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After a lifetime of marching to his own beat, Owen 'Big Daddy-O' Tufts has developed a gift for making other artists' blues songs his own

Saturday May 03, 2003

By Keith Spera

Music writer

Allen Roy Tufts Sr. was an Army drill sergeant who stormed the beaches of Normandy with his men on D-Day. Twenty-three years after World War II, he confronted a force more determined than the German army: his younger son's desire to grow long hair.

It was 1968, and Owen Tufts, newly emancipated from the rules and regulations of Behrman High School in Algiers, wanted to let his freak flag fly. Eventually his father conceded defeat, and the matter was settled. When Owen Tufts joined his dad in a barbershop quartet, he wore the brown and black checkered suit and red tie and sang the required harmonies - with hair tumbling halfway down his back.

Judges and other contestants at barbershop competitions did not take kindly to his stylistic innovation. "You're graded on stage presence, harmonies, appearance," Tufts, 53, recalled recently, his hair still well south of his shoulders. "They cut us up on appearance. One guy said, 'if I had known Jesus Christ was in the contest, I wouldn't have entered.'"

Then, as now, Tufts follows his own path. It led him to Gretchen, his wife of 30 years, with whom he has had two kids he raised while Gretchen worked to support - the family. And it led him to a 40-acre plot of Louisiana bottomland, where he built his family's home.

And now, 35 years after he first picked up an acoustic guitar, his path less traveled has led to his first CD and his first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival gig, today at 11:15 a.m. on the Louisiana Heritage Stage.

Last year the tiny local label Rabadash Records released Tufts` critically acclaimed debut, "That's How Strong My Love Is," under his stage name, Big DaddyO.

Tufts has a remarkably lyrical, easy touch on the acoustic guitar, one reminiscent of blues great Taj Mahal. His voice is infused with a palpable warmth and honesty. The combination makes for an immensely listenabte kind of back porch folk-blues.

Tufts wrote only one song on the 19-track CD. He collected the others over the years. Most are obscurities, including some by famous artists: Jimi Hendrix's "Belly Button Window." The Rolling Stones' "Spider and the Fly." The Beatles' "I Will." And two from Stephen Stills, one of Tufts' heroes.

Such is his gift for interpretation that he is able to make this diverse batch of songs hang together as an artistic statement all his own. And people are starting to take notice.

A musical journey

Owen Tufts is a Touro Infirmary baby. After graduating from Behmian, he fell under the influence of Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Freddie King and Buddy Guy, and taught himself guitar. He bought his first guitar chord instruction book just last month. "I learned that I was doing a lot of chords that I didn't know what they were," he said. "I just did them."

After high school, Tufts' immediate ambition was "to have fun." He knocked around UNO, then called LSUNO, for two semesters before deciding it "wasn't really me. t had too much fun playing guitar at the little festivals around LSUNO. I wound up doing more of those than going to class."

He grew his hair and drove a Volkswagen van with burlap sack curtains. Long hair "wasn't really accepted yet," he said. "Let's just say I got pulled over quite a lot."

At the University Center one afternoon, he met flamenco guitar legend Carlos Montoya. Montoya bestowed a crucial piece of advice on the awe-struck Tufts. "He said musicians should practice every day," he recalled. "Five minutes or five hours, it don't matter. But every day."

From Lakefront pizza joints, he graduated to the streets of the French Quarter. Eventually he landed a gig at the old Ivanhoe dub at Toulouse and Bourbon streets, the same club where the Meters came together. He worked at the 544 Club, the Father's Mustache, the Tricou House. He met a blues singer and pianist named Nora Wixted and formed a duo. The pay was terrible, but they were free to play whatever they wanted.

Eventually, the grind wore him down. "I left Bourbon Street because I got tired of Bourbon Street," he said. "it was six nights a week, and we wound up playing close to 10 hours a night."

A shooting in the doorway of the 544 Club hastened his departure. "I saw a hand with a gun come up behind" the victim, Tufts said. "Needless to say, the music had a vibrato to it after that."

