In fact, when he was just a teenager, he unexpectedly made his first public appearance as a musician when he had to fill in for his uncle at a wedding reception. Because his uncle was taller, however, his new bandmates first had to stack up some Coke crates for the diminutive Al to sit on behind the drums.
Growing up in New Orleans, often called the “Birthplace of Jazz,” maybe it was just natural that “Young Al” would eventually become “Big Al” the musician one day.
Being immersed first-hand in the blues culture of the “Crescent City,” another nickname, Al saw some of the historic greats, including talented folks like Freddie King, Albert King, Professor Longhair, B.W. Stevenson, Rusty Wier, and especially his favorite, James Booker.
Since those days, Al has gone on to play at the Grand Ole Opry as the drummer for country legend David Allan Coe, also appearing on “Austin City Limits” and several local Nashville TV shows with him.
Lauro eventually wound up forming the Unknown Blues Band with Warren Haynes (who would go on to play for the Allman Brothers Band and founded Gov’t Mule) and Rick Gergen (of Sweethearts of the Rodeo) in 1996. After Haynes left the group to play for the Allmans, Lauro formed his current group known as Big Al and The Heavyweights.
That group will be performing at Rocco’s in Jasper on Aug. 21 at 8 p.m.
Big Al and The Heavyweights put on live performances that are family oriented, energetic and most of all, fun. They have been staples at the W.C. Handy Festival in Muscle Shoals, Alabama as well as the Mardi Gras Celebration at Universal Studios in Orlando. The Heavyweights’ CDs have received critical acclaim from all the major blues societies and publications. Dan Aykroyd has featured several of the band’s songs on his House of Blues Radio Show. Their first CD from 1998 on Rollin and Tumblin Records, “That Ain’t Nice,” was nominated for Blues Album of the Year by the Nashville Entertainment Association. The very next recording “Hey, Hey Mardi Gras,” was also nominated for a Nammy Award for Blues Album of the Year by the N. E. A. Their third CD, “Late Night Gumbo Party,” charted at No. 4 on the Living Blues play list charts. Famed chef Emeril Lagasse reached out to the band and asked them to perform on his Mardi Gras episode of “Emeril Live!” Their “Nothin’ But Good Lovin’” CD was produced by Alligator Records owner, Bruce Iglauer, who admired the band for their hard work and songwriting. So much so that Bruce had two of his artists record Big Al & the Heavyweights’ original compositions. Iron Man, the late great Michael Burks, recorded “Make It Rain” on his debut CD, and C.J. Chenier recorded “Eat More Crawfish” on his “Steppin Out” CD also on Alligator Records.
Currently Big Al and the Heavyweights’ members are Big Al Lauro, band leader, vocals, drums and percussion; Marcel Anton, vocalist, composer, and guitarist; Wayne Lohr, who is a member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, vocalist and keys; and Mark Parsons, bass and vocalist.
Mitch Talley, publisher of The Best of the North Georgia Mountains, recently spent a few minutes chatting with Big Al about his long career in the music business. Here’s a transcript of their conversation.
It’s ironic that I’m talking to you today because this is my wedding anniversary. And why that’s significant is that we spent our honeymoon in New Orleans 32 years ago.
Thank you. And then when I was reading your bio, I noticed that you played drums on “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” by David Allan Coe. And that’s one of my wife’s favorite songs.
I didn’t play drums on the studio version, but I played drums for David Allan Coe for many, many, many years. Wow. Can you tell me what that was like.
Drugs , sex and outlaw country and its finest in its heyday. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I was pretty young. I started in 1983 playing for David. A friend of mine, who drove his truck, told me David was looking for a drummer and asked if I would be interested in trying out. They had all his equipment set up in his garage so I tried out, made it, and started playing. I’ll tell you what, I had a ball. I was on the Grand Ole Opry, Austin City Limits, and plenty of those Nashville TV shows . I had a great time and was truly blessed. It was a great RIDE. I lived with him in Big Pine Key, Florida, which is near Key West, and for a time the band lived in downtown Key West in a warehouse on Duvall Street next to Sloppy Joe’s and Shorty’s Diner. This is when Key West was still Key West – lots of hippies and smugglers. David would put on free street concerts there, and one of his special guests was Gregg Allman who we got to back up. Unfortunately the IRS seized David’s house in Big Pine Key while we were out on the road so we moved to Dickson, Tennessee where he bought Ruskin Cave Park. There was a big house on the property, and a lot of times, some of the guys in the band would just live there all the time. He also made a David Allan Coe Museum there. I was young, so I would just stay out on the road or stayed wherever he was living. I wound up playing for him five years.
