WALTER "PAPOOSE" NELSON
Born Walter Charles Nelson Jr., 26 July 1932, New Orleans, Louisiana
Guitarist Walter Nelson was born into a musical family. His father, Louis Nelson, was also a guitarist and had played with Louis Armstrong. Nelson Sr. taught music to both Smiley Lewis and Professor Longhair. Walter's younger brother, Lawrence Nelson (1936-1963), called himself Prince La La, who made a couple of classic R&B recordings in the early 1960s, before his untimely death from a drug overdose. Melvin and David Lastie were Walter's cousins. His sister, Dorothy Nelson, was married to singer Jessie Hill. They all grew up in a poverty-stricken area. Mac Rebennack : "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." (Quoted by John Broven, p. 93.) "Papoose", as Walter's nickname was, learned to play guitar from his father. By 1949 he had joined Professor Longhair's band and he plays on the Professor's earliest recordings. Fats Domino heard Papoose when he was playing with Longhair and persuaded him to join his band in 1950. Unfortunately, playing in shady clubs like Longhair's hangout, the Caldonia Inn, he had gathered some bad habits, notably an addiction to heroin. Still, Walter's driving-but-mellow style became the backbone of the Fats Domino band, as Billy Diamond put it.
>From January 1951 until September 1959, Papoose played on most of Fats Domino's sessions. When he was not available, it was mostly because he had to spend some time in jail, for drugs possession or non- support. Fats would bail him out, whenever possible. In a way, the Domino band was Papoose's family, as he became more and more estranged from his own relations because of his drug habit. "He was just a good-hearted cat who happened to be strung out", writes Mac Rebennack in his auto- biography. Papoose was Rebennack's first guitar teacher and Mac speaks highly of him. "He was a real soulful player, probably the most soulful guitar teacher I had." Dave Bartholomew was also full of praise for Nelson's guitar playing. Papoose could read music and sometimes he contributed to the arrangements of Fats's records, especially in the case of "I'm Walkin'". However, Alvin 'Red' Tyler didn't think too much of Nelson and rated Edgar Blanchard and Justin Adams, and especially Ernest McLean, higher as guitarists. (John Broven, p. 91-92.)
Nelson made one vocal record, "Why Did We Have To Part", on the flip of Herb Hardesty's "The Chicken Twist" (Federal 12460, 1962). On February 28, 1962 (Ash Wednesday), Billy Diamond drove to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem to pick up the members of Fats Domino's band. When Papoose didn't answer his knock, the bell captain opened the door. They found the guitarist lying askew on the bed with one shoe on and a needle in his arm. He was cold, dead from a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-nine.
The funeral in New Orleans was not attended by Fats and his band who were still on tour. Roy Montrell replaced Papoose as the guitarist in Domino's band. Montrell would die under very similar circumstances (at the Sonesta Hotel in Amsterdam), while the band was on tour in Holland in 1979.
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