When I first heard Uncle Lionel I was playing with the Rebirth Brass Band; it had to be about 1983. I had an opportunity to hang with Uncle Lionel almost every day and every night. He would entertain from the time he’d walk in the door till the time he left, and I came to realize early on why everybody called him Uncle Lionel, because I felt like he was my real uncle.
It was almost like going to college-he was like a professor for me, because I learned so much from him. He realized I was interested in learning a lot of songs, so we would sit at the bar and he would sing all these tunes that he wanted me to know. Then he would sing them on gigs and I would watch him and listen to him sing almost every night. I would follow him whether I was on the gig or not. He showed me a lot of showmanship, too; he had a lot of style and class.
Uncle Lionel would always do things that had you laughing your ass off. He’d always come up with something, or say or do something, that would have everybody falling to the floor laughing, and he would do that all day long. He’d whisper something in your ear about another band member that was real funny, and nobody minded that he did that. We looked forward to him doing that.
Nobody could play the bass drum like Uncle Lionel did. He would hit 32nd notes with the mallet tip and he would make it sound like he was hitting them with drumsticks. He was famous for going in the kitchen in any restaurant, getting about five pots and sitting on the floor to take a solo. Uncle Lionel had some of the best timing ever-it was simplicity at its finest. And he’d be dancing at the same time, posin’ and shakin’ and jivin’ with the audience and never missing a beat. If you listen to any record of Uncle Lionel singing and playing the bass drum at the same time, it’s crazy. He didn’t put it down and then sing; he would sing and play the drum while they were recording.
I had the honor of playing his funeral service with my band. It lasted a while-we played church music for three hours. It was a wonderful thing, a great sendoff for a great man.
As told to Jeff Tamarkin