Tell me a little bit about your musical experiences growing up in New Orleans.
Back then, you could get in anywhere. I mean, obviously, you couldn’t look like a kid, but we were getting into bars when we were 16, 17 years old. We would go to this place on Oak Street, where they had a bunch of bars. I saw everybody play there, from Freddie King to Albert King, to Professor Longhair, B.W. Stevenson, Rusty Wier, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Asleep at The Wheel. A lot of guys from Texas came over here so I was kinda into that whole scene. One particular guy I used to see at a place called the Maple Leaf was James Booker. We’d go see James Booker play, and to me, that was the ultimate New Orleans musical experience because even Professor Longhair said he got things from James Booker. He played by himself most of the time, James Booker did, but the way he played the piano, it was like he was playing drums on one hand and playing the melody with the other. That whole thing just floored me. I’d never heard anybody do anything like that. That was kind of the thing that got me going, and I said, I want to play music like that. Then one night we went to a place and saw a band from Washington, D.C., called the Nighthawks, and I never heard anybody do stuff like that. They were on stage with a loud harmonica, bass, drums and a guitar player, but I never saw the guitar player. I was like, where’s the guitar player – I don’t see him. But boy, it sounded great. They were just killing it, and then all of a sudden, Jimmy Thackery came from way in the back and got up on the stage and the place just went wild. I had never seen anybody play with a wireless thing like that. When I heard their sound with the harmonica, I knew I wanted to start doing music. I was also into the Texas sound, B.W. Stevenson, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Greezy Wheels, because they were all coming over here from Texas. And then, of course, that opportunity came along with David Allan Coe, and that was like a dream come true, to be honest.
Did you start playing the drums when you were young?
Yeah, I started when I was 9. I had an uncle that played clarinet, and I had an uncle that played horn, and I had another uncle that played drums. I was taking a few drum lessons, and I went with my uncle where he was going to play drums at a wedding reception. He ended up getting drunk and fell out, and they had to have a drummer. I was short and my uncle was big, so they got some Coke crates, piled ’em up, and I ended up playing drums the rest of the night. I was probably like 14, 15.
So, I guess growing up in New Orleans really was like the place to be for musicians.
I may take it for granted a little bit, but because I’ve traveled so much in my lifetime all over the place, I know now that it’s very special, especially during those years. It was very, very special here. But you didn’t know it then, but as I traveled and saw other places, well, I’d think they don’t have nothing like that there. Man, I’ve been lucky that I got to experience all this, to influence so much of my music.
What was your first break in the music business?
Of course, David Allan Coe was definitely my first break because me and Warren Haynes, who was in his band then too, loved blues and soul and country. We loved all that music, especially the rock and blues and stuff like that. Warren would sing great Otis Redding songs – that song “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” He sang the hell out of that. And old Freddie King stuff, and Albert, so we’d get together when we’d go out on the road with Coe and we started that Unknown Blues Band. By God, after a while, that got a little bit popular, and we eventually opened up for that band, Betts Leavell Trucks. That was the guys from the Allman Brothers, who had a little trio thing going. We were living over in Nashville then, and Dickey Betts was making a record there and he heard Warren play and asked him if he wanted to come and play on his record, “Pattern Disruptive.” And sure enough, Warren went and played on that record, then the Allman Brothers got back together, and Dickey asked him if he wanted to be in the Allman Brothers. There wasn’t no more Unknown Blues Band then; I had to start something but I didn’t know what to do then, so I started songwriting. I wanted to write country songs really, but what happened was, I was writing songs but they weren’t turning out very country. A guy from Louisville, Kentucky had a radio show, WFPK, Scott Mullins. He was putting a Christmas CD together and asked if I had any Christmas songs written. Of course, I wrote a freaking Christmas song right away because I needed the money. It was called “Santa Wants to Play the Blues.” He said, ‘That’s a good song. I want to put it on my CD. Have you ever thought about making a record?’ So that’s when I made my first record in 1998 for Rollin and Tumblin Records. It was called “That Ain’t Nice.” That began Big Al and the Heavyweights. That’s how it all started. I went from the Unknown Blues Band to Big Al and the Heavyweights.
How many albums have you done now?
