Nicknamed the “Creole Beethoven” for his wide-ranging arrangement work, New Orleans-based arranger, bandleader, composer and producer Wardell Quezergue died Tuesday in the Crescent City. He was 81 and had been in declining health.
While he scored some of his biggest hits with Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”) and the Dixie Cups (“Iko Iko”), he was just as well known for his work with a murderer’s row of Big Easy musicians, including Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Dr. John and Aaron Neville.
Raised in a musical family in New Orleans’ 7th Ward, Quezergue scored his first professional gig, as a trumpeter, when he was 12. After a stint in the Army during the Korean War — he met his wife of 60 years while stationed in Tokyo — Quezergue served as bandleader of the Royal Dukes of Rhythm and then founded Nola Records in 1964.
Scoring his first hit on Nola with Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’,” as well as subsequent singles from Willie Tee, Quezergue notched two of his most enduring works for Malaco Records, famously helming sessions for Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” and King Floyd’s “Groove Me” on the same day. Quezergue’s involvement reinvigorated Malaco, which had been facing closure, and throughout the ’70s he collaborated with the likes of Paul Simon, B.B. King, Willie Nelson and the Staples Singers. He served as arranger for Dr. John’s Grammy-winning “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” in 1992, as well as on Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s big-band album “American Music, Texas Style” in 1999.
In 2000 he composed “A Creole Mass,” a series of orchestral pieces based upon his experiences in the military. Quezergue was awarded an honorary doctorate from Loyola U. New Orleans in 2009 and was feted with a tribute concert organized by the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation in New York that summer. His music has been featured prominently in HBO’s “Treme.”
Quezergue is survived by five sons, eight daughters, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.