Walkin’ To New Orleans: Jivin’ Gene
Mardi Gras is a little over a week away, and we thought we’d take a leisurely stroll eastward to the Crescent City. But along the way, let’s visit with some of the great musicians we have been lucky enough to encounter in past years. The fertile crescent that stretches atop the Gulf of Mexico from Austin to New Orleans is inhabited by some of the greatest musicians in the country. You know about Austin and we’ll get to New Orleans in time, we promise. But first …
We start in Port Arthur, Texas, hometown of Janis Joplin, the Big Bopper and the Winter brothers (Johnny and Edgar). If you grew up there in the 1950s or the 1960s, rock and roll is in your blood – it was certainly on the radio back then, and it was definitely in the air. I grew up on a quiet street in Groves, Texas (snuggled next to Port Arthur) and did all the usual things a kid did in the early 1960s. But every once in a while the quiet was cracked by the ring of a rock and roll band rehearsing in a garage a few doors down. After investigating, I learned that the garage belonged to our neighbor Gene Bourgeois, known as “Jivin’ Gene.”
Jivin’ Gene was a rock star in the late 1950s. His first single, produced by Cajun mastermind Huey Meaux, was “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (NOT the Neil Sedaka song) and is now considered to be a landmark in Louisiana music. “Breaking Up” managed to climb into the top half of the Billboard charts in 1959 and it enabled Jivin’ Gene to see a small part of the world from a tour bus. He only had a handful of followup records and eventually went to work as an insulator to support his family.
But now, 50 years after his biggest hit, Gene Bourgeois is in his late 60s and retired from the insulating business. He’s back playing rock and roll and by all accounts he’s more popular than ever. The last time I saw him was at my dad’s funeral and Gene looked a little grayer but good nonetheless. He has even recorded a CD, appropriately titled It’s Never Too Late, that will soon be on sale at all his gigs. You can catch Gene playing at Larry’s French Market in the Port Arthur area, he’ll play at the big Mardi Gras celebration in Port Arthur on Feb. 21. He loves rock and roll more than never now.
My favorite Gene story was about the time they recorded “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” at KPAC radio studios in Port Arthur. Gene used to get stage fright when he sang, even when the audience was only his band and a producer. So Huey stuck Gene in the men’s room along with a microphone and turned out the lights. The great echo you hear on the song came from that location – and it became a trademark of the great Texas-Meets-Louisiana swamp rock sound. Every time I think of Port Arthur, that tune begins to play in my brain: “Breaking up is hard to doooooooo/Making up is the thing to doooooooo.”
There’s a place in Houston called The Big Easy. It’s a little club, they play the blues there. Some years ago I gave owner Tom McLendon a bunch of my old photos to adorn the walls. He had Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, Fats Domino, the Boogie Kings. But one photo that was carefully framed and hung quickly went missing – it was the only photo anyone ever stole. Guess whose photo it was.