Check out Part I of our biography of singer/pianist Armand St. Martin, exploring his coming of age in the musically-storied city of New Orleans, involvement with such institutions as the Krewe of Alligator and Tipitina’s, and his early musical career.
(All photos Armand St. Martin & Patty Lee collection, unless otherwise noted)
In 1981, Armand St. Martin went out to Los Angeles to perform and record with fellow Louisiana roots musician and songwriter Julie Didier. One day during the trip, St. Martin was sitting at the Wurlitzer electric piano in Didier’s living room and playing Professor Longhair’s “Bald Head” when her friend, songwriter and musician Micheal Smotherman walked in. Serendipitously, Smotherman was looking for a synthesizer player to back him on his upcoming tour. After hearing St. Martin’s rendition of “Bald Head,” Smotherman hired him on the spot. “So, I went out to L.A. for a quick visit but ended up staying there,” St. Martin says.
Originally from Oklahoma, Smotherman was already a veteran country songwriter. No less a personage than Glen Campbell has recorded an entire album of Smotherman songs, 1978’s Basic. His other writing credits include Ray Charles, Trace Adkins, Lila McCain and Deana Carter.
At the time of their meeting, Smotherman was in Los Angeles pursuing the performing rather than songwriting side of his career. He had landed a recording contract with Epic Records, exploring a sound which, while still rooted in country, embraced much of the pop aesthetic of the day.
As part of Smotherman’s tour band, St. Martin found himself in the company of many other formidable instrumentalists including Little Feat bassist Kenny Gradney and drum legend Dony Wynn. Both of these artists became lifelong friends as well as musical collaborators of St. Martin’s, appearing on the bonus tracks of his album Alligator Ball.
The most important new acquaintance St. Martin made in California, however, was neither Smotherman nor the musicians in his band. Rather, it was Patty Lee, another friend of Didier’s. St. Martin and Patty Lee instantly connected. And, with her background as a music journalist, stint in the rock department at ICM management/talent agency and writing skills honed working with major movie producers and comedian Wayland Flowers of “Madame” fame, they had plenty to talk about. Patty Lee was added as the on tour press agent for Smotherman. The couple married in Northern California in 1984 and honeymooned in New Orleans.
As St. Martin’s association with Smotherman’s band continued, the outfit’s sound evolved from pop through a jazz-inspired period into rock-and-rhythm with a bluesy feel and finally into a style owing much to rockabilly and New Orleans music.
During his time with Smotherman, the band played a memorable 1982 show at New York City’s famous venue, The Bottom Line. The concert was a CBS Records show and the guest list included none other than Andy Warhol —bringing together the champion of Louisiana roots piano and the King of pop art together under one roof. “After my performance, Warhol came back stage and spoke with me,” St. Martin remembers. “He was very nice and very pleased with what I had done. People like that are such icons. You never know what they’re going to be like in real life, but he was terrific.”
Warhol expressed his opinion that St. Martin should go solo. St. Martin remembers this as a defining moment in his career, “Of course, it was something I had thought about but when you have someone with that kind of cred in the art world tell you the same thing, it has an impact.”
St. Martin says the The Bottom Line show was memorable for another reason. “After the show, I was outside the club on the sidewalk when Smotherman’s manager came up to me and said, ‘You know, you really should be half the act.’”
Beyond additional experience playing out and increasing his professional exposure, St. Martin says his time with Smotherman was invaluable for another reason, “I was really able to get the feeling of songwriting from him. He was so talented at that.”
St. Martin speaks fondly of his time playing and touring with Smotherman and the rest of the band, but also acknowledges it was not everything he was looking for. “I was playing synthesizer parts because Smotherman was on the keyboard. I wanted to use all my fingers all the time and really challenge myself. I also wanted to focus on the piano, which is my main instrument.”
