*Wardell Quezergue, a prime mover in New Orleans rhythm and blues since the early 1950s as a producer, arranger and bandleader for a long list of artists including the Dixie Cups, Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers and Dr. John, died on Tuesday in Metairie, La, according to the New York Times. He was 81.
The cause was complications of congestive heart failure, his son Brian said.
As a producer and arranger, Mr. Quezergue (pronounced ka-ZAIR) was associated with a string of local and national hits, many of them propelled by his punchy, syncopated horn arrangements. These included “Big Chief” by Professor Longhair, “Iko Iko” by the Dixie Cups, “Barefootin’ ” by Robert Parker, “Groove Me” by King Floyd, “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight and “Misty Blue” by Dorothy Moore.
With the drummer Smokey Johnson, he wrote the 1964 instrumental “It Ain’t My Fault,” a New Orleans song later sampled by Mariah Carey, the rapper Silkk the Shocker and others.
“He introduced a new sound, with a richer, fuller horn section, and funky rhythms,” said John Broven, the author of “Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans.” “It gave New Orleans music a whole new dimension.”
“Groove Me” and “Mr. Big Stuff,” recorded at the Malaco Records studios in Jackson, Miss., became Top 10 hits in the early 1970s and helped revive the flagging fortunes of the New Orleans sound. A variety of artists then flocked to Mr. Quezergue, including Paul Simon, who worked with him on the album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.”
He later worked as an arranger on the albums “Fiyo on the Bayou” for the Neville Brothers; “Orchid in the Storm” for Aaron Neville; “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” for Dr. John; “Deacon John’s Jump Blues” for Deacon John Moore; and two albums for the blues singer Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown, “Gate Swings” and “American Music, Texas Style.”
“If I hear something, immediately I start arranging,” Mr. Quezergue told the NPR series “American Roots” in 2010. “Arrangement, to me, has to be part of the song itself, as if the two were made for each other at the moment that the writer wrote the song, and it should fit like a glove.”
Wardell Joseph Quezergue was born on March 12, 1930, in New Orleans to a musical family. He took up the trumpet and while still in high school began writing arrangements.
After leaving high school and enlisting in the Army, he continued to arrange for military bands while stationed in Tokyo. When his unit was sent to fight in Korea, he was held back to continue his arranging work. His replacement died in combat, inspiring Mr. Quezergue to write a classical composition, “A Creole Mass,” which he did not complete until 2000.
After returning to New Orleans he formed the Royal Dukes of Rhythm with other ex-servicemen. The group became a fixture, performing at dances and serving as the house band for visiting musical acts.
The bandleader Dave Bartholomew hired him as an arranger for Imperial Records, where he worked with artists like Fats Domino and Earl King and recorded with his own band, Wardell and the Sultans.
At Nola Records, which he helped found in 1964, Mr. Quezergue produced singles for local stars like Willie Tee and Eddie Bo. But despite national chart successes like “Barefootin,’ ” a Top 10 hit in 1966, the label went out of business in 1968.
He struck a deal with Malaco Records to supply artists and his production skills in return for studio time and session musicians. Driving a group of singers to the studio in a borrowed schoolbus, he presided over a marathon recording session in 1970 that yielded “Groove Me” and “Mr. Big Stuff,” both of which Atlantic and Stax Records turned down.
Released on Malaco’s newly created Chimneyville subsidiary, “Groove Me” took off and, after being picked up by a chastened Atlantic, rose to the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts. Stax, in a similar turnaround, decided to distribute “Mr. Big Stuff,” which also rose to the top of the R&B charts and reached No. 2 on the pop charts.
“Wardell delivered those hits at a time when New Orleans really needed them,” Mr. Broven said. “The city’s music scene was dead, but the symbolism of those hits gave New Orleans the impetus to get going again.”
In addition to his son Brian, Mr. Quezergue is survived by four other sons, Donald, Wayne, Victor and Martin; eight daughters, Violetta Johnson, Gaynelle Mitchell, and Iris, Diana, Yoshi, Helen, Ramona and Lesley Quezergue; a brother, Leo; and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. His wife of 60 years, the former Yoshi Tamaki, died this year.
In 2009 he released his own album, “Music for Children Ages 3 to 103: The St. Agnes Sessions.”