Spectropop remembers

JOHN FRED (1941 - 2005)

John Fred Gourrier, the Baton Rouge singer, songwriter and bandleader who achieved worldwide fame in 1968 with the John Fred and the Playboys hit 'Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)', has died. The 63-year-old singer had been hospitalised for several months for complications that developed after a kidney transplant.

'Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)', the catchy slice of psychedelic-tinged whimsy that was Gourrier's biggest hit, was a # 1 song in the US and many other countries. While the song continued being played on radio stations through the decades, Gourrier was a local legend in his hometown, performing at the annual Fourth of July Celebration at the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial and Museum and hosting his popular local radio show, The Roots Of Rock 'n' Roll.

Last fall, Gourrier asked his long-time friend, former record producer S. J. Montalbano, to be the substitute host for The Roots Of Rock 'n' Roll during his absence. "What I remember John Fred mostly for is his passion for music, his family and his community," Montalbano said on hearing of Gourrier's passing. "John Fred was all these things. He also had a love for his sports."

Gourrier was a star baseball and basketball player at Catholic High School. He attended Southeastern Louisiana University on athletics scholarships, setting school records there in basketball and baseball that lasted for 34 years. He later coached youth league baseball and, since 1995, Catholic High School's freshman baseball team. "He touched so many kids' lives in sports," Montalbano said. "John Fred probably could have been a professional athlete, had he not become a professional singer. That was one of the choices he made in life."

Like millions of young people during the mid-1950s, Gourrier loved the raucous, blues-based music that came to be known as rock 'n' roll. He was a sixth-grader at Sacred Heart Catholic School when he first heard Fats Domino's 'Going To The River'. "It changed everything about me," Gourrier recalled in 2002. "Back in 1953, we were hearing Bing Crosby and those guys. You just didn't hear what Fats was doing. It completely floored me and I was sold, that record right there."

Gourrier started singing with a local band, encouraged by the chance to earn $8 a night. The group called itself various names, but after the premiere issue of Playboy magazine appeared, bandleader Mickey Coerver dubbed his band the Playboys. "We were a bunch of white guys trying to play black music," Gourrier said. "We grew up listening to Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis and all those great New Orleans artists. That's the kind of music we liked, and all the kids loved us."

Best known for 'Judy In Disguise' Gourrier's recording career stretched from his 1959 single, 'Shirley', to his 2002 CD, 'Somebody's Knockin''. Gourrier recorded 'Shirley' at Cosimo Matassa's studio in New Orleans, where Fats Domino, Little Richard, Huey "Piano" Smith and many others had cut their national hits. 'Shirley', produced by fruit salesman-turned music entrepreneur S. J. Montalbano, was a hit in various regional markets, including New York City. The song got Gourrier, then a 16-year-old Catholic High student, a spot on Alan Freed's New York TV show.

Elvis Presley loved one of Gourrier's other lesser-known discs, 'Boogie Chillun''. Gourrier learned of Presley's fondness for the record at the International Hotel in Las Vegas when Wayne Cochran, a fellow rock 'n' roller and mutual friend, introduced him to Presley. "Wayne knocks on the door," Gourrier remembered. "He says, 'Hey, E! I got a guy from the South that wants to see you!' So Elvis says, 'Well, if he's from the South, bring him on in here.' So Wayne says, 'Elvis, I want you to meet John Fred.' Elvis stopped and said, 'John Fred and the Playboys - 'Boogie Chillun''."

Gourrier and the Playboys loved R & B, but the dominance of British invasion bands such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones convinced them to write in a more-contemporary vein. "That's when we started changing, with 'Agnes English'," Gourrier said. "Horn bands, all that stuff, was leaving, so I went with what was happening." The trippy 'Agnes English' wasn't a major hit, but it paved the way for 'Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)'. The Beatles' 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' inspired the title and two soul hits, Fontella Bass' 'Rescue Me' and the Four Tops' 'I Can't Help Myself ', inspired the great bass line. "Bass lines were dominant at that time," Gourrier said in 1999. "So I had this bass line in mind for months. And then we were in Fort Lauderdale out on the beach and all these girls were starting to wear these big glasses. You really couldn't tell what they looked like." The impact of 'Judy In Disguise' hit Gourrier as he was listening to his car radio during a drive home to Baton Rouge from Hammond. "I'll never forget riding down the highway," he said. "I heard a guy from WNOE in New Orleans say, 'Right now, ladies and gentlemen, this is a Louisiana band, John Fred and the Playboys, with the # 1 record in America.' Man, that just put chills through my spine, to know that, hey, man, you up there."

'Judy In Disguise' took Fred and the Playboys around the world. "We were in Germany," Gourrier recalled. "The people could not speak one word of English. We go up on stage and sing 'Judy in Disguise,' they sing right with me in English. It was amazing. It showed me what music can do. Here I am in Hamburg, Germany, and it's like I was playing right here in Baton Rouge. It's something about the music. It's just incredible."

'Judy in Disguise', used again and again in movies, TV shows and commercials, continued generating substantial royalties years after it was a hit. Gourrier, however, wasn't necessarily receiving those royalties. After years of legal struggles, he only recently obtained full rights to the song. "I had some lean years," he said. "Until you get an attorney and CPAs to go in there, you're never gonna get your money. But I kind of knew where to look."

Gourrier's "Roots of Rock 'n' Roll" radio show, WBRH-FM program director Rob Payer said, drew many thousands of loyal listeners every Saturday. "Every week it grew and grew," Payer said. "The thing about John Fred, what people liked so much about him, is they felt like he was a friend, even if they didn't know him personally. And playing those old records, that was something he really enjoyed, and people could tell he enjoyed doing it."

"I've always been into the music," Gourrier said in 2002. "I can get real emotional on some songs. Like 'For Your Precious Love,' by Jerry Butler, every time I hear that song, something hits me. It's other songs, too. Little Willie John and Chuck Willis and those type of artists, you don't hear their songs on the radio anymore, but they were so instrumental in my life and other people's lives."

Fred is survived by his wife, Sandra, and one son.

John Wirt - The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

John Fred Gourrier, singer, songwriter and musician: born May 8th, 1941 - died April 15th, 2005.