After several years of working with Smotherman and the rest of the band, comments like those of Warhol and Smotherman’s agent as well as his own increasing comfort with songwriting helped St. Martin realize the time had come for him to go solo. “I had been writing my own songs and I felt I was ready for it,” he says. “Patty and I decided we’d jump on it and do it. We opened our suitcase, so to speak, to begin our solo work. Patty Lee began putting her ICM and press experience to use for my career, booking me and working on the business end of things.” It is a role Patty continues to play to this day.
FROM PIANO MAN TO FRONTMAN
In January 1985, St. Martin formed a new band, The Creole Liberation Front, and made the transition from backing musician to front man. It was a step that would have a lasting impact on his career and music. The Creole Liberation Front began life as a two-man band packing the sound of a much larger outfit. St. Martin’s playing was a combination of traditional New Orleans style and adaptation to the latest technology. He produced bass lines and riffs with his left hand while delivering rhythm and lead lines with his right, in the style of his New Orleans musical mentors. St. Martin also sang lead vocals. His drummer supplied backup vocals. At the time, St. Martin was performing on a Yamaha CP-70 electric baby grand, an instrument of which he speaks fondly, “Our bottom end was very powerful, especially through a PA system.”
The band played their debut show at the popular venue Blue Lagoon, located in Santa Cruz, California. In the following years, the Creole Liberation Front played throughout Los Angeles and beyond. One of their performances in particular is still spoken of in the L.A. musical scene. The band was playing at Madam Wong’s Santa Monica, the second location of a celebrated LA club chain which became a rallying point for the nascent West Coast punk and New Wave scenes.
St. Martin remembers the night, “I had just written ‘Boogie with Me,’ which became one of our most popular numbers. It’s a two person song, a really solid boogie-woogie number, and it just swings. I remember having the bass riff going on my piano and the whole audience jumping up and down in unison in time to our music. The whole place was vibrating in time to what we were doing.” The show was such a draw and the crowd so enthusiastic that Madam Wong’s occupancy limit was drastically exceeded and LAPD and fire marshals showed up to turn people away from the show. That epic night helped St. Martin’s two-piece combo become the top draw in the history of the venue.
Slowly, the Creole Liberation Front began to expand, first adding dedicated back-up vocals and then a saxophone. A year later, they added a bass player. St. Martin acknowledges that the band’s bass player had a tall order to fill, “It’s hard for a bass player to have to constantly go along with what my left hand is doing. But our bass player was wonderful. When the whole band knows their parts and is accurate, it is exciting and really has impact.”
The Creole Liberation Front was a musical milestone for St. Martin in another way. It marked the beginning of St. Martin’s deliberate use of his music to celebrate and promote the music of Louisiana—and, in particular, New Orleans. St. Martin says this decision was even reflected in the band’s name, “I wanted to remind people of the importance of New Orleans and its music and that, at one time, New Orleans was the capital of French North America, one-third of the land that would eventually become the United States.”
One Creole Liberation Front song, “Louisiana Frenchman,” is not only among his best-known songs, it is the epitome of St. Martin’s mission to promote Louisiana and Louisiana music through his songs. Another song, “Louisiana Frenchman,” tells the tongue-in-cheek story of a hard-core Louisiana native who wants all the lands of the historical Louisiana Purchase returned to the state. Along the way, it celebrates the influence of New Orleans on the nation as a whole.
THE NEW ORLEANS SPIRIT: EVERYWHERE ELSE, IT’S JUST TUESDAY
In 1987, the Creole Liberation Front evolved into the Bayou Bohemians, St. Martin’s current band.
Following on the heels of “Louisiana Frenchman,” the Bayou Bohemians delivered another NOLA-themed number which has become an unofficial Mardi Gras anthem, “Everywhere Else It’s Just Tuesday.” This high energy piece has its origins in an incident from St. Martin’s life, the only Mardi Gras which St. Martin has missed in his life. “So, there we were, Patty and I, sitting in a restaurant in California on Mardi Gras,” he explains, “and I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, here it’s just Tuesday.’”
