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 thats the utter antithesis of polka. Maybe it is alchemy. Its funky. Soulful. Its not Cajun. Not Conjunto. Its more Ray Charles than Clifton Chenier.
Its certainly not what youd expect from a white kid who grew up in Denver.
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Magnie, the subdudes keyboard player and second-lead vocalist, began playing music relatively late. Hed learned some guitar as a teen-ager, but didnt start playing music seriously until he was 21.
I fell into it full time when all of my friends were giving it up. I finally figured out there wasnt 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 peoples head and enlightened them, Magnie remembers with a laugh.
It was the late 60s-early 70s. What else can you say?
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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.
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.
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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 Id 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.
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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 dads old accordion. Id 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 Tipitinas, 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 Tipitinas had a more lasting impact.
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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.
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 wed 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 Steves 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 Magnies 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, its right on the mountains. ... For the Louisiana boys... it was just kind of a liberating feeling, like, Youre going to the West. Its 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.
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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 Im 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 dont 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 Magnies new, post-subdudes songs, many written with Amedée and Cook.
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.
Malones participation hinted that a reconciliation might be forthcoming. Sure enough, in the fall of 2001, at the Tommy Malone Bands 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 Malones 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, its not unusual for the subdudes to get together a few days before a tour starts to work on new songs.
Its a very delicate thing, because its 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. Thats kind of what has happened for us.
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 its 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. Kings 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 Rivers 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. Kings 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. Thats 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.
Q: Who has the best po-boys?
A: I would think Frankie and Johnnys the oyster po-boy. Pretty much over the years they've been real good, consistent. Always tasty.
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.