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Carlo Ditta & Orleans Records  E-mail
Sunday, 05 February 2006 07:34
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Carlo Ditta & Orleans Records

By John Sinclair

Orleans Records is indelibly stamped with the vision of its creator, owner and sole producer, Carlo Ditta. Looking back over the last 10 or 15 years since I started with Orleans Records,  Carlo reflects, I realize that it's basically just a reflection of my own life--what I like to hear, people I ve run into along the way, the places I ve lived, the whole thing. 

Slowly but surely, and with very careful attention to detail, Carlo Ditta has assembled a catalog of distinctive, one-of-a-kind recordings by some of the city's most colorful musical characters. Each Orleans release is lovingly produced by Ditta himself, beautifully packaged, carefully marketed and enthusiastically received by music lovers all over the world.

The Orleans Records catalog reflects not so much a roster of artists as a collection of extraordinary albums, each one a unique entry in the elongated discography of the music of New Orleans.

The legendary Danny Barker is represented, as is his wife, Blue Lu; there are strikingly original artists like Ironing Board Sam, Guitar Slim Jr., Roland Stone and Rockie Charles; the Pin Stripe Brass Band is in the house; and the two Orleans artists whose careers have been nurtured by Carlo Ditta's efforts--blues guitarist Little Freddie King and Louisiana medicine man Coco Robicheaux--enjoy two and three entries, respectively, in the label's list of albums.

Ditta, a native of Gretna, started out as a teen-aged guitarist, soon gravitated to songwriting, and then graduated to record production through the unlikely agency of the commercial advertising business, producing jingles with his partner, A.J. Loria, on a four-track tape recorder. ( Our big number,  Carlo recalls, was Century Bank of New Orleans--100% for you. Believe it, it's true.  )

Carlo entered the local recording industry when he met veteran soul singer Mighty Sam McClain and decided to invest all his savings--which amounted to the $2,000 he d won at the American Song Festival when his composition, Pray,  was voted Best Gospel Song --in recording McClain singing his award-wining tune.

A.J. Loria had started Orleans Records in 1984 as an outlet for his Mad Mad Mardi Gras  single, and Ditta pressed up 700 Mighty Sam 45s under the Orleans label, beginning what has become almost 20 years at the helm of the company.

The first Orleans album, Your Perfect Companion, a 12  EP by Mighty Sam McClain, came in 1986, and Ditta had the bug. He began searching New Orleans for interesting characters to record and soon struck paydirt. I would see this sign on Orleans Avenue saying SNAKE DANCERS TONITE--PLUS GUITAR SLIM JR,  Carlo recalls. That was at Dorothy's Medallion.

So we went to my friend's garage studio, called the Big Easy Studios, on Paris Avenue, and it was so hot that summer that the tape recorder would shut down because of the heat, so we d take the air conditioning vent tube and move it back to where the tape machine was so we could cool it off enough to keep going. That was really some hot blues in there that summer. 

After the Guitar Slim Jr. album was released, Carlo took a job at Tower Records and conducted a firsthand study of the retail end of the record business while he made sure both his productions got plenty of in-store airplay.

Orleans Records came in for some welcome national attention when The Story of My Life won a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album  in 1988, and Ditta could now secure national distribution for his fledgling label.

The next Orleans Records project materialized when an old friend, Willy DeVille, moved to New Orleans, and Ditta organized an all-star supporting cast--Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Jr., Kerry Brown and a host of other local talent--to make an album of Crescent City R&B classics titled Victory Mixture. Licensed to Sky Ranch Records in France, It sold over 100,000 units in Europe very quickly and became the label's first gold disc.

Victory Mixture was followed by a very special project with the venerable guitarist, composer, jazz historian and ineffable raconteur Danny Barker, who was spotlighted on Ham and Eggs performing his own compositions and several well-polished chestnuts from his vast repertoire. Mr. Danny and his Jazz Hounds with Blue Lu Barker were also recorded live  at JazzFest for an album that was finally released on Orleans several years later, after Danny had passed away and just before Lu's demise.

For his next production Carlo hunted down former teen-age singing sensation Roland Stone, whose last sessions had been for Ace & Spinett Records 30 years earlier under the direction of a young Mac Rebennack, now better known as Dr. John. Ditta enlisted Mac's participation in the Roland Stone project, a beautifully produced album called Remember Me, and later recorded Roland Live on the Creole Queen during JazzFest 1996.

A spate of widely varied Orleans releases showcased local rockabilly stars Johnny J & The Hitmen on an album titled J-Walkin , with guest spots by guitarists Wayne Bennett and Alex Chilton, and old-time acoustic bluesman Robert Lowery, who weighed in with A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Other one-off projects in the 1990s featured soul singer C.P. Love; guitarist Tony Green, whose Gypsy Jazz paid homage to the great Django Reinhardt; and Your Last Chance to Dance by the Pin Stripe Brass Brand.

Ditta got a chance to try out his hand at career development with his next two artists, the gently idiosyncratic bluesmen Coco Robicheaux and Little Freddie King, both mature musicians who d been overlooked by the recording business for many years.

Coco's first release, Spiritland, was another European sensation for the label, followed by Louisiana Medicine Man and Hoodoo Party. Little Freddie's raw Mississippi/New Orleans blues was well documented on his initial release, Swamp Boogie, and then captured live  several years later on Sing Sang Sung, recorded at the late lamented Dream Palace on Frenchmen Street.

Another fiercely iconoclastic New Orleans bluesman, pianist Ironing Board Sam, The Eighth Wonder of the World,  finally received a smidgeon of recognition with his Orleans album The Human Touch, and a retired tugboat captain from the West Bank who called himself The President of Soul.  Rockie Charles, was restored to local popularity with a great CD titled Born For You.

While each Orleans Records album is a unique, brilliantly packaged gem of a recording, the best place to confront Carlo Ditta's catalog is The Orleans Records Story, a compilation of tracks which served to introduce the label's stable of artists (including singers Marva Wright and Dorothy Goodman) to new audiences.

Ditta also compiled Eh La Bas! from the Orleans vaults as a promotional CD for WWOZ-FM, the one place on the dial where Carlo's productions always enjoy a fair and prolonged hearing.

--New Orleans
March 11, 2003

(c) 2003, 2006 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.