The champions of New Orleans classic R&B work to make BJ's not only a venue but a destination.
[Updated] Jimmy Horn loves vinyl. “I’m a voracious eater of music,” he says. “I don’t collect it; I devour it. I consume it and shit it out. I have some records that I’ve bought 10 copies of. Some I don’t have any more but they’re burned in my memory.” It’s not surprising then, that his band - King James and The Special Men - are releasing their music as 45 rpm singles. Tonight when the band plays its Lundi Gras show at BJ’s Lounge in the Bywater, it will have two limited edition 45s for sale. He’s not opposed to CDs, but the idea of cutting and releasing songs when he has them appeals to Horn, and it’s consistent with his models.
“Look at Jamaica and the way Studio One used to be,” he says. “Cut it, press it, put it out on the street the same day.” But in a concession to the time and those without turntables, All four sidets - “Special Man Boogie,” “BJ’s Bounce,” “Guitar King” and “Love My Baby” - are also available on iTunes as an EP.
The band began playing R&B from New Orleans’ classic era, which was also a singles-first time. The Special Men formed after Horn and some other musicians playing in a Sun Ra-derived band got tired of the band’s environment. “We wanted to drink beer and play Fats Domino covers,” he says, and in 2001 The Special Men were born. They played obscure New Orleans R&B covers at the Mother-in-Law Lounge and The Matador, not to fly the flag for a lost era, but out of a genuine passion. “It just so happened we got off on old rock ’n’ roll and New Orleans R&B.”
But that version of the band was as much for the guys as the audience, and as much about the performing as the music. Horn played piano, which is not his first instrument and it showed. After awhile, he moved to North Mississippi for a couple of years, which put the band on extended hiatus. While there, he met some of the old hill country blues musicians and their circle, and he learned a valuable lesson. “They made themselves a destination rather than chasing [success]’” Horn says. They did their thing and let Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, U2 and countless people less famous seek out Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, hill country picnics, and their musical community.
Horn returned to New Orleans as King James - “I figured I’d grow into it” - in 2004, the restarted the band three years ago, fronting it and started playing guitar. In his mind, that was when the band really started; it’s also when they started writing original material instead of simply playing covers. They started playing BJ’s, making it a destination for those who want to hear what he’s doing. “That’s not even a venue,” he says. “It’s not a place where there was music before us other than [Little] Freddie ]King].” Like the hill country musicians’ juke joint shows, BJ’s weekly gig has become something for the neighborhood first - a chance to play for friends and the people Horn only sees in bars. Alynda Lee Segarra celebrates the band’s shows in her homesick “Crash on the Highway” on Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Small Town Heroes. In it, she sings, “Take me back home to BJ’s on a Monday night.”
Still, The Special Men now play semi-regular shows at d.b.a. “BJ’s is a smoke hole,” Horn says, so nights at d.b.a. make it possible for those who want to see the band to do so in a smoke-free environment. The gig is also “an effort to get the boys [in the band] a little something in their gas tank.” Still, Horn credits the shows at BJs for being booked to play a swing night at Lincoln Center in New York City last summer. “It wasn’t a BJ’s show, but BJ’s got us there,” he says.
Horn isn’t a vinyl purist, though. He’s planning on a live at BJ’s CD in the future, and much of the music he listens to is digital. “I still find myself spending hours watching YouTube and some guy in Malaysia playing a two-stringed lute,” he says.
Updated 10:28 a.m.
There was an error in the time line. The text has been changed to correct it.