“If you go to New Orleans, you ought to go see the Mardi Gras. And it’s Carnival Time, and everybody’s havin’ fun! And you have to do the Mardi Gras Mambo.” If you live in here or visit during Carnival, you cannot escape hearing the basic soundtrack-these three songs are played on the radio and at parades constantly. “Go to the Mardi Gras,” by Professor Longhair; “Mardi Gras Mambo,” by the Hawkettes; and “Carnival Time,” by Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. Of these, it’s interesting to know that Al Johnson, the pianist and singer who was born in 1939 and still looks closer to 50 than 72, wrote and recorded that incredibly catchy little tune when he was only 20. He walked into the legendary Cosimo Matassa’s studio (the place where Fats Domino’s hits were made) in December 1959, and producer Joe Ruffino recorded the song. Its tricky first section still makes musicians who try to play it miserable, but it worked well enough to become a Mardi Gras anthem. It’s tricky because in the first section, right before the chord change, Al added an extra measure, tripping up the uninitiated musician. Al still complains that often they don’t get it right. Doesn’t matter, it’s still eminently ear-worm material!
The song didn’t take off at first, because another great classic, Jessie Hill’s Ooo-Poo-Pah-Doo, rose to the top of the charts in early 1960. Al Johnson was off serving in the military in Texas when he learned his song was getting some attention. He tells the story that it was playing on the radio, and his fellow soldiers couldn’t believe he wrote it. Unfortunately, as often happened in the music business back then, Al lost the rights to his own tune, following the death of his producer, and had to fight to get it back through the courts. It wasn’t until 1999, almost 40 years later, that he was able to claim the rights.
Al “Carnival Time” Johnson was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007. He reigned as the King of Krewe du Vieux in 2005-the last carnival before Hurricane Katrina. After spending some time post-Katrina in Houston, where he had spent his early years, Al today is the happy owner of a home in The Musicians’ Village in the Ninth Ward. He’s a gentle and humble man who still performs constantly and is in great demand-especially during Carnival Time! He’s proud that he and his song are so closely identified with the city and celebration that informed his life.
If you haven’t been to the Mardi Gras than you need to put it on your bucket list .