Devotees of southern Louisiana music love to heap superlatives on drummer/singer Warren Storm. In the small city of Abbeville, where he was raised, 150 miles west of New Orleans, a “Welcome” road sign reads “Home of Warren Storm, Swamp Pop Pioneer.” He’s been billed as “King of the Dance Halls” at the Ponderosa Stomp, a biennial New Orleans–based festival dedicated to artists who shaped American roots music. And on the cover of his new biography, Taking the World, by Storm: A Conversation with Warren “Storm” Schexnider, his designation is “The Godfather of Swamp Pop.”
In the 1950s, Storm helped create swamp pop—a hybrid of Cajun, New Orleans R&B, blues, and early rock. The genre went without a name for nearly twenty years, but it had a recognizable sound centered around an irresistible beat that lured couples to the nearest dance floor, from Bobby Charles’ buoyant mid-’50s classic “See You Later, Alligator” to Freddy Fender’s recklessly romantic 1975 hit “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” (written in 1959). “It’s really Louisiana rock ’n’ roll with a touch of rhythm and blues,” Storm says. He’s been playing it for more than seven decades, as a solo artist, studio musician, and member of numerous acts, including Cajun “supergroup” Lil’ Band o’ Gold.
A quick flip through the numerous photographs in Taking the World, by Storm reveals why you need to know Storm if you’re not already familiar with him: he has influenced, played with, and hung out with a who’s who of music icons. Storm’s early work, both as a swamp-pop singer and as a session drummer behind some infamous bluesmen on the Excello Records label, had an impact on British Invasion bands and American artists. The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” was so redolent of the swamp-pop sound that Louisiana musicians thought it was written by one of their own. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, who recorded and toured with Lil’ Band o’ Gold in the mid-aughts, bought Storm’s 1958 hit “Prisoner’s Song” on 45 rpm as a kid in England. Billy Gibbons, who grew up in Houston, went to see Storm play and sought him out backstage to say hello; the ZZ Top front man’s mother had been a huge fan, too. When Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty traveled to Louisiana to record a version of Rockin’ Sidney’s “My Toot Toot” for the 1985 album Centerfield, Storm was behind the drumkit. Fogerty also sings on Storm’s new album, which shares the book’s title.
It’s not just classic rockers who’ve been inspired by Storm’s work, either; his influence is multigenerational. Lil’ Band o’ Gold drove swamp pop into the twenty-first century, touring the world and attracting fans such as British pop singer Lily Allen, who hired them to play at her 2011 wedding. And a new generation of admirers and musicians flocked to Storm’s sets at the Ponderosa Stomp, where he performed his own songs and drummed as part of the “house band” behind Phil Philips (who sang the swamp-pop hit “Sea of Love”) and others.
The book’s cover, too, shows why Storm is a character worth getting to know. Rather than sitting on a drum throne, Storm appears on a throne carved (by singer Marc Broussard) from a bald cypress tree near the swampy environs where he has spent all of his eighty-two years, dressed in a grey suit and a vibrant scarlet shirt, his thick hair and chevron mustache still worn shoe-polish black. The smile on his face reflects pure joy of the music and laid-back culture of Louisiana that runs through his veins. He’s not only an innovator but an emissary of this particular patch of Americana, unique to the region and often left out of the conversation on rock history.
Storm, who was born on February 18, 1937, grew up watching his dad play drums and learning the “hillbilly” music, as he calls it, that was popular locally. Simon (Schexnyder, as he’s billed on the rare recording he made, or Schexnailder, as he’s named in the book—“There’s six ways of spelling it,” according to Storm) was a sharecropper by day and multi-instrumentalist by night. While still in single digits, Warren started playing his dad’s drums at home. One Saturday night when Simon was too sick to play his regular gig, Warren filled in, making his professional debut. He was eleven years old and so small, he jokes, that the crowd could barely see him over the 28″ kick drum.
Life wasn’t easy for the aspiring musician. His first language was French, and he was held back a year in school. When he wasn’t playing drums, he helped his family out by picking cotton, sweet potatoes, and cayenne peppers (one of the area’s defining culinary flavors). The Schexniders’ home didn’t have electricity, so Warren’s escape was listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery-operated radio. Hank Williams and George Jones became his vocal “teachers” as he studied their soulful delivery. Storm found jazz as well, idolizing the splashy drumming of Gene Krupa and the strength and speed of Buddy Rich, picking up licks he’d use for a lifetime. But it was Fats Domino and his drummers—legendary session man Earl Palmer and his renowned backbeat, and funky Charles “Hungry” Williams’ heavy foot—that catalyzed his musical life.
Storm and other young musicians in the area began playing what would come to be known as swamp pop, spun from 6/8-time Cajun waltzes and ballads and percolating with the rhythmic punch of New Orleans R&B. The songs could be rooted in a wistful waltz or propelled by a jumpy Fats Domino–style piano triplet. While struggle and heartache fit the narrative of many traditional Cajun folk ballads, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (or “Let the good times roll”) is also a defining Cajun expression; it could be happy or sad, as long as it got folks dancing.
