JERRY BYRNE (By Tapio Vaisanen)
Born Gerald Donald Byrne, Sr, 2 February 1941, New Orleans, Louisiana
It is a tough to name the "one" song that defines Rock-n-Roll to you. It has to have all the elements of a great rock tune. Great wild vocals, catchy lyrics, great rock'n roll hook or riff, guitar or piano solo and last but not least it should simply kick ass. Jerry Byrne's "Lights out" is the perfect rock'n roll song, the energy of the performance can be compared to Little Richard's Specialty sides and it's quite obvious that Richard influenced young Jerry very much. Jerry Byrne was born and raised in the Irish quarters of New Orleans and as a teenager his early influences came from black music, both gospel and blues. Jerry started as a singer in his cousin Mac Rebennack's band and they were playing in knock-'em-down-and-drag-'em-out bars and juke-joints, sharing the stage with strippers and magicians - a precarious existence. 'The survival rate on and off stage wasn't high,' Rebennack notes wryly in his autobiography. 'Our first singer, Dee, got sent up to Angola for manslaughter. The second singer, Jerry Byrne, got shipped on a trumped-up rape charge. Our third singer, Roland Stone, also found his way to the joint on a narcotics rap. Our drummers didn't fare much better than the singers all but one or two died of ODs.' Jerry Byrne & The Loafers had Mac on guitar, other members were Paul Stanley, Charlie Madwell, Lennie James and Earl Staley. There's a rumour that it was one Loafers gig when one guy went berserk in a club and started popping caps and one of the stray bullets took the tips of Mac's fingers off, that was the end of his guitar slinger career.
At one time Jerry, still a seventeen year old white High School student, was at Little Richard's gig at Tiger's Den in Slidell Louisiana and he jumped up on the stage, grabbed the mike and finished the song with Richard. Within a week or so he met Harold Battiste, the A&R man for Specialty records and a contract was signed and he was walking to Cosimo studio to cut his first disc. Rebennack's father owned an appliance store and was friends with local studio operator Cosimo Matassa, an alliance that afforded young Mac an early opportunity to experience the New Orleans recording scene. Walter "Papoose" Nelson, guitarist in Fats Domino's band, became the teenager's tutor and gave Mac his first studio job as a session player. In 1957, with Seth David, Mac composed his first hit, the breakneck rocker "Lights Out".
Frankie Ford made some classic N.O. rock'n roll backed with the great band of Huey Smith & The Clowns, this New Orleans youngster got there first....."Lights Out" and "Honey Baby" were cut on Sunday February 8th 1958, it had to be Sunday because Jerry was at school all week. Jerry was backed by a group of N.O's finest, Edgar Blanchard (guitar), Justin Adams (guitar), Frank Fields (bass), Charles "Hungry" Williams (drums), the incredible Art Neville (piano) and Harold Battiste (sax) who also produced the session. For a seventeen year old it must have been bewildering. Art Neville contributes the most incredible two choruses of storming piano to "Lights Out."
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"Lights Out" sold very well in the south, reaching the top of the regional charts and even breaking into some of the national listings. Jerry went out on the road and Specialty put out two follow up singles.
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"You Know I Love You So" was pretty bad and it deservedly flopped, the flipside was another Rebennack/David composition, it was more bluesy, a bit like Jimmy Clanton and far away from "Lights Out". Specialty must have seen the error and switched back to rock'n roll for the third single. "Carry On" is solid rock and roll in Larry Williams style. It again sold well in the south and enabled Jerry to keep the momentum going. He toured south, mid-west and the west and remained active on the N.O. music scene until the mid sixties.
Until the mid seventies it was thought that the three Specialty singles were the total output of Jerry Byrne on record. However, there's more.
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These novelties actually made some money for Jerry and he had one more stab at the charts. During 1960 a disc was released by The Cheerleaders on Spinnett (Roland Stone and Bobby Lonero had records on Spinnett too). "Chinese Bandits" backed by "True Love" was a novelty item in support of the local football team. The Cheer Leaders comprised Dr. John, Huey 'Piano' Smith, Frankie Ford and Jerry Byrne. The record went well and made the local charts, but the identity of the famous names had to be kept secret as all were contracted to other record companies.
After that Jerry settled in Morgan City, Louisiana where he was still running a Marine Supplies company in late 80's. A record, "I'm From The South" appeared on the General label in the eighties and "Lights Out" was chosen as part of the background music for the movie "Sam's Son", an autobiographical film by Michael Landon of "Bonanza" fame. This gave a rise to rumours of an album release to come of old Specialty material. There are number of unreleased songs still in the vaults including an even faster version of "Lights Out" and the only thing that has been materialised is this great Specialty 45. Isn't there an alternate version of "Carry On" on some compilation? I couldn't find it.
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Jerry made his European debut at Tom Ingram's first all-dayer at The Clarendon Hotel, Hammersmith in West London on March 22nd in 1987. By all accounts, Mr. Byrne proved a little bit wild; he was ejected from a restaurant for singing "Lights Out", he demolished promoter Willie Jeffery's bathroom and at rehersals he refused to work out a playlist - instead he insisted on playing a selection of New Orleans blues and 60's soul. Still, on the night he rocked and received a fairly favourable reaction, favourable enough to have him eventually doing "Lights Out" four times, "Raining" twice and the same for "Carry On".
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