Blues piano legend Katie
Webster said, “He was only the best saxophone player in the world."
"Sax Gordon" Beadle, noted ,“I suppose
Allen epitomizes early Rock & Roll sax...but
Lionel Prevost is right there with him in sound and feel..."
Johnny Ferreira writes that Lionel
Prevost "just might be the biggest, richest sax tone you ever heard!"
John Broven in his seminal book
on regional blues, South to Louisiana,
described Lionel Prevost as "a saxophonist of cherishable individuality with the tone, emotion and creativity of a top jazzman".
Lionel Prevost (who also recorded as “Lionel Torrence”) was at the forefront of the Louisiana music scene, and the emergence
of Zydeco, Cajun and
Swamp Pop in the 50's and 60's, as a frequent recording
partner with Clifton Chenier (with whom he took all the lead solos), Katie
Webster, Warren Storm, and many of the artists featured by Chess
(in New Orleans) and Jay D.Miller Studios. Lionel also performed and/or recorded with a wide array of artists including Ray Charles, James
Brown, T-Bone Walker, Etta James, Fats Domino, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Little Junior Parker, and Sam Cooke. It's estimated that by the early 60's, he had played on nearly 750, 45 recordings.
After retiring from the music business in the late 60’s, Lionel reconnected with many swamp pop musicians in the 1980’s and
1990’s. Before he passed away in 2002, Lionel recorded the self-financed CD Gospel Sax,
featuring his original arrangements, in Port Arthur Texas. You can hear a clip from that album,
In 1988, Interstate Music (Flyright Records) of West Sussex England,
released a special album (FLY 615) dedicated to Lionel Prevost, entitled: "Sax Man Supreme". The New
Orleans music magazine Wavelength later would describe the fourteen album cuts as having: "one thing in common: right in the middle of each is
Torrence's screaming, buzzing and wailing tenor sax. [This is] one of the best albums in the [Legendary Jay Miller] series.”
Renowned writer/professional photographer Paul Harris was asked to write the liner notes for the album. This led to a subsequent visit with Lionel Prevost and the following article (an expansion of the original liner notes) which was first published in
Blues Magazine (Part 1- Issue 19; Part 2- Issue 20- Obituary- Issue 51).
Photographs of Lionel Prevost and the cover of "The Great Jay Miller Studio Band" album have been kindly contributed by Paul Harris.
This article has been updated with an interview with Mrs. Bessie
Prevost (conducted by Neil Sharpe in 2007) and links to related
Websites. The interview and editorial notes have been placed in
A Discography (ongoing) and related books and websites are at the end
of the two-part article (as a separate web page).
A special thanks to Sax Gordon, who first brought this great artist
to my attention.
For information about the availability of copies of Juke Blues please
~ Neil Sharpe
Lionel Prevost is best known for his work in the J.D. Miller house band in the studios in Crowley, Louisiana. Back in the Fifties, he was a member of Clifton Chenier's band where, according to Rockin' Sidney, 'he took all the solos, he was the main man'.
Lionel recalls, 'While doing some recording with Clifton Chenier at J.D.'s studio, Miller
took my phone number and address. He said, 'When I need somebody to do some
recording and when you're not busy, would you be interested?' I told him I would. So just about
every time he had somebody in there to do any recording, he would call me up. As long as I was in the area
I recorded with him ... After I left Clifton Chenier, I recorded with Miller
on a steady basis for quite some time. We would come up with these original tunes
like some of that stuff that I did, 'Rooty Tooty’ [Sax Gordon said of " ‘Rooty Tooty’: That's the one where
his awesome tone and effortless rockin' really come out"], 'Moscow Twist'. I've played just about
every type of music you can imagine from zydeco to jazz. I've played rhythm &
blues, swamp pop, country & western.'
Lionel was born to Clarence and Ora Prevost (his real surname) on 4 December 1935 on the Oxford sugarcane plantation near Franklin, Louisiana.
He was one of twenty-three children, eight boys and fifteen girls. As a child he heard the music of saxophone players Louis Jordan and Illinois Jacquet.
'Louis Jordan had this real growling type style on his alto saxophone, and Illinois Jacquet used to squeal all the time. I guess you could say my style would be a combination of the two.'
Lionel's parents moved to Port Arthur, Texas whilst he remained with his grandmother in Louisiana. At the age of 12 he rejoined his parents in order to continue his education, but his obsession with the saxophone was becoming more and more obvious. 'I used to imitate a saxophone player all the time with a dish towel or bath towel or something and one day my father came home from the pawn shop with this alto saxophone and he say, 'Do you want to try and play this thing?'. I say, 'I sure would'. Needless to say, I made some terrible noises on this saxophone ... I used to go in the back room and close the door, man, I would make some of the most horrible sounds I imagine you would ever get out of a saxophone'. Unable to stand the shrieks and grunts, Lionel's father decided that some music lessons were in order. After the 'professor' absconded with advance fees from twenty-five to thirty students, another teacher was found who advised Lionel to purchase a specific saxophone 'method' book. Obtaining the $5 or $10 necessary entailed cutting grass both before and after school. Soon Lionel had learned the basics of reading music - the whole notes, the half notes, the breathing steps and the fingering - and he made plans to join the school band.
