By Rita Egan
For those who meet John Broven, if they ask the proofreader at the Times Beacon Record Newspapers questions about his past, the mild-mannered Englishman may treat them to stories about the old-time record industry. For those who don’t have the opportunity to meet the music historian, there are his three books: “Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans,” “South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous” and “Record Makers and Breakers.”
Recently Broven had the opportunity to greatly revise and republish his first book “Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans,” which was originally published in the United States in 1978 and under the title “Walking to New Orleans: The Story of R&B New Orleans” in Great Britain in 1974.
Selling more than 20,000 copies initially and inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the book is a comprehensive history of the local rhythm and blues industry filled with information about the careers of icons such as Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and many more. A great deal of the material is derived from interviews that the author conducted himself.
Broven said it was about three years ago when the publisher, Pelican Books, approached him about updating the book. While he kept the paperback to the basic rhythm and blues period of the 1940s to the 1960s, it gave him a chance to update the basic information as well as incorporate several post-1974 interviews. This edition is significantly different from the original publication.
“The book is still very well respected, and I’m very pleased it’s given me the chance to say: Well, this is as up to date and as good as I can get it,” he said.
Rhythm and blues has filled the author’s life since his early years growing up in England. Broven said he started collecting records as a teenager and was fortunate to go to school with Mike Leadbitter, who launched the publication Blues Unlimited in 1963 along with another schoolmate Simon Napier.
He described Leadbitter as a great visionary, and when he and Napier formed the magazine, he asked Broven if he would like to write for them. The writer said he had no experience at the time and Leadbitter said to him: “You have all these records, write about them.”
It was the first international blues magazine, and Broven said he was in the right place at the right time. When the writer traveled to the United States with Leadbitter in 1970, they discovered numerous American artists who they felt were being forgotten.
Leadbitter said to him: “Why don’t you write a book?” The author said the original edition centered more around Fats Domino, who Broven described as “a great American success story.”
Broven said he is happy he had the opportunity to write about the genre. “In general I find that Americans just don’t realize what an impact their music has had overseas and internationally. Rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues spread from here [to] literally all over the world,” the author said.
The writer explained that, “When I wrote the book in the early 1970s, New Orleans rhythm and blues was considered to be part of popular rock ’n’ roll and very few people saw the link between its jazz heritage, and people saw them as almost two distinct forms. I think one of the things was to show that there was a natural progression from the jazz era into rhythm and blues and soul music. In other words, rhythm and blues is as much a part of the New Orleans heritage as jazz is,” he said.
The author said he was working in banking when he wrote the original edition of the book, and after 31 years in the banking industry, he became a consultant with Ace Records of London, England.
With the record label, he traveled to locations such as New Orleans, Nashville and Los Angeles. It was during this time that he gained a deeper knowledge of the music business and met and interviewed more renowned recording artists, including B.B. King, together with many pioneering record men and women for the critically acclaimed “Record Makers and Breakers” (2009).
For the New Orleans book, Broven said he feels the interviews have stood the test of time, and the subjects, the majority born and raised in the city, are marvelous storytellers. “I couldn’t have done it without all those great personalities and their stories,” he said. Many are no longer alive, which makes the interviews even more precious, he added.
Broven has many favorite interviewees including Cosimo Matassa, the owner of three recording studios during his lifetime. Broven credits Matassa for giving New Orleans rhythm and blues its sound, particularly the “street” drum sound.
The author said Matassa’s studios provided a relaxed atmosphere for artists, and, in the 1940s and 1950s, “there was not the overdubbing and multitrack recording that you’ve got now. It was almost a live performance. If someone hit a wrong note, that was the end of that take and you had to do it all over again,” he said.
Broven’s musical journey eventually brought him to the United States permanently. While working with Ace Records he met his late wife, Shelley, who he said was very supportive of his record research work. She had inherited the independent label Golden Crest Records, of Huntington Station, from her father, Clark Galehouse.
’In general I find that Americans just don’t realize what an impact their music has had overseas and internationally.’ — John Broven
Broven said he arranged a meeting with Shelley in 1993 to discuss a licensing deal for the Wailers’ “Tall Cool One,” a Top 40 instrumental hit on her father’s label for Ace’s best-selling series, “The Golden Age of American Rock ’n’ Roll.” They were both single and soon began dating. He joked, “I always say we signed two contracts. One was for the record and the other one was for marriage.”
When he married Shelley in 1995, he moved to the United States. The couple originally lived in Cold Spring Harbor but moved to East Setauket after two years.
For the new edition of his book, Broven will be traveling from Long Island to New Orleans for signings and book talks. He hopes that readers, especially the younger generation, will take an interest and learn about this era of American music. He believes the music is just as good today and said, “That’s the definition of classical music.”
“As I said in the book, in the introduction, my one wish is to make people aware not only of this great music, but also to make them rush to their record collections to play all those records — and if they haven’t got the records, to try and seek them out,” Broven said.
For more information about the author, visit www.johnbroven.com or to purchase his books, go to www.amazon.com.