Some songs are in our DNA. I think.

I was at French Quarter Fest and over the speaker came a song I knew all the lyrics to: Who Shot the Lala by Oliver Morgan. I didn’t identify the singer at the time just knew all of the lyrics. Like automatic pilot they came spilling out of me onto the grass. There were others of my vintage singing along as well. “I heard it was a .44.”

I was a lucky kid. On top of our fridge was a radio. AM radio. My mama had it on as we ate our cereal, fruit juice, milk and the One a Day vitamin that lay in our spoons as we headed off to school. I heard all the latest and greatest. Not sure to this day if Mama knew how much she was shaping me and my musical tastes. (It was thanks to that fridge radio that I first heard the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.) The poor lady had no sense of rhythm but seemed to like music, although fact is I don’t know if she listens to music for fun now. I’ll have to ask her. But back then she played the radio and had a few albums. Hell, she turned me onto Harry Belafonte without realizing it. Nevermind it was next to the Mills Brothers and Mario Lanza (Drink, drink drink!). That AM radio and the Ed Sullivan Show planted a lot of songs and artists in my head.

So somewhere in my psyche lay Oliver Morgan and Lawrence “Lala” Nelson and the .44. I heard it that day and I realized that I had no earthly clue who or what the “Lala” was. So I set about investigating (which got bonus points for justifying my procrastination on a bigger project). In the process I uncovered a possible murder mystery embroiled in the entire New Orleans dynastic music scene. It was a joy. Forget that everyone else I know seemed to already know the story. Lawrence “Lala” Nelson was the brother of “Papoose” Nelson, the guitar player for Fats Domino—and the pedigree and totally overlapping business that is New Orleans musical dynasties goes on and on. I now am the proud owner of an Orpheus oversized doubloon with Oliver Morgan on it, and the title of the song as well, along with a pristine .45 (no NOT a gun) record of the song. I can’t wait to hear it on a turntable.

But how’d I get there? Why was I so curious about the Lala?

Well, I was listening to the songs on the radio over my pineapple/orange juice. We heard the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, all the Motown stuff, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Otis Redding. That list is actually much longer. But a lot of the songs we heard were about death. Really romantic death—or so it seemed at that age.

Jan and Dean’s Dead Man’s Curve with the doomed race between a Corvette and a Jaguar. Last Kiss with Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers (about 1964, I was in fourth grade) about the car crash, him holding her tight and losing his love, his life, that night. Nevermind Tell Laura I Love Her. They were all sort of mysteries. (I mean they were young and they died! That in itself was the mystery since only old people died.) Romantic mysteries to be sure, but mysteries that didn’t send me off to Google to find out who died/cause of death/was it a who or a what: indeed was it real. Most of those were mysterious only in their idiocy, as in “guess I’ll enter a race to buy you a wedding ring.” Pfffft! Kids!

I heard Stagger Lee, the Lloyd Price version, back then. I knew completely that Lee shot Billy over a Stetson hat with a .44. The first version of House of the Rising Sun that I heard was the Animals: Eric Burdon plaintively wailing about his sins, not technically a death song. Although certainly at that age I could only imagine what those sins were, they were clearly romantic and probably deadly. (Most certainly deadly in the sinnin’ way if I had asked the local priest.)

But at every slumber party, .45’s like Last Kiss were played. There we were, with rollers in our hair, boobless chests heaving, tears welling up in our eyes, it was too, too too too romantic to stand. Oh, just so :::sob:::dreamy. He’ll never love another, I’ll never love another the way I loved him:::sigh::: . He musta been cute. (Well, ya know, Mary, when I bought that wallet at Woolworth’s two weeks ago, there was a picture of FABIAN in it. Uh huh. Really! No I won’t trade it for Bobby Darin.) :::sniffle/haughty stare:::

So why did Oliver Morgan’s song hit me so hard, causing me to research it? No idea. Some songs break into our DNA, of that I’m pretty sure. As we’re dying, it would be great if we could all tell the folks around us what song is in our internal jukebox at that moment. (I would prefer my last song related words be something like Voodoo Chile rather than Tell Laura I Love Her although I could add some laughter to occasion but shouting out “Little Deuce Coupe!” right before I breathe my last. Good lord, it could be that old novelty song They’re Coming to Take Me Away, ha ha, where life is beautiful all the time and I’ll be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats. . . holy shit, why do I know all of THOSE words?)

So does this mean I need to investigate Betty and Jimmy? I can tell you that for SURE, Leader of the Pack by the Shangri La’s (ignoring the obvious over-teased hair additions of the lead singer) could reduce a slumber party to tears over our Bugle snacks. Rollers–brush rollers only, usually pink or with pink pins; jammies–usually flannel and baggie; and hormones–raging and completely beyond our comprehension—-this was the sexiest song ever written from a fourth/fifth grader’s point of view. Forget that she said “what could she do” after Jimmy crashed, (maybe call 911 or was that extant then?). The feminist views that announced themselves in the late 60’s and 70’s weren’t there yet. Her daddy was a bigoted classist prick and caused Jimmy to die and she had no option but to obey the bastard. Somehow that was understood, assimilated and taken for granted. Besides, this girl also had some seriously bad luck in the boyfriend department. Remember the schmuck who went away, then wrote her a Dear Betty letter in Walking in the Sand? Geez. This girl could pick ’em. Should I spend a day on Google checking to see if Jimmy ran into a tree or just skidded out?

Not gonna happen.

Besides, shortly after that we were listening to the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Box Tops, the Byrds. Eventually we got to Jim Morrison singing The End where it was pretty clear what was happening. (Or wait—did he want to fuck his mother or kill her, or fuck her then kill her? Maybe the reverse?) Sick bastard, but dreamy Brylcreem boys had been replaced by sullen long haired and/or leather clad sexpots. We did contemplate that scream a bit and discuss it some, mostly in terms of how much did it annoy and frighten our parents. I played it in a loop for three weeks prompting my poor mama to call a psychologist.

The only song with a real mystery is Who Shot the Lala. It appears it was a hot shot. Heroin. Possibly delivered to Lala deliberately out of jealousy, not over a woman or a Stetson hat but over his musical prowess and burgeoning fame. Or maybe his wardrobe choices. A cold case. But as the glorious new acquaintance HotG sez: Oliver Morgan isn’t exactly an investigative reporter.

Nevertheless, that song piqued my curiosity. And that’s always a good thing. And it had managed to stay intact with all the lyrics in my brain for decades. That really IS a good thing. I’m lucky.

At least from my point of view. Wanna hear the .45 about the .44? Got a turntable?

Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!:::::screech. . .crash:::::

About the Author

Sam Jasper

Sam Jasper is currently waging a largely silent war against gravity and gravitas. It’s a delicate balance. Sam is co-editor of A Howling in the Wires (2010) and a partner in Gallatin and Toulouse Press. She was a contributor to Pelican Press’ Louisiana in Words (2007), and reprised her contributor role in the Chin Music Press’ Where We Know (2010). Sam also erratically maintains a blog called New Orleans Slate (named not after the online mag but the roofing tiles of old buildings and the primary school chalkboard on which the nun’s pointer hung) and has a collection of letters written immediately after Katrina at the Katrina Refrigerator blog. Sam is also a regular contributor at the Back of Town blog.

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