the subdudes


John Magnie

vocals, organ, keyboards, accordion

John Magnie

He looks like some sort of musical Merlin – with his long, gray soul patch fluttering as he wrestles on stage with the least likely of rock ‘n’ roll instruments.

John Magnie can make the accordion look – and sound – cool. In his hands, the squeeze box creates music that’s the utter antithesis of polka. Maybe it is alchemy. It’s funky. Soulful. It’s not Cajun. Not Conjunto. It’s more Ray Charles than Clifton Chenier.

It’s certainly not what you’d expect from a white kid who grew up in Denver.

* * *

Magnie, the subdudes’ keyboard player and second-lead vocalist, began playing music relatively late. He’d learned some guitar as a teen-ager, but didn’t start playing music seriously until he was 21.

Meatball R. Crumb’s Meatball character

“I fell into it full time when all of my friends were giving it up. I finally figured out there wasn’t anything else I really wanted to do,” Magnie says.

Magnie had tried his hand at college – attending a few around Denver. Finally, he fell in with a group of hard-core blues lovers and found his calling.

They called themselves the Righteous Meatball Boogity Band – no kidding – and Magnie played harmonica and sang. The name, incidentally, was a reference to a comic book character by R.Crumb. “It was a Zap Comix. Like, Mr. Natural cooked up this meatball, and it bounced on people’s head and enlightened them,” Magnie remembers with a laugh.

It was the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. What else can you say?

* * *

The band found steady work in the ski resorts and small communities of the mountains and soon relocated from Denver to just outside of Steamboat Springs. The band members and their families rented a ranch, which they set up as a commune.

Righteous Meatball fell apart in 1973, and Magnie drifted around New Mexico and Austin, Texas, before landing in New Orleans in October 1974.

New Orleans “was my musical goal, because my favorite piano players, besides Ray Charles, were Professor Longhair and James Booker,” Magnie says.

“Booker was pretty helpful to me, in showing me stuff on the piano whenever I would ask him. He would be helpful. Professor Longhair, I would just absorb by going and watching.”

In the spring of ‘75, Magnie was invited to join Blackmale – a band comprised of Gerald Tillman, Renard and Rodger PochÈ and Newton Mossop Jr., some of New Orleans best funk and R&B players.

* * *

John Magnie, circa 1984 John Magnie, circa 1984

Magnie eventually formed his own band with some musicians who lived in the same neighborhood, Susie and David Malone. They called themselves the Johnny Zimple Band. “Nobody knew who John Magnie was, so I decided I’d be Johnny Zimple,” says Magnie, who took the name from a street that runs off Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans.

Magnie, who was regularly performing solo piano gigs, also began playing occasionally as a duo with Leigh Harris, otherwise known as Little Queenie. The Magnie-Harris partnership evolved into one of New Orleans’ legendary bands: Little Queenie and the Percolators. Harris was the star, but Magnie was unquestionably the musical leader of the Percolators.

The band began to coalesce in 1977 around Harris on vocals, Magnie on keyboards and vocals, Allen Pecora on drums, John Meunier on bass, plus a wide variety of horn players, including Fred Kemp, Earl Turbinton, Greg Mazell, Eric Langstaff and Eric Traub. About three years later, Tommy Malone was recruited to play guitar.

Little Queenie & The Percolators were the hottest band in New Orleans, but they were unable to garner much attention from record labels. Inevitably, they drifted apart.

* * *

Continental Drifters, 1986 John Magnie, center, and Tommy Malone, right, formed the Continental Drifters, seen here in 1986, following the demise of the Percolators. Jimmy Messa, left, was a member toward the end.

Magnie and Malone, however, continued to play together and soon were calling themselves the Continental Drifters.

The band, which also featured Johnny Ray Allen and at one time included Jimmy Messa, played loud and raucous. They had a core group of fans, but, again, success was elusive.

“I think we were trying to be edgy, and we just ended up being loud,” Magnie says.

In the meantime, he had picked up a new instrument.

“In like ‘86, I got ahold of an accordion, from a guy named Vernon Rome, (who) gave me his dad’s old accordion. I’d been messing around with it. … I transferred everything I knew from piano and worked on the actual mechanics of playing.”

Magnie meanwhile had been continuing to perform solo and duo shows in town. One of his regular gigs was at Tipitina’s, where he generally played solo piano, but sometimes friends would join him on stage. One night was recorded and released as his first solo LP, “Now Appearing.”

But another one of those nights at Tipitina’s had a more lasting impact.

* * *

By every account, March 16, 1987, exceeded every expectation.

The concept was simple: Magnie and three friends would perform a night of acoustic music, bringing with them as little as possible in the way of instruments.

