Despite multiple changes in lineup, instrumentation, and repertoire over the years, King James and the Special Men have been, in some form or another, an in-demand performing act in New Orleans for nearly two decades. In recent years, their buzzed-about, high energy weeklies at BJ’s Bywater and Sidney’s Saloon have been a staple for both locals and tourists alike. Despite their long history, the band had only recorded and released a couple of 45s until a few years ago, when they started planning for a full-length recording. The resulting album—titled Act Like You Know—is set for release by Jazz Fest. I visited Jimmy Horn, a.k.a King James, at his home in the 9th Ward to talk early years, hard lessons learned, and how to stay firmly rooted without being stuck in the past.
Most of the interviews I’ve seen with you have focused on recent years, exclusively. I wanted to talk a little more about your early life.
Jimmy Horn: Sure. I was born out West—in Utah—on a sheep farm. We raised sheep, cattle, pigs, some chickens, and horses, but it was mostly about the sheep and cattle. We got indoor plumbing in 1984. My grandfather, the farmer, he could yodel and play the fiddle. My family has Utah roots that go back a few generations… they moved to Utah from Denmark.
Was there any Mormonism involved?
Yeah, my ancestors were Mormon; that’s what brought them here from Copenhagen. But by the time I was born it was mostly just about farming. My mother wasn’t religious. Neither was my grandfather… he liked his Jack Daniel’s and his cigarettes too, and he wasn’t gonna go hang out with a bunch of hypocrites.
Did your parents play instruments?
No, but my father played the record player. [laughs] My first records were 45s, and they were hand-me-downs. I latched onto “Tutti Frutti” right away, by Little Richard. And “Wild Thing.” Records like that. And then I found Kiss. Like many young boys in the ‘70s, these dudes with moon boots and face paint and fire shooting out of their mouths were kinda hard for me to pass up. The farm was really basic, but we had TV, you know what I mean? And I was exposed to Kiss, and my father had Jimi Hendrix records and Beatles records and Pink Floyd records and all that. For me, playing music was never really about entertaining—it was just for the love of it. I got into entertaining later out of necessity.
Who gave you your first guitar?
My father’s parents. I was kicking and screaming for one. Again, Kiss and all that. Right before I turned five, I was given a Montgomery Ward acoustic guitar and I played it ‘til my thumbs bled the very day I got it, jumping off the bed, the whole bit.
Did you have any other natural entertainers in your family?
No. None. On my mother’s side of the family, everybody was very stern and quiet—pioneer stock. You don’t whine, you don’t over-celebrate. My grandfather was famous for saying things like “…yep.” And my father’s side was definitely more intellectual, more university, but I spent a lot more time with my mother’s side of the family. We left Utah when I was five. We ended up in Illinois where my father was transferred for work. He was working for Pinkerton’s, which is now just a security company.
What town in Illinois?
A little town called Blue Mound, near Decatur. By then I was just playing guitar and more guitar. Other than school music projects—which I got involved with as much as I could—I joined my first punk band when I was probably 14 or 15.
What were you called?
Silence. [laughs] So ironic. That was a whole new thing for me. I was a music nerd, but I was feeling around in the dark. I didn’t have people to turn me on to stuff so I was a little slow. But punk rock opened me up to a lot of stuff. And basically today I’m just an old punk rocker that happened to spend a lot of time learning music.
Were you a frontman in Silence or a guitarist?
I was the guitarist. I didn’t begin singing until I moved to New Orleans and realized people who were singing were making more money. [laughs] I was always on the shy side but at some point, once I moved to New Orleans something clicked… I’ll never be a sideman again. I moved here in 1993; I was barely 19 years old. Just dove in headfirst. I moved here from Washington State, where I’d been for about a year. We had moved a lot… there was Utah, then Illinois, then my folks split and my mother took us back to Utah for not even a whole year before she got transferred to Washington state. Back then, it was just about making ends meet. A couple years into that, I got shipped to my father, who had relocated to Pennsylvania. I was there a couple years, didn’t finish high school, and I went out west. I didn’t stay with my mother, but I was near her. I was in Seattle when I ended up deciding to move to New Orleans.
