Musician, Beautician, Magician
Johnny Angel was ordering a roast beef po-boy, dressed, at Parkway Bakery & Tavern, when he saw Quint Davis.
“I saw him, he saw me, and I asked him, ‘Quint, what do I have to do to get a gig at Jazz Fest?’” Angel said. “Next thing I know we’re one of the opening acts for John Mayer playing the Acura Stage with a 19-piece orchestra in front of thousands of people. I was livin’ large. I wasn’t intimidated. It was inspiring. And it’s what I wanted to do.”
The Saturday, May 5, 2007, gig was the first time Angel performed at Jazz Fest. It was also the last time, and just one of many disappointments the singer, songwriter, bandleader, producer and entrepreneur said he has faced in the years after Hurricane Katrina.
“Since Katrina, it’s been different,” Angel said about the music scene in New Orleans. “Very, very different.”
Before the Storm, Angel said his act, Johnny Angel and the Swingin’ Demons, would book 8 shows a week.
Hepcats and their duchesses would crowd into Angel’s Whirlaway Lounge gigs upstairs at The Hog’s Breath and Maspero’s in the French Quarter. Angel would sing the swing, and incorporate burlesque, fire acts, drag queens, comedians and vaudeville bits into his shows. He cultivated a cult following that made his clambakes legendary.
He honed his chops Monday nights at The Red Room, was the Maestro of Swing at Mid-City Lanes Rock n’ Bowl on Wednesdays, got the joint jumpin’ in the Crystal Room at Le Pavillon Hotel on Fridays and became the Jockey of Jive at The Bombay Club on Saturdays.
Crooning Louis Prima, Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra favorites, and conducting Duke Ellington and Count Basie standards, the pompadoured, snazzily dressed Angel, his orchestra, and his “red-headed canary” vocalist Julia Lashae, would hold court, commanding some of the most swellegant stomping grounds in town.
“We used to get guaranteed money for a 7 or 8 piece band,” Angel reminisced. “You could make a living as a full time musician back then.”
Angel was one of the only acts performing swing music in New Orleans when the syncopated scene re-emerged in the late 90s, and locals were eager to lindy hop, mambo and jive. He said he was in the right place at the right time.
“Swing music was hot,” he said, “and I was the only one doing it it New Orleans. No one was doing it like I was doing it.”
Today, Angel said, club owners offer few guarantees, and bands are usually paid only 20% – 25% of what the bar brings in for the hours the band is playing.
Before Angel started beatin’ boogie in New Orleans, the Staten Island, NY, native had a previous life as a prosperous hairdresser. Angel said he had a salon in New York’s tony SoHo neighborhood and did magazine, runway and TV work for A-List celebs.
In 1993, Angel said he had the opportunity to make a life as a musician in New Orleans and ran with it.
Angel produced several albums including “Club Deuce” and “More,” Offbeat Magazine voted him Entertainer of the Year in 1998 and in 2000 he was voted Band of the Year (South region) by Musician’s Atlas.
But after the crescendo came the curtain, and when Angel moved back to his Uptown crib in late 2005, he found, now and then to present day, he’s had to fall back on his previous hair cutting talents to make moola and not art on stage.
Angel, who considers himself a musician, a beautician and often times a magician, reinvented his stage persona and is now leading a new band of Helldorados.
“My grandfather Benedetto Guadagnino used to like listening to country music,” Angel said. “The songs were melodic and told stories. I don’t know why Italians like cowboys, but we love all that cowboy music.”
Johnny Angel & Helldorado is a 6-piece country and western swing band and Angel’s found success performing some of his favorite 40s – 60s-era C&W favorites with background fiddles and pedal steel guitars.
“That music is really swingin’,” he said. “Think Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. I’m hummin’ and strummin’, and our October 2014 album “Ready… Set… Hold On!” got good reviews and sold out.”
Influenced by Hank Williams 1 and 3, Sons of the Pioneers, Merle Haggard, Hawkshaw Hawkins, The Louvin Brothers, Red Steagall and Lefty Frizzell, Angel has been trying to adapt and change to reposition his star in the New Orleans nightscape. His honky tonk, Rockabilly revue can be heard often at the Old Point Bar in Algiers on Friday nights where patrons have traded in the foxtrot for the Texas Two-Step.
But Angel has managed to keep his Johnny Angel and the Swingin’ Demons big band alive, and has a new weekly Saturday night gig at the Bourbon O Bar inside the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. The venue boasts they are the only 100% smoke free bar on Bourbon Street, and Angel said the O is making a name for itself with their humdinger handcrafted cocktails.
While Angel said the crowd is mostly tourists, and not his fan following of jitterbuggers of years of yore, there’s still a big hoopla when he and the Swingin’ Demons hit the stage from 8:00 pm. to midnight.
Angel is also excited about his recurring gigs for the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport’s Music @ MSY’s music series. Johnny Angel and the Swingin’ Demons will headline Terminal C on Monday, Jan. 26, 2015, from 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
“We make a lot of noise, and for people coming in we’re the first thing they see and hear, and for people leaving we’re the last thing they see and hear,” Angel said.
One thing Angel really loves about New Orleans is the generosity of his fellow musicians. In New York, where Angel still keeps a pied-à-terre in Little Italy, musicians don’t share the stage with anyone. Here, Angel said, it’s par for the course.
“When I first came to New Orleans, off the bus, with just my guitar and my suitcase, I was greeted like I was part of the family,” Angel said. “Every musician was very friendly and accommodating. You’re always allowed on stage to join someone’s gig. At our Airport gig in December we saw a guy getting off the plane with a trumpet case. We waved him over and told him to break it out and play with us, and he did.”
Another thing Angel admires about New Orleans is how local groups look after their musical talent. With the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic and the Tipitina’s Foundation’s Music Office Co-Ops, musicians like Angel can find the healthcare and administrative help they need, that they might not be able to afford otherwise.
“If you get lucky, you get a song or 2 on the charts or get a song in a commercial, in a movie or on TV,” Angel said. “I’ll be 85 or 90-years-old and still be performing with Johnny Angel and the Swingin’ Demons without a pot to piss in and hope my landlord doesn’t raise my rent.”
Angel said there’s little financial security in being a local musician, with no health benefits or retirement plan.
But, being in New Orleans is something money can’t buy. Angel said it’s the people that keep the City on top of the heap.
“The people make New Orleans,” Angel said. “It’s not the food or the music or the architecture. It’s the people.”