Kings of Swamp Pop

Kings of Swamp Pop

by Cookie & the Cupcakes


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It's pretty hard to argue with the title on the strength of this definitive collection of 30 tracks released on four local labels from 1956-1964. Cookie & the Cupcakes were also a definitive regional band -- their two minor hits showed up on the national pop (but not R&B) charts, which shows they had plenty of appeal to white teenagers in Louisiana. The two-and-a-half- to three-minute songs, driven by Ernest Jacobs' romping piano and flavored by saxes, are pretty definitive of early R&B bands of the era, when playing live meant playing dances and swamp pop ballads like the prototype "Mathilda" and "Belinda" were required and prized for slow dance breaks. Cookie (Huey Peter Thierry) shines on the ballads "I've Been So Lonely," "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," and "Sea of Love," but a revolving cast of lead singers helps make Kings of Swamp Pop consistently enjoyable. "The Great Pretender" features Carol Fran, while "Charged With Cheating" is a superb showcase for Lil' Alfred's high voice with backing female vocals -- he's got the classic quavering R&B falsetto swoop finale down cold here and on "Even Though." And just when "Mary Lou Doin' the Pop-Eye" pegs Shelton Dunaway as the Cupcakes' rock & roll novelty tune specialist, he comes along and sings the hell out of the ballad "Just One Kiss." Just as the singer squadron does with the true-love and let's-do-the-dance lyrical themes typical of the time, the arrangements find any number of ways to keep the music fresh within the hit formulas. It can come via a fierce drum push (notably the rocking "Honey Hush") or the sprightly boogie with a Chuck Berry-cum-rockabilly flavor and Jordanaires-style umm-wop-wop backing vocals that mark "Close Up the Back Door." Usually it comes via the saxes, be it a searing solo on "I Almost Lost My Mind," the opening section fanfare that blankets "Sea of Love," or the sharp fills to "Betty and Dupree," a midtempo variation on the "Stag-O-Lee" theme. If you never got the New Orleans R&B connection to early Jamaican music, the Chubby Checker variant "I'm Twisted" is pure ska, and so is the guitar skank of "Feel So Good." The guitar changes to clipped rhythm riffing on the vibrant "Shake 'Em Up" with "Monkey Time" horns, and the instrumental "Franko-Chinese Cha Cha Cha" features Jacobs' Professor Longhair-like piano trills. The selections are programmed for listening, not chronologically, and even if the sound quality isn't always pristine (over half the tracks are dubbed from disc), the quality of the music rarely flags. Interesting liner notes take you behind the scene and set the social context, but come up short on basic details like the band lineup. With so many singers featured, you're never sure if the Cupcakes functioned like a revue with Cookie the singer on the big hits, whether he left the band from time to time or just missed some sessions, or whether the tracks with Dunaway were solo releases or came out under the group name. That's the only real drawback to a superb collection that perfectly evokes a time and place without sounding at all dated.

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