The Pickpocket Has A Conversation with Ronnie Magri, Burlesque Bandleader and Drummer for the Shim Sham Revue Band
Welcome to Ribald Rhythms, a new column in which I discuss the ever-converging worlds of music and burlesque; how the two art forms complement and inform each other, intertwining like lovers on glittery stages across the globe.
For this installment, I interview Ronnie Magri, drummer, DJ, producer and musical director, bandleader and drummer for the Shim Shamettes, one of the first authentic 1950s style burlesque revival shows in the nation and a seminal influence on the blossoming neo-burlesque scene of the late ’90s. Located in the New Orleans’ French Quarter, the Shim Sham Club stage saw the likes of burlesque and music legends Sam Butera, Kitty West, Wild Cherry and Dita Von Teese all backed by a swinging hot jazz soundtrack provided by Ronnie Magri & the Shim Sham Revue Band.
In 2002, Magri released the album “Shim Sham Revue- Music of New Orleans Burlesque Shows of the 30’s, 40’s & 50’s.” The album features beautiful renditions of classic stripper numbers and can be heard backing burlesque dancers all over the world today. This is an essential record for any fan of classic burlesque and a great resource for those interested in burlesque history.
I set up the interview with Ronnie after his class “Risque Rhythm” at Burlycon in Seattle. His unique knowledge of the music that moved the original burlesque performers seemed like a perfect jumping off point for this column. We talked a few weeks later over the phone for an hour plus so this is just the first part of the interview. A second installment featuring Ronnie’s advice to performers who want to feature live music in their acts will be coming in the not-too-distant future.
Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, Ronnie Magri!
Jimmy the Pickpocket: You come from a hard rock/punk background but did you always have an interest in the 30s, 40s, 50s era of music, or did that start when you were doing research for the Shim Sham Club?
Ronnie Magri: Well, you know, I grew up on that stuff through my parents. My parents were into Sinatra and big band stuff, doo-wop and a lot of the rock n’ roll groups. I was listening to Led Zeppelin and the Stones and Alice Cooper. I rebelled against their music but I heard it in my house. When it came time for this, though, I realized that a lot of this stuff was in my DNA, instilled in me. I would hear a song and go “I remember my mom playing this.” So that was the sound that I heard growing up, that I rebelled against. You know? I didn’t really have any real interest in it or start looking into it more until I got the Shim Sham gig.
JtP: So, what drew you to burlesque?
RM: Well, coming from that rock-and-roll thing, I had always been into pin-ups. Whether it was tattoos or Bettie Page. And, also growing up in New York, I do remember as a kid going down 42nd Street, hanging around and you’d still see billboards up of Kitten Natvidad or whoever else was still performing in Times Square at that time. So, I had it in my head, but never in a million years did I think I was going to go to New Orleans and be doing burlesque. It just was not planned that way. I didn’t think about it but when it happened, it just made sense and it was real natural to just go, yes!
JtP: When you were curating the tunes for the Shim Sham Revue and later for your album, where did you start? In other words, how did you find out what tunes burlesque shows were playing back in the day, especially without the advantage of having the internet for research?
RM: When we started doing research in late ’98/99, 1999 being when the show opened, there wasn’t a lot of information on the Internet for this. I had no other choice but to actually talk to these people that were there at the time, whether it was the dancers, the musicians, the bartenders or the cocktail waitresses. Now, in New Orleans, it wasn’t that hard to find a bunch of the musicians that used to play at the Show Bar, the 500 Club, all the famous clubs on Bourbon Street, and talk to them. I talked to the dancers a little bit and that was my main thing, was to say, “What songs did you guys use? Did you use original songs? Did they write songs for you? How many piece band did you have?” You know, they might say “Oh, I really loved the clarinet” or “I really loved the saxophone.” and “I danced to this song” or “I had originals.”
Luckily, the guys that were playing on Bourbon Street during the height of the classic burlesque age were 60/70 years old when I went to interview them in 90-something. I got to talk to Kitty West, the original Oyster Girl, and her bandleader and I would just pick their brains. That’s the thing, as time moves on; it’ll be harder and harder. You have the Internet but you won’t be able to get the information first-hand from these people that were actually there.
JtP: Wow. Such a great opportunity because probably many of those guys have passed on, huh?
RM: They were pretty old back then, yeah. I’d say most of them are not here anymore. Even Sam Butera, who worked with Louis Prima, who before that worked at the 500 Club in New Orleans. I got to hang out and pick his brain. He worked with the biggest star; he worked with The Cat Girl, Lily Christine at the 500 Club. I had him in my car one day, I had to drive around and do some errands, so he was held captive in my car, right? [laughs] He was just telling me one story after another. I got a lot of information to work with, to come up with the music and the concept for the show and also, the album.
JtP: Did you discover any gems or was there stuff that surprised you when you talked to these guys?
RM: Probably the biggest surprise was finding Kitty’s original Oyster Girl music. I think she might have had a couple different versions of it but the version I got was written in 1958. The guy that wrote the music was going to high school and doing burlesque shows at night. He’s passed since then but I got the sheet music, Kitty had the music and it had his name, Herb Tassin. I called Herb and had a conversation and I asked him about working with Kitty. So, I think the biggest surprise was being able to get Kitty’s original Oyster Girl music that was never recorded and bring it to life and to record it.
You can hear that Oyster Girl music on Ronnie’s CD “Shim Sham Revue” The Music of New Orleans Burlesque Shows of the 30s, 40s and 50s.” Look out for the next installment of Ribald Rhythms coming soon.