New Orleans street performer debuts at Jazz Fest

New orleans For most of his 65 years, street singer Elliott Small was famous only on a New Orleans corner ? until an innovative 2008 Internet video went viral, bringing the white-bearded, overall clad musician with the turned up hat brim before a global audience in a worldwide collaboration performance of Ben E. King’s classic, “Stand By Me.”

Now Small, better known as Grandpa Elliott, will be a featured singer at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, one of the world’s premiere music venues. The festival, which runs for two weekends each spring, kicks off Friday with more than 65 performances including Lionel Richie, The Black Crowes, Steel Pulse, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Baaba Maal and Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas.

Small debuts on Saturday in the Blues Tent. He’s one of dozens of local musicians who will showcase their talent before an audience of thousands. Last year, more than 400,000 people attended the outdoor music, craft and food fest held at the Fair Grounds Race Course.

“I’ve been in the French Quarter all my life, singing to tourists,” Small said in an interview before the festival performance. “All my life I’ve been entertaining.”

Born and raised in New Orleans, Small started tap dancing and singing on the streets for tips when he was 6. As he got older, Small recorded several songs with arranger Wardell Quezergue and worked with Fats Domino. But he said performing with the more than 30 musicians on “Stand By Me” was humbling.

The Playing for Change producers, who say their aim is “to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music,” built a mobile recording studio and recorded musicians from California to South Africa performing “Stand by Me.” They blended the resulting videos in an astonishing visual and musical collage.

“For them to come and take this old man off the street and put me where I’m poised to be,” Small said, shaking his head. “My dream was always to touch the stars. I didn’t know I would get the chance to touch the sun and moon and maybe Mars too.”

Quint Davis, who has co-produced the festival since 1970, said Small is like many who share in the fest’s thrill ride.

“It’s the same kind of grass roots texture and outreach that we started with, that we still have,” Davis said. “Yes, we have big national groups, but we also have the Grandpa Elliotts, the Mardi Gras Indians and Robert Gibson, the guy who plays the one-string guitar. Our textures are still there and that’s what we’re most proud of.”

Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the festival continues to be a huge draw for the city. She said hotel occupancy for Friday was at 99 percent and close to that for Saturday.

“We have seen such good will surrounding New Orleans since the Saints’ Super Bowl victory,” she said. “Our phones have been ringing off the hook with people wanting to come for our Spring festival season. That’s the kind of thing we could never manufacture and if we did, we wouldn’t be able to pay for that kind of worldwide exposure.”

Davis said the festival’s music is a force all its own, mixed with unforgettable food.

“If all the music went away, we’d still have one of the best food festivals in the world,” he said. “No one is going to go to a rock fest or a blues festival and get pecan-encrusted catfish or quail and andouille gumbo or shrimp and grits for $6 a serving,” he said. “We’re talking gourmet food on a paper plate.”

Davis said a $45 ticket offers a good value “even in the face of the recession.”

“Our price point is still about half of all the other big festivals. You can come out here and see 65 bands (a day) of all kinds, eat great food and learn about the region’s history and culture.”

Schulz said cost plays significantly in her work promoting the city worldwide.

“We think there’s a lot of pent up demand for travel and Jazz Fest and festivals like it help promote the value of New Orleans,” she said.

Jazz Fest 2010 has some international draws, including Baaba Maal of Senegal and Juan Luis Guerra y 440, a Dominican Republic sensation and Latin Grammy award winner.

Tributes also are planned to mark the 100th birthday of jazz trumpeter, singer and songwriter Louis Prima, whose face graces this year’s official Jazz Fest poster, painted by crooner Tony Bennett.

With acts ranging from pop, rock and gospel to R&B, jazz and zydeco, Grandpa Elliott should fit right in. After performing “Stand By Me” on The Tonight Show, The Bonnie Hunt Show and The Colbert Report, Small signed with Playing For Change Records/Concord Music Group. His first album, “Sugar Sweet,” was released this month.

Playing for Change founder Mark Johnson produced the project with bassist Reggie McBride. “He brought the rawness of the street into the studio,” Johnson said. “He cut the tunes in one take.”

Small, who is legally blind, describes himself as a song stylist. “You can call me a bluesman, but I also sing Broadway show tunes, classic ballads and opera,” he said, smiling.

He’s also a master harmonica player. “I plan to give everyone a good show.”

Source: The Associated Press.