John Magnie, 1989 John Magnie, from an early subdudes promotional photo, 1989

Tommy Malone carried an acoustic guitar. Johnny Allen also carried an acoustic guitar. Steve Amedée carried a tambourine. John Magnie arrived with an accordion.

“We performed a lot of the same music that we’d been doing (with the Drifters), but with this other style, ... this little warm acoustic style, and people just loved it. And afterward, we went over to Steve’s house and listened to the tape, and we knew it had a magic to it.

“All we had to do was follow the blueprint that had been laid upon us,” Magnie says.

Things moved pretty quickly afterward. Magnie and the others were convinced a physical move out of New Orleans was key to a breakthrough. In October of '87, they settled on Magnie’s suggestion of Fort Collins.

“The whole crew – the four of us guys with three women and five kids – we all wagon-trained out from New Orleans in a series of cars and trailers. We found two places to rent, and we lived in two houses next door to each other.

Fort Collins “is a really sweet little place. You got enough people, you got a college, some places to play, it’s right on the mountains. ... For the Louisiana boys... it was just kind of a liberating feeling, like, ‘You’re going to the West.’ It’s still got sort of a, ‘you can do anything you want to do’ feeling, you know? Almost a pioneer bit of a feel, where we felt like we could make it – and it did help us to solidify our music.”

* * *

John Magnie and the 3 Twins, 1998. John Magnie performs with the 3 Twins at Avogadro's Number in Fort Collins in 1998. (Photo by Clare Schachter)

The next several years were a whirlwind. A core following in Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver. A record contract with Atlantic. Weeks and months on the road. Critical acclaim. Sellout crowds. Adoring fans. But there were lows, as well: Lack of promotion. Resulting disappointing sales. Changes in record labels. Changing dynamics in the band.

The band members went separate ways in November 1996.

“I went to nothing for a little while. Then came the question of livelihood – paying the bills,” Magnie says with a laugh. “It was really starting back at ground zero.” Naturally, he kept writing.

“It was a workshop period. The thing I did most during that period was write songs. These songs – “Wishin’,” “The Rain Song,” plus all of our 3 Twins songs, plus a bunch of gospel stuff that I’m going to be recording here sometime – all came up through that time.”

In 1998, he emerged with his first post-subdudes album, titled simply “Magnie.”

“I think it was a natural – I don’t know if it was a reaction – but it was a natural reflection of the fact that I was on my own at the time. And – but I gotta say – enjoying it,” he says.

The CD marked a reunion between Magnie and Amedée on many songs and included participation from Tim Cook, a songwriter in his own right who had worked with the subdudes for the past several years.

Soon Magnie, Amedée and Cook were performing together. After a series of name changes, they settled on “The 3 Twins” and earned a loyal following in the Colorado-Wyoming area. The Twins’ music marked a return to the stripped-down sound of the early subdudes, with an emphasis on vocal harmony and a focus on Magnie’s new, post-subdudes songs, many written with Amedée and Cook.

John Magnie and The Dudes, 2003 John Magnie with the Dudes at Tipitina's, January 2003. (Photo by Erika Goldring)

“The 3 Twins band focused on making people dance, too. We had … (an idea) where we would start up a series here in Fort Collins, our dance parties. The whole reason was just to explore grooves and see which ones made people dance.”

They released two CDs, “Trinkets” and “Post Trinkets.” The second featured contributions from musicians such as Sam Bush, Sonny Landreth and Tommy Malone.

Malone’s participation hinted that a reconciliation might be forthcoming. Sure enough, in the fall of 2001, at the Tommy Malone Band’s show in Denver, Malone invited Magnie – who was in the audience – to play with him on a couple of subdudes’ chestnuts.

Soon, talk turned to a full-scale reunion that would merge Malone’s band with the 3 Twins. A series of shows in February 2002 were extremely well-received by fans, and they also exceeded even the band members’ expectations: The chemistry was still intact.

Today, as the band continues to tour widely, it’s not unusual for the subdudes to get together a few days before a tour starts to work on new songs.

“It’s a very delicate thing, because it’s very competitive,” Magnie says of the collaborative process. “Each idea is precious to somebody. So, if an idea gets thrown aside or challenged, you have to work through things like that. But it really does make for the best material in the end. ... You have to take a team approach and hope that the sum is greater than the parts. That’s kind of what has happened for us.”


Q&A with John Magnie

Q: Is there a story behind the soul patch? How long have you had it?

A: I copied it straight off another piano player – a guy named Larry Neef from Caspar, Wyoming. I thought it looked cool on him, and I just started wearing it. Had it since I was 21, and I'm 55 now – so, 34 years. Whew, I didn't realize that! I've had a whole beard before, but it was still under there (laughs).

Q: One of the many influences on the subdudes' sound is gospel. But, growing up Catholic in the West, how did you first hear and get into gospel music?

