Lights Out! The New Orleans Irish Quarter Fire that was Jerry Byrne

This delve into songs first heard in the 80s at one of the record hops still taking place as part of London’s remaining 50s/60s Teddy Boy/Rocker scene looks at:


Song: ‘Lights Out’

Artist: Jerry Byrne

From: New Orleans

Recorded: 1958

Back then I was going to hops or to watch live rock ‘n’ bands six nights a week. I’d bop all night long, sometimes even get in on the strolls occasionally played between faster tracks like a jogger waiting for the walk sign to turn green again.

And I did it all in the boots worn to ride bikes.

If I wasn’t a good dancer, I was at least fit (I was actually an extremely good dancer and handsome with it). But even for the gloriously dance floor endowed, ‘Lights Out’, despite being a mere 1.50 mins long, always proved a damn hard workout that had me glad for the short break at the end and even more so if a stroller or slow dance followed.  

Information on Byrne is light on the ground with much possibly only existing due to the artists he worked with. He never recorded an album; instead just a handful of singles with b-sides.

Byrne was born 1941 in New Orleans’ Irish Quarter. In 1957, when seventeen, Jerry jumped on stage at a Little Richard concert in Slidell, Louisiana, to join his idol at the microphone. Some retellings are worded to imply it was then that music legend Harold Battiste (an A&R for Speciality Records at the time) first saw him; whereas others, while mentioning the Richard concert incident, say the first meeting between Byrne and Battiste took place within a couple of weeks of it; either way, there does appear a connection given who Byrne went on to record with.

Battiste signed Byrne, and in February of 1958 ‘Lights Out’ was recorded. The musicians used for the session being: Edgar Blanchard, guitar; Art Neville, piano; Frank Fields, bass; Charles “Hungry” Williams, drums; and the man Harold Battiste himself on saxophone (he also produced the session). That’s quite some band even without hindsight; each musician already established at the time, including some having played with Byrne’s above mentioned idol.

The song was written by Seth David and Malcolm Rebennack, a writing partnership that was apparently responsible (not all track credits can be found) for the handful of Byrne’s 50s’ recordings.

Byrne and Rebennack were cousins. The latter went on to be known as Dr. John; winner of Six Grammys and a Rock n Roll Hall of Famer as of 2011. Though his hitting the ‘big time’ didn’t happen until 1968.

Surprisingly, given what a cracking song it is, much like the previously written of Tornado, it only did well locally, while not so much nationally. Undeterred the label released more by Byrne.

The first ‘You Know I Love You So’ didn’t have much in common with ‘Lights Out’; while the second, ‘Carry On’, did; though it still couldn’t elevate Byrne above a small southern popularity, where he remained touring until around the mid 60s. Meaning Byrne’s flame burned out before that of ‘Lights Out’ writer, Rebennack, had really started to ignite.

To understand some of the lore around Byrne, a quick side step into Rebennack is needed.

Active in music from the 50s—forming and playing in bands and writing for others—Rebennack’s ‘day job’ was also as a professional session musician. It might imply slow and steady wins the race.

Byrne and Rebennack collaborated on many musical projects, while the latter was also involved in numerous not involving the former. The southern venues they played were wild, raucous affairs with shows also featuring the likes of magicians and comedians on the same bill (cue image of Blues Brothers playing behind mesh and having bottles thrown at them).

Despite Rebennack’s greater fame, no exact date can be found for the following beyond circa 1960, but one thing is sure: during a concert in Jacksonville, Florida, Rebennack had the tip of his left ring finger shot off, meaning he could no longer play guitar as he needed to. There began the journey of mastering a new instrument: first moving to the bass, then piano, the instrument Dr. John is famous for playing.

Jerry Byrne had been in one of Rebennack’s bands called The Loafers; some articles focused on the former suggest it was they onstage when someone in the crowd started firing wildly; in the process taking off Rebennack’s fingertip as he played.

But it really doesn’t take a lot of looking to find out that account isn’t true (perhaps easy to say now with a greater amount of information available online to search).

While Rebennack doesn’t mention the band’s name, he is on record saying the incident occurred as someone was pistol whipping its singer Ronnie Barron, and he—Rebennack—intervened to wrestle the gun off the attacker; in the ensuing struggle it discharged, taking the tip off a finger (Barron’s mum had threatened to cut off Rebennack’s ‘cojones’ if anything happened to her son on tour; he probably got the better end of the deal).

Byrne appeared on two other singles under pseudonyms.

Morgus and The Ghouls recorded the super groovy ‘Morgus the Magnificent’ to pay tribute to a local TV personality; the group being Jerry along with Rebennack and Frankie Ford, famous for another song I first encountered on the same scene, 1959’s ‘Sea Cruise’.

In 1960 the same trio teamed up with Huey ‘Piano’ Smith (writer and original recorder of ‘Sea Cruise’) for the song ‘Chinese Bandits’ in support of the local football team. Due to contractual obligations elsewhere the song was credited to The Cheerleaders.

In 1974 single ‘My Little Girl’ saw release. It doesn’t sound like a recording of the time, but instead one the label had found in its vaults. However, in 1987 a track called ‘I’m From the South’ came out sounding very much of the moment. It’s possibly no coincidence that it was the same year someone managed to get Jerry out of music retirement (there is no evidence of his recording or touring between the 60s and this event) and all the way to the UK for his first and only live appearance there. It took place March 22nd at the Clarendon Hotel, Hammersmith, where he headlined the inaugural ‘ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ALLDAYER’ (as it read on the flyer).

On which note: given the date, when writing had a wtf why wasn’t I there moment, only to then quickly remember, only for hindsight to call me a bloody idiot (it’s getting like a parrot).

I also found suggestion Jerry acted wildly while in the UK: ejected from a restaurant; smashing up someone’s bathroom; being extremely difficult in just about every aspect (it could well have been jet-lag, for that would certainly describe me when suffering from it). Though every mention of the show itself says he was fantastic.

As with Tornado, writing this has shown another American rock ‘n’ roll artist suddenly popular on the UK (London, at least) 80s rock ‘n’ roll scene, when their original success might fairly be called middling (any success in the music industry is an achievement, let it be said).

‘Lights Out’ and the original b-side ‘Honey Baby’ can be found listed with a UK release year of 1973, suggesting it wasn’t just the vaults the label went through (‘My Little Girl’ 1974) but also some new avenues of distribution; and at a time that couldn’t have been better: 1972 saw the ‘The London Rock ‘n’ Roll Show’ at Wembley, which featured the likes of Little Richard, and is credited with starting the Teddy Boy revival movement of that decade.

Jerry Byrne died in 2010, aged 69. R.I.P.

This series:

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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