It’s been recorded by 350 artists in 30 languages, been a hit in four different decades and featured in movies like “O, Brother Where Art Thou,” but “You Are My Sunshine” holds a special place in the hearts of Louisiana’s citizens because it was made famous by Jimmie Davis, who went on to serve two terms as Louisiana’s governor. That connection resulted in the tune being named the state song of Louisiana in 1977.
Hosted by Grammy and Emmy-winner Harry Connick, Jr., the new judge on American Idol, Sunshine by the Stars: Celebrating Louisiana Music features an all-star lineup of Louisiana musicians who show off the state’s musical diversity by performing their own unique renditions of this timeless classic.
In addition to Connick and his band second-lining through the French Quarter in New Orleans, the performers include Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famers Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Guy and Allen Toussaint, Country superstar Tim McGraw, Grammy-winners “The Queen of New Orleans Soul” Irma Thomas, the Rebirth Brass Band and Michael Doucet; country star Mickey Gilley, Zachary Richard singing in French, Zydeco stars Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters and Buckwheat Zydeco; Marcia Ball, rising Jazz and R&B star Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, rock stars Better Than Ezra, blues singer Luther Kent and the gospel group, the Zion Harmonizers. Did we mention that Grammy winners Wynton and Brandon Marsalis joined with their dad Ellis and brother Jason for a special Jazz version of “Sunshine?”
Since the program was recorded during the 200th anniversary of Louisiana being admitted as the nation’s 18th state, it also contains some historical information about the Bayou State between the performances.
Sunshine By The Stars: Celebrating Louisiana Music was produced by Louisiana Public Broadcasting in association with Harry Connick, Jr. and the Louisiana Lt. Governor’s Office as part of the Louisiana Year of Music. The program was underwritten by BP. The show’s producers were Ben Williams, Donald Ray Washington, Tika Laudun and Christina Melton. Clay Fourrier and Beth Courtney served as executive producers.
LOUISIANA’S DIVERSE MUSICAL LEGACY
There’s one thing you can definitely say about Louisiana: We do things our own way. Whether it’s the state’s unique cuisine or choosing an occupation like alligator hunting or making duck calls, people in the Bayou State don’t really follow the trends in the other 49 states. Nowhere is that more evident than in the incredible diversity of Louisiana’s music. There’s Jazz, country, blues, zydeco, Cajun, rock ‘n roll, rockabilly, New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, Swamp Pop, Hip Hop, even opera.
Nowhere is that diversity more evident than in Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s new musical special Sunshine by the Stars: Celebrating Louisiana featuring an all-star lineup of Louisiana musicians playing their own unique renditions of Louisiana’s State Song “You Are My Sunshine,” made famous by former two-term Governor Jimmie Davis.
Hosted by Grammy and Emmy-winning New Orleans native Harry Connick, Jr., the special features Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers Buddy Guy, Jerry Lee Lewis and Allen Toussaint, Country Superstar Tim McGraw, Pulitzer Prize winner Wynton Marsalis and his incredibly talented family, and Grammy winners Irma Thomas, Buckwheat Zydeco and Michael Doucet from Beausoleil. It even features opera tenor Paul Groves, who has probably never sang “You Are My Sunshine” at the Metropolitan Opera.
Thomas believes the unique nature of her hometown has a lot to do with the state’s musical diversity.
“I think there’re a lot of port cities in the United States, but there are none who have been able to blend the cultures in their music the way New Orleans has been able to do it,” Thomas says “I should say Louisiana as a whole because you can go pretty much go anywhere in the state of Louisiana and get that special kind of music. And we’re the only state that’s been able to do that.”
Rick Koster, the author of Louisiana Music, agrees that New Orleans is truly a melting pot.
“Starting from the rhythms and sounds that came out of Congo Square, and the styles and musicians have just been hugely important and historical – which is sort of curious because there’s a lot of amazingly gifted artists who work in relative anonymity – at least in a global context,” Koster said.
He cites keyboardists James Booker and Professor Longhair as two examples of Louisiana artists who deserved much more recognition than they received during their careers.
Unless you live in St. Louis, most people genuinely believe that Jazz was invented in New Orleans in the early 1900s by pioneers like Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory and later Louis Armstrong. It soon spread throughout America and later the world. Al Hirt and Pete Fountain were part of the next generation of Jazz artists and that legacy is carried on today by the Marsalis Family, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and rising stars like Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Orleans Avenue.
When asked who he thought were the most influential musicians in the state’s history, he named two Jazz immortals, “I’d have to go with Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis,” Koster said. “Their respective talents are inarguable, and each was / is such an ambassador. “
Not that the state’s musical talent has been limited to New Orleans.
The biggest selling Louisiana artist of all time is Kentwood native Britney Spears who has sold more than 100 million CDs since she graduated from the Mickey Mouse Club to pop stardom in the mid 1990s.
Folk legend Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was born in the north Louisiana town of Mooringsport. He was a prolific songwriter and musician who wrote such folk classics as “Midnight Special,” “Cotton Fields,” “Irene Goodnight” and “The House of the Rising Sun” that have been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Elvis to the Grateful Dead, the Animals, Nirvana and Led Zeppelin. He did most of his writing while in prison in Louisiana and Texas.