A:The Catholic music is what might've driven me to gospel (laughs). I think that when I first heard gospel music on recordings, as a musician, I just loved the depth of it. And then I thought there was a certain advantage that gospel music has, just in that it is inspired by a source deeper, maybe, or higher than your typical barroom or bedroom song. And the grooves in gospel music are just the greatest – it’s really great music to play. But when I got down to New Orleans, … then I got to go hear and see it! The experience of praise and worship where you can just put your whole body into it – you dance to praise God – it just felt like something that was really right to me. As opposed to the Catholic – almost guilt – if you were to move around and call that some kind of praise. … I've really just loved gospel music as long as I've been hearing music.

Q: Tell us about the time you helped recover Lucille, B.B. King’s guitar that was stolen.

A: The great part about it is that I got credit, but I didn't really do it! We opened for B.B. King over at Old Man River’s – this was Little Queenie and the Percolators, and I think Sonny Landreth played guitar with us that night. But the guitar was stolen while we were on stage playing. B.B. King’s piano player saw the guy taking off, so he ran out, got his license plate. The cops went to his house, and he was sitting on his sofa holding the guitar – he was playing a song, didn't get to even finish a whole song before he got busted! I was given credit for being the one to catch the robber, but I was actually playing at the time.

Q: I've heard that you carry around with you a notebook of lyric ideas.

A: I've been doing it for 35 years. I have many notebooks – full of whole songs, full of ideas, full of phrases. I'm a note guy, I have lists of things in my pocket all the time. Any time I hear anything, a catchphrase, or think of something, I write it down. That’s a large part of songwriting – catching those things and cataloging them and then trying to distill them. To catch them, you just have to be ready for them, just open your ears to things and hear a song in everything.

Lagniappe

(a little something extra thrown in...)

Q: Who has the best po-boys?

A: I would think Frankie and Johnny’s – the oyster po-boy. Pretty much over the years they've been real good, consistent. Always tasty.

Timeline

April 7, 1949 – Born in Abilene, Texas, where his father worked on oil rigs.

circa 1952 – Moves with family to Denver, Colo., his parents' hometown.

circa 1967 – Picks up the guitar.

circa 1967 – Begins attending college at area schools, including Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

1970 – Begins playing piano.

1970 – Joins his first band, the Righteous Meatball Boogity Band. Initially he sings and plays harmonica in the blues band.

circa 1971 – Moves with band members to a town near Steamboat Springs where they form a commune at a ranch.

circa 1972-74 – Drifts through New Mexico and into Austin, Texas, supporting himself playing solo piano gigs.

October 1974 – Moves to New Orleans, the home of two of his piano-playing idols.

winter 1974 – Works with Jim Stapleton and the Cavaliers, playing country music in Belle Chasse and other West Bank communities around New Orleans.

circa 1974-1976 – Plays with the Deacon John band – his main gig in New Orleans for several years, often backing featured singers such as Irma Thomas, Benny Spellman, Ernie K-Doe and others.

spring 1975 – Joins and plays piano and clavinet with Blackmale, a popular R&B band in New Orleans.

circa late 1975-circa 1978 – Forms the Johnny Zimple Band with David Malone (later of the Radiators) and Malone’s then-wife, Susie.

early 1977-circa 1983 – Forms and leads the Percolators with vocalist Leigh “L'il Queenie” Harris.

early 1983-1986 – Continues working with Harris and her husband Bruce MacDonald as “L'il Queenie and the Skin Twins.”

1983-1986 – Holds down a regular solo piano gig at the Gazebo near the French Market in New Orleans.

circa 1984 – Forms a short-lived band, “The Works,” with Tommy Malone.

1984-1987 – Forms the Continental Drifters with former Percolators Tommy Malone and Kenneth Blevins. Membership later includes Johnny Ray Allen and Jimmy Messa, among many others.

1986 – Releases first solo album, “Now Appearing,” recorded live at Tipitina’s in New Orleans.

1986 – Begins playing accordion

March 15, 1987 – the subdudes perform for the first time – at Tipitina’s.

October 1987 – Moves to Fort Collins, Colo.

early 1989-November 1996 – After signing their first big contract, the subdudes release four studio CDs and tour widely before calling it quits.

January 1994 – Organizes the first of three informal get-togethers in Fort Collins that are recorded and released (only on cassette) annually as “The Parlor Sessions.” The sessions feature Magnie, Amedee and more than a dozen other Fort Collins musicians.

March 1997 – Works on a thus-far unreleased album by Anders Osborne, “New Madrid.”

early 1998 – Tours with Fort Collins musician Celeste Krenz, playing keyboards.

March 1998 – Releases “Magnie,” his first post-subdudes CD. It contains the original versions of “Like a Ghost” and “If Wishing Made It So.”

