We arrived in New Orleans’ historic Garden District just in time to meet Ira Padnos eating his breakfast on the sidewalk outside his house. He was catching up with a friend who had just delivered him a bag of soft-shelled crab. As we neared, the man (who we later learned went by D SLUT) stepped into his ramshackle van, swatted away Ira’s extended twenty-dollar bill, and drove off, in all likelihood to deliver more crabs. Ira greeted us and looked after the van saying, “He did a few gigs with Black Flag but they kicked him out. They thought he was crazy and smoked too much pot.”
We followed him through the entryway and restated our interest in interviewing him about his record collection and about the Ponderosa Stomp (a music festival that he, along with the other members of the Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau, organize each year). We stood in a living room decorated with Mardi Gras costumes and thanked him for making the time to meet with us. Ira, known by peers as “Doc,” is an anesthesiologist during the day (and by night). Between two all-day shifts, he sat ready, albeit sleepily, to talk with us about his 78s, 45s and LPs, all of which hold valuable examples of delta blues, New Orleans music, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and experimental rock.
The interview was focused and factual. Afterward he led us upstairs to the study where he kept his records, switched on his turntable and apologized in advance for the faulty channel on his preamp. “Since Katrina, there aren’t many hi-fi repair shops open,” he informed us. He selected a group of records that was every bit as eclectic as the environment around him (painted portraits of musical pioneers lined the walls of his study and vintage figurines abided on shelves like toys in a toyshop, waiting to spring to life.)
When Ira told us, “I like to think of the Ponderosa Stomp as a way to bring my collection to life,” I imagined happy little records bouncing up and down hugging one another. This fantasy hints at a misconception: recording artists, like their records, endure unchanging. In fact artists do change and, when eclipsed by their recordings, grow old, neglected and bitter. Perhaps spurred by this thought, Ira’s task with the Stomp is to track down original performers, coax them out of obscurity and convince them to rekindle the spirit of their past recordings in front of an unfamiliar audience. It’s no mean feat, yet he succeeds year after year. Now an annual event since 2002, the Ponderosa Stomp has revitalized the careers of many musicians including Barbara Lynn, Roy Head, Dennis Binder and helped reintroduced their music to dormant admirers.
Ira sits in a musical web and makes connections between each of his records, meticulously squeezing out every drop of savory knowledge. Searching through his record shelves, he cued up Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em On Down” and explained, “What the people forget is that everything is interconnected… It all boils down to this: it's got to have some sort of way to connect to people through a beat or an emotion.” He played a couple more blues examples (Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson) to demonstrate how the transition into rock ‘n’ roll (Johnny Burnette, Ike Turner, Fats Domino) was reliant on a pronounced backbeat. He explained the influence of gospel music (Reverend J.M. Gates, Reverend Utah Smith) on transitional figures such as Allen Toussaint and Dave Bartholomew.
Fixing us with a steady gaze, he ensured that we were digesting every tasty morsel before continuing with a New Orleans 101 of Professor Longhair, Mac Rebennack (who later became known as Dr. John) and James Booker. Only after a comprehensive study of blues-inspired material did he then address how jazz and psychedelic rock (Sun Ra, Silver Apples) diverted the course of recorded music.
At some point during our listening session, a giant Russian wolfhound entered the room playfully seeking our attention. Observing the three of us participating, heads bowed low, in some insular activity of flipping and spinning inanimate disks, he sensed it was futile to engage us and retreated from the room down the hall in pursuit of a passing cat.
Ira curated the early Stomp performances in a restrictive and even dictatorial manner. Cuing living artists like one would in a jukebox, however, only invited rebellion. Ira stated, “Lil Bob hated singing Stop and some of older stuff he cut for La Louisianne records. He always wanted to sing Ain't No Sunshine on Stomp gigs.” Once brought to life, the performances were subject to the whims of humans in flux. For a collector who has come to know every nuance of one specific performance, this can be a hard reality to comply with.
However, with so many notable musicians mingling together, it is to be expected (even hoped for) that musical crosspollination happen. During our interview, Ira remained somewhat stolid yet he couldn’t suppress a burst of energy when recounting how Link Wray knelt at Scotty Moore’s feet at their first meeting. He recalled, “Scotty was like ‘no no man get up, get up!’” These collisions are a defining feature of the Stomp and give greater purpose to his proclivity for collecting.
It’s commonly understood that collectors obsess over and overly fetishize the objects of their attention. Records are no different. As submissive entities they can be organized, shelved and displayed, and always in a way that is personal and collector-centric. Yet Ira’s efforts with the Stomp combat these tendencies and reinforce the idea that the record is a product of a living and breathing artist and not just a self-contained object.
When the interview was finished, we chatted for a bit more and then staggered, bloated with music and clutching a heap of scribbled notes (Ira recommended collectors, record shops and restaurants as fast as we could write them), out the doorway and carved a path through the muggy air back to our car. The heat from the cement swelled our feet as we retraced our steps through the tree-lined streets. Inside the car, we cued Lil’ Bob and the Lollipops’ “I Got Loaded” on the iPhone and followed signs for I-55N to Mississippi.
--- Jonathan Shifflett