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Harold Battiste

Harold Battiste, the warm, articulate New Orleans record man, died on June 19 in his hometown after a long illness, at age 83.

He was born on October 28, 1931, and was raised within earshot of the famed Dew Drop Inn.

Battiste helped break the Fats Domino-Dave Bartholomew stranglehold in the 1950s and, with Allen Toussaint, developed a funkier New Orleans R&B sound. An accomplished tenor saxophonist and pianist, Harold’s first love, though, was modern jazz. 

His many accomplishments include setting up the Specialty Records branch office for Art Rupe in the late 1950s and arranging the mesmeric vocal chorus on Sam Cooke’s ‘You Send Me’ No. 1 hit in 1957; becoming A&R man for Joe Ruffino’s Ric & Ron Records; founding A.F.O. Records in 1961 and scoring big with Barbara George’s ‘I Know’; moving to the West Coast to arrange Sonny & Cher’s No. 1 ‘I Got You Babe’ in 1965 and launching the Dr. John phenomenon. In his twilight years, Battiste returned to New Orleans to direct his A.F.O. Foundation and inspire a young generation of jazz musicians as an educator.

In 1993, Ace managing director Roger Armstrong and I had an enjoyable lunch with Harold in New Orleans, following which we concluded the easiest of deals to license A.F.O. Records. As a result, the three-CD “Gumbo Stew” series was launched featuring artists such as Prince La La, Tami Lynn, Eddie Bo, Willie Tee, the Tick Tocks and James Booker. It was clear that Harold felt an acute responsibility for preserving the history of the New Orleans R&B era, a desire that would manifest itself in his 2010 autobiography, ‘Unfinished Blues’ (The Historic New Orleans Collection).

Besides the “Gumbo Stew” A.F.O. releases (still available on CD and MP3), Harold Battiste’s productions can be found on Ace CDs from the Specialty catalogue (including the all-time rock ‘n’ roll classic ‘Lights Out’ by Jerry Byrne) and, more recently, the Ric & Ron labels.

It is a proud legacy of a proud man.                                      

John Broven