On Tuesday, America eulogized a former president. Also on Tuesday, New Orleans buried a Duchess.
I took my Darling Wife and Precious Daughter to the funeral home to pay our respects to Betty Owens Assunto, the last member of the Dukes of Dixieland, who passed away on December 26, 2006. It was a large and friendly gathering of family, friends and colleagues of the music business.
The Dukes were a raucous jazz ensemble that conquered Bourbon Street and then rocketed to national fame in the 1950's. They sold more than a million records and toured almost non-stop well into the 60's.
Already a popular singer at age 15, Betty Owens joined the Dukes of Dixieland in 1949 and was quickly nicknamed "Duchess." She later married trombone-player Freddie Assunto at Mater Dolorosa Church on Carrollton Avenue with Pete Fountain as one of the groomsmen. The Dukes were a genuine family band which included brothers Frank and Freddie, their father, Papa Jac, and of course, Betty.
Since modern music is dominated by rock and rap, most people under the age of 50 don't know much about Jazz and Dixieland other than Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World." But before Les Paul and Leo Fender electrified the guitar, loud horn players ruled the music world. Before rock'n'roll captured the spirit of restless youth, Jazz released the tormented souls of generations. And before rap was assailed as the bad-boy of music, Dixieland was the music of choice for those looking to party.
And the Dukes of Dixieland ruled the genre. To underscore this point, here are just a few of their achievements as recorded on the Dukes' official web page:
* The Dukes headlined in Las Vegas for 64 weeks starting in 1956, then went to Chicago for 16 more weeks of popular shows.
* By 1959, they had recorded 9 albums with combined worldwide sales of over 1 million.
* The Dukes appeared on the Ed Sullivan show 3 times in 1959.
* They appeared on national television numerous times during the 50's and 60's, including: Timex Jazz Hour, the Pat Boone Show, Bell Telephone Hour, Jimmy Rogers Show, Kate Smith TV program, The Tonight Show, Mike Douglas, the Jimmy Dean Show, The Edie Adams Show, Steve Allen, and the Dean Martin Show.
* They performed at Carnegie Hall to a sellout crowd.
* The Dukes had two albums reach the top ten of Billboard’s Pop Albums chart, first in 1958 and again in 1962.
* Walt Disney brought the Dukes to Disneyland in 1962 as part of the annual "Dixieland in Disneyland" concerts. The live recording of their show became a popular album, available today on CD.
Although the arrival of rock'n'roll probably put a dent in their record sales, the reputation of the Dukes of Dixieland as a wild live act kept them in popular demand in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York well into the 1960's. The band didn't slow down until the untimely death of Freddie Assunto in 1966. Brother Frank followed in 1974, and Papa Jac passed away in 1985.
After the death of her husband, the Duchess all but left music for good as she raised her three children in New Orleans. But thanks to their many recordings, we can still enjoy the joyful noises of the Dukes of Dixieland and the sweet tones of Betty Assunto on dozens of vinyl records and a few CDs.
Unfortunately there is an entirely different group of musicians currently performing and recording under the Dukes of Dixieland name. The Assunto family is trying to put a stop to it, but it's been a long legal mess. I encourage anyone shopping for authentic Dukes music to look for the names of the real Dukes--the Assunto family of Freddie, Frank, Papa Jac, and Betty--before making any purchases.
Betty left behind two sisters, three children, three grandchildren, and countless friends and fans around the world.