At this time Lionel's father was working at a Texaco oil refinery and one day he brought home a bottle of mercury. Lionel found that if he painted a coin with it, 'It made it look tremendously beautiful, I mean it shined like brand new minted, gold or something, so I got this wild idea that I would put this stuff on my saxophone that was so ragged and beat up that they used to laugh at me all the time. It was a silver Buescher and, man, I spent about two or three hours putting this quicksilver on this saxophone and it looked so pretty, I put a covering over it and put it in the case. When I got to music class and I opened my saxophone case, lo and behold, this mercury that I had put on this saxophone had turned it pitch black. It had begun to eat away at the welding parts and the keys went to falling off, the pads started falling off and, not having any money to buy a new horn, I had to improvise some kind of a way, so I started using rubber bands, chewing gums, the outer wrappings off a cigarette package to hold the pads in. I would use the rubber bands to make the springs work where there wasn't any springs, or put chewing gum to cover the leaks.'
Amazingly, Lionel continued to use this Heath-Robinson contraption [a byword for a design or construction that is 'ingeniously or ridiculously over-complicated'-The New Oxford Dictionary of English] until he began playing on the road. 'College musicians and guys that were way over my head would just wait for a youngster like me to come to town so they could get up there on the bandstand and just cut me to pieces. But after the first time this happened I figured out a way that I could give myself a little extra enhancement.' So, before passing over his saxophone, Lionel 'would take two or three rubber bands off and a couple of pieces of paper, a plug of this chewing gum, and I'd give 'em the saxophone and tell 'em to have a go at it. And man, I'd stand back in the side and watch the fireworks, that's the word for it, because they'd get to hustlin' and scufflin' and workin' and tryin' to find out what was wrong, why couldn't they get anything goin' on this horn? Finally, they'd call me, give me my horn back and I would get on the bandstand [having secretly made the running repairs] and man, I'd be smooth sailing from then on. They'd just shake their heads and walk away in amazement or disgust, one or the other.' Harry Simoneaux confirms Lionel's ability on this patched-up instrument: 'Yes, I remember his saxophone had many rubber bands holding it together - but you couldn't tell by the sound 'cause he sounded great, oh yeah!'
Katie Webster recalls another skill: 'He was the only person that I know could play with a reed that had those little chips in it, but it was something he could do, if he had a reed and he didn't have time to change it, you never knew that something was wrong with the reed ... he always kept extra ones, but he could play with it like that. There were only two people that could tell, and that was me and J.D. Miller, 'cause J.D. Miller had amplifiers in his ears and he could hear dust flit across!'
Another important aspect of Lionel's development whilst still at school came when his mother was running a night club. 'The guy would come by to put new records on the juke box and I would talk him into giving me all of his old records which I would take home and put 'em on the hi-fi when I was at home alone or with my sisters, and I'd play along with these records, I'd listen to the notes, I developed a pretty good ear for music and I had the basic fundamentals of what I needed and I would practice on hours on hours on hours with these records. I would hear a song two or three times and I would pick it up in no time at all and I would play it exactly like the record.' Some months later Lionel entered a talent competition at the school house where his old music teacher 'was amazed at what I did that particular day with that old raggedy saxophone full of rubber bands and chewing gum. It was one of Louis Jordan's songs called 'There Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens' and I played that song note for note and I literally tore the auditorium up that day . . . Later, I became a member of the school band.' There, he received more formal training but always retained the ability to play by ear. Despite making good grades in the band, there were very few scholarships available at the time and as his parents could not afford to send him to college, his musical training had to be completed, in practice rather than theory, among the local musicians.
Whilst still at school, Lionel played with Nap Henry and 'there was this guy named Lackey [Shelby Lackey], he played tenor sax. He was a wiz, he was the fastest thing I'd ever heard. He did a lot of staccato notes, tonguing, and I liked that so I sort of added that into my style too. Whatever I heard that I liked I was fortunate enough to be able to copy these people and develop my style.'
During the weekend breaks from school Lionel 'picked up a little extra money ... by playing with these musicians in Texas and Louisiana, I guess you would call that the chitlin' circuit, and I got to be pretty good. When I went out there at 16 years old I was quite green, I was still in high school, wasn't drinking, wasn't doing too much of anything. I can remember one of my first jobs was in a place called Darrow, Louisiana and whenever the band took an intermission, the older guys in the band would go out and mingle with the crowd and they'd get 'em something to drink, they'd sit at the table with 'em. My being 16 years old, I used to stay on the bandstand quite often until the intermission was over and the guys would bring me up a Coke or whatever, cold drink. This particular night as I was sitting there on the bandstand, this young lady decided to come up and talk with me. Well, this was all interesting to me being my first dance in a public place. I really didn't know too much what to expect, that is until her jealous boyfriend or husband or whomever it was, decided to come up with a .38 and clear out the joint. Man, I was scared to death! I jumped out the window and started running. The band caught up with me down the street somewhere and I went back, we finally played the dance. Needless to say I was shaking in my breeches the rest of the night. These things happened time and time again.'