The song’s energy and message quickly gave it a life of its own. “Everywhere Else It’s Just Tuesday” marked the beginning of an issue with which both St. Martins have become inexorably associated, the campaign to make Mardi Gras a national holiday. They found themselves collecting signatures and writing letters in support of the idea that had begun in his lyrics. The effort has received positive responses, including letters of support from Mayors of New Orleans and Los Angeles as well as a Senator from California.
Watch Armand St. Martin’s video for “Must Be The Mardi Gras”
“I’m very flattered that people would respond to this at all,” St. Martin explains. “Patty is a great communicator and a lot of the success we’ve had with this is because of her. It’s still part of what we do. We work it into the live show and we’ve even debated it on the radio.” St. Martin is proud of the role his efforts have played in helping raise awareness of Mardi Gras around the country, “For 30 years, even though it’s not an official government holiday, we’ve seen more and more local Mardi Gras special events pop up around the country. That’s quite a change from when we started. Early on, when we were giving away beads, people didn’t know what they were and we had to explain them.”
As with his days in the Creole Liberation Front, St. Martin acknowledges that not everyone is cut out to be in The Bayou Bohemians. His music is a mélange of American musical styles, all of them credibly executed, and the Bohemians’ musicians must be fluent in each of them. “When I bring a musician into the band, I can tell pretty quickly if they are flexible enough moment to moment to follow the styles,” St. Martin explains. He is too modest to mention that any prospective Bayou Bohemian must, of course, also be able to keep up with one of the fastest and most dedicated set of hands in the business.
“My philosophy is to do my best whether I’m playing for one person or 10,000 people. Give them all you have and play your best, play your hardest,” he says.
St. Martin has only glowing praise for the current lineup of the Bayou Bohemians, as well as the act’s former members, “My band can handle me. They can really hear it and they go with me. I’m very proud of my musicians.”
Over the course of his career, St. Martin has also developed a definite style as a bandleader, based on what he feels works and does not work. “I teach my musicians by ear,” he says, “I try not to use charts because, once you get musicians on charts, it’s very hard to get them back off. It’s very simple, I teach them the song and we play the song until everyone’s got it down tight.”
Beginning after their marriage, Armand and Patty Lee began splitting their time between Los Angeles and New Orleans and, by the 1990s, the couple lived with one foot in each city. Now, they are back in St. Martin’s beloved New Orleans most of the time. He clearly relishes being back home. “Professionally, there were lots of good reasons to stay in Los Angeles. But the moment I set foot back in New Orleans, I knew this was where I was supposed to be.”
SOUND AND SONGS
Billboard Magazine described the style of St. Martin’s late 70s and early 80s outfit, Satisfaction, as “rock and rhythm.” St. Martin often describes his music as “Sophisticated Roots” or “Pan-Louisiana.” By any name, it is a distinctive sound, fusing both a rocking boogie-woogie and smoother, syncopated R&B influences. That same flavor can be found in all of his projects. Like any veteran roots musician, St. Martin’s sound is complex one, layered with many different styles and eras of America’s musical history. St. Martin himself prefers the term, “New Orleans Rock and Roll.” It is a solid description: his frenetic, high energy keyboard work and grounded backbeats easily pass the rock and roll litmus test. At the same time, the varied other influences of his music — boogie-woogie, rockabilly, country, blues, R&B, jazz, Cajun and Zydeco — read like a roll call of NOLA’s musical heritage.
In the true spirit of New Orleans music, St. Martin is perhaps most celebrated for his live performances. He has, however, released three excellent albums on CD, Alligator Ball (1996, with a 2003 digitally re-mastered reissue), Sizzlin’ (2003) and Katrina Anthem (2008). Each album is a worthy collection of keyboard driven, feel-good roots music dripping with the Big Easy sound– though, unsurprisingly,“Katrina Anthem” also contains serious thematic elements. In addition, for the true format connoisseur, a CD single of “Last Time in Texas,” a five-song EP cassette entitled “Be Your Own Parade” and a 45 rpm including “St. Expedite” and “Must be the Mardi Gras” also exist.