Six or seven. I can’t remember, but I’ve got another one in the can. I’m just trying to sell it. I don’t want to be in the record business; I just want to make music. I’ll make the records, but I don’t want to be in the record business. Everybody just downloads now. Nobody buys a CD. A CD is more like a collector’s item now.
How many shows do y’all do a year?
People sometimes ask me that. I’ve never really kept track of that kind of thing. I probably should. But we’ll play Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We’ve got a festival coming up there in Indiana, so I’ll book a bunch of dates going up to that festival.
What’s your favorite part of performing?
Playing, just playing, playing my drums. And I really like driving my bus that I bought from Artimus Pyle of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I just like driving buses. You know, I even drove the bus some with David Allan Coe because I never did drink, never did take a likin’ to drinking. They knew I didn’t drink so when David’s driver would get tired, they’d make me get on the bus and I’d drive. It wasn’t complicated driving, just maybe a thousand miles straight down the interstate. I took a liking to these old buses, so I found me one up there in Asheville, North Carolina. That’s where Artimus lives. I bought his bus, and he ended up buying Lenny Kravitz’s bus. So now when I go on these long trips, it’s a lot more comfortable.
Did I see a video of your lead guitarist playing the guitar with his mouth? Did I see that right?
Marcel told me one day, ‘You know, I eat my guitar.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, you eat your guitar?’ He said, ‘I can play with my teeth.’ I said, ‘You ain’t playing with your teeth; you must be faking it. You wouldn’t have no damn teeth.’ But he isn’t faking it. He’s actually playing it with his teeth. What a lot of guitar players do is hold the guitar up to their mouth and they’re really playing it with their left hand. They’ve not actually playing with their mouth … with their teeth, but Marcel’s actually playing with his teeth.
So he, like, bites the strings?
Yeah. He pulls the strings with his teeth. It ain’t the easiest thing to do.
For new fans who might see this story, what songs of yours would you recommend that they listen to first?
Cajun Roux. Sunshine on Me; Warren played on that. World Full of Trouble. Make It Rain.
I saw where your fans are called Gumbo Heads.
Right. Just like Jimmy Buffett’s got Parrot Heads. But our fans are much cooler because they eat good gumbo. We’ve even got a song called “Good Gumbo” on one of our records. On all of my records, I put a little zydeco music. I’m a huge zydeco music fan. On this new album, I’ve got two zydeco songs.
Have you played at Rocco’s before?
Yeah, we played it one other time. That’s a good place. I like that place. They’re way nice. Nice fans, good place, owner’s great, sound man’s great, I love it. They have a very good thing going. You know, it’s a great environment to present music. It’s a very professional environment. I love what they’re doing over there. For a band like us, to come into a venue like that, everything is first class and professional, it means a lot. You’re 62. What do you see in the future for you?
My girlfriend asks me when is going to be that one day (when I stop playing)? I’ve thought about that. When is that day? Is it when you get sick and you can’t do it no more? Or is it like Willie Nelson? I saw him at the House of Blues not long ago in New Orleans. No, it’s not the Willie I used to go see at the Baton Rouge Fairgrounds – no, it’s not that Willie – but to me he’s still playing at a high level. I never have been able to figure out when that one day is for me. Like anybody, I’d like to one day travel just for fun and see things. But I don’t really know when that one day is. Who knows when that day is?
Even after all these years of playing, are there still new things that you are figuring out on the drums?
Oh yeah, they’ve got all these videos now they didn’t have when I was growing up. They have great, great, great, great drummers. David Garibaldi is one of my favorites. There’s a lot of other great drummers out there. I love watching those videos. I play every day whether we have a show or not. I’ve got a set of drums upstairs that I’ve had since 1973. I got a 1965 set of Ludwigs, and my current set that I play on the road is a Yamaha set that came from Jazz Fest. They have drums they use that they sell off, top of the line drums that they sell at very discounted prices. I’m not really a gearhead, but I do like watching other drummers because you can learn so much.
Looking back on your career, what’s the thing you’re most proud of?
That I’ve been able to sustain a career for this long and still be viable, where people still come see Big Al and the Heavyweights. Great fans. And of course, I’m very proud of my years with David Allan Coe, being on Austin City Limits was a dream, being on the Grand Ole Opry was a dream. I told somebody the other day, if somebody cut the faucet off today, you know what, I’ve had a hell of a run. Would I like to be more famous as Big Al and The Heavyweights? Of course, who doesn’t want to be? But I’m proud of what I’ve done. We try to keep everything new and fresh; we always try to make the records different.