In 2015, New Orleans’ cultural community lost a litany of prominent figures, especially musicians. Some succumbed to longtime illnesses or advanced age; others died unexpectedly. Each left a void in, as well as their mark on, the city.
Thanks to their artistic contributions — as songwriters who married melodies and words, as producers who helped others realize their own visions, as performers who made indelible impressions — they all achieved some measure of immortality. Their reputations reached well beyond the Crescent City.
Here, then, are eight New Orleanians whose music will endure indefinitely.
Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis owned one of the most unmistakable, and powerful, voices in New Orleans music. As the big chief of the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian tribe, he emitted a deep, gravelly rasp that conveyed strength, soul, triumph and joy.
In the early 1970s, he and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, his partner in the separate Wild Magnolias band, were featured on the very first recordings of Mardi Gras Indian funk, which combined traditional, age-old chants and rhythms with electric instruments. The Wild Magnolias’ “New Suit” is one of the Carnival season’s enduring anthems.
In recent years, as his health declined, Dollis passed on leadership of the Wild Magnolias to his son, Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis. The senior Dollis died at age 71 on Jan. 20, a few months before he was featured on the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s commemorative poster.
Lady B.J. Crosby
“Lady B.J.” Crosby’s operatic voice could reach stratospheric heights. She deployed that voice, honed as a child in the churches of New Orleans, on Broadway stages and at jazz clubs from Istanbul to Paris.
Her theatrical credits included “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller” — her five-year run with the Broadway production earned her a Tony nomination — plus “One Mo’ Time,” “Harlemsong” and “Dreamgirls.”
A 1984 TV special, “Lady BJ Sings Lady Day: A Tribute to Billie Holiday,” won a cable ACE award. She also appeared on TV shows ranging from “Law & Order: SVU” and “Ally McBeal” to “Gimme a Break.”
She released her debut album under her own name, “Best of Your Heart,” in 2007. The following year, she suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered. She died March 27 at age 62.
Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill
Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill’s life story played out like a movie. He was born into a family of New Orleans musicians that included grandfather Jessie Hill and cousins Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, James Andrews and Glen David Andrews. He took up the trumpet as a boy, attending the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp with Trombone Shorty; later, he joined the New Birth and Lil Rascals brass bands.
But an armed robbery arrest sent Hill to prison for nine years. Upon his release in 2011, he resumed his music career as a member of Glen David Andrews’ band, the Hot 8 Brass Band and Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet, as well as his own group, Trumpet Black & the Heart Attacks.
He was nearly finished his debut album when, following minor dental surgery and a flurry of gigs during the 2015 Jazz Fest, he traveled to Japan for a tour. But on May 4, he died in Tokyo from a fast-moving infection resulting from the dental procedure. He was 28.
During the two-week delay before the return of his body from Japan, fellow musicians and relatives staged a series of nightly second-line parades in his honor, often originating at his family’s Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar on Orleans Avenue.
Harold Battiste Jr.
Harold Battiste Jr. was soft-spoken and modest, but he didn’t need to be. As a prolific saxophonist, pianist, producer, arranger and educator, he shaped popular music and musicians in New Orleans and beyond for decades.
He founded A.F.O. Records, the first New Orleans label owned by musicians; the label released Barbara George’s 1961 smash “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More).” In Los Angeles, he helped craft Sam Cooke’s 1957 hit “You Send Me” and played piano on Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
During a 15-year association with Sonny Bono and Cher, he arranged and contributed the distinctive soprano sax melody to the duo’s hit “I Got You Babe” and served as musical director for their TV show. He also helped Mac Rebennack concoct the “Dr. John” persona and produced the first two Dr. John albums, “Gris-Gris” and “Babylon.”
After directing the jazz studies program at the University of California at Los Angeles, he returned to his hometown to teach at the University of New Orleans.
Following his death June 19 at age 83, Cher paid tribute via Twitter to “our beloved Harold Battiste Jr.”
Singer-songwriter Lenny McDaniel mastered multiple instruments and wrote and performed in multiple genres.