Borrowing his dad’s drums, Storm found a steady stream of work with local bands thereafter, earning enough to buy his first kit when he was still in high school, a Slingerland (“because that’s what Krupa played,” he says) and Ludwig and Rogers later on. He also changed his name. “Schexnider was too big to put on a 45 record!” he says. By age twenty-one, he landed a gig as a session player with J.D. “Jay” Miller, a songwriter and producer whose studios in Crowley, Louisiana, would later attract Fogerty, Paul Simon, and others seeking the sound of the region. As the house drummer, Storm recorded with “swamp blues” artists such as Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown, and Lazy Lester, absorbing their boggy rhythms, as well as zydeco legends Clifton Chenier and Rockin’ Sidney.
But Storm had a voice, too: a smooth, dimensional high tenor imbued with his Cajun heritage that added subtext to anything he sang. Miller, in fact, first hired him as a singer. He never wrote songs, but he landed his nascent genre in the Billboard Hot 100 chart the week of August 25, 1958, with a heavily Domino-influenced version of “Prisoner’s Song.” Elvis Presley liked Storm’s take on this old chestnut so much that he played it on piano one night at Graceland—in front of Storm and a room full of guests—but when he sang, he changed the lyrics to an X-rated version. “Could you believe that!” Storm says with a laugh.
In the decades that followed, Storm was signed to several major labels and played in a succession of bands. He became known for putting his drumkit at the front of the stage and his eye-catching style of playing while singing. Tucking one stick under his arm until he needed it, he’d slash at the drums and cymbals with one hand, which left the other free to move the microphone around for dynamic purposes as he sang.
Storm recorded at studios across the South from Houston to Nashville, including Cosimo Matassa’s legendary Cosimo Recording Studio in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where he met and worked with some of his heroes, like Dr. John. He got to know Fats Domino well, and appreciated his sense of humor. During one of their first meetings, “I told him, ‘I’m a big fan of yours,’” Storm says. “And Fats sang [his hit], ‘Ain’t that a shame’!”
In the 1970s, Storm signed with producer and one-time radio personality Huey “the Crazy Cajun” Meaux, whose artists stretched swamp pop’s musical and geographic reach westward along the Gulf Coast to Beaumont, Texas, with Barbara Lynn’s “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” and to Houston with Freddy Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” Storm and Fender became friends, and Storm played drums on his album Swamp Gold and other cuts.
After some time away from behind the kit, Storm joined forces with Lafayette-raised guitarist C.C. Adcock, Mamou Playboys accordionist Steve Riley, and other regionally well-known musicians to form Lil’ Band o’ Gold in 1998. Storm had to make a minor adjustment to his playing because of the band’s relatively high volume; he reversed his sticks and hit the drums with the butt end, adding a pair of gloves to keep a firm grip on the tips.
The nine-piece ensemble toured across the United States and traversed the globe several times, as far as Australia and New Zealand, introducing a high-revved version of swamp pop to new fans, and reigniting love of the genre amongst old fans, including Robert Plant. When Plant joined the band to record a tribute to Fats Domino in 2007, he wanted to take a trip to Crowley to visit the places Storm had recorded nearly fifty years earlier. Plant drove out to Storm’s apartment in Broussard to pick him up and met his family, posing for photos with his wife and granddaughters (they’re in the book), before hitting the road. The two men talked about music and the region all the way up to Crowley. “He was looking at the crawfish ponds, saw the traps—he wanted to know all about that,” Storm says.
Taking the World, by Storm is loaded with such personal anecdotes from Storm’s career and travels as told to Yvette Landry, a Lafayette-based musician and writer who felt this local legend should be known farther and wider. It’s a Q&A that takes place at Storm’s home and nearby spots where he sometimes holds court and where folks greet him with a friendly “Comment ça va?” The conversational, nonlinear format captures the unhurried vibe of the region. It puts readers right on the porch with Storm and Landry, listening to first-hand accounts of sessions, gigs, and meeting celebrities who were often just as excited to meet him, rifling through his private photo albums and collections of vinyl records, playbills, and newspaper clippings, all while weathering the bayou swelter with a tall glass of sweet tea. Notable friends drop in throughout with their recollections and admiration of Storm. The result is an oral history not only of his life and work, but an exploration of the way swamp pop connects to rock ’n’ roll and popular culture.
Storm’s new album serves as both an audio companion piece to the book and a swamp-pop primer, with re-recordings of songs that were hits for him and his cohort, like “Mathilda” (Cookie and His Cupcakes), “Rainin’ in My Heart” (Slim Harpo), and “Prisoner’s Song,” alongside Fogerty’s “Long As I Can See the Light,” Fats Domino’s “Let the Four Winds Blow,” and others.
At eighty-two, Storm’s vocals are astonishingly pliant, but he rarely feels up to the physical demands of playing a full kit and doesn’t keep much gear at home these days. “Just three snares and three cymbals,” he says, including one Dunnett snare with a golden finish by luthier James Trussart given to him on his seventy-fifth birthday, when he was in Lil’ Band o’ Gold. One of his floor toms, signed by him, is in nearby Ville Platte, on display at the Louisiana Swamp Pop Museum. He still plays, though. If you happen to be passing through Breaux Bridge on the right Thursday of each month, you can catch him performing alongside Landry at Buck and Johnny’s restaurant—with a snare, a hi-hat, and a microphone.