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Wardell Quezergue, 81; was dubbed ‘Creole Beethoven’

Mr. Quezergue lost his house and his collection of musical scores to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr. Quezergue lost his house and his collection of musical scores to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Chris Granger/Times-Picayune/File 2001)
By Janet McConnaughey
Associated Press / September 9, 2011

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NEW ORLEANS - Composer, arranger, bandleader, producer, and teacher Wardell Quezergue, 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 his son Brian.

“What a mark he made. In fact, what several marks he made,’’ Toussaint, the influential New Orleans musician, 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Quezergue lost his house and his collection of musical scores to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and he lost his sight to diabetes 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 Mr. Quezergue’s most recent composition, a musical setting of the Passion - the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

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

Mr. Quezergue left high school 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.’’

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

Toussaint 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 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.

Mr. Quezergue’s Creole Mass was produced by hotelier Bubby Valentino.

Mr. Quezergue told Valentino that his unit was heading to the airport and the Korean front when he was taken from the convoy and told he was needed as an arranger. His replacement was killed during his first week in Korea, and Mr. 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 Mr. 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, said general manager Petr Verner.

“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.’’