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Harold Battiste, influential New Orleans jazz musician, dies at 83

Harold Battiste founded the first black, musician-owned record label. He also played sax on 'I Got You Babe.'

Harold Battiste, the New Orleans-born composer, producer, arranger and musician who put his distinct stamp on the city's music for several decades, died Friday after a lengthy illness, his son Harlis has confirmed. He was 83.

Battiste founded the first African American musician-owned record label, All For One, better known as AFO Records, in 1961. The label became home briefly to many of New Orleans' top players and singers including Dr. John, Lee Dorsey, Tami Lynn and Barbara George.

"I'd been listening to speeches from the eligible Elijah Muhammad, messages that often spoke to the need for our people to create wealth through ownership," Battiste, a member of the Nation of Islam, wrote in his 2010 autobiography, "Unfinished Blues." "It seemed that every ethnic group was identified with a product or service that they owned and controlled, and it seemed that the product generally attributed to us was music: jazz, blues, R&B, gospel."

The label's biggest hit was George's vibrant, gospel-inspired "I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)," which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 3 on the pop charts.

Battiste also lent his talents to numerous studio sessions in Los Angeles in the '50s and '60s. He played that distinctive soprano sax on Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," a melody that, now that it's in your head, will probably stay there the rest of the day.

"Sonny wouldn't do anything without me," Battiste told The Advocate newspaper in a 2010 interview. "Sonny knew what I could do better than I knew. He told me, 'Man, you're better than most of these cats out here!' But I didn't know that anything that I did had that much value. I got $125 for 'I Got You Babe.' That's all."

Battiste also arranged Sam Cooke’s first secular hit, "You Send Me," and played piano on perhaps his greatest song, the civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come."

Battiste was instrumental in developing New Orleans music icon Mac Rebennack's famous Dr. John persona, producing his celebrated first album, 1968's "Gris Gris," a spooky, psychedelic-tinged stew of voodoo New Orleans R&B recorded in L.A. Battiste and Dr. John reportedly cut the album quickly using leftover studio time from a Sonny and Cher session.

"The key to when I did the Dr. John thing," Battiste told the Advocate, "I just had to get a bunch of New Orleans people. I knew that we would make the vibe that we wanted."

Battiste was born Oct. 28, 1931, in New Orleans. In "Unfinished Blues," he remembered growing up near the famed Lasalle Street R&B nightclub, The Dew Drop Inn, and how its proximity influenced his path in life.

"I could hear the music coming from there on my front porch and in my living room," he wrote. "It was the music of the black stars of the day: lots of R&B, a little swing, a little jazz, a bit of jump. It was all about the rhythm, and I couldn't help but be drawn to that music because it spoke directly to my spirit."

Battiste earned a B.A. degree in music education from Dillard University in 1952. After graduating, he worked as an itinerant music teacher in Louisiana before going to California to pursue a career in recording. He would split his time between Los Angeles and New Orleans for the next 30 years.

Battiste suffered a stroke in 1993 that limited his ability to play. In recent years, he focused his attention on composing, promoting the heritage of New Orleans music and reviving the AFO label.

Battiste married Alviette Dominque in 1953; the couple divorced in 1988. Dominique died in 2014. In 1995 he united with New Orleans schoolteacher Berweda Hatch in an Umoja ceremony; they separated two years later in 1997. The musician is survived by one grandchild, one great grandchild and four children -- Harold III, Andrea, Marzique, and Harlis.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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