New Orleans R&B Legend Benny Spellman Passes Away

Fortune Teller: Golden ClassicsOne of the enduring legends of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, Benny Spellman, passed away on Friday from respiratory failure at the age of 79.

Spellman ended up moving from Florida to New Orleans when Huey "Piano" Smith wrecked his truck and Benny offered to drive him and his band, the Clowns, back to the Big Easy. He ended up joining the band and becoming popular as a studio musician in the area, working regularly with Allen Toussaint.

It was Allen Toussaint who made the decision to use Spellman's deep baritone to sing the title line on Ernie K-Doe's 1961 hit Mother-in-Law. While not his own song, it may be the record with which the general public best knows Spellman's voice.

His own singing career peeked, chart-wise, the next year with the release of the double-sided hit Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette) and Fortune Teller, both of which were written by Toussaint. The former went to number 28 on the R&B and 80 on the Singles chart, being recorded in the 70's by the O'Jays, while the latter went on to be covered by the Rolling Stones.

Spellman recorded through most of the decade both as a solo artist for a number of labels and as a studio vocalist. For the 70's and much of the 80's, Benny became a local beer salesman in his hometown before being pulled back into the music scene in 1988 when his picture was included on a poster of New Orleans music greats. The new exposure led to his performance for George H.W. Bush during the Republican National Convention and a reissue of his music by Collectibles Records.

For a short time, Spellman became active around the city music scene singing regularly at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and other venues. A stroke in the late-90's ended his singing and he retired to Pensacola, FL.

Spellman has been immortalized at Tipitina's Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

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