Wild Magnolias Big Chief Bo Dollis is battling back from serious illness and a bitter dispute
Bo Dollis, leader of the Wild Magnolias, is fighting his way back.
Through grave illness. A rupture with a manager he once trusted. A years-long professional estrangement from Monk Boudreaux, his childhood friend and partner in the Wild Magnolias.
Through it all, his pride remains undiminished, his voice — one of the most potent in all of New Orleans music — strong.
That voice has largely been silent for much of the past three years. But as festival season kicks into high gear, his campaign to restore the Wild Magnolias, and himself, continues.
On Sunday, Dollis' son Gerard "Bo Jr." Dollis fronts the Wild Magnolias at the French Quarter Festival. On April 24, the senior Dollis and Boudreaux reunite at Tipitina's. On May 3, father and son lead the Wild Magnolias at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
And as a remarkable tribute on a cold December night made clear, in the world of Mardi Gras Indian music, Big Chief Bo Dollis is still the biggest chief of all.
Growing up around Jackson Avenue in Central City, Dollis was fascinated by the Mardi Gras Indian "gangs" that roamed the neighborhood. By 1958, at age 14, he'd masked with the White Eagles and the fledgling Wild Magnolias, named by a shoeshine man in honor of Magnolia Street.
Six years later, thanks to his prodigious pipes, he was named Big Chief. Meanwhile, his childhood friend Boudreaux rose through the ranks of the Golden Eagles.
In the 1960s, Mardi Gras Indians were largely unknown outside working class African-American neighborhoods and bars. One of the few white people who attended White Eagles practices at Barrows and Sons Lounge downtown was a teenager named Quint Davis.
"Bo's was the smoothest, most beautiful voice," recalled Davis, now Jazz Fest's producer/director. "It just stood right out."
Chris Granger / The Times-PicayuneThe Wild Magnolias' Bo Dollis, center, thanks the crowd at a December benefit concert in his honor at Tipitina's. He's surrounded by fellow Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs, including Monk Boudreaux, at left in hat.
Later, it became more guttural. "To me it's Bo Dollis, Robert Plant and James Brown, as far as distinctive voices that are rooted to the center of the earth," said Galactic drummer Stanton Moore. "It's the most soulful, powerful shout that I ever heard in my life. It's heartbreaking and triumphant at the same time."
The Wild Magnolias' self-titled 1974 debut, recorded with keyboardist Wilson "Willie Tee" Turbinton, his brother Earl Turbinton on saxophone and guitarist Snooks Eaglin, featured Dollis' "Handa Wanda" and Willie Tee's "Smoke My Peace Pipe." A second album, 1975's "They Call Us Wild," boasted such Mardi Gras Indian funk classics as "New Suit" and "We're Gonna Party."
With Dollis and Boudreaux out front, the Wild Magnolias toured the globe. Dollis barked soul and funk; Boudreaux intoned traditional Indian chants. Their sweaty sets at local clubs — including Indian practice at the H&R Bar, their base near the corner of Second and Dryades — were the stuff of legend.
Every Mardi Gras morning, Dollis and Boudreaux lead their respective tribes. But the Wild Magnolias band, they vowed, could not exist without the two of them. As Boudreaux said in 1999, "Whatever we do, we've got to do together."
That vow would be tested.
A July fire that gutted the H&R Bar was not the Wild Magnolias' only trauma of 2001.
Boudreaux disapproved of how Glenn Gaines, the Magnolias' manager since the mid-1990s, handled the band's financial affairs. At the time, Dollis vouched for Gaines, so Boudreaux and the Wild Magnolias parted ways.
Rita Barras, queen of the Wild Magnolias tribe and Dollis' common-law wife of more than three decades, had also started to question Gaines. Disillusioned, she quit traveling with the band.
By the spring of 2006, Dollis had more pressing concerns than business. On the eve of an Australian tour, he fell sick.
Dialysis treatments became part of his routine. A stroke made speaking difficult — yet he could still sing. Always robust, he lost weight. Before corrective heart valve surgery last summer, climbing stairs was a challenge.
He briefly returned to the stage for a September show in Chicago. Meanwhile, he encouraged Gerard, his 28-year-old son with Barras, to step up with a revamped Wild Magnolias. Gerard first fronted his more contemporary version of the Wild Magnolias in November at Tipitina's.
"It's some big shoes," he said of filling in for his father. "I'm putting one foot in front of the other, and stepping out there."
The Tip's show "was fun," Gerard said. "Of course, I had to call my dad down to do a song with me. The audience started cheering, and my mom started crying."
