Carnival has experienced a proliferation of walking krewes following in Krewe du Vieux’s footsteps.
Krewe of Cork, Chewbacchus and ‘tit Rex are just a few, and on Lundi Gras the Krewe of Fools will parade for the fifth time through the Vieux Carré.
Fools’ members are street performers in the French Quarter and their supporters, and their king this year will be singer “Grandpa” Elliot Small.
“Grandpa Elliot is an absolute rock star,” said Erica Chomsky, the krewe captain. “His career is legendary, and he has been an inspiration to a lot of street performers in the Quarter.”
The Krewe of Fools parade will form at Chartres and Dumaine at 1:30 p.m.
Small is a regular on the corner of Royal and Toulouse streets, easily recognized for his trademark white beard, red shirt and demin bib overalls.
He’s out there singing most days, but he first performed on the French Quarter streets when he tapdanced on Bourbon Street at 6 years old. He has spent much of his life performing on French Quarter streets.
Small began to sing on the streets as he grew up, and in the late 1960s he recorded with famed New Orleans arranger Wardell Quezergue at Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios, cutting “Girls Are Made for Lovin’” and “I’m a Devil” among other songs for Bang! Records. “Girls Are Made for Lovin’” got enough airplay that Small tried a career in pop music.
“I got off the streets, but the streets gave me a good base,” he said.
Locally, he opened for national R&B acts and occasionally toured with them, but by the ‘80s, the music business had taken the fun out of music for Small. He returned to the French Quarter, where he knew what it took to be successful.
The key is to make everything a show, he says. “I made a show out of Stoney B when I sang with Stoney B. I made a show out of the a cappella group when I sang with the a cappella group,” Small said. Part of that meant paying attention to their look. He insisted that the a cappella group that had sung in T-shirts get suits and look sharp.
“Really, I practically almost managed half of the French Quarter street musicians because I used to dress them up,” he said.
Grandpa Elliot was one of a number of street musicians from around the world chosen to participate in “Playing for Change” — an album and film that featured musicians singing on their respective street corners, then edited together to create collaborative versions of classic songs performed by players who had never met.
Grandpa Elliot eventually did come face to face with his collaborators when he was chosen to be part of the “Playing for Change” touring band, which came to Tipitina’s in 2009 and Jazz Fest in 2011. He was impressed by the caliber of street musicians he met on those tours.
“I couldn’t believe my ears,” Small said. “This guy from Africa, anything that he touched turned to gold when he touched an instrument.”
Small lost the sight in his left eye when he was a teenager, then became color blind and finally, after Hurricane Katrina, lost his sight entirely. But as a result, he said, his other senses have been heightened.
“I know everything that’s around me,” Grandpa Elliot said.
Still, Carnival is a different story. “Believe it or not, by me being blind, I’ll be scared as hell with all those people,” he said. “But I’m getting used to it.”
Grandpa Elliot is the fifth King of Fools. The krewe started in 2011 with the goal of “celebrating, preserving, promoting, protecting and honoring the art of street performance in New Orleans’ French Quarter,” according to Erica Chomsky.
Its first king was King Warpo, a magician, and he was followed by King Peter, the glass harper in Jackson Square; King Louis, the patriotic statue; and King Emmett, a magician.
Grandpa Elliot’s not sure how he feels about the name “Krewe of Fools,” but he appreciates the honor.
“When I found out I was the king, it did my heart good.”