In the 1960s, he played in bands that backed the likes of Earl King, Aaron Neville and Ernie K-Doe. After moving to Los Angeles, he worked as a sideman to Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne and Dwight Yoakam.
Back in New Orleans, he cut a series of blues-rock albums, including “Bad for Me” and “Worth the Price,” that showcased his hearty, soulful voice and songwriting skills. His ballad “Rosa” earned him a sizable following in Europe. The title track of his “Tired Angels” album was named song of the year at OffBeat magazine’s Best of the Beat Awards in 1997.
McDaniel moved away after Hurricane Katrina, to Lafayette and then Las Vegas. He eventually returned to New Orleans, where he died July 3 of kidney failure at age 65.
As a young man in the 1950s, Frankie Ford possessed the twin advantages of an expressive, nimble voice and clean-cut good looks. Those attributes caught the eyes and ears of New Orleans music industry impresarios hoping to launch a new teen idol. They recruited Ford, whose real name was Frank Guzzo, to sing over Huey “Piano” Smith’s recording of “Sea Cruise.”
Released via Ace Records, the “Sea Cruise” featuring Ford’s voice and name sold more than a million copies and hit No. 14 on the pop charts in 1959. He also recorded popular versions of Smith’s “Alimony” and Joe Jones’ “You Talk Too Much.”
From the mid-1960s until 1980 at various Bourbon Street nightclubs, Ford presided over a popular lounge act peppered with risqué one-liners and campy, colorful banter. More recently, he toured extensively and made annual appearances at local festivals.
He died Sept. 28 at his home in Gretna after a lengthy illness. He was 76.
The foundation of New Orleans music is built on beats and rhythms. Joseph “Smokey” Johnson was a master craftsman of the drums, able to translate traditional street beats into jazz, rhythm & blues and rock ’n’ roll. For years, he backed Fats Domino as well as Dave Bartholomew, the producer and co-writer behind most of Domino’s hits. Johnson’s many recording credits include Earl King’s classic “Trick Bag.”
But he is, perhaps, best known for collaborating with arranger Wardell Quezergue in the mid-1960s on “It Ain’t My Fault,” a stuttering, syncopated instrumental based on a drum cadence that Johnson first wrote in high school. “It Ain’t My Fault” has served as source material for scores of drummers, brass bands and rappers.
Following a stroke in the 1990s and the loss of a leg, he could no longer play drums. In his later years, confined to a wheelchair, he often held court on his porch in the Musicians’ Village in the Upper 9th Ward.
His death Oct. 6 at age 78 was especially distressing to Allen Toussaint, who had known Johnson since they were both ambitious teenagers at the fabled R&B nightspot, the Dew Drop Inn.
Allen Toussaint wasn’t just one thing. He was many things: A songwriter. A producer. A pianist. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. An icon of stylish cool. An ever-approachable, seemingly omnipresent, ever-enthusiastic citizen of, and proponent for, his hometown.
A short list of his credits includes Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law” and “A Certain Girl,” Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of My Heart,” Benny Spellman’s “Lipstick Traces” and “Fortune Teller,” Art Neville’s “All These Things,” Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony” and “Working in the Coal Mine,” Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That,” Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” Al Hirt’s “Java” and Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream.” He also presided over seminal recordings by Aaron Neville, the Meters and Dr. John, as well as Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade.”
In the years since Hurricane Katrina and his subsequent collaboration with Elvis Costello, Toussaint was reborn as a touring artist. He traveled the globe, spreading the gospel of New Orleans music. Following a Nov. 9 performance in Madrid, Spain, the 77-year-old Toussaint suffered a fatal heart attack.
Indicative of the love and respect he commanded in New Orleans and beyond, his Nov. 20 memorial service filled the Orpheum Theater with family, friends, fans and admirers, including Costello, Jimmy Buffett and Boz Scaggs.
Elton John sent an enormous arrangement of white orchids. “Thank you for all the music and for being such a gentleman,” read the affixed card. “Nobody played like you. A true inspiration. Love, Elton.”