What was it like to make the CD?
There was so little burlesque music on CD. I had a seven-piece band every Sunday night, and I had the best band in the city. The band was phenomenal.
Of course, at the beginning, I didn’t think about doing a CD, and people kept asking for one. The demand brought me to it. It was kind of tricky because I had all those burlesque records and they’re all novelty records.
I wanted to make a record that could be a serious jazz record but burlesque-y — fun but real. Over the course of time, I picked out songs.
The good thing about it was being able to do these shows and songs over the years, to find out what worked. We had the guitar player from Dr John‘s band, the piano player from Gatemouth Brown‘s band, the trumpet player from Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Ruth Brown‘s bass player!
We took two days in the studio and laid down the tracks. John Polt did liner notes about the musicians in burlesque, and Rick Delaup provided a history of burlesque.
Historically, the thing with the musicians [is that] you got into burlesque on your way up or your way down. You got strung out and now you’re working at a burlesque club.
I kind of wanted it to not be such a novelty, to be the thing itself. I put Blaze Starr on the cover, and a lot of the old timers in NO recognized her and would pick it up in the club, and I’d hear a story about how they saw her.
Were you at the first Tease-o-rama Convention in New Orleans (2001)?
It was good! We were the house band, but not many of the dancers worked with us. The good thing about these big events is that people got to know each other.
At that point, that countrywide community wasn’t happening.
What has it been like working with women who did burlesque in the 1950s?
I’ve spoken to a number of the old burlesque dancers, and the question I’ve asked a number of them was “Is there a time or event that you can tell me when burlesque died?” And they all say, “The day they got rid of the bands.” Kitty West told me this a number of times — burlesque died when they got rid of the bands.
She would try to show girls, and they would say, “I can’t do it.” I watched Kitty do the Oyster Girl to my CD with the shell; she knew the whole act and I’ve not seen anybody be that suggestive.
On the CD, I was able to record this music that had never been recorded, written by a New Orleans musician. I had the original sheet music dated November 1, 1954. The author of the music was still alive.
I talked to him and said, “Herb, I’m redoing that song for Kitty.” He said he was doing that burlesque shit in high school! He couldn’t believe I found the music.
He said, “I couldn’t watch. I was too young; if I looked at her I’d start making mistakes.” He’s 60-70 now, whispering while he’s talking to me so I know the wife is not too far away.
One of the coolest things about my record was working with Kitty. While I was working with her, she found the original music for her Oyster Girl act.
I’ve seen her do her act, and there’s no one who will ever come close to doing that act her way. It’s so raunchy. Everybody that she’s ever showed or wanted to teach hasn’t done it that raunchy.
(laughs) I’m a New Yorker; I’ll do it raunchy.
You know the story? The story is that every hundred years her shell opens up, and she’s got one chance to get it on with the pearl. And when she comes out of the shell, she’s fucking the pearl — she’s gyrating all over it!
So that fuck has to be worth a hundred years!
When did you come back to New York?
After Katrina, 2005. I played with the Blues Devils at Le Scandal, and it was my first taste of the New York new burlesque scene. I had to learn the wing-it thing, after having had more control in the Shim Sham shows where it was all rehearsed.
In New York, people change their numbers in the middle of the show! We had a couple of guest stars with no real rehearsal, and I would have to tell the band to keep playing — if I saw she didn’t have her clothes off.
In New Orleans, the musicians were these really straight guys that had never had a bandleader yelling, “Keep playing ’til she’s naked!” They’d be reading the music, not looking at the girl.
Every so often you’d have a new guy who had to read the music, and I’d have to yell, “She’s not naked yet! Just keep going! Keep playing ’til she’s naked!”
I want a live music burlesque version of Godzilla so bad. I’ve got to get hold of Blue Oyster Cult.
Every dancer should have her own special music!
What would you like to do next?
I don’t know where I’ll be living, here or New Orleans, but I have a continuing interest in burlesque as a fan. I’m into it, just seeing what people are doing. I’d love to do another CD.
Katrina derailed me along with everybody else. I didn’t lose all my belongings, but I had to pick up the pieces and move.
I was in Paraguay and didn’t board up anything. I would really love to see a burlesque show on Broadway, in the sense where if you want a purple curtain, you get a purple curtain. And I’d like to see people who’ve worked hard make money from this.
What’s your favorite thing about burlesque?
Burlesque is one of the few art forms where Americans can say we invented jazz, and we invented this form of burlesque. I want to see people take it for what it is, the art it is.
Jo Weldon is headmistress of the award-winning New York School of Burlesque and is a regular burlesque performer. Visit burlesquedaily.blogspot.com to read her daily blog.