While singer-songwriter John Boutte is about as New Orleans born-and-bred as one can get, what he sings in most of his shows is a smorgasbord of songs, some having origins in New Orleans, others not. Boutte has been singing since he was a young teenager.
His latest album, “Stew Called New Orleans” is a collaboration with guitarist Paul Sanchez that features originals he wrote with Sanchez, including the title track, but also covers of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.” Boutte’s live shows typically include Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” and even Great American Songbook standards like “Accentuate the Positive.” He’s 51, but moves on stage like a 30-year-old. He rides his bike almost everywhere he needs to go in the Crescent City.
Boutte and Sanchez will perform at the 20th annual Crawfish Festival in Augusta, NJ, which takes place on Friday through Sunday, May 29 to 31. Boutte and Sanchez take the stage on Friday at 6 p.m. and on Saturday at 11:45 a.m.
Boutte says he has been singing since he was 12. “I always have had music in me,” he says in a phone interview from New Orleans, “but I started out by playing cornet in elementary school, so that’s when my formal music lessons started. Then I would get home from school and I would drive my sisters nuts.” Since his older sisters sang, he sang with them at family gatherings, he says, and his sister, Lillian, has made a name for herself.
Like every other family in his Seventh Ward New Orleans neighborhood, which was integrated with Creole, black, and white families living together (mostly) peacefully, Boutte says, “we always had music around the house and everybody had a piano in their parlor. My parents had some classic jazz and R&B records, but they did not want us to go into music.” These days, Boutte lives in the same neighborhood,
Boutte was the eighth of 10 siblings, four boys and six girls. “By the time I was born, my parents were older; they weren’t out jitterbugging like they were when they were younger. I was influenced a lot by the music you hear in the streets here, the Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands and traditional jazz. And we’d hear Mahalia Jackson on the radio, and there was a sanctified church next door, so we were always surrounded by music.
“I always knew I could sing,” he continues. He began singing at talent shows, first performing Motown music, which was all the rage in the 1960s, and later he got into urban group harmony, or doo-wop.
“My first radio performance was in the ninth grade. I sang ‘Rockin’ Robin’ on WVOK radio here,” he says, adding he’ll never forget the experience. “In my later teens we all had doo-wop groups and we were going around singing at talent shows. I remember there were a couple of talent shows that I even saw Aaron Neville on.”
“We were an old Creole family that had been based here for years. You wouldn’t think my parents were musical, but they were, ’cause everybody was musical. I was brought up around so much great music,” he says, noting many of his uncles and aunts and neighborhood friends of his parents were part-time musicians. “They were carpenters or brick layers and they did music on the side as a social thing.” Boutte’s father was a carpenter and barber who died young from the ravages of diabetes, and his mother was a housewife. Boutte’s grandfather “came from a long line of master carpenters, but my father wanted to be a lawyer,” he says. He says his father injured his hand in World War II, “but they thought he was white so they took him to a white hospital, fortunately, otherwise, they might have cut it off.
“My father had perfect pitch and a very commanding voice, because when he said, ‘Goddammit,’ everything would stop among the 10 kids. And he was an incredible fisherman and hunter and golfer who had two holes-in-one in his life. He encouraged me to play golf, but I said, ‘Dad, look, there ain’t no black people out there!’” Boutte currently does play golf, as much as his schedule allows for it.
At Xavier University in New Orleans, where he majored in business administration, graduating in 1980, Boutte became very interested in writing his own songs, but he didn’t get very far with that until later in life. “What do you know when you’re 17 or 18? You’re trying to get laid and trying to fit in. It took me a long time before I wrote my next few songs after those initial ones in college. I was actively encouraged by Paul Sanchez, because I was working with Michelle Shocked when she first moved to New Orleans and that brought me into the singer-songwriter scene,” he says. Sanchez played guitar with Shocked as well with Cowboy Mouth, a popular rock band that has toured widely outside of New Orleans.
Of his current releases, “Stew Called New Orleans” and “Good Neighbor,” both collaborations with guitarist Sanchez, Boutte says there’s a certain magic that comes about when the two write songs or perform together. “Paul is a rock ’n’ roll guy and I’m basically coming from a jazz and classic R&B perspective,” he says. “Paul wanted to write stuff that had more of a bluesy edge, but he also wanted to write song that were more pop-oriented. And he wanted me to sing more pop-oriented songs, to show the versatility of both of us.
