Swamp pop legend takes the stage Friday
As a singer and a drummer, Warren Storm helped create the south Louisiana musical styles that came to be known as swamp blues and swamp pop.
Storm made a plaintive recording debut as a vocalist with his 1958 swamp pop classic, “Prisoner’s Song.” As a session drummer, his shuffle beat propelled 1950s and ’60s recordings by Louisiana blues artists Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim, Katie Webster and Lonesome Sundown. His non-blues sessions included Dale and Grace’s No. 1 pop hit, 1963’s “I’m Leaving It Up To You.”
Storm’s singing career brought him to multiple labels, including Nasco, Top Rank, Dot, Atco, Jin, Crazy Cajun and Starflite.
A continuously working musician since his teens, Storm’s more recent work includes his many years with Warren Storm, Willie Tee and Cypress, the group he’s performing with this weekend at the Swamp Pop Music Festival in Gonzales.
Until a few months ago, 2013 Slim Harpo Blues Awards recipient Storm also performed with Acadiana supergroup Lil’ Band O’ Gold. Storm’s 15 years with Lil’ Band O’ Gold, the brainchild of Lafayette singer-guitarist-producer C.C. Adcock, took the previously little-traveled singer-drummer throughout the U.S. and to France, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.
At 76, weary of juggling two bands’ schedules, Storm reluctantly left Lil’ Band O’ Gold.
“It broke my heart, but it’s one of those decisions you have to make,” he explained. “See, I was in the middle of the two bands, shuffling the dates around. So I said, ‘Well, this is it, man. I can’t do it no more.’ ”
Adcock and Cajun singer, accordion player and fiddler Steve Riley talked Storm into joining Lil’ Band O’ Gold and picking up his drums sticks again.
“He plays like he’s singing,” Adcock said last summer before a Lil’ Band O’ Gold performance in Baton Rouge. “Even all the cats I know, the hipsters, great drummers, who sit on the side of the stage and watch Warren play, they can’t re-create it. Warren plays a lost style that helped make rock ’n’ roll.”
Storm, working in Cypress with his longtime friend and bandmate Willie Tee Trahan, plans to concentrate on singing, but he may play drums for two or three songs. Cypress also has a new recording in the works.
A native of Abbeville, Storm grew up in that Cajun-coast town with songwriter Bobby Charles, composer of “See You Later, Alligator,” “Walking to New Orleans” and “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do.”
Storm’s country-musician father played drums, fiddle, accordion and guitar. Guitar was Storm’s first instrument.
“But they had so many good guitar players,” he said. “So I took up drums.”
Storm learned to play drums by watching his father. He performed country music or, as it was called then, hillbilly music, until he heard a vinyl 45 rpm record by New Orleans’ Fats Domino at a friend’s house.
“I became an instant Fats Domino fan,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s what I wanna play. I wanna play rhythm-and-blues.’”
Teenagers Storm and Charles, mutual R&B fans, traveled to New Orleans together to hear the music they loved.
“Fats’ staff band, like Lee Allen, Herb Hardesty and Charlie Williams, they’d record sessions during the day and play after hours at the Brass Rail. We’d go and listen to them.
“I was with Bobby when he wrote all those hits for Fats. I’d drive his car and he’d sit in the back seat and write all those wonderful tunes. Best songwriter I ever ran across.”
Storm modeled his singing after Domino and his drumming after two great drummers, Earl Palmer and, most of all, Palmer’s successor as New Orleans’ session drummer of choice, Charles “Hungry” Williams.
“I was friendly with Charlie Williams because he stayed in New Orleans a long time,” Storm said. “He even let me sit in for a couple of songs with Lee Allen and them one night at the Brass Rail. I was just 17, 18 years old. Oh, man, it was such a thrill, the biggest thrill of my life.”
Storm, Charles and their 1950s peers didn’t have a name for the music they created. The term swamp pop wouldn’t be invented until about 1970.
“We were just playing music,” Storm said. “It originated from rhythm-and-blues, with Fats and Chuck Willis and everybody. It was really rhythm-and-blues, but then they called it rock ’n’ roll. And then John Broven (the British chronicler of Louisiana music) come down here and called it swamp pop. But it’s the same old Louisiana rock ’n’ roll we’d been doing for years.”
Looking forward to this weekend’s annual Swamp Pop Music Festival, Storm expects to see many familiar faces, including his dear friends Van and Grace Broussard.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” he said of the festival. “You see all your old fans there and new fans, too.”