'Clifton Chenier was a neighbour of mine when I was a young kid and I used to watch him all the time sittin' on the front porch playin' on the accordion. Sometimes I would play the rubbin' board for him. One day [in 1955] he came through town, he had recorded these new songs, 'Ay-Tete-Fee' and a couple of others [for Specialty] and he happened to need a saxophone player and I wasn't doin' anything at the time so I started workin' with his group.' The quality of the band, called The Playboys, was improved and 'Cliff sort of put me in charge of things. I was in charge of learnin' all of the songs because we did the first hour before he ever came on the stage to do his show, and the band did the entertaining. I'd do a little singing and playing and we had all the latest songs that was on the radio at that time. I played with Cliff over a period of about five or six years. [By then] it seemed to me that Cliff was a little harder to get along with. We never lost any friendship, but it just got to the point where I felt I couldn't stay there any longer, that I had to move on a little bit further.'
J D MILLER
It was around 1958 that Lionel first became involved with Jay
Miller's house band where, along with the likes
of Warren Storm, Katie Webster, Lazy Lester, Harry Simoneaux, Al
Foreman on guitar and bassist Bobby McBride, he backed innumerable artists on a multitude of record
releases. According to Katie Webster: 'He was in the studio as much as I was. The two of us were on just about
everything that came out of that studio and I know I must have played on about 750 45s by age 18 and I didn't know how many albums
and J.D. Miller. We played together many, many years on many
songs out of the Jay Miller sessions for Excello
Records and ... just about everything that came out of there, Lionel Torrence was playing [on].' [For
additional perspectives on J.D. Miller and the house band, see "King
Karl Tribute" and "Bobby Charles- Last Train to Memphis"]
Lionel recalls one specific session when, 'We stayed in the studio for two or three days. Just as you drove into the city limits of Crowley coming from Texas, there was a liquor store called Huck's House Of Spirits and at this time everybody was drinking Ripple Wine and we went into the studio and at the end of these three days of recording, when they decided to clean up the studio, they picked up 110 empty wine bottles and I think Jesse Domingue [a guitarist at that time] and myself drank most of 'em, and Warren Storm.'
At one point it was decided to record some of Lionel's original tunes and Miller asked what was his last name. 'I told him, 'My last name is Prevost - Lionel Prevost'. And he says, 'Ain't nobody gonna be able to remember the name Prevost, we gonna have to change your name. Do you have a middle name or a nickname or anything?' Well, my grandfather's name was Terrance and they sorta hung that name on me because my family said I favoured him, a lot of them called me Terrance, and I told him my name was Lionel Terrance Prevost so he said, "Well, we'll use Lionel Terrance'. Somewhere in the spelling and in the pressing, they got mixed up and they wind up being Torrence. It didn't make any difference at that time, I just wanted to get some type of music on a record.'
In fact only three singles appeared under this name: 'Rockin' Jole Blonde'/'Anytime', Zynn 1008; 'Moscow Twist'/'Rooty Tooty', Zynn 1023; and 'Flim Flam'/'Saka', Excello 2218. A previously unissued version of 'Flim Flam', recorded for Goldband under the pseudonym "Lionel Prevo", later appeared on a Charly/Goldband compilation album, GCL-120
(scroll half way down the page to the title: GUITAR JUNIOR a.k.a. LONNIE BROOKS : COMPILATIONS - V/A: BAYOU RHYTHM AND BLUES SHUFFLE, VOL.3 -LP ).
Despite differences over money, both Lionel and Katie Webster have respect for J.D. Miller's professional abilities. Lionel: 'J.D. Miller's a businessman. In the studio he knew what he wanted. I guess he had him something going.' Katie: 'I always admired Miller, always had the greatest of respect for him 'cause he was a good producer back in those swamps. You had to do it over until you got it right, that's just the way he was - 'OK, take number 160'! That's why he made such remarkable records 'cause everything was so clean. If it was just the piano and my voice or somebody beating on a cardboard box with brushes - Lester used to do that - it always sounded great.' Harry Simoneaux confirms that, 'J.D. had a very keen ear and if something didn't sound right - 'Stop, start all over again' - 'cause we didn't have the electronics that we do now, so it was not unusual to do one song twenty, twenty-five times - very often.'
Part Two describes Lionel Prevost's experiences playing with great artists like Ray Charles, the impact of segregation and racial problems in the 1950's, humorous incidents on the road, and his career in the 1980's and 1990's.