Lois Andrews Nelson has had a front-row seat for the Treme music scene her entire life. The music that came from both sides of her family is carried on by her famous musician children: James, Troy and Buster Andrews.
But beyond her family ties, Nelson, 66, is a cultural ringleader. She ran a North Robertson Street barroom called Trombone Shorty’s; created The Shop, a Marais Street gathering and jam space for musicians; and has long acted as a grand marshal for brass bands.
On Saturday, Nelson will ride as queen in the 10th-anniversary parade of krewedelusion, a weighty role, said co-founder L.J. Goldstein, noting that the parading club “puts its appointed Ruler in charge of governing the entire universe.”
In this case, the universe also revolves around its ruler, Goldstein said. That’s because the krewedelusion world map places New Orleans at the center of the universe. And in the center of New Orleans, there’s Lois Nelson, he said.
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In the late 1990s, Lois Nelson was among a handful of women who revived a nearly dormant baby doll tradition in the late 1990s, wearing a satin dress that friend Merline Kimble had kept from their childhood. That marked the start of the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, the first of a dozen local baby doll groups.
“She is one of this city’s treasures, one of those individuals who quietly hold our communities together and pass on to our youth the torches that were passed down to them by their ancestors,” Goldstein said. “And, of course, she is someone who parades with just the right amount of delusion.”
Because of her keen memory for detail, Nelson is also relied upon as a neighborhood historian, a role explained by her brother, Lionel Nelson, 67: “You don’t forget what you’re a part of. She’s a key part of that history in Treme: the music, the skeletons, Dirty Dozen, the babydolls.”
As children living on St. Philip Street in Treme, Lois and Lionel often walked three blocks to Picou’s Bar & Grill. Though the venue was operated by renowned clarinetist Alphonse Picou, it was run by their grandfather, Walter Nelson Sr., who played guitar in Picou’s band.
There, the two children were doted on by regulars, many of them musicians, who sought out Nelson both for gigs and for levelheaded advice, according to oral histories of the time.
By the time little Lois was born, two of her uncles were also well-known guitarists. Walter Nelson Jr., known as “Papoose,” played with Fats Domino; his brother Lawrence, called “Prince La La,” is best-known for the song, “You Put the Hurt on Me.”
Nelson remembers their Uncle Papoose playing songs “on a pretty guitar” for her and Lionel — if he was at home. “He was like Troy, we would see him and then we wouldn’t see him, because he’d be traveling,” she said.
Papoose’s and Prince La La’s sister, Dorothy Mae Nelson strengthened the musical tradition by marrying musician Jessie Hill, from the musical Lastie family in the Lower 9th Ward.
For a few years, Jessie and Dorothy Mae lived near Hill’s family in the Lower 9, on Benton Street. Evenings, they’d put Lois and Lionel in the car and take long rides, stopping to see musicians like Fats Domino, passing through the Treme, and spending time at the black-run Pontchartrain Park Golf Course, where drummer Frank Lastie ran the club house.
Then, in 1960, Hill had a hit that became a Carnival favorite and made it to a Top 5 slot of the Billboard R&B chart, selling 800,000 copies. Again, Nelson’s memories of this are more personal. “After he made this song, ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo,’ he came home and took us for one of our rides. But that night, he pulled up to a house on Prentiss Street and walked up to the door with a key. My mother said, ‘Whose key you got?’ But Jessie opened the door, and we all went in.”
“My mom said, ‘Where are the people?’ And Jessie said, ‘We the people. This is where we stay.’”
It was flush times. Lois Nelson remembers her father taking them to the Sears and Roebuck store on Gentilly Boulevard and Press Street, which would open just for them, so that the staff would help “Mr. Hill’s children” shop for toys and clothes. One year, when their father asked what they wanted for Christmas, Lois and Lionel dreamed up what they thought was an impossible gift. “We sat at the foot of the bed and here come Art Linkletter riding on his bike” on television, she said. “We told him that’s what we wanted.” Sure, enough, on Christmas morning, there was a four-person surrey bicycle just like Linkletters’ in their living room.
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Lois had seven children with James “12” Andrews Sr. In addition to two daughters, Temeca and Deja, they had five boys. First came James, the trumpet player and family ringleader who she calls “the big shot.” Then Bruce. The next three all played music: Buster plays snare drum; and Troy "Trombone Shorty" and Darnell “D’Boy” played trombone.
Darnell was killed in 1995 when he was a teenager. During his massive funeral, photographer Eric Waters captured a now-iconic image of a deeply mourning Lois Nelson dancing on top of her son’s coffin. Most days, however, Nelson doesn’t want to speak about Darnell. It’s still too hard.
Nelson seems to remember nearly every gig her children performed in their early days. There was the one with Danny Barker, at the World’s Fair. Another overseas with Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.
But she doesn’t quite know what to say about her royal debut. “It hasn’t sunk in yet,” she said. She knows that she will wear a purple, green and gold baby doll dress. The Gold Digger Baby Dolls and the Baby Doll Sisterhood will act as her royal court, with the Treme Sidewalk Steppers as her honor guard. Beyond that, she wonders how it will feel to rule the universe. “(I've) been in so much stuff. I’m in books. I’ve danced on coffins in midair. But I’ve never been a queen.”