“Paul says it’s easy for him to write songs with me, because I talk in songs,” he says.
Boutte learned about the business of singing jazz and classic rhythm and blues for a living from his older sister, Lillian. “I used to follow Lillian around and observe what she was doing with people like Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and various R&B guys. I just observed the scene and wanted to see what was going on,” he says. He spent several years touring Europe with his sister’s gospel group.
“Now that I think about it, I don’t think I had any choice in the matter. I was always singing,” he says. “And I would be miserable doing anything else. I was an officer in the Army [after college], I worked for a bank, and I worked for the World’s Fair in 1984. I’ve done all kinds of things over the years.”
At times his two career paths have collided, he admits. “When I was working in a bank, one day I forgot to shave. The president came in and looked at me, but the reason I forgot to shave was because I had spent the day before with Stevie Wonder. Stevie came down to get his first honorary doctorate from my alma mater,” Boutte says, “so naturally, I sang for Stevie. And he told me I had something special, I had a signature voice. So I asked him, ‘Well, what do I have to do, man?’ And he said, ‘patience and determination.’
“The bank president very sternly told me to go home and shave, and so I did, but while I was home, I got a phone call from my sister, and she was struggling with a tour in Europe,” he says, “so I gave my two weeks notice and I never returned.”
Boutte’ freely admits his patience has been taxed many times through the years, and there have been many ups and downs in his career. Ask anyone in the music business, and they’ll tell you how difficult it can be for vocalists, particularly jazz vocalists. Danny Barker, a guitar player and singer who played and shared stages with Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and dozens of other jazz and blues greats, told Boutte years ago: “You have to have all your pockets open to show the world you’re a good musician.”
In recent years, Boutte has been out on the road more, showcasing his unique New Orleans musical sensibilities to the rest of the world, and finally, the rest of the world seems to be catching on. His voice has elements of Sam Cooke, Harry Belafonte, Rod Stewart, and Jimmy Scott all rolled into one, yet it’s none of those voices; it’s John Boutte.
Both pre and post-Katrina, Boutte has done a fair amount of touring, taking his special stew of New Orleans classic rhythm-and-blues, jazz, and Creole-flavored pop tunes far and wide. He has fond memories from recent tours in Canada. “There’s always something good that comes out of something bad. After Katrina, the doors to Canada opened up for me, and I did the Vancouver Festival and the Winnipeg Folk Festival,” he says. “There’s a bunch of festivals up there in the summer and it was a healing thing for me to go up to Canada that summer after Katrina, to go up in the great northwest and get empathy and love from the folks who realized what we were going through.”
Of the slow recovery and clean-up process post-Katrina, Boutte, who left New Orleans for a long time when the levees broke in 2005, says, “our attitude down here is determined. We got flooded out and nobody wants to take responsibility for the insurance. We’ve been fortunate with the volunteers who have come down here to help us out and rebuild, but something like this has never happened before. It’s unprecedented. There are a couple of places that are white-washed, and I know that game. I was an Army officer; I saw it there. The spirit of New Orleanians is, we’ve done a lot with a little for a very long time. It’s a poor city. It’s not Davos, Switzerland.”
As far as the music scene in New Orleans is concerned, he says he’s mildly disgusted, because the city is such a friendly and inviting and welcoming place, compared to many other American cities, it’s often hard to leave. “As far as the scene here goes, it’s like this: everybody wants to pimp the music, but nobody wants to pay the whore. You know what I’m sayin’? She never gets the cash and she never gets the kiss. I hope you can follow that analogy, because that’s what the New Orleans music scene is really like. And after all, it was the music and the food that brought all these people back here after Katrina.”
Michael Arnone’s 20th Annual Crawfish Festival, 37 Plains Road, Sussex County Fairgrounds Augusta, NJ. Friday through Sunday, May 29 to 31. Performers include the Radiators, John Boutte and Paul Sanchez, J.J. Grey and Mofro, Guitar Shorty, Marcia Ball, Terrance Simien and Zydeco Experience, Tab Benoit, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Bonerama, Papa Grows Funk, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, Eric Lindell, Janiva Magness, Matt Angus Thing, Jess Legge, Polka Dot, among others. $30 to $125; on-site camping. 973-948-5500 or www.crawfishfest.com.