Many people believe that Fats Domino’s recording of “The Fat Man” was the first Rock ‘n Roll song. Whether you believe that or not, Fats was one of the most popular artists in the first decade and a half of the Rock Era, selling more than 63 million records with 37 Top 40 singles. Ferriday’s Jerry Lee Lewis was also a major early contributor in the rock era, combining rock and boogie woogie piano to help launch the Rockabilly genre in the 1950s. He later successfully recorded more than 30 country hits. His cousin Mickey Gilley was one of the most popular performers in the 1970s before becoming an award-winning performer in the Urban Cowboy era of the late 70s and early 80s.
With Fats leading the way, the heyday of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues was the 1950s and 60s when Aaron Neville, Ernie K Doe (“Mother-In-Law”), Clarence “Frogman” Henry, the Dixie Cups, Frankie “Sea Cruise” Ford, Lloyd “Personality” Price, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Oliver “Who Shot the La La” Morgan and Robert “Barefootin’ ” Parker cranked out hits in the studios of New Orleans. Music legends Little Richard and Ray Charles also recorded early in the Crescent City early in their careers. The Funky Meters, the Neville Brothers and Dr. John kept the Big Easy’s recording industry alive in the late 1960s and 70s along with one-hit wonders like Jean “Mr. Big Stuff” Knight, King Floyd (“Groove Me”) and Hot Chocolate (“You Sexy Thing”). Pianist, arranger and songwriter Allen Touissant also drew a wide range of performers to New Orleans to work with including Paul McCartney, Robert Palmer (“Sneakin’ With Sally through the Alley”), and B.J. Thomas.
New Orleans music got a big boost in the last few years with the premiere of the HBO series Treme which has featured a long list of New Orleans and Louisiana musicians including series regular Kermit Ruffins, Dr. John, Rebirth Brass Band, and the Red Stick Ramblers.
Country has always been big, especially in North Louisiana, where the Louisiana Hayride helped launch the careers of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and homegrown talent like Johnny Horton, Webb Pierce and too many others to name. North Louisiana has also produced current stars Tim McGraw and Trace Adkins. Acadiana’s Hunter Hayes leads the next generation of Louisiana country artists with his talent as a singer/songwriter and multi-instrument recording artist. Farther west, singer songwriters Lucinda Williams and Marcia Ball have carved out their own niches by mixing a wide range of Louisiana musical influences.
The earliest form of Cajun music migrated with the Acadians from Nova Scotia when they were exiled by the British in 1764. The movement picked up steam in the late 1800s with the availability of reasonably priced accordions and its popularity spread with advent of the recording in the 1920s. Many Cajun musicians cite Dennis McGee as one of the seminal figures in the movement that now features Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet, musician and poet Zachary Richard, Roddie Romero and the Hub City Allstars, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Ann Savoy and many others. The old traditions are being kept alive by groups like new groups like The Lost Bayou Rambler while newcomers like Amanda Shaw are mixing rock elements with traditional Cajun sounds.
Zydeco had its origins in the 1940s when Creole musicians added rhythm and blues and Jazz sounds to Cajun music, eliminating the fiddle and adding a rubboard to create the ultimate party music. Early stars included “The King of Zydeco” Clifton Chenier, who named the music Zydeco and introduced the unique sound to people around the world, and Boozoo Chavis. Current performers include Buckwheat Zydeco, Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, Terrence Simien and Chubby Carrier to name just a few.
"Everything I learned on the guitar I figured out myself. Which was hard – I didn’t have television or nothing."
~ Buddy Guy
Since Louisiana is located in the Mississippi River Delta, it was almost a given that the state would produce some great blues musicians. Born in the tiny town of Lettsworth, the legendary Buddy Guy says the blues came naturally to him, but he did have to work at it:
“I had to listen to old 78 records and you better not drop it because it’d crash,” Guy said. “And I had to try to figure what John Lee Hook and Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lightnin’ Slim were doing.”
Other Louisiana blues players include the late Slim “Scratch My Back” Harpo, harmonica virtuoso and Rock .n Roll Hall of Fame member Little Walter, Luther Kent and the newer generation that includes Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Tab Benoit.
In addition to blues stars like Guy and Harpo, Baton Rouge also produced 50s teen idol Jimmy Clanton and 1960s hit makers Johnny Rivers and John Fred and his Playboy Band while the 90s marked the emergence of Better Than Ezra as a major rock act.
Over the last 15 years, Louisiana has also produced a long list of rap stars including Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Mystikal, Master P and his son Romeo Miller, formerly known as Lil Romeo.
Why does Louisiana have such a diverse and prolific musical history? Koster believes there may be a mystical explanation.
“I honestly believe New Orleans is a magical place. There is a pretty tangible energy and rhythm to the city– Charles Neville once told me he believed it was the precise latitude and longitude and the below-sea-level aspect — that gives the town a genuine power,” Koster said. “Voodoo and the whole aspect of ancestor/spirit worship? Why not?”