Keith Spera / The Times-PicayuneThe Wild Magnolias' Monk Boudreaux, Bo and Gerard Dollis and Rita Barras at the Mid-City Lanes on April 4, 2009.
Sitting in his modest Central City apartment above Barras's beauty salon, Bo Dollis says he rarely knew how much the Wild Magnolias earned for performances, preferring to let Gaines handle contracts. "I was making money, and I thought it was good," Dollis said. "Now a lot of people are telling me (Gaines) did this and that."
Seven years after Boudreaux left the Wild Magnolias, the senior Dollis had come to share his old friend's suspicions. "Bo is the type person that doesn't go by what he hears," Barras said. "He's got to find out for himself. But now he knows."
Gaines defends his financial dealings. "Do I feel that (Dollis) was paid fairly and that I was paid fairly?" Gaines said. "I would say yes."
If he and Dollis "don't trust each other for any reason," Gaines said, "we shouldn't be working together. I've made that clear."
In October, Dollis and Barras announced that Gaines was no longer the Wild Magnolias' manager.
But Gaines does not necessarily consider himself terminated. He claims to have a binding contract with Dollis. "There's definitely a recent agreement in place," Gaines said. "It's a contract to protect all parties' interests."
Dollis said he never signed such a contract.
Last fall, Gaines tried to block the band fronted by Gerard Dollis from using the Wild Magnolias name, even though Gerard had his father's blessing.
"If you represent a band, you can't have three versions of that band floating around," Gaines said. "To me it was misleading."
In October 2001, Gaines had registered "Wild Magnolias" as a service mark with the Louisiana secretary of state office, listing himself and Bo Dollis as applicants. "If I was looking to do something maliciously, I would have put it just in my name," Gaines said.
The current listing on the secretary of state's Web site contains only Gaines' name.
In Gaines' view, "some people tried to take advantage of the fact that Bo was ill and move forward with their agendas…. The most important thing now is to get Bo healthy. Once his health gets better, I think a lot of things will be approached differently."
Asked to describe his current involvement with the Wild Magnolias, Gaines said, "That will be answered sometime in the near future. For now, Bo Dollis should answer that."
Dollis is unequivocal. "Glenn is not my manager," he said. "He never will be."
Dollis and Barras, in consultation with attorneys, continue to untangle the Wild Magnolias' business and legal affairs.
Their first major undertaking without Gaines was a Dec. 11 benefit concert in Dollis' honor at Tipitina's. The guest list named dozens of musicians and Indians to be granted free admission. Gaines' name appeared under the heading "paying guests."
The message was clear: Gaines was welcome, as long as he paid.
Despite snow on the ground and the Saints on TV, scores of Mardi Gras Indians, musicians — Rockin' Dopsie Jr., Marva Wright, J. Monque'D — and fans turned out to pay tribute to, and raise money for, Dollis.
Chris Granger / The Times-PicayuneBo Dollis revels in the moment at a December tribute concert.
The guest of honor sat at a card table inside the barricade in front of the stage, riveted. But he would not, could not, remain still.
As Boudreaux supported his right arm, Dollis climbed the stage steps and joined his fellow chiefs, most of whom wore fedoras instead of feathers. In an unprecedented show of solidarity, they lifted their voices and tambourines for "Indian Red," among the most solemn and sacred of Indian chants.
Dollis beamed. His son and Dopsie wept.
"That," Dopsie said, "was the first time I teared up since my daddy died."
At 64, Dollis continues to rebuild his stamina. The lingering effects of the stroke still bedevil his speaking, but to his amazement, he can sing just fine.
With assistance from Gerard, he sewed an Indian "suit" of black and white feathers and stepped out on Mardi Gras morning. The only Mardi Gras he's ever missed was the year his mother died.
Dollis and Boudreaux reunited at the Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl on April 4; Gerard spent more time onstage than his father. They all flew to France for an April 10 show. The long flight exhausted Dollis, but after a morning dialysis treatment — he's on a kidney transplant list — he was good to go for the evening's show.
Boudreaux, who still leads the Golden Eagles, is pleased to be a part of the Wild Magnolias once again. "Bo can do a little, and I can do a little, and Gerard can do a little," he said.
He'll help out his old friend when asked. "That's what I've been doing my whole life," Boudreaux said. "I can't change."
For his part, Bo Dollis badly wants to restore as much of his old self as possible. As he stood onstage during the 2008 Jazz Fest, tears flowed.
"The people reached out to me," he recalled, struggling through emotion to string together the words. "Although I can't do what I could do, they still love me.
"I just love my music. I just love it. That's all I want."