That was a really interesting time to be in Seattle, musically speaking.
Sure. But I got bored really fast. The infrastructure was great. Lots of creative people all around, but for my taste, personally, I found it to be a little too homogenized. Like counter-culture people all interested in the same things and I didn’t feel like I had a place. If you’re that open-minded, why do we have to wear a uniform?
So when did New Orleans come in?
One day my friend said, “I’m gonna come pick you up after work and we’ll do something fun.” Usually around that time, it was about picking up a jug of Carlo Rossi wine and driving around, or sitting in a park and passing the time, and that was a night—especially when you’re 18 years old. But that night, this friend picked me up in a car full of junk and we headed to New Orleans. I had never thought about New Orleans once before that.
I latched onto “Tutti Frutti” right away, by Little Richard. And “Wild Thing.” Records like that. And then I found Kiss.
I never put it together until I came here and realized, man, my first favorite song, “Tutti Frutti,” was recorded just down there by Cosimo [Matassa] with Dave Bartholomew’s band. I got here and within a week I was wide-eyed and broke. I had just heard Sun Ra for the first time. Long story short, I came to New Orleans with a broken saxophone and no guitar. And I’m a guitar player. I bought Sun Ra on the strength of an album cover. So I bought it and within 24 hours of hearing it for the first time, I decided to change from guitar to saxophone. I did play saxophone for a time in school, and for awhile I thought I’d become a bad-ass sax player. But that wasn’t meant to be. [laughs] I finally traded the sax for a guitar and started singing.
Where were you living when all this was going on?
I’ve been downtown for two decades. I’ve spent some time here and there, but I’ve always had a place downtown. But when I first started out in New Orleans, I was living in my friend’s car that we drove down here in. A few days after we got here, my friend called his mom and said “I don’t know what I was thinking, please get me out of here.” I had found a job selling crawfish on Bourbon Street, and we were staying at the old LeDale Hotel, which was awful (it used to be right across the street from the Hummingbird). So I got back to the LeDale one day to find a note left by my friend that said, “I left. You can keep the car.” So I slept in the car for about two months until I finally got a place on St. Roch by the fish market and I’ve been downtown ever since. But back to the sax shit, for my first few years here, all I did was play parties at The Pearl, or the Spellcaster or the Pussycat. I was busy experiencing things and wasn’t really thinking about a career. Bought a house at the age of 20; it was cool. One day, I was playing upright bass in a band with a guy who is still playing drums in the Special Men, and this guy Sheikh Rashid, who was a Sun Ra alumni and a badass tenor player. But he’d been through a lot of life changes and found Islam. It was really good for him, but practice wasn’t nearly as fun. [laughs] Me and Chris [Davis] were still in our 20s, so we’d have beer in the fridge and a joint rolled, just waiting for band practice to be over. We respected his choices, it was just this thing where at that time in our lives, our paths diverged. So maybe around ’99 or 2000, after practice one day we were sitting around and said, “why can’t we just have a fun Fats Domino-type band where we can drink beer?” So we started playing a weekly at K-Doe’s and at The Matador. I was playing piano for those shows. I’ve said this in other interviews, but I was terrible. It was bad. Chris played drums and I was on piano. We did that for a couple years and I put it down. It was really fun. But I left town for a woman. I left for Alabama and later, Mississippi. I kept a weekly in New Orleans the whole time, though.
You’ve had two very strong female role models in your life: Antoinette K-Doe and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Tell me about them.
Antoinette, she was such a community leader here. Married to Ernie K-Doe and all that, ran a bar, managed musicians. She gave us a home. She fed us, took us in. She took a liking to us. All of our mothers were thousands of miles away, for the most part. She had just resuscitated Ernie’s career basically by herself and so she was pretty hot to trot. She was like my first manager. Of course there was never any paperwork or any money exchanged, but she introduced herself as my manager and helped me with things. There were times when she gave us great advice, but a lot of it was just learning by example.
And certainly Antoinette knew a whole lot about showmanship.
