Tuesday morning, Bo Dollis of The Wild Magnolias passed away. Here are some of the memories and tributes to the Mardi Gras Indian chief.
Yesterday, Bo Dollis, Big Chief of The Wild Magnolias, died after a prolonged battle with ill health. As a musician, Dollis had a Wilson Pickett-like, flame thrower voice that might have been recognized as such had he been singing traditional R&B. He helped bring Mardi Gras Indian culture out of the haze of legend and mythology by recording the single “Handa Wanda” in 1970, and leading an Indian parade with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux that year in conjunction with the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
David Kunian told the story of “Handa Wanda” in 2011:
You can hear it six times a day on Mardi Gras, and “Handa Wanda” will still jump out of the speakers with a raw, visceral power. It starts with Dollis calling to the gang and the gang responding enthusiastically before the band jumps in and the tambourines start ringing with polyrhythms. Tee’s keyboard part mixes jazz fusion and New Orleans funk as it darts and dances under the vocals and complements George French’s melodic bass playing. The beat is relentless and the vocals are fierce. Even with the perspective of 40 years and many Mardi Gras Indian recordings that have been made since then with which to compare, it still has a unique energy and sound. While thinking about the recording, Dollis says, “I always wanted to sing. I wanted to be James Brown. I wanted it to happen,” and in his raspy voice that cuts above and through all the instruments and percussion, you can hear a vocalist full of ambition who’s finally got a chance to be heard and is going for it with every thing he’s got. When it came out in 1970, it didn’t sound like anything else on the jukebox. There has been nothing like it before and very little has come close since.
Yesterday, John Swenson remembered Dollis for OffBeat:
Beginning in 1964 Big Chief Dollis helped refashion the nature and practices of Mardi Gras Indian culture and protocol, preserving the traditional ritual texts but changing the nature of the competition between tribes. Dollis was part of a new breed of Mardi Gras Indians that eschewed violence and sublimated the competition between gangs into a contest of costumes, the prettier and more elaborate the better.
“We tell about the days way back they was wild, wild, wild; I mean they was cutting, killing and shooting,” said Dollis. “The uptown and the downtown would fight. We didn’t want that. So we stopped. Tootie Montana was big on that. He wanted to get it straight because he was beautiful. He looked so good. Then everybody wanted to be … beautiful. So we got all the Indians and all the chiefs to stop the violence.”
In his remembrance of Dollis, Keith Spera at Nola.com wrote about Dollis’ split and reunion with Boudreaux:
A trauma of a different sort soon followed. Boudreaux, having grown suspicious of the Wild Magnolias' manager at the time, left the band. The rupture between the two old friends wasn't repaired until years later, when Dollis finally became convinced that his old friend's concerns were justified.
By then, a litany of health issues, including a stroke and kidney problems, also had taken a toll. In the spring of 2006, on the eve of an Australian tour, Dollis fell sick. Dialysis treatments became part of his routine. A stroke made speaking difficult — yet he could still sing. Always robust, he lost weight. Before corrective heart valve surgery, climbing stairs was a challenge. He passed on leadership of the Wild Magnolias to his son, Gerard "Bo Jr." Dollis, appearing onstage on the fleeting occasions when his health allowed.
Alison Fensterstock wrote at Nola.com about the history of Mardi Gras Indian recordings:
By the middle of the 20th century, the chants sung by Mardi Gras Indians in the streets of New Orleans had begun to work their way onto wax. In the mid-1950s, folklorist Samuel Charters had collected field recordings of Indians in New Orleans, later released on the Smithsonian Folkways label. In the '50s and early '60s, Danny Barker, James "Sugar Boy" Crawford and the Dixie Cups had released swinging jazz and rhythm and blues arrangements of Indian tunes like "Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing" and "Iko Iko." Earlier than all of that, Jelly Roll Morton had demonstrated Indian melodies on the piano for Alan Lomax, during Lomax's landmark, marathon Library of Congress interview sessions.
Indian tunes were making their way into popular music – though, outside of Charters' recordings captured in the field, none of them were performed by actual masking Indians. In 1970, Wild Magnolias Big Chief Bo Dollis, who died Tuesday (Jan. 20), changed that. He did so with the help of his longtime friend Monk Boudreaux — Big Chief of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians — and a young Quint Davis.
In her piece, Fensterstock writes about The Wild Magnolias’ self-titled debut album from 1974. For me, the great Wild Magnolias' album is 1975's, They Call Us Wild. Its tracks aren’t as canonical as those on The Wild Tchoupitoulas, but it is as perfect a funk album--more exotic, evocative, and better integrated into the funk world of time. The band for it included Willie Tee and Earl Turbinton, and it was psychedelic and freaky in a way that The Meters weren’t on The Wild Tchoupitoulas. The album currently available under the titleThey Call Us Wild is the first two albums together, and it's essential.
I consider Bo Dollis and The Wild Magnolias crucial because it is my theory that if it weren’t for their decision to venture out of their insular world and expose Mardi Gras Indians to a larger audience, the police and the city would have found ways to harass and marginalize Mardi Gras Indians out of existence. Time, crime, and red tape would have given them the pretext to put the screws to the gangs. The police after Hurricane Katrina to make it harder to second line, and if there wasn’t an international community of concerned citizens and cultural tourists watching, that might have worked. That larger community was aware of Mardi Gras Indians in no small part due to Bo Dollis.