March-April 1998 – Mounts a small solo tour to promote the “Magnie” CD, including opening some shows for artists such as the Radiators, Marcia Ball, Keb' Mo' and Jerry Jeff Walker. Tim Cook accompanies him on percussion and harmony vocals on occasion.

circa July 1998 – Steve Amedée begins joining Magnie (and Tim Cook) at live performances.

June 1998 – Joins Sam Bush on stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Two songs recorded at the festival featuring Magnie are released on Bush’s “Peaks of Telluride” CD. Magnie and Cook also perform at an informal workshop during the festival.

February 1999 – Magnie, Amedée and Cook begin calling themselves Magpie and perform throughout the Front Range area of Colorado.

spring 1999 – Reunites with Leigh “Little Queenie” Harris for her album, “House of Secrets.” Magnie plays keyboards and accordion on several songs, and contributes two new tunes (plus a third song co-written with Harris years earlier).

spring 1999 – Magpie hits the road, performing in New Orleans at the Jazz & Heritage Festival (where they were joined on stage by Tommy Malone), Austin at the South by Southwest Conference and many other cities.

May 1999 – Gambit weekly of New Orleans calls Magpie’s jazzfest performance the “Best Jazz Fest Debut.”

very late 1999-early 2000 – Magpie briefly becomes Coot. Soon Magnie, Amedée and Cook settle on the name 3 Twins.

May 2000 – The 3 Twins release an 11-song version of “Trinkets,” a mostly re-recorded, expanded and more polished version of an identically titled CD released the previous year by Magpie. Some of the highlights include “Julianne,” “If Wishin' Made It So” and “The Rain Song.” All three would be re-recorded for the subdudes' “Miracle Mule” CD (although the new recording of “Julianne” thus far has not been released).

October 26, 2001 – Magnie reunites on stage with Tommy Malone, who was in Denver performing a show with his solo band. Talks ensue about working together again.

February 2002 – The Tommy Malone Band and the 3 Twins combine to form the six-member Dudes, which includes three of the four original subdudes.

December 2002 – The 3 Twins and Celeste Krenz release a Christmas CD, “Christmas … Through My Baby’s Eyes.”

March 2003 – The Dudes scale back to a five-piece band and revive the name “subdudes.”

April 2004 – The subdudes' first studio album in eight years, “Miracle Mule,” is released.


John’s gear

With the subdudes, John primarily uses:

Accordion

  • Baldoni Combo 2
  • Keyboard

  • Yamaha P-80 electric piano
  • Electronics

  • reverb box, EQ pedal, reverb pedal (used with accordion)

Discography

Here’s a look at a handful of the albums on which John Magnie has appeared. (Click the cover for more information.)


MP3

Here are some excerpts of recordings featuring John Magnie:

  • Splendid Company – This is one of John Magnie's earliest recorded lead vocals and comes from an LP released in New Orleans by Ron Cuccia and the Jazz Poetry Group, which consisted of Cuccia, a local poet and songwriter, on vocals; Magnie on piano and vocals, Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris on vocals; Ramsey McLean on bass and cello; Charles Neville (of the Neville Brothers) on sax and vocals; and Ricky Sebastian on drums and percussion. The recording is from the group's self-titled LP, released in late 1979. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.
  • It’s So Hard – Much of the subdudes’ early repertoire actually dates to the Little Queenie & the Percolators period. Here’s a live audience recording of one of John Magnie’s songs that would be featured 13 years later on the "Annunciation" CD. This version features Magnie on lead vocals with harmony vocals from Leigh Harris and Tommy Malone. L'il Queenie and the Percolators recorded live at the Dream Palace, May 1, 1981. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.
  • Like a Ghost – Leigh “Little Queenie” Harris released this version of Magnie’s song in April 1999 on her “House of Secrets” CD. Magnie doesn't actually appear on this recording of one of his best songs, but it's stunning nonetheless. (Magnie’s own version of this song can be found on the “Magnie” solo CD, as well as the 3 Twins' “Post Trinkets” CD. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.
  • Big Time Dreamer – Originally found on the 3 Twins' "Post Trinkets" CD, this rocking live version was recorded at the Little Bear Saloon, a great little club in Evergreen, Colo., on April 22, 2001, and features harmony vocals from Steve Amedée and Tim Cook. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.

Article by Richard Russell; © 2004 Richard E. Russell.

Magnie portrait (top) by Yiannis Samaras, courtesy of Back Porch Records.

Other photo credits listed above, when known.

Magnie photo from Tipitina's 2003 is ©Erika Goldring and is used with permission.

The L'il Queenie live recording is courtesy of Tommy Stevenson and Ben Windham. The 3 Twins live recording is courtesy of Richard Russell.

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