When Mardi Gras season, or as Al Johnson prefers to say, Carnival, rolls around, his joyful New Orleans rhythm-and-blues classic “Carnival Time” becomes ubiquitous.
“Carnival Time,” along with Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras,” the Hawketts’ “Mardi Gras Mambo” and select other perennial favorites, return year after year for Carnival season’s weeks of en masse revelry.
Johnson is proud of “Carnival Time,” originally released in 1960 by local label Ric Records, but now he wants to show other aspects of his talent. “Beyond Carnival,” to be released Friday, is his first full-length CD.
“I’ve been doing singles, a tune here and a tune there,” Johnson, 73, said at his home in Musicians’ Village. “But this is my first full CD. I’m really excited about this myself. I feel like my career is just now starting.”
Studio work for “Beyond Carnival” began in October. Recorded in Covington and New Orleans, the album was completed just two weeks ago.
Johnson and his producer, John Autin, owner of New Orleans’ Rabadash Records and a singer-pianist himself, have planned two album release shows. The first is Friday at Howlin’ Wolf, and the second is April 27 at the Maple Leaf Bar.
Johnson also will perform May 5, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with the New Orleans Classic R&B Recording Revue featuring Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Frankie Ford and Robert Parker.
Johnson wrote many of his album’s songs, including “Mardi Gras Strut Mambo,” a remake of the previously released “Mardi Gras Strut.” He also interprets music originally recorded by others, including Smiley Lewis’ “Jailbird” and Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do.”
“We did some of my favorites,” he said. “I have so many favorites. I can’t wait to get back in the studio and do some more. And we’re going to try and write up a couple of new ones.”
“Don’t Wanna Be Down” is one of the album’s Johnson-composed songs.
“Al was just free-styling, right in the studio,” Autin said. “We just happened to have the record button pushed. It’s only Al singing and guitarist Keenan Knight playing. It came out amazing.”
Besides singing, Johnson played piano for every “Beyond Carnival” track.
“Al is playing some great piano and it feels so groovy,” Autin said. “It doesn’t sound like modern people play. It’s like a Fats Domino feel. I don’t know why he didn’t play piano on his early records.”
In fact, Johnson intentionally didn’t play piano, the instrument he’d composed “Carnival Time” and his earlier local hit “Lena” at.
“Allen Toussaint,” Johnson said, “he’s the one who stopped me from playing piano because he played so well. There were just better piano players around.”
But now Johnson is at the keyboard again, in the studio, onstage and in an episode of HBO’s “Treme.”
“I’m practicing and studying and enjoying it,” he said.
Johnson’s and Autin’s mutual friend, photographer and arts educator Pat Jolly, suggested to Autin that he work with the singer.
“Pat said that Al was having a real hard time with trust,” Autin said. “Bless her heart, she felt good about hooking me up with Al.”
Like many recording artists and songwriters of his generation, Johnson endured years of not being compensated fairly for his music. He told The Advocate in 2005 that Joe Ruffino, owner of Ric Records, “took all the publishing, just everything, and it was really unfortunate. That battle just kept me poor. I wasn’t able to upgrade my music much. I just battled, trying to get some justice.”
Johnson finally retrieved the publishing rights for “Carnival Time” some 40 years after the song’s release. As for making new recordings, however, he remained wary.
“I was fearful of everybody,” he said last week. “I just didn’t feel like going through those different battles again.”
Five years after Autin first approached Johnson about recording, the singer-songwriter finally agreed to make a record with him. They’re planning more projects, too, including bilingual remakes of “Carnival Time.”
Working with Johnson, Autin said, “it’s an honor for me and such an opportunity for my little record company. I’ve been thinking for 20 years that somebody is really gonna do something with Al, somebody bigger than me and my company. I never understood why they didn’t. But maybe in the past 20 years we grew into it and maybe the timing just had to be right.”
“With this CD,” Johnson said, “I feel like the best is yet to come.”
John Wirt is The Advocate’s staff music writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.