Eventually he, Gretchen and the five-man Bordertine Boogie Blues Band Baby moved to Arkansas on a promise of gigs that quickly went away. Stranded without enough money to return to Louisiana, they went to work. The routine repeated itself in Texas, before the Tuftses finally landed back in New Orleans.

From Mr. Tufts to Mr. Mom

The couple had promised themselves that they would start a family around their 10th anniversary. Unable to find affordable family housing in New Orleans, they bought a 40-acre swath of land in Mt. Hermon, near Kentwood. Tufts and his father's contractor friends built a house on the land, which was soon occupied by a son, Owen Jr., and a daughter, Celeste. A friend designated Tufts "Big Daddy-O" to distinguish him from Owen Jr., and the nickname stuck.

With the arrival of his children, Tufts put away his guitar for nine years to be a stay-at-home dad. "He was Mr. Mom," Gretchen Tufts said. "He did awesome."

Having learned the plumbing trade from his father, Tufts started a plumbing business of his own, even trimming his hair until he built up a client base. The kids tagged along to jobs.

Around 9988, with his children relatively self-sufficient, he picked up the guitar again, as he always knew he would. "Its in my blood," he said. "I love it so much. When I went back, my wife said, 'Don't ever quit again. You're so much easier to get along with.' "

At first, he was a "weekend warrior" musician. He played blues licks in a country band called Natural Fact. "We thought we had something new and creative," Tufts said. "Then Randy Travis came out with an album with B.B. King. That was it."

He formed Savannah, a Southern rock band, out of the remnants of Natural Fact. Later, he teamed up with acoustic guitarist Hutson Brock in a duo called Clean and Uncut - Brock's head was shaved, Tufts` was not. Eventually Brock went to nursing school, leaving Tufts as a solo artist.

With singer Cherie Mannino and other friends, he leads a loose aggregation of musicians called The Big Daddy-O Revue. They perform maybe once a month, and will join Tufts at Jazzfest. The Revue, he said, "is done out of love, rather than necessity."

The real Tufts

Through Nora Wixted, Tufts met John Autin, a keyboardist and proprietor of the small local label Rabadash Records. Autin saw Tufts onstage dozens of times over the course of a decade, usually sitting in with other artists. At a show two years ago in Amite, he finally saw the real Tufts.

"He was playing with just Hutson Brock, and they knocked me out," Autin said. "1'd never seen him as comfortable onstage. I meant to stop by for a couple of songs and to say hello, but I stayed all night, listening to him.

"I'm always looking for neat things to record," Autin said. "And here was one sitting right in front of me."

That Tufts did not write his own songs was not a problem.

"He has a knack for making a song his own," Autin said. "He has a way of finding what's comfortable to him with a song, instead of trying to copy it, like most people who do covers. He really lives with a song before playing it in public. His dad told him that you didn't learn a song until you played it a few hundred times. Owen won't play a song until he's made it a part of himself."

Tufts says he "de-ranges," rather than arranges, songs. "I close my eyes and I go," he said. "I learn a song and take it and put it where it feels best to me."

Acting as producer, Autin helped Tufts sort through Tufts' repertoire of 300 songs, picking the more obscure numbers for the CD. In a single day, Tufts cut 24 tracks, 19 of which appear on the final version of "That's How Strong My Love Is." All are first takes, recorded just like he performs them on small stages most nights of the week.

"I'd finish a song, (Autin) would come out and say, 'What did you think?' " Tufts said. "'Well, I didn't hear any mistakes.' 'OK, let's do another one.' And he'd run back in the control room. We did the same thing all day long."

He recorded Jerry Jeff Walker's "Gertrude" because it was Tufts' mother's favorite song, even though it describes a "one-eyed hooker with arms like a lumberjack." He heard Tai Mahal do Henry Thomas' "Fishin' Blues," which dates to 1927, and immediately added it to his repertoire. It is the first sang on the CD, and one of the best.

Tufts co wrote one song, "Changes," that dates to his tenure with Savannah about 1991. The band played it fully amped, but he always preferred it in acoustic form, which is the way it appears on his CD.

