the subdudes


Jimmy Messa

bass, guitar, vocals

Jimmy Messa

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.

Not long after that, Messa got the call when the bass chair opened up in a band that Malone and John Magnie had formed, the Continental Drifters.

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.

* * *

The band Free Spirit, 1976. Jimmy Messa with the band Free Spirit in Galveston Beach, Texas, in July 1976.

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 didn’t 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!”

The band Sinamon, January 1978. Jimmy Messa performs with Sinamon Leaf in Rock Island, Illinois, in January 1978.

* * *

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, ‘We’re going to be leaving town. Do you want to come?’ But I couldn’t – 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.

John Magnie joins the Tommy Malone Band onstage. John Magnie, Jimmy Messa and Tommy Malone at the Soiled Dove, Denver, on Oct. 26, 2001. (Photo by Chris Herbert)

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 Helm’s house band at Helm’s now-defunct New Orleans café and music venue, where he performed with a virtual who’s who of the music world, including on one New Year’s eve with Helm’s other band, The Band.

When Malone telephoned in July 2001, Messa was working with Brint Anderson, who’s 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.

Jimmy Messa and Steve Amedée. Jimmy Messa and Steve Amedée in Breckenridge, Colo., June 13, 2004. (Photo by Clare Schachter)

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, Magnie’s 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&A with Jimmy Messa

Q: What’d 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 player’s 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 I’m 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 it’s a bit intimidating to even be holding a guitar onstage while he’s 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 what’s going on and also be a little bit … invisible.

Lagniappe

(a little something extra thrown in...)

Q: Who has the best po-boys?

A: That’s easy. Rocky & Carlo’s in Chalmette. Hands down. The best. For other food, I really like sushi (Shogun or Kan Pai), Italian (Venezia or Bravo’s), Chinese (P.F.Chang’s), or old New Orleans food (Mandina’s).
(Editor's note: A po-boy is New Orleans vernacular for a sandwich on french bread – similar to a sub.)

Timeline

August 2, 1955 – Born in New Orleans

1966 – Receives a drum kit for Christmas

1969 – Buys first bass (a $200 Gibson EB-O)

1972 – First gig on Bourbon Street (at Big Daddy’s Strip Club!)

circa 1985 – Joins the Continental Drifters, which at the time included Tommy Malone, John Magnie, Gary Hirstius, Johnny Ray Allen and Barry Flippen.

circa 1988 – Plays bass with Anders Osborne, shortly after Osborne moves to New Orleans

1989 – Begins playing with guitarist Charlie Brent, mainly in central Florida

circa 1990 – Embarks on a world tour with legendary R&B singer Johnny Adams

early 90s – Plays extensively with Doug Duffey, including tours of Russia and Europe

circa 1994 – Plays bass for R&B singer Tommy Ridgely

1994-95 – Performs with Lenny McDaniel

1997 – Performs and records as a member of Gary Hirstius’ Day 7 band

1998 – Tours Europe with the Rockin’ Jake Band

1998-1999 – Performs as a member of Levon Helm’s band at Levon Helm’s Classic American Cafe in the French Quarter

1999 – Joins the Brint Anderson Band

August 2001 – Joins the Tommy Malone Band

February 2002 – Tommy Malone Band morphs into the Dudes

March 2003 – From the Dudes emerge the subdudes.


Jimmy’s gear

With the subdudes, Jimmy primarily uses:

Basses

  • Fender 60th Anniversary Precision Bass, Inca silver finish
  • Lakland Hollowbody, gold finish
  • Guitars

  • 1980 Fender Telecaster, blond finish
  • 1955 Kay Acoustic, natural finish
  • Electronics

  • Bass amp
    • Markbass CMD 121P combo (Jimmy uses Markbass amps exclusively and is a Markbass endorser)
  • Guitar amp
    • Fender '59 Bassman (Re-Issue)
  • Pickups
    • Mi-Si acoustic guitar pickups (Jimmy uses Mi-Si acoustic guitar pickups and is a Mi-Si endorser)

Discography


Here’s a look at a handful of the albums on which Jimmy Messa has appeared. Click the cover for more information.


MP3

Here are some excerpts of recordings featuring Jimmy Messa:

  • Better Look – Gary Hirstius co-wrote this song with Tommy Malone, and it’s featured on Hirstius’ “Temporary Secret” CD. The song features Hirstius on lead vocals and Theresa Andersson on harmony vocals, with Jimmy Messa on bass. Recorded in 1997. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.
  • The Ride – Messa plays bass on this song from the self-titled CD by the band One. This neo-surf instrumental, written by Steve Staples and Dave Newman, was recorded circa 1999. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.
  • No Matter What – Jimmy Messa assumes lead vocal duties on this recording by the Bonoffs of the classic Badfinger tune. This recording, which also features former Continental Drifter Susan Cowsill on harmony vocals, is from an unreleased demo recorded in 2002. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.

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.

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