Joseph S. Clark High School, which serves students from the musically fertile Sixth and Seventh Wards, started producing artists as soon as it opened in 1948—trumpeter Milton Batiste of the famed Olympia Brass Band was in its first music class. Around 1950, when Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee were underclassmen here, they would walk to J&M Studio after school with their friends and ask Cosimo Matassa to let them cut a record. Eventually Matassa relented, charging them two dollars to record a demo of “I’m Gone.” Goodman’s distinctive voice caught the ear of Eddie Mesner of Aladdin Records, who made Goodman and Lee a duo. Billed as “Sweethearts of the Blues,” Shirley and Lee climbed the R&B charts with “I’m Gone” in 1952. Other hits followed, including “Feel So Good” and “Let the Good Times Roll.”
From 1952-1959, while kids across the country went wild for New Orleans R&B, the revered band instructor Yvonne Busch groomed some of the city’s finest talent at Clark. She helped drummer John Boudreaux and other students form the Hawkettes, who recorded the Carnival staple “Mardi Gras Mambo” in 1954. Boudreaux went on to join the house band at the Dew Drop Inn, play on hit records including Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” and eventually move to California with Harold Battiste’s AFO Executives.
Drummer Joseph “Smokey” Johnson—Busch’s neighbor in Treme—gigged with the likes of Sugar Boy Crawford while he was still her student at Clark. A drum cadence he wrote in her class became the basis of his widely sampled tune “It Ain’t My Fault,” a local classic from 1964. His bottom-heavy style made him a studio favorite—he played on “Big Chief” by Professor Longhair among many other hits. He also spent more than 20 years as Fats Domino’s drummer.
Busch had her students each learn two instruments. This method helped James Black, who studied trumpet and drums, become a composer as well as a masterful drummer. He played with Ellis Marsalis and other jazz heavies including Lionel Hampton and Cannonball Adderley. He also recorded standout drum breaks on popular songs like Eddie Bo’s funky “Hook and Sling” on Scram Records.
In 1983, a parent booster of the Clark school band asked band captain Philip Frazier, a skinny tuba player, to put together a student brass band to play a private function. He did, and afterward the schoolmates played for tips on the street in the French Quarter. Thus began the Rebirth Brass Band, which would include Philip’s brother Keith on drums and Kermit Ruffins on trumpet. Building off of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s modern take on brass band music, Rebirth’s heavy tuba riffs and danceable hooks set the template for every young New Orleans second line band since.
When Frazier and Ruffins were upperclassmen a young drummer named Byron Thomas joined them in the band room. The son of a DJ, he was already spinning in a group called New York Incorporated that included rapper Mia X. While Rebirth would bring rap into brass bands, Thomas would bring marching band and second line rhythms to hip-hop as Mannie Fresh. In 1989, he produced a local hit for Gregory D called “Buck Jump Time,” a reference to second line dancing. Later he became the in-house producer for Cash Money Records, where he put together a remarkable string of gold and platinum albums in the 90s and 2000s, including Juvenile’s “400 Degreez.”
About North Claiborne Avenue
Built over a drained swamp, North Claiborne Avenue began to take shape in the mid-1800s, with a canal running down its center flanked by rows of trees (which is why it’s nearly 200 feet wide).
Around 1900, in the formative years of jazz, the surrounding neighborhoods—Treme and the Seventh Ward—were home to African-Americans, Creoles of color, and working-class families of various European backgrounds.
Segregation intensified toward mid-century, with the new Lafitte public housing development admitting black families only. Under Jim Crow, an array of black-owned businesses took root on North Claiborne, catering to those who were denied service elsewhere.
By this time the drainage canal was filled in and live oak branches created a canopy overhead, making the Claiborne neutral ground (median) an ideal promenade for black residents’ parading traditions: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all attracted crowds here.
In 1966, over the protests of residents, public officials chose to uproot the oaks and build an elevated expressway above North Claiborne. As in other cities, the interstate paved the way for white flight to the suburbs.
A community of artists maintained the cultural vitality of the Claiborne corridor despite the ensuing divestment. Then, in 2005, the flood following Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. An uneven recovery followed, with many former residents unable to resettle in their neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and their followers still throng their traditional parade routes along North Claiborne, with brass bands and percussionists using the acoustics of the overpass to amplify their sound.
Though some post-Katrina plans proposed removing the overpass, today the city is trying to revitalize the space beneath it. Ironically, some now see it as a bulwark against the wave of gentrification that has displaced black households from sections of Treme and the Seventh Ward closer to the river.
As part of the revitalization effort, in 2018 local artist Ceaux Young painted murals of local musicians on the underside of the bridge. “It’s hard to control the space you don’t own,” he told OffBeat. “My main job is to protect that footprint.”
"Miss Yvonne Busch: Tricentennial Music Moments" from WWOZ, a brief look at the influential educator.
Clark High School alumnus Joseph "Smokey" Johnson with Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste and Bob French at the New Orleans Drum Summit panel from the 2008 Ponderosa Stomp Music History Conference.
Shirley and Lee perform their 1956 classic "Let the Good Times Roll" in 1974. Shirley Goodman topped the R&B charts again that year with an early disco record, "Shame, Shame, Shame."