Hotel Theresa where Walter Papoose Nelson was found dead on Wednesday, February 28th, 1962

I ran into Walter “Papoose” Nelson’s niece at Little People’s Place in New Orleans 6th Ward in summer of 2018.

We were having a nice chat when I casually mentioned that it was Papoose’s birthday. I’d seen the announcement on one of the music history sites I look at every morning as I have my eggs and coffee.

She burst into tears and gave me a big hug.

Papoose died nearly 60 years ago, and the aching loss is still felt by his family.

The Nelson family tree is byzantine, and many of its members fought their way out of modest means to become stars in New Orleans.

They’re all from the housing projects in the Ninth Ward which is the ultimate in ghettoes in New Orleans – bad conditions, gang wars, just a totally bad and violent situation. They’ve had very, very rough lives.

Dr John in an interview conducted in London, England in 1972.

Walter ‘Papoose’ Nelson came by his musical inclinations naturally. His daddy Walter Sr. was a known guitar wizard who went by the nickname Black Walter.

By the early 1920s, Walter had begun taking lessons from the famed Manuel “Fess” Manetta who was an early mentor to legendary trumpet-man Red Allen as well as being held in high regard by New Orleans jazzbos.

This would’ve required some serious dedication as Manetta taught in Algiers, across the river from the East Bank where the Nelsons lived, and a monetarily-precious ferry ride away.

Nelson Sr. taught Professor Longhair some of his licks, and eventually his 17 year old son Papoose went to play with Fess as a sort of musical backscratching between the old friends. Longhair had a stroke of luck, and scored a regular gig at the Caldonia with sidemen Apeman Black on saxophone, Papoose on guitar, and Big Slick on drums.

Has there ever been a group with a more hip set of individual names?

Papoose was with me in ’49… His daddy was a help to me…and by him taking up so much time with me, showing me bars and different things…I didn’t figure it was no more than right to help his son out…he was about the best guitar player…His father still is a musician (March 1978) He’s got that old lick, and he inspired me so much with his music.

That’s Professor Longhair speaking on the two musical Nelsons.

When you play as hot as Papoose you’re eventually going to be noticed by other young lions, and that’s exactly what happened when Fats Domino came calling in late 1950. Papoose would join Fats’ band alongside Buddy Hagans, Billy Diamond, Cornelius Coleman, and Wendell Duconge. Years later Domino would recall this band as being his “best ever”

In January of 1951, Fats and his crack crew descended on Cosimo Matasas’ studio on the edge of the French Quarter to record Tired of Crying backed with What’s The Matter Baby. This would mark the first cut Papoose laid down with Fats. Recorded later that year, Rockin’ Chair would be Walter’s first charting record as a member of Fats’ band. It went to number nine on the R&B charts on December 29th, and was the group’s first song to see national radio play.

Papoose was about to go on a wild ride as Domino was on the precipice of becoming the biggest star in what would become known as rock n roll. On April 26th, 1952, Fats would finally have a track go to number one on the R&B charts with Goin’ Home. The following year Domino cracked the top 10 with Going to the River, Rosemary, and Please Don’t Leave Me.

As you look over the recording sessions from Walter Nelson’s era spent with Fats you’ll notice he’s often missing from the musician’s credits. Papoose was in and out of jail during this time as he’d developed a fearsome drug habit.

I started going down to watch Fats Domino playing at the Cadillac Club (corner of St. Claude and Poland Avenue, owned by Mike Tessitore.) I used to drive Papoose crazy standing in front of him all night, watching how his hands went. When the band came off I wouldn’t let him go get high with the rest of the band, I used to ask him to teach me how to do that stuff. He’d be dragged because he was a guy who used to like to be high. He would get up in the morning and drop four bennies, five redbirds, drink a bottle of beer, smoke some weed and shoot some heroin, that’d be just to wake him up in the morning.

Dr John speaking on watching Nelson gig with Fats Domino as well as his prodigious taste for drugs.

I got to be tight with Papoose, and he was a cat who liked to enjoy life to the utmost. But he had a very miserable life, he was put down by everybody, cut loose by his family, and he had nobody but music. And his only side-kick from music was dope. But he was the most lovable sweet cat I have ever met. No matter how much I bugged him, he’d never tell me to get lost, he’d always show me something. Other people didn’t like to have me around, they’d tell me get away from here white boy, what you tryin’ to do, get me busted? From Paps I learned…how to play what was needed in a song.

In spite of his fondness for drugs, and the wild side of life, Nelson was still one of the premiere guitarists of his era.

The point is that Papoose’s music was so far beyond any other guitar player. Where Charlie Christian left off, Papoose started a new thing; he was an innovator of the guitar.

More from Dr John on his old mentor.

By 1956, Fats and his band were sitting on top of the world. Fats would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show (with his group playing with him but behind curtains so as to not shock the sensibilities of the white audience watching at home.) Too many black musicians on the stage at one time might overwhelm them. Remember it was the mid-fifties.

He also took his band on a trip to Master Recorders in Los Angeles where they recorded what would become his most famous song, a cover of Blueberry Hill. That’s Papoose on guitar. It would go to number two on the pop charts and number one R&B. After performing it on the Sullivan show the cut crested the million sales mark.

The following year, Fats’ outfit would headline the biggest tour in young rock n roll’s history; Irvin Feld’s Biggest Show of Stars. Fats towered over Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Paul Anka, the Drifters, and the Everly Brothers. The state of live concerts featuring white and black performers was riotous. The KKK routinely showed up at deep south music revues to make sure the race-mixing didn’t cross whatever lines their tortured psyches had decided were inviolable.

In June of 1959, Walter “Papoose” Nelson would venture into the studio for a final session with Fats Domino. They laid down a handful of cuts with Easter Parade being particularly poignant as it’s the final track he played on that was released during his lifetime. You may hear it on the I Miss You So LP.

In February 1962, Fats and his band traveled to New York City for a performance on the Ed Sullivan Show where they were slated to play Jambalaya and Let The Four Winds Blow.

They would have to so without their hotshot guitarist Walter Nelson Jr.

On Wednesday, February 28th, 1962 Roy Montrell went to the Hotel Theresa to check in on Papoose. He found him dead on his bed with a needle in his arm.

Four days later Fats and his band performed at the Ed Sullivan show.

Six days after that, on March 10th friends and family of Nelson gathered at Alphonse Picou’s Bar in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans for a traditional jazz funeral. Olympia Brass Band provided the music.

Fats and his band were on tour and could not attend.

The show must go on. Walter Nelson Jr. left four children to remember him. His wife passed away in 2018. And to this day if you bring his name up in Treme you may hear a great wailing.

Walter Charles “Papoose” Nelson Jr.
B. July 26th 1932
D. February 28th 1962

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sources:
Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans By Grace Lichtenstein, Laura Dankner
The Jazz Archivist A newsletter of the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive Volume XXVI, 2013
Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Rick Coleman
Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper by Jack Rummel
Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans by John Broven

these websites were invaluable in writing this essay
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