Right. Of course. Those kinds of things, it would just be really easy. She’d tell us what we were doing that she liked and encouraged us in that way. She had such an amazing eye for that stuff. With Antoinette, it was like prep school. With Jessie Mae, it was like finishing school. She was from a long line of Mississippi musical legends, played everything, sang everything. Look her up if you don’t know her history and her family’s history. I actually lived with her for quite awhile, doing all the cooking, picking up the mail, all that. When I first met her, it was just another thing that happened on a whim. I was driving to New Orleans, listening to her records. One record said Como, Mississippi on it, so I decided to call information and ask if a Jessie Mae Hemphill was listed. I know, it’s crazy. [laughs] They were like “no, but we have one in Senatobia.” I was like, well there can’t be two within 30 miles, so I called her on the phone, she answered, and it went from there. I knew a little about her family, her grandfather, Sid Hemphill, and their involvement in getting Lomax to Stovall’s Plantation or Fred McDowell’s house or the fact that Sid Hemphill was the one who taught Othar Turner to make a fife in the first place. Mississippi fife and drum. Her grandfather was blind. He ran a general store and made fiddles, banjos, drums, fifes. But so anyway, I called her up. I knew a little about her stroke and her background, and I thought, you know, she’s won the Handy Award like five times, she’s got the key to Paris… I thought she was gonna have ‘round the clock care. I thought she’d have at least one lady taking care of her. But I found her not having eaten in a few days, feeling really ill and alone, ripped off, and pissed off. We hit it off pretty good and within the first four hours of meeting her, I knew we’d be close. She taught me a lot, just with her daily influence. We’d watch the movie Shane every day. Seriously, every fuckin’ day. After a while that starts to work on your mind a little bit. And the other movie was Lone Wolf McQuaid. If there was a loner with a gun who saved the day, that was her shit. Her guitar had bullet holes in it. She had a gun on top of a Bible in every single room and a .38 at her side. And a bottle.
How would you describe New Orleans rhythm and blues to someone who’d never heard it before?
I hate to reveal the Wu-Tang secret, but the simple truth of it is, these first records I got into, whether it be “Tutti Frutti,” which is really obvious and really loud, or the path I took with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepplin and all that, I’ve always been a digger. If I find a book or a band or a song I like, I wanna know what bands they listened to, or what writers influenced this other writer. I’m always going back. I love history. My favorite music, it turns out it was always rhythm and blues—the blues, to be more specific. Zepplin, Hendrix, it’s all blues, right? When I was six years old, I’d listen to Hendrix and all I heard was magic. Now I listen and I’m like, that’s just a dude who was into the blues and turned his shit up real loud. You hear things for what they are when you finally become an adult. So you go digging and you find out that the blues is what came before it all. American music in general, outside of the European influences, so much of it is African. So I found myself, as a young white boy from Utah, listening to Son House records and thinking, “this is the Holy Grail for me.” Fred McDowell. But I’m not gonna be that white dude who goes out there singing about picking cotton. I’ve never picked cotton in my life. I’ve always had enough sense not to do that. Be real with yourself and your crowd. So I sing the urban blues, with the band. It’s just rock‘n’roll.
So much of rhythm and blues is showmanship, bigger than life. Who influenced you in that regard?
Blowfly. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Rick James. Howlin’ Wolf. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen footage of Howlin’ Wolf, but he would rock a stage. And it turns out that he was pretty conservative—didn’t really drink, wasn’t a womanizer. But meanwhile, he’s up there licking his guitar. And New Orleans influences of course. Jessie Hill. “Oo Poo Pah Do.” Swag. Cuz that’s the other thing, aside from just being aware of what I am—who I am—there’s also knowing your own limitations. I have a particular kind of voice that doesn’t lend itself to ballads or falsetto or anything nice, [laughs] so that kinda dictates what I do. I lean on the attitude side… being bawdy… singing things other people might be embarrassed singing—and singing them loud. That’s kind of all I do.
What about the synergy between your bandmates?
