Feature

Wardell Quezergue, 1930–2011

The ‘Creole Beethoven’ of New Orleans

Wardell Quezergue was a young Army private stationed in Japan in 1951 when his unit got the order to head to the Korean front. En route to the airport, Quezergue was abruptly sent back to base to arrange music for a military band; the soldier who replaced him was killed in combat. Fifty years later, Quezergue, by then a legendary arranger who had produced some of New Orleans’s most enduring R&B hits, released A Creole Mass, an orchestral tribute to his stand-in and the other men who died in that war.

Born in New Orleans to a musical family, Quezergue (pronounced ka-ZAIR) had his first professional gig playing the trumpet at age 12, said the New Orleans Times-Picayune. After his Army service, he returned home and became a popular bandleader and musician. But he “discovered he also had a talent for producing and arranging other musicians’ music,” and went on to work with artists such as Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, B.B. King, Dr. John, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder.

Nicknamed the Creole Beethoven, Quezergue left his imprint on scores of New Orleans hits, including “Iko Iko” for the Dixie Cups, “Big Chief” for Professor Longhair, “Mr. Big Stuff” for Jean Knight, and “Groove Me” for King Floyd, said the Associated Press. He co-wrote the brass-band standard “It Ain’t My Fault,” later sampled by Mariah Carey and others, and co-founded Nola Records, where he produced Robert Parker’s Top 10 hit “Barefootin’.” “He was a superb musician and bandleader,” said musician Allen Toussaint. “He always inspired the best out of people who were playing with him.”

Quezergue lost his eyesight to diabetes in 2003, and later lost “a lifetime collection of sheet music” when his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, said The Wall Street Journal. He eventually returned to New Orleans, and in 2009, some of the Big Easy’s top musicians headlined a tribute to him at New York’s Lincoln Center, a rare honor for an arranger. Quezergue was a master of all styles, Toussaint said. “Just drop him off on Planet Music and he was fine.”

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