 2000 and "Yeah U Rite," issued via his own Spiritland Records in 2005. His final album, "Revelator," came out in 2010.
He maintained that a bevy of spirits accompanied him during performances. "It's like an all-star soul revue rather than a gong show. If I sing a phrase with a certain feeling, I know it's not because this cat's in me, but he's standing right next to me. I don't want to hear voices. When I was in my 20s I would do all that stuff. Now I have a strong idea of my own identity."
Friends, fellow musicians and Apple Barrel staffers reportedly staged an impromptu memorial in Mr. Robicheaux's honor Friday night.
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