Arranger, composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and teacher from New Orleans, Louisiana, who attended Gilbert Academy and matriculated to Dillard University, where he received a Bachelor of Science in music.
His inaugural success was no small feat: He arranged and helped co-write “You Send Me”, which was a huge crossover hit for gospel sensation, Sam Cooke. He also played the piano on “A Change is Gonna Come”.
Harold got a taste of the administrative side of the music biz when Art Rupe hired him to be the Artist and Repertory point man for Specialty. It was a bitter taste, however, and after seeing what was what—namely that corporate big-wigs were making all the money and the musicians were getting peanuts—he started up AFO Records, the first black label in the South and the first to be co-owned by its artists. It was a success out of the gates with “I Know”, which was a gold record for Barbara George, “She Put the Hurt on Me” by Prince La La, and the Battiste-produced “Ya Ya”, which put Lee Dorsey on the musical radar.
In spite of these early coups, AFO was a short-lived enterprise and Harold soon found himself looking for work on the west coast. It was here he hooked up with Sonny and Cher and became their arranger, co-producer and music director. In fact, he was integral to some of their biggest hits, including “The Beat Goes On” and “I Got You Babe”.
He also helped create the entity known as Dr. John, which was a much catchier name than Mac Rebennack, and produced his first three albums: Babylon, Gris Gris and Gumbo.
In 1976, he was the musical director of The Sonny & Cher Show, a position he held for about a year, and then worked in the same capacity on Billy Davis’s and Marilyn McCoo’s road show.
Ellis Marsalis, who recorded his first album on the old AFO label, beseeched Harold to come to the University of New Orleans in 1989 to help fashion their jazz studies program. Ellis and Harold are both credited with the development of modern New Orleans jazz.
A testament to Harold’s reputation in the music world, he received a trophy case full of awards, which began raining down on him in the 1990s. Some of these include the Beau Arts Award, the Louisiana Jazz Federation’s Jazz Town Award, and the Winner’s Circle Eye on Music Award. In 1996, he was inducted into Phi Kappa Phi. New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial also proclaimed Harold’s birthday as Harold Battiste Day. He also has his own plaque on the Napoleon Avenue Walk of Fame.
Eventually, he resurrected AFO Records and in 2003, released Harold Battiste Presents Next Generation, featuring a collection of jazz phenoms, including Neil Caine, Derrick Douget, Nicholas Payton, and Brice Winston.
In the late 2000s, a pair of tribute concerts were presented in his honour: One was organized by his place of worship, the Christian Unity Baptist Church; The other was produced by Edward Anderson, a former student of Harold’s, at Tulane University, on 21st March 2009.
Harold officially retired as a professor, but continued to be an educational force in the world of music. He had six gold records to his credit and more importantly, he had the respect of his students and peers.
A musical jack-of-all-trades, seemingly the master of all of them, Harold Battiste, Jr. inspired several generations of musicians to better themselves and was an historic figure in the recording industry, achieving unprecedented milestones while at the same time preserving the music that came before him. His accomplishments in the music business paved the way for others to enjoy similar success.
After his health had started to decline he passed away on 19th June 2015 aged 83 years old.
Sonny & Cher recordings
Podunk (Sonny Bono)
Here’s Sonny & Cher performing “The Beat Goes On”…