"Everybody says ! need to write more, which I agree with, to a certain extent," Tufts said.

Autin is confident that Tufts eventually will find his songwriting muse. "He thinks he's not a writer, but he'll figure it out," Autin said. "He loves to tell stories. That's all he's got to do -- tell stories over C-F-G."

Music for a living

Meanwhile, Tufts continues to work the circuit Over the years, Gretchen Tufts waited tables, worked at the criminal courts building, and fogged many years with WST Electric Co. to support her husband's music. Now she is retired, free to accompany her husband to gigs.

"She put in a lot of time for me," Tufts said. Now "she's my public relations person, my business manager, my roadie and my groupie. She's got a lot of titles. And she's the ones who hears all my little mistakes."

Occasionally he still fills in for musician fiends on Bourbon Street. "Then I realize why i quit doing it," he said. "The faces have changed, but the people are the same."

Most weeks find him onstage at least three nights, often in small towns in Arkansas, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana. Even with Rabadash's limited resources, the CD is finding pockets of acceptance, mostly in the places Tufts performs regularly, but also in such far-flung locales as Holland and Japan.

For three years now, he has been able to denote himself a "musician" on his tax form.

"I'm a lucky man, to be able to do this," he said. "I'm not getting rich, but I'm paying the bills. And I'm not losing weight."

To finally record his first CD "was my life's dream," he said. "This is better to leave as a mark in life than a tombstone. I hope to do many more."


# Suzie
Saturday, June 19, 2010 8:41 PM
I've had the pleasure, thru a mutual friend, Nora Wixted, who now lives in Florida, to first hear Owen, "Big Daddy O", some years back at a local pizza-beer bar, a small local hang out. From the first song he played, I was forever hooked. In a short time, I got to know his wife Gretchen and Owen, and once again, I was forever hooked. Two of the most wonderful, genuine people, with hearts of gold, to be put on this earth. They are the best, and I feel so blessed to call them friends, and for letting me be a small part of their ever growing family and truely wonderful group of talented and loving friends in Louisiana. Gretchen is right, start with the first CD, and you will want the next, and the next...The voice of an angel, or the get up and dance road house hard jamming sound, both will move your soul, and you too, will be hooked...... I just luv you both sooo much !!!
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Wednesday, June 06, 2012 6:29 AM
I missed it. i wanted to attend this event. and 'Big Daddy-O' is always rocking event. I will follow you on facebook so that i can get latest update for it.
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Sunday, June 10, 2012 11:40 PM
I would really love to hear a couple of songs of Big Daddy-O many of my friends have recommended me in hearing his enchanting voice.
Ryan Cardozo
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Monday, June 18, 2012 4:00 AM
It seems that i have missed the golden opportunity to attend this event.I can say golden opportunity as one of my friend had attended the event and he said it was really rocking.But i will definitely listen to the songs.
Jerry Elbert
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Monday, June 25, 2012 6:58 AM
Hey Ryan... your friends are absolutely right... you got to hear Mr. Big Daddy O sing.. You will forget everything when he sings. listen to it dude.
Rocker Rick
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Tuesday, June 26, 2012 7:55 AM
This guy even after being so well know is very down to the earth. He is a very nice human being. I had a opportunity to meet him once although he was busy he spared a few minutes for us.
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Friday, August 24, 2012 12:33 AM
Awesome Singer and Awesome Person. :)
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Friday, September 14, 2012 9:16 PM
Sounds better than ever!
Man I knew him when he worked the 544 Club in New Orleans with Nora Wixted. GrEAT sINGeR.
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Monday, September 17, 2012 1:03 AM
The way of the Creative works through change and transformation, so that each thing receives its true nature and destiny and comes into permanent accord with the Great Harmony, this is what furthers and what perseveres

Dustin Kirk

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012 6:30 AM
This is one of the best blogs I’ve ever read. I m absolutely excited to get to read such a well blog. The amount of data that I get is truly great. This is an good masterpiece.
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Friday, November 16, 2012 4:06 AM
I am big fan of big daddy o and he always play cool and music is awesome i enjoy it all time.

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