Chris Davis, he started this band with me. And when we started, it was The Special Men. It was only post-Jessie Mae and after all that time away from the band that I came back and said, “Yeah, but it’s gonna be King James and The Special Men this time. And I’m not playing the fuckin’ piano, neither. I’m a guitarist.” In those Antoinette K-Doe years, the band was as terrible as it was fun. And it was a lot of fun. [laughs] And playing at K-Doe’s was very forgiving, because most people just wanted to be in that room. And we’d have Big Chiefs and members of The Ink Drops and all kind of cool people coming through there. But Chris Davis, he’s my right-hand man, always has been. I bounce everything off of him. And John Rodli [a.k.a. Porkchop], our guitarist, although he wasn’t our founding guitar player, he is the guitar player. A fellow named Clay was the first guitarist—he stayed in the band long enough to change our name from The Ass Men to The Special Men, [laughs] which was a pretty good move. Again, we were young and really feeling ourselves. Porkchop, he’s the kind of guy, you just spin him around and put him out there and he’ll do the right thing. I’ve gone through a couple piano players, I’ve gone through a few horn players. They just keep getting better and better. It used to be that it was just these five guys, and now there’s a handful of us. Our horn players keep getting picked off by more successful bands. [laughs] Our tenor player [Jason Mingledorff] has been touring with St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and our trumpet player [Scott Frock] is touring with Sturgill Simpson. But through all this, I’ve learned that we’re gonna make it, their spots will still be there. Dominick Grillo is our big sax player, he’s been there since jump on the second wave. Robert Snow, our bass player, he’s got New Orleans kin that go back all the way to players in the French Opera House here. He’s a real deal legacy player in this city. His daddy is on some of the most iconic rock‘n’roll records that were ever made in New Orleans. He was 9th Ward before it was cool. [laughs] He’s kind of like the spirit of the band; keeps us honest in that regard.
Tell me about the new record.
I initially started this record a few years ago at The Parlor, and I recorded an album’s worth of music. And then I fired our piano player. And our sax player. And decided that I wanted to keep recording. I switched to recording at The House of 1000hz, run by Andrew Gilchrist. He’s Maceo Parker’s sound engineer. I can walk to his studio from home. So we partnered up on these recordings and I’m really happy with how it turned out. We put it out on our own label, Special Men Industries. This was our first release, other than a couple of 45s that we’ve put out. And hopefully it’s the beginning of some new New Orleans music. Special Men Industries will also be releasing singles from some of our favorite artists, we’re really excited about this. We’ve got singles coming up from Alynda Lee Segarra [Hurray for the Riff Raff ], Louis Michot [Lost Bayou Ramblers], the Young Seminole Hunter Gang, Leyla McCalla, and others. And after Jazz Fest this year is our third trip to Europe as a band—we’re taking the Young Seminole Hunters with us, led by Big Chief Demond Melancon.
The singles and the tour with the Indians sound great.
Yeah. We’re really looking forward to it. And to go back to my first point, by the beginning of some new New Orleans music, I meant that you can go back in the New Orleans historical timeline and see that the major shifts in music in New Orleans since ragtime… blues, urban blues and jazz, rhythm and blues, uptown funk, brass band revival, New Orleans rap, bounce… but players these days just go back and play The Meters. Over. And over. And over. And over. And over. [laughs] And you have all the trad players. Which is great. But when Big Chief came out, things changed. When Rebirth came out, things changed. When rap and bounce came out, things changed. I got back to town after Jessie Mae and all that and people were asking, when are we gonna do the Special Men again? I was still doing just the guitar and drummer thing. I wasn’t worried about doing anything more. Basically, I had to reinvest in it. I had to say OK, if we’re gonna do this again, we’re gonna do it right. I’m gonna have a horn section. We need to find a real piano player. And I started working on being an actual frontman. I had to be honest with myself and say, “You’re 40, bro. You did not finish school, you do not have other skills.” I’m trying to be self aware, to treat it all like a business. I can’t wait to sell out! [laughs] When you get older, selling out doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. At the end of the day, it’s party music. We’re here to help you have fun. I had to be very honest with myself and say, “OK, you play the blues. But Jesus, don’t be corny about it.”
King James and the Special Men have a regular Monday night residency at the Saturn Bar, 3067 St. Claude Ave, where they will also be performing on Mardi Gras night (Tuesday, February 28). For more info, check out specialmanindustries.com