A visit to New Orleans is not complete without a John Boutté gig.
A singer with grit, soul, passion and beauty, his sound is one of the most beloved in his hometown. John Boutté is one of those New Orleans entertainers who seems like a force just barely contained. He’s a jazz and soul singer and a wickedly effective communicator. He works hard to connect with his audiences, and more often than not he succeeds mightily.
A small, wiry man with a high, grainy voice, Boutté can often evoke the sound of Sam Cooke — he doesn’t seem to discourage the comparison — but his stage manner, his choice of repertoire, and his rapport with musicians all point back to New Orleans.
Born into a Creole family in the 7th Ward, Boutté grew up listening to hometown legends as well as the music of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and he was later influenced by Allen Toussaint and the popular R&B players of New Orleans. His older sister Lillian Boutté, a gifted gospel singer, was also a huge influence on him. He had front-row seats to many great times with musical veterans like James Booker and the Humphrey brothers at Preservation Hall.
After studying business at Xavier University of Louisiana, Boutté served four years in the U.S. Army. Later, he had a fateful encounter with a musical genius that would change his life. He spent the day with Stevie Wonder, who told him that he had a “signature voice.” That prompted him to “change vocations immediately,” Boutté says. He joined his sister’s band on their tour of Europe, and his musical career began.
Fans of HBO’s beloved series Treme also know John Boutté for not only writing and singing the ultra-infectious theme song, but also as a fine actor.
He says: “To see the kids playing on the street; the masters in concert; the fragrance of jasmine and sweet olive trees; the ruckus of festivities; the solemn oaks; the graves above ground, almost like we’re going to miss something if they bury us; the drums beating from every direction on a cool, fall evening; the history, the future and the now… I am one poor, lucky fool.”
Boutté joined us for a conversation about his early life and some of the most affecting moments in his career.
Tell me about growing up in New Orleans.
It was absolutely magical. I came from a very large Catholic family. I say that not because I’m very religious, but we had to go to church on Sundays. That was part of the tradition. We had a tight, tight family. I was surrounded by a lot of love and encouragement. It was a safe, safe place. We had big families all around us. I come from a family of 10 and the neighbours down the block had 17. We would be playing in the streets, and it was always safe. There was always some adult out there spying on us to make sure we weren’t up to no good. The neighbourhoods were beautiful. I could walk a mile to my elementary school, and I remember distinctly knowing every house and who lived in that house — the grandparents, the parents, the kids. We literally knew everybody, and everybody knew each other. The yards were beautiful. People took pride in their gardens, especially in the poor neighbourhoods. People had roses and exotic plants. All the old folks, they were into that. They kept their yards nice, and on the way to school you could smell breakfast everywhere. On the way back, you could smell what people were cooking for dinner. The sights, the smells and the sounds. In the 1970s, Jazz Fest was created. Before that, we had concerts all the time … but the real music was coming straight from the streets and your next-door neighbours practising on their porches. I was just surrounded my great musicians. And also, if I sat in my yard in the 7th Ward, I could hear four different high-school bands rehearsing in the afternoons. It was a cacophony of drums and horns. New Orleans was truly a small neighbourhood where everybody looked out for one another. We all enjoyed parties, making music, going to second lines. It was a great life.
What are your earliest musical memories in New Orleans?
The music played around the house was varied. This was the era of Motown, so we had a lot of Aretha Franklin, the O’Jays, the Temptations, and all that R&B and soul music coming out of Detroit. But you know, there was a lot of New Orleans drums like Smokey Johnson. New Orleans musicians were very, very instrumental in helping to create that sound. On Saturdays, my sisters and I would do the big clean-up of the house, and it was always the radio blasting — WBOK with Poppa Stoppa — all these incredible old New Orleans R&B tunes, you know. I grew up listening to that. We also had a piano in the house … so I learned how to play Salty Dog when I was a little boy. That was from my father’s father — he taught us how to do that. The music in the family was always important. We danced and we sang. My sisters all joined the talent shows. I remember asking my mother for a horn at eight years old. Long story short, that was the beginning of my career, man. I basically was pulling on her dress while she had my baby brother in her arm, and my sister on the other side was pulling on her while she was stirring the pot cooking. I asked for her a cornet and she said, “We don’t have any clarinets around here!” I was so upset. I ran out there and raged. But the next morning, she brought the cornet from my grand-aunt next door, cleaned it up, put it in a denim satchel, and that was the beginning of my formal musical career. I also sang a lot. I drove my sisters crazy by just singing these little ditties. I realized the power of my voice. Although they did not encourage us to become professional musicians, my mother and them did expose us to a lot of music.
