From the outside, the Shim Sham Club on Toulouse Street looks like a rather small typical French Quarter watering hole. The sign hanging above the door is easily overlooked. But on Sunday night, a glittering red sandwich board is placed out on the sidewalk announcing an evening of dancing girls live on stage. Not your standard pole-swinging stripper displays of today, but an evening of burlesque – Bourbon Street circa 1950. The show is complete with a comic emcee, a live house band, a singer, a comedienne, and seven beauties who call themselves "The Southern Jezabelles." The bandleader is drummer Ronnie Magri, a cool cat who looks as if he stepped out of a time machine from the past. Living in the French Quarter, tourists may mistake his patois as New Orleanian, but it fact, it’s from his native Brooklyn. Magri moved to New Orleans in 1995. The Crescent City had been on his mind since 1990 when during a recording session with Little Richard, he heard about the enrtertainer’s early recording sessions in New Orleans. As the shipment of his first CD, The Shim Sham Revue, arrived in boxes fresh from the factory, Rick Delaup talked to Ronnie Magri about his new release.
Q. How did you decide what music you wanted to have in the Shim Sham show?
A. You can't listen to those novelty burlesque records over and over. Ya know, the band’s made to sound a little sloppy. I didn’t want to go that route, but I wanted to do some of the stuff that is typical, fan dance, something like "Mood Indigo." It’s stuff that those girls danced to. "Night Train" and "Harlem Nocturne." Those are just like standards. Then I wanted to bring in stuff that might’ve been played during the Cotton Club, or stuff that might’ve been played over in Paris at the time, and do some Duke Ellington stuff, and Sidney Bechet. Thinking Cotton Club and Josephine Baker. Well, Sidnet Bechet, the New Orleans clarinet player, he was in that revue.
Q. Was it hard at first to get the band together?
A. Everything was hard at first. When it first started, I didn’t have a book. Meaning I didn’t have a book of music. It’s so much easier to do a show now. I’ve got 50 songs right now.
Q. How did you decide what songs to put on your CD?
A. I just put the ones that I wanted to put on the CD. And then, uh, I just wanted to have a variation of, if you saw the show, what it would be like. The CD is just music, it’s all across the board. There’s slow ones, there’s fast ones.
Q. What’s your favorite track on the CD?
A. I like the opening track, "Burlecue." I just like the groove on it.
Q. Tell me about the Oyster Girl song. The sheet music belonged to the original Evangeline the Oyster Girl, Kitty West. How did you go about playing and recording that song?
A. There were some missing pages. But at least there was some kind of road map to explain what was going on. There was somethin’ there, but there were still a lot of pieces that were missing. And so, the guy who does the arrangements, Jason Mingledorf, who did 99% of the arrangements on the record, he did a piano score, and then we did the full orchestration after listening to the piano score and figuring it out. We pretty much had to write it out and listen to it and make a couple of changes here and there, but that was pretty much it.
Q. What did you think when you first heard the Oyster Girl song?
A. I thought it was so bizarre the first time I heard it. It’s an epic! It’s definitely different.
Q. And it was long, too.
A. A shorter version is on the CD. The original music from Kitty was more like 15 minutes long. Keep in mind that, that was probably her only number that she danced to when she came out, if she was a featured dancer. It probably was clocked in at 15 minutes. So, it was much longer. But nothing was taken out. It was just that long because there was a lot of repeats. They’re just not repeated as many times as she did.
Q. Are there any of the current, young burlesque performers of today that stick out in your mind?
A. I guess the Velvet Hammer. And, uh, Dita (Von Teese). Those two.
Q. Who are some of the old burlesque queens that you’d hang their photos on your wall?
A. Geez, it would have to be Lilly Christine or Lili St. Cyr. Lilly Christine was just outrageous.
Q. Any musicians that used to play for the strippers who influence or inspire you?
A. Well, of course, there’s Sam [Butera] and guys like that, but… My approach to it when I’m doing the show is, I’m totally thinking about it like Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club. That was a hot fuckin’ show – with Duke Ellington’s band as the house band. And you would have these gorgeous black women dressed up barefoot wearing these little fuckin’ dresses, shaking, while Duke Ellington’s band was playin’ all this…. Some of the stuff that we do in the show was from the Cotton Club. And that’s more of my approach to it.
Q. So you’re saying you want to make the band really part of the excitement of the show, or part of the performance instead of just like background music?
A. Exactly. And on top of it, the music is presented in not kind of a clunky way. It’s more sophisticated, nice. A little more serious.
Q. You’ve got that whole retro kinda lifestyle going on. What modern, or more pop interests do you have? What new CD would you go out and buy today?
A. If I went out to buy something, it would be an old record.
Q. Besides listening to jazz in the Quarter, do you go to any concerts?
A. It’s too loud. I don’t know . . .
Q. If you could, would you rather live in the 1950s?
A. I don’t even think like that . . . Geez, ya know? Everything [back then] isn’t as glamorous as it seems, ya know. I mean, I never even thought about that. I’m kinda happy just livin’ right now.
-- Rick Delaup 2002