Saturday, January 06, 2007

the duchess of dixieland

tuesday, january 2nd started cloudy, cold and dismal, with a hint of rain in the air. by noon the clouds broke and revealed a beautiful sky. it turned into an unusually glorious day for a funeral. it was the day we laid my mom to rest.

the duchess of dixieland was buried at greenwood cemetary in new orleans amongst all the trappings of a traditional jazz funeral. she was laid into the spot of earth where all the other members of the dukes of dixieland who had passed before her lay, as is the way it is done in the easy. family always ends up with family here, even in the family plot. the names on the headstone are a litany of the players in one of the most influencial musical families in jazz history. as of that day the circle is complete.

elizabeth ann owens would have been 73 this march 22nd. she was always known as betty and had the fullest, most amazing life that anyone could. her father was an engineer who had help design and build the spillways and her mother was a homemaker who doted on her four daughters. betty was born in baton rouge but the family soon moved to uptown new orleans where they would remain. it was apparent early on that betty was something special. she was singing professionally by the age of 13 in a hillbilly band
and appeared often on a local radio show, even garnering her own fan club.

but her real insipiration was billie holliday and by 1949 she was belting out jazz tunes as lead singer of the up and coming dukes of dixieland. the dukes were led by brothers frank and freddie assunto and were one of the hottest young jazz bands in the city. the band worked hard and played often, becoming a national success by the early 50's. in march of 1955 betty and freddie were married. soon after the whole band moved to a still young las vegas, nevada to play an extended engagement at the new thunderbird hotel. they called vegas home from then on, while conquering the world playing their infectious brand of new orleans dixieland jazz.

betty had quit singing for the band on a regular basis soon after the move but continued to travel the one niters around the country. dragging two kids along in a station wagon full of drums and gear was home for her until freddie died in 1966 of cancer. she hung on in vegas for three years before moving her and her three kids back to the new orleans suburb of metairie. on numerous occasions she would go to pete fountain's club where he would always ask betty to come up and do a few numbers. to see the faces of that meek couple from nebraska when she belted out 'a hard man is good to find' was worth the price of admission.

her voice was always in demand with many bands during the 70's. murphy campo and connie jones often tried to entice her back on stage for good. but i think her heart was just not in it since my father died. she didn't want to have to do it, just whenever she felt like it.

she loved metry and that is where she lived for 31 years with all her family and friends until experiencing a major heart attack at a family thanksgiving gathering in 2000 (of course, she had to go out in front of a crowd). she spent the last six years disabled at trinity care in slidell. she passed away the day after christmas surrounded by her children.

but it is all that hasn't been said above that made her an amazing person. she raised three kids, alone. two beautiful, smart daughters, and me. and i was a handful. she was also mom to everyone of our friends, feeding and caring for any straggler we happened to drag home, making them feel as tho they were always part of the family.

although mom had quit singing professionally, she would belt out a song at the drop of a hat, or as she would love to say, 'i do 15 minutes everytime the refridgerator door opens'... and she did. she loved throwing parties where everybody was singing old favorites. and she was singing the loudest. she was always the center of attention at any gathering, the focal spot where most people gravitate because something interesting is happening. and with betty it usually was.

in the few years before becoming ill she would get up in front of the large group of friends and relatives eating the annual thanksgiving dinner at cafe degas and sing a couple of songs with the tony green trio. her eyes would light up and she would break out that infectious smile and proceed to sound like an angel from up on high. well, maybe an angel with a gravely gin soaked-voice singin' 'a hard man is good to find', but still an angel. and everyone there knew it was something special. and it was.

warm and giving, yet betty didn't suffer fools lightly. she was sharp of wit and tongue and not afraid of using either whenever she felt like it. outspoken and outlandish. she sure was the major influence on my outlook on life, her open spirit, her love of life and living it to the fullest, and loudest. it seems most people have their own story about her, or some memory of something wild she had done, i hear them still, and quite a few not fit for print i may add. yeah, she was something else and gonna really be missed by many, many people.

well, i could go on and on, but i wanna pass along some of the stuff she did...

my blue heaven

neon love

neon love (at home in '75)

darkness on the delta (banned)

i also want to thank everyone involved with all the great things that were said and done for the family that day. we will never forget the love that was shown... and shared.

i love and miss you mom!