The New Orleans drummer and WWOZ disc jockey passed away today.

Photo of Bob French

Today, drummer Bob French passed away. He had been in poor health in recent years, and handed the leadership of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band to nephew Gerald French in 2011 after he was diagnosed with Alzheimers Disease.

For many, French was best known for his morning show on WWOZ, which was mandatory, unpredictable listening. He had so many friends that anyone could drop in at any time, but he was also outspoken in his opinions and was not afraid to voice them. He more than once called me at OffBeat to let me know when he thought I was off-base on something. He was fierce in his support of traditional New Orleans music, and continued to perform it on Bourbon Street when there was little other New Orleans music there. He was an advocate for The Musicians' Village, and moved there when it opened.

In 2007, Marsalis Music performed a public service and released albums by French and Alvin Batiste. After its release, I interviewed him and he gave me a lengthy interview that was wonderfully unguarded - so much so that there were parts I couldn't use without risking legal action. In this conversation, he talks about the storm, working with Branford, Bourbon Street and more. Here he talks about Fats Domino and Earl King:

I didn’t realize until recently that you played drums with Fats Domino.
I recorded with Fats in the ’50s before I went into the service. Dave Bartholomew and I are cousins. Earl Palmer was here—the lord was here—then Earl left and went to California. I was doing the Earl King session with Snooks [Eaglin] and whoever else. One day Fats’ drummer didn’t show up and Dave called me up and told me to come on out. Shit, I was dressed, in the studio and set up in twenty minutes.

What was the first song you played? 
I don’t remember. Look, I recorded so many things with this band. I wish I could have some tapes from the studio. Fats would say, “Play it back to me.” Dave said, “That sounds good.” Fats said, “Take another one” We had to do 22 takes. I’ll never forget it, 22. We were on the clock. Everyone, “Play it back, play it back.” I’m sitting there and Clarence Ford winked at me and laughed and said, “This is your first time, man. Sit your ass down, you’re in for a surprise.” After the 22nd take, Dave said, “Play that first take again,” and Fats said, “Oh, that’s it.” (Laughing) We don’t care because once you get past three hours [on a session], the money goes zing!

After doing this first session, he hired me every time. After a while, he got pissed with his drummer, and he called me up and told me he wanted me to come out on the road with him. I said, “I’ll let you know.” I never make fast decisions. I called Dave up and said, “Antoine just called and offered me the gig, and he said, “Yeah, what did he offer you?” This was in the ’50s, “He offered me four bills a week.” “Nice money,” he said. “He’ll give you four bills a week and two thousand dollars’ worth of trouble a week, “Thank you Dave, that’s all I needed to know.” I called and said, “I can’t make it.”

What do you remember about playing with Earl King?
Earl King was one of the nicest human beings in the world. Funny man, but a genius. Earl could write such beautiful shit. Never had an argument with him, never was there confusion. At that time he was straight as an arrow; he wasn’t even drinking. And he was good to work with. Earl was a beautiful cat. If anyone tells you anything other than that, they are lying. He was a beautiful human being. He was his own biggest enemy in the latter part of his life.

You played on “Trick Bag”? How many takes would it be to do something like that with Earl?
Two. Because we rehearsed, and the thing about Earl, man—Earl would come up with tune after tune after tune. He would come up with ideas. In the studio, he’d be like, “Wait a minute, let’s try something else,” and he’d figure out something else he’d want to do and, we’d do it. He was a masterful cat. He just couldn’t stop drinking or he could still be living.