Piano man and raconteur Armand St. Martin is bringing his songs, stories and keyboard skills drenched in the music of his native New Orleans to the Summer Sounds at St. James Concert Series next week.
In his hometown, St. Martin has played everywhere from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to the Audubon Zoo to Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law Lounge. Despite this wide range of venues, performing in the sanctuary of an Episcopal church in Baton Rouge may seem a stretch, but St. Martin happily adjusts to any venue.
“I love playing a variety of places,” he said from his home near Tulane University. “I adapt to the audience.”
This year is the 30th anniversary of St. Martin’s solo artist career. St. Martin and his wife, Patty Lee, who manages his music career, launched his solo career in late 1984.
No less than artist and celebrity Andy Warhol encouraged the singer-pianist to go solo. St. Martin met Warhol in New York City in 1982, when the pianist accompanied Micheal Smotherman, an Oklahoma singer-songwriter who was then signed to Epic Records, during a show at The Bottom Line.
“Andy Warhol caught me after the show,” St. Martin remembered. “He liked the connection I made to the audience.”
St. Martin made another celebrity fan recently when singer, songwriter, pianist, producer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Allen Toussaint heard him play at Dos Jefes in New Orleans. A mutual friend brought Toussaint to the Uptown venue on July 4.
“I got goose bumps,” St. Martin said of seeing Toussaint at Dos Jefes. “He’s one of my New Orleans music heroes, and he’s still around, doing wonderful things all the time. I was so thrilled to have him sitting there smiling and enjoying the music.”
St. Martin performed a few Toussaint songs during his set that night, including “All These Things,” a beautiful ballad originally recorded by Art Neville, and K-Doe’s No. 1 hit from 1961, “Mother-In-Law.” Toussaint complimented St. Martin’s repertoire and the harmonic changes he played at the piano.
Even though piano has been St. Martin’s instrument of choice since the early 1980s, guitar was his first instrument. He would have preferred to have begun with piano, but a $15 acoustic guitar was all he could afford.
Acquiring his first electric guitar at 14 was another big step. St. Martin spotted the instrument hanging in a Woolworth’s department store in the Carrollton Shopping Center.
“The man brought it down for me to play,” St. Martin recalled. “I played it some and he said, ‘Son, you want that guitar? Well, you come in here the next three Saturdays, play it for four hours each afternoon and it’s yours.’ ”
St. Martin honored the salesman’s terms, riding three or four buses across New Orleans to be at the Woolworth’s store for three consecutive Saturdays. After the salesman lived up to his end of the deal, St. Martin caught another series of bus rides home, his new guitar in hand.
“I had it sitting there on the aisle next to me with my hand on it,” he said. “I could see the light of the universe coming out of the guitar case. I was transported. I looked around. Nobody else on the bus could see that light, but I sure could.”
By his early 20s, St. Martin had switched to piano. The piano, of course, has a great history in New Orleans music, including such locally, nationally and internationally famous practitioners as Toussaint, Dr. John, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington, Huey “Piano” Smith and James Booker.
“It’s so hard to pick a favorite,” St. Martin said. “They’re all legends because each one of them is different. In Booker, you see the easy elaborateness he presents. It’s complex, but it just flows out of his fingers. And there’s a tartness in the piano and his singing. That’s a signature part of what he does. It’s always there.
“Toussaint is totally funky, totally New Orleans. And there’s his elegance and the deceptive ease of his knowledge of music theory. Professor Longhair rocked in his own way. He was a quiet person who came to life at the piano.
“Fats Domino made the happiest music you’d ever want to hear. Huey ‘Piano’ Smith wrote songs that are infectiously happy, which is the hallmark of the great era of New Orleans rock ’n’ roll.
“I emulate all of those guys.”