Photos by Romney Caruso & Dina Regine
It’s late afternoon on a cold, rainy day when I meet Johnny Angel. We’re at The Rooster Club, where he works as a barber. My clothes are soaked through, so the receptionist has brought towels and Johnny is bringing me two essentials. In one hand he has a hairdryer. In the other, a glass with a huge pour of Buffalo Trace. It’ll be a great interview, I can already tell.
He’s having a whiskey too. He’s just covered a shift for another barber but is very much dressed like a musician: Dark denim jacket. Dark jeans. White boots, red accents. A matching red bandana in one pocket. His hairstyle is a pompadour and, what he explains to me, is a ducktail—the hairs on the back of your head glide to a symmetrical middle seam, like a duck’s rear.
He first came to New Orleans about 20 years ago. The draw was a heavy schedule of shows, full-time work as a musician, and, unlike his hometown of New York, his music playing on the radio. “It was a no-brainer.”
Back then, Johnny was doing big band, bandstand shows at places like The Red Room (now Eiffel Society) and Rock’n’Bowl (the original, pre-Katrina location).
Hurricane Katrina changed the finances of the live music scene. Before, musicians were paid a lot more. Upon returning to a less-busy city, venues wouldn’t pay bands a cut of liquor sales or more than 20 percent of the cover. Instead, bands started circulating tip jars more. Now 11 years later, most venues haven’t changed the pay scale. “Lots of great musicians are bad businessmen,” he explains. “They don’t negotiate.”
Johnny is a lead singer, songwriter, guitarist. “Master of martinis, teller of bad jokes.”
But his music has changed too. One of his bands, Johnny Angel & The Swingin’ Demons, is closer to his longtime swing and jazz sound. His other, Johnny Angel & Helldorado, started as rockabilly but evolved into country and western with a little swing. “I’ve finally become the cowboy I always wanted to be as a kid.”
He refills our glasses and shares how he loves venues that treat their musicians well (like the “new” Rock’n’Bowl) and the mom-and-pop store, Louisiana Music Factory, that carries his albums. “No free music,” he says. Digital download isn’t his style, too easily reproduced and no guarantee that his label and distributors get their fair cut. “You can order my stuff online, but only through them.”
As for haircutting, Johnny started in NYC in the 80s, among plenty of avant-garde celebrities like Catherine Deneuve. “She’d give you a big ol’ French kiss on each cheek.” Robert DeNiro. Madonna.
I pause him to ask what Madonna was like.
“She was a girl,” he laughs. “A girl at the clubs, who wanted to sing.”
The difference between New York and New Orleans, he says, is that New Orleans deeply appreciates what it has, “whether it’s homegrown or what comes here and never leaves.” The exposure for a musician is different down here. TV. Radio. Magazines. (Ha!) Much more accessible.
“But beyond the food, architecture, even the music…” He pauses to make sure I’m listening. “People make this city what it is.”
Couldn’t agree more.
“Who else on a cold February day is parading?!”
He pours us more drinks.
As a musician and free spirit, Johnny’s been to California, Nashville, most of Route 66—“like the Stones’ song,” Brazil. Certainly many other places as well, but those are the ones that come up in conversation. Only one is home though. “I love where I am. If the music takes me somewhere else, I’ll always have New Orleans.”
We return to shop talk. Hot towels and straight razors leave no room for error. “You have to be on your game to shave a beard.” Johnny prefers doing men’s grooming to women’s. He finds it more detailed. “I’m a Virgo. It has to be perfect.”
I ask which three people’s hair, living or dead, would Johnny most want to cut.
“Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe … and I was gonna say Frank Sinatra, but he wore a toupee.”
We’ve been talking for a while, three glasses of Trace deep each. The staff’s cleaning up. The shop’s ready to close. I only have one more question for Johnny: Does he believe in Santa Claus?
“I do,” he says with a smile.
The Rooster Club is at 925 Common St. Johnny Angel & Helldorado’s new record Crawfish and Country will be out in time for Christmas.