by Bruce Lagerquist::
In the early 1950’s when Cajun and Creole music met rock and roll a new genre was born, Swamp Pop. Out went the accordian and fiddle of the old bands, and in came the saxophone, electric guitar and piano of the new. Teens flocked to clubs like the Green Lantern in Lawtell, the Moulin Rouge in Lake Charles, or the Southern Club in Opelousas to listen to the stars of the day, Guitar Gable, Johnnie Allan, Warren Storm to name a few. The jukeboxes in these clubs were kept full by 45’s recorded and released by local record men like JD Miller, Eddie Schuler and George Khourey. For the most part Swamp Pop was a local phenomena but a few of its local hits like Rod Bernard’s “This should go on Forever” and Johnny Clanton’s “Just Dream” managed to make it to the top of the national charts. While never reaching the popularity of these songs, one song, “Mathilda” by Cookie and the Cupcakes has come to define the genre and has become its unofficial national anthem. Below is a closer look at both the band and the song.
The Cupcakes were formed in the early 50’s. Originally named “The Boogie Ramblers” they played the local clubs with their original line up of, Shelton Dunway on tenor sax and vocals, Sidney ‘Hot Rod’ Reynaud also on tenor sax, Marshall LeDee on guitar, Ernest Jacobs on piano and Joe ‘Blue’ Landry, bass guitar. Cookie, Huey Thierry, was to join the band later when as he tells it, after mouthing off that he could sing better than their lead singer, they brought him on stage to put his money where his mouth was. When he belted out the only song he knew at the time Fats Dominoe’s “The Fatman” “the house came down” and the Boogie Ramblers had found their new lead singer.
With Cookie now the frontman, the Boogie Ramblers went looking for a new name to reflect the change. They first changed it to Cookie and the Boogie Ramblers and finally Cookie and the Cupcakes when as Cookie explains it “this guys standing on the corner signifying ‘Cookie and the Breadcrumbs’ Cookie and the Pies’ Some guy says ‘Cookie and the Cupcakes” I say ‘Hey, man, that’ll go good. Let’s go with Cookie and the Cupcakes”
“Mathilda”, the song that came to define swamp pop, was born, as so many hits are, not by design but by chance. As Cookie tells it, “Jacobs was messin on the piano one night, ‘cause he always, when he gets done with a song, goes to banging on the piano. So he hit me, and I was hurt by a broad so I started “But Still I Cried and Cried for You” The rest of the band filled it in and the hit was born. According to Jacobs they performed it for 2 years before deciding to look for someone to record and release it. Eddie Schuler (who had originally signed the band when they were the Boogie Ramblers) decided the song had no hit potential and gave it a pass. Don Robey of the Houston based Peacock Records held the same belief and also gave it a pass. It wasn’t until they presented it to Lake Charles record man George Khoury that they found a supporter who saw its hit potential and agreed to record the song. After a few unsuccessful attempts George finally found the performance and sound he was looking for at a recording session held in the studios of KAOK radio of Lake Charles. Once released the 45 was instant hit locally and caught on nationally rising all the way to #43 on Billboards national chart. The kings of swamp pop had been crowned and its anthem anointed.
Unfortunately Cookie and the Cupcakes were never able to repeat the success they had with Mahtilda. “Belinda”, “Betty and Dupree”, and “Got You on My Mind”, while minor hits never attained the popularity of Mahtilda. The band did manage to reach the top of the charts one final time, not as a headliner, but as the backup band up to a young singer named Philp Baptiste , better known by his stage name, Phil Phillips on his smash hit “Sea of Love” which was recorded and released by their label owner George Khoury.
Cookie left the band in 1958 and appeared to simply disappear. Rumors abounded as to the reason – he was killed in a car wreck or an accident had left him unable to walk. In 1992 when Jacobs, the former pianist for the band, located Cookie alive and well in Los Angeles working in a car wash it was apparent that Cookie had simply walked away from his former life. According Cookie he left because “I just wanted to see another part of the world” more likely it was his dalliances with some of his white female fans that paved the road to his departure. At one of their gigs some folks showed up with a noose, and at another they tipped over the bands car and trailer. It wasn’t easy to be a black artists in the deep south back in those days. In many places the artists weren’t allowed off the stage, and if they were it was often with a police escort. Johnnie Allen, another Swamp Pop artist figures that Cookie ran out of places to play. With his reputation club owners just stopped hiring him.
While Swamp Pop has faded and all the members of Cookie and the Cupcakes have passed away their tour de force, ‘Mathilda”, lives on. Have a listen… or two or three… and I think you’ll see why.