Big Chief Theodore “Bo” Dollis, who led the Wild Magnolia tribe for several decades and whose gritty voice helped introduce Mardi Gras Indian music to a worldwide audience, has died. He was 71.
His death was announced Tuesday by the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame.
“It is with profound sadness that I must inform you of our newest ancestor. Big Chief Theodore ‘Bo’ Dollis passed this morning,” reads a message posted to the Hall of Fame’s Facebook page. “His wife, Big Queen Laurita Dollis, has requested prayers for the family and his soul at this time. Please honor her request and refrain from calls and text messages as she prepares for his public life celebration.”
Dollis was born in New Orleans in 1944 and raised in Central City. He was fascinated by the Indian tribes in his neighborhood from a young age and masked for the first time at age 14. According to published reports, Dollis made his suit at a friend’s home because he didn’t want his family to know he had become involved with the Indians, who were often associated with violence at the time.
He became chief of the Wild Magnolias in 1964 and held the position until poor health led him to hand over the reins to his son, Gerard “Bo Jr.,” a few years ago.
Dollis’ elaborate costumes and energy brought throngs of admirers to watch his “gang” take to the streets on Super Sunday each March.
“When you saw him in his Indian suit, you saw a man truly in his glory. He would electrify people around him,” said Dow Edwards, a “spy boy” for the Mohawk Hunters tribe. “You could look at the eyes of the people who were waiting, and you knew the ones who had been there before because you could see the expectation that they had. There was something special about him.”
A musical pioneer, Dollis expanded the reach of the Mardi Gras Indian sound by recording traditional chants and blending them with funk and rhythm-and-blues music. The Wild Magnolias performed at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970.
With Dollis as lead vocalist, the Wild Magnolias recorded several albums, including “The Wild Magnolias” in 1974 and “They Call Us Wild” in 1975.
“Bo Dollis created the soundtrack to Mardi Gras with the Mardi Gras Indian sound,” Big Chief Juan Pardo of the Gold Comanche tribe said.
Dollis may be best known for his raw vocals, exemplified in the Mardi Gras classic “Handa Wanda,” which opens with Dollis’ powerful shout.
Dollis and the Wild Magnolias are credited with bringing the unique sound of the Mardi Gras Indians to an international audience with performances in London, Berlin and Nice, France. Dollis also led the group in performances at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.
“He was the first to take Mardi Gras Indian music around the world,” said Pardo, who now performs worldwide with an Indian band. “He awakened the world to what was happening here in New Orleans with the Mardi Gras Indian sound and basically laid a path. I could not do what I go around the world to do had he not done what he’s done.”
Dollis was named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow in 2011.
He is survived by his wife and son.