For decades, many a struggling young musician has paid his dues working on Bourbon Street. Jimmy Messa was no exception.
In early 1985, he found himself at the Landmark Hotel bar, corner of Bourbon and Toulouse, backing up a local all-girl singing act, Pizzazz (á la the Pointer Sisters, he says). One night the band also included a young guitar player: Tommy Malone.
About 15 years later, he received a similar call: Tommy was rebuilding his solo band, and he needed a bass player. A few months later, the Dudes were formed. Soon the Dudes morphed into the subdudes.
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A native of Chalmette (pronounced shall-MET), La., a small community in the New Orleans metropolitan area, Messa grew up surrounded by music, in his home as well as in the community.
As a kid, he first picked up the clarinet. But after the Beatles hit the shores, he soon figured he needed a hipper instrument. He received a drum kit when he was 11 and began playing in bands with classmates. A couple of years later, fate intervened and the kit was stolen. He turned to the bass.
It so happened that we had been practicing in my parents garage, and the bass player had left his equipment there. Since I didnt have any drums any more, I would go into the garage and pick up his bass and noodle around with it. Boy, did it feel natural, Messa says.
A succession of garage bands followed. In fact, Messa had been active on the New Orleans scene for more than 15 years when he joined the Drifters. He was with them probably longer than any other bass player.
We did Virginia Beach, Nags Head, N.C., – all up and down the East Coast three or four times, but it was always such little money, Messa recalls. We were always opening for somebody – 10,000 Maniacs, Guadalcanal Diary, whoever was popular at the time. And we'd blow em away and be so proud of ourselves. Then they’d pay us $185. And most of that went toward gas!
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By the fall of 1987, three of the Drifters – Malone, Magnie and Johnny Ray Allen – had decided to relocate out of state to focus on a new band, the subdudes.
Tommy asked me if I wanted to move, Messa says. He told me, nicely, Were going to be leaving town. Do you want to come? But I couldnt – I was making money (at a new job), I had a new baby – I just said, Good luck, we'll meet up again sometime. And we did.
When the Drifters disintegrated, Messa stayed busy, working with musicians like Anders Osborne, Charlie Brent, Johnny Adams and Tommy Ridgely as the 80s turned into the 90s.
The next decade was even busier touring with former Stephen Stills sideman Lenny McDaniel, performing and recording with fellow ex-Continental Drifter Gary Hirstius, and touring for a couple of years with harpmeister Rockin Jake. He served as a member of Levon Helms house band at Helms now-defunct New Orleans café and music venue, where he performed with a virtual whos who of the music world, including on one New Years eve with Helms other band, The Band.
When Malone telephoned in July 2001, Messa was working with Brint Anderson, whos best known for his work with George Porter Jr. Messa and his Brint Anderson Band mate Sammy Neal joined Tommy for a swing through the Southeast, followed by some shows in Texas and Colorado.
In Colorado, Magnie joined Malone and the band on stage at a show in Denver, and the old subdudes spark was rekindled. Talks to revive their partnership ensued, and within a few months, Magnies post-subdudes band, 3 Twins, and the Tommy Malone Band combined to form the Dudes. Within a year, the Dudes were again calling themselves the subdudes.
The merger created a band with two bass players. Today, on some songs, Messa assumes bass chores as Tim Cook sings a third or fourth harmony part and adds percussion. Meanwhile, on other tunes, Cook focuses on bass, and Messa picks up the guitar. The resulting twin guitar interplay between Tommy Malone and Messa has been one of the highlights of many of the subdudes live shows.
Q: Whatd you listen to, growing up?
A: My two older sisters were very into music. From the oldest one, I would hear the Platters, Ray Charles, show tunes, that kind of thing. Then when the other sister began playing early 60s stuff Spanky and Our Gang, Supremes, Simon & Garfunkel, eventually Beatles and Kinks and Stones and the album Hair (and the bass was louder and more prominent) I really, really dug it. I guess because I thought, Wow! I think I could do that!
Q: Who influenced you as a bass player?
A: In essence, I guess I was influenced by a combination of the Platters, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. In a local sense, I was truly knocked out by the bassist for a psychedelic New Orleans cover band from the 60s & 70s called Paper Steamboat. The bass players name was Eric Schwartz great tone, great feel, cool roll and pleat Kustom bass amp. And, of course, the great George Porter – who isn't! And also by just hearing second-line, street music and Mardi Gras music since I was born.
Q: As a guitar player, describe your role and how you interact with Tommy.
A: To begin with, let me say I tend to think of myself as a novice guitarist. Guitar is a very deep instrument, and Im barely scratching the surface so far. My role, I think, is to lend a kind of icing on the cake. Tommy is such a fantastic guitarist, I have to tell you its a bit intimidating to even be holding a guitar onstage while hes holding one. My best bet is to try to play supportively, rhythmically, try never to step on what he is playing, and be both a comfortable pad behind whats going on and also be a little bit invisible.
Q: Who has the best po-boys?
A: Thats easy. Rocky & Carlos in Chalmette. Hands down. The best. For other food, I really like sushi (Shogun or Kan Pai), Italian (Venezia or Bravos), Chinese (P.F.Changs), or old New Orleans food (Mandinas).
(Editor's note: A po-boy is New Orleans vernacular for a sandwich on french bread similar to a sub.)
Article by Richard Russell; © 2004 Richard E. Russell.
Photo credits: Messa portrait by Yiannis Samaras, courtesy of Back Porch Records. Archival photos are from the James Messa collection.
Bonoffs recording is courtesy of Jimmy Messa.