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'Creole Beethoven' composer, arranger dead at 81

Composer, arranger, bandleader, producer and teacher Wardell Quezergue (kuh-ZEHR), who arranged "Chapel of Love" for the Dixie Cups and was dubbed the "Creole Beethoven" by Allen Toussaint, has died. He was 81.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Composer, arranger, bandleader, producer and teacher Wardell Quezergue (kuh-ZEHR), who arranged "Chapel of Love" for the Dixie Cups and was dubbed the "Creole Beethoven" by Allen Toussaint, has died. He was 81.

He died Tuesday of congestive heart failure, said son Brian Quezergue.

"What a mark he made. In fact what several marks he made," Toussaint said Wednesday. "He was just a magnificent man in every way. He was a superb musician and bandleader. He always inspired the best out of people who were playing with him."

Hits arranged by Quezergue include "Iko Iko" for the Dixie Cups, "Big Chief" for Professor Longhair, "Mr. Big Stuff" for Jean Knight and "Groove Me" for King Floyd — the last two recorded the same day in 1961 at Quezergue's Malaco Records in Jackson, Miss.

He also worked with artists as diverse as B.B. King, The Meters, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, and the Dameans — a quintet of New Orleans priests whose folky liturgical songs were popular after the Vatican decided the Mass should be in local languages rather than Latin.

He co-wrote "It Ain't My Fault," a New Orleans brass band standard, and had recently accepted a settlement from Tuff City Records, which reissued the song, which was sampled by pop star Mariah Carey in "Did I Do That" and by rapper Silkk the Shocker.

Quezergue lost his house and his collection of musical scores to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and his sight to diabetes in about 2003.

"The genius of Wardell was all the arrangements were always in his mind. Now he needed someone to transcribe it onto paper," said Gary Ault, who was one of the Dameans and the narrator for Quezergue's most recent composition, a musical setting of the Passion — Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.

The transcriber was usually Brian Quezergue, one of Quezergue's five sons and eight daughters. Quezergue's wife of 60 years, Yoshi Tamaki Quezergue, died in May.

Wardell Quezergue's funeral will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Corpus Christi-Epiphany Church near New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, with a wake Sunday afternoon at Rhodes Funeral Home.

Brian Quezergue said there will be a later memorial service. Ault said that will "really celebrate all the treasures Wardell brought. It will involve all the musicians who knew him and ... celebrate who he really was."

Quezergue left high school in his junior year and joined the Army, and, though a private, was directing an Army band in Japan in 1951, according to the website for "A Creole Mass," which Quezergue completed around the turn of this century.

After his service during the Korean War, he formed two bands, the Royal Dukes Of Rhythm and Wardell and the Sultans.

Quezergue, Clinton Scott and Ulis Gaines formed Nola Records in 1964, and Quezergue arranged one of its first hits — Robert Parker's "Barefootin.'" The company lasted only four years, but Quezergue arranged hit after hit.

Toussaint said he couldn't choose a favorite. "He helped lift the whole scene, you might say, of R&B and rock 'n' roll. He lifted the bar for that music," Toussaint said. But, he said, one highlight was the arrangement of "Big Chief."

"He took something that was so Professor Longhair, so rowdy, and married it with some very interesting extreme jazz parts and horn licks in the middle of that, and it sounded like a perfect marriage," Toussaint said.

Quezergue's Creole Mass was produced by hotelier Bubby Valentino, who happened to be present when Quezergue finished it. He said they were both outside a studio where a session being produced by Quezergue was winding up. Quezergue "put a sheet of music paper on top of a stack that was 6 inches tall and he said, 'My promise is fulfilled,' and he started weeping."

He told Valentino that he and his unit was heading to the airport and the Korean front when Quezergue was taken from the convoy and told he was needed as an arranger. His replacement was killed during his first week in Korea, and Quezergue vowed to write a thanksgiving Mass, Valentino said.

"It took him 50 years to write and rewrite before he thought it was worthy of the promise he had made," Valentino said.

Shortly before Quezergue's death, he finished recording the Passion, for narrator, instrumentalists, soloists and small chorus. That nearly-finished CD and two before it — "After the Math" and "Music For Children Ages 3 to 103" — were underwritten by The Jazz Foundation, a New York-based foundation created to help jazz and blues musicians, general manager Petr Verner said.

"From the classic to the most mundane funky music, he was right at home," Toussaint said. "Just drop him off on Planet Music and he was fine. Anywhere."