After Hurricane Katrina, you performed Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927 at the return of Jazz Fest. That has become an iconic performance. Tell me about that day.
That was epic, man. I was so emotional. I think everybody, everybody in that tent was crackling with emotions. It was just so good to see an audience and to be able to sing in front of an audience again. Believe it or not, when I was in exile in North Carolina … I even went to a bar to try to sing karaoke — and I got hissed out! That was really funny. But Louisiana 1927, that day, in that tent, the emotions were so high. When I started singing, man, I know I was pitchy — there’s a line between emotion and performance, and you shouldn’t cross an emotional line because then your performance falls apart — but I couldn’t give a damn. I just wanted to sing, and I knew people needed to hear that song. Randy Newman really put it together. It was one of those moments, man. You could feel the floor rising, and the roof rising. Everybody in that room was as emotional as I was. I didn’t plan it, but that’s how it happened.
One of my favourite recordings of yours is your interpretation of Why by Annie Lennox. What was it about that song that struck you?
I was singing Why for about a year or so before I recorded it. I was very interested in Annie Lennox. She’s a great songwriter. I liked her with the Eurythmics, and as an individual artist. I started singing that song right after coming out of a pretty rough relationship. Sometimes, you know, you just hang on to the wrong person for too long. You can’t make people love you. That tune was part of that. But in a bigger picture, it spoke to a lot of people’s emotions and the things that were going on around them — they felt like they had no control. That song gave me a sense of relief, and a little understanding of what I was going through. That’s why I picked it up.
I can remember when I sang that for the first time at Jazz Fest. I looked up and I saw the ladies crying. And then I turn around, I open my eyes a second time and their husbands, their boyfriends — the guys were crying. Next thing I know, the kids are crying because they see the adults crying. Everybody was just in tears, man. It was cathartic.
Tell me about recording Neil Young’s Southern Man. That’s a deep, powerful song.
It was presented to me by my band Uptown Okra. Nick Backer, the mandolin player, introduced me to that tune. The lyrics were powerful, man. I had never really listened to it, because it’s more like rock/pop or whatever. Once I heard it, the lyrics resonated with me. I grew up in the South. I’m 62. I know what it is to have to face the discrimination and the hate of my fellow man just because of my skin colour, which is really sad. Racism is a mental illness. Racism is a mental illness. Racism is a mental illness. You got that? Because it is. You have to be taught. You have to be carefully taught to hate people. It doesn’t come natural. And this song was for me, like a protest song — to say no, the South is not going to rise again. That’s a lie. Dixie lost. That cause is lost. Hate lost. And that’s why I sing that song: to remind my Southern brethren that they need to straighten up, fly right, and get rid of that illness of hate that they have been storing in their hearts for generations. What did I do to you? What did we do to you? It’s a shame. It’s a shame. And I’ve got to say this, I’m so happy that we finally got 45 — I’ll never call him by his name, ever — out of office. Anyway, I’m glad I recorded Southern Man. I like the groove, I love the message, and we need to wake up in America. We really need to wake up, my friends.
Thank you for your time, John.
Thank you so much for giving me a chance to talk to your audience. I want to tell everybody to be safe, wear a mask, socially distance — not six feet, but 12 feet, 15 if possible, or 20! — wash your hands, and do the right thing, man. Love one another.
This interview has been edited and condensed.