Much can be learned from listening to how an artist talks about his or her music. Discussing his songs on each album, St. Martin reveals not only an enormous passion for what he does but also a great ear and memory for music as well as a deep understanding of musical history and style. Mention any of his recordings to St. Martin and he can recount in detail the back story behind the songs, its influences, nuances of its style and composition and even anecdotes about the recording session. This makes it difficult to ask him about his “favorite songs” because he clearly loves all of them. Nevertheless, there are a few of which he speaks with particular passion and detail.
His debut CD, Alligator Ball, contains St. Martin’s unofficial Pelican State anthem “Louisiana Frenchman.” Beyond its memorable story, the number’s heavy roots sound tips the hat to the state’s rich musical history. “Out on Patrol” showcases St. Martin’s talent with more straightforward rock and roll. “Creole Good Bye” is a beautiful nod to the state’s Cajun heritage. “Other Girls Don’t” delivers an irresistible Fats Domino-esque 6/8 piano rock number. “St. Expedite” tells a classic New Orleans tale, played in a solid contemporary Zydeco style. “Must be the Mardi Gras” is frenetic piano rock in the style of Professor Longhair that showcases St. Martin at his finest. Five of the songs on Alligator Ball were actually recorded as an EP cassette at an earlier St. Martin session in Burbank, California and are included as bonus tracks on the CD. While there are no mediocre songs on the album, these bonus tracks are consistently some of its strongest and most memorable.
The album Sizzlin’ contains the songs “Boogie with Me” and “Last Time in Texas,” which have already been discussed. Other especially notable tracks include the title track, “I’m Sizzlin’” another boogie-woogie power number featuring some of his most technically intricate keyboard work and boosted by strong supporting instrumentation.. “Memphis Freight Train,” is a powerful walking blues. “That’s the Way to Your Heart” offers an up tempo tribute to St. Martin’s reggae days. It also includes a stand-out cover of “Lipstick Traces,” a classic number that originated in New Orleans and has been covered by a roster of artists too long to name. Hailing back to his earlier carrer, “Watchin’ The Riverboats Go By” was cowritten by Micheal Smotherman,
Katrina Anthem is an anthology drawn from St. Martin’s most compelling previous work, as well as the beautiful and poignant original number “Orleans Lullaby.”
In addition to St. Martin’s world class piano playing, his three albums feature a galaxy of other artists who are worthy musicians in their own right. “These musicians are incredible, they are all masters of their craft,” St. Martin says. Three of these, bassist Gradney and drummer Wynn, and late harmonica player “Hurricane Jake” Fitzgerald, are associates from St. Martin’s days with Micheal Smotherman.
Three other heavy hitters appear on St. Martin’s earliest release, recorded at Southcombe Studio in Burbank. Saxophonist Steve Allen, formally of Rita Coolidge’s band, is now a well known frontman. Kirk Bruner, who worked with Melissa Manchester and Mac Davis, is St. Martin’s longstanding drummer and also makes an appearance on the release as backup singer and trombonist. Finally, producer Paul DeVilliers steps into the other side of the studio by lending his guitar talents to the album.
Others talents featured on St. Martin’s recordings include Stanley Behrens, former harmonica player for Willie Dixon, Canned Heat and War, who is also a gifted saxophonist; the late Danny Federici, organist for the E Street Band, on accordion; the late Doug Atwell on fiddle and Lindsay Gillis on guitar. St. Martin acknowledges that guitar is the sound he was most resistant to including in his music. “It’s so easy for a pianist and guitarist to step all over each other’s lines,” he says. Gillis, however, he glowingly describes as a stellar guitar player.
For backup vocals, St. Martin turns to a roster of seasoned voices: singer and Emmy-winning actress Marabina Jaimes, Hedy Mayer (backup singer for Paul Revere and the Raider’s Mark Lindsey), Margie Nelson, Samantha Newark (backup vocalist for Leonard Cohen) and veteran performer Nancy Williams.
NEXT WEEK, in Part III: St. Martin’s life back in The Big Easy, the impact of Hurricane Katrina on St. Martin’s life and music, his activities beyond the keys & microphone and his recent projects.