New Orleans Classic Soul Grooves

Introduction to Second-Line

The city of New Orleans also known as NOLA, birthed some of the finest early soul and R&B grooves. Below are five of my favorite ones and one additional honorary mention from Ray Charles. Please enjoy these grooves including original and early Youtube links of the songs performed by the original artists. At the end of this post, I have included a written transcription of these and several other powerful soul and R&B grooves as well as drum loops of each of these grooves recorded at the Drum Loop Lab! Also, stay tuned for more posts discussing the other R&B grooves transcribed on the pdf.

New Orleans music is loose, gritty, and employs off-beat syncopation. The term “Second-Line” is used often to describe the origin of many of the rhythms that come from New Orleans. This term refers to the funeral march rhythms that have been played by one or more snare and bass drummers in the New Orleans brass bands during the traditional jazz funerals for musicians and respected members of the community. Stanton Moore (as well as many others) has written a lot about these rhythms in his book Take it to the Street (Moore, 2005). A list of resources is listed below to understand these rhythms further. Needless to say, many of the rhythms coming out of New Orleans regardless of style were influenced by these second-line grooves also known as street-beats.

Because these early R&B grooves played by New Orleans native drummers like Earl Palmer and Zigaboo Modeliste were inspired from second-line grooves, much of the interplay is between the snare and bass drum. Often these two parts chase or echo each playing off of latin clave rhythms and the traditional jazz two-beat. Many time the 4th beat of the second bar is emphasized with what Herlin Riley (1998) and others have referred to as the “Big Four” (Doleac, 2013). This is clear below in the grooves for “Lady Marmalade”, “Working in a Coal Mine”, “Cissy Strut”, and “Tipitina”.

Another characteristic that is notable in New Orleans grooves is the emphasis on the eighth note rhythms which are half straight and half swung which Johnny Vidacovich describes as “playing in the cracks” (Crescent Cymbals, 2013). These beats should be explored with this very loose feel in mind. Take time to to listen carefully for this feel as you approach these grooves. You can find out more about this in the publication New Orleans Jazz and Second-line Drumming (Riley, Vidacovich, and Thress, 2006).

The Originals

The first groove comes from the 1974 LaBelle song “Lady Marmalade”. The chorus and verse sections of the song have a two bar groove originally played by the drummer Herman Ernest who played with both the Neville Brothers and Dr. John among many others and is considered one of the great New Orleans funk drummers from the 1970s and 80s. This song has 3:2 clave rhythm where the snare drum rhythm plays on beats 2 and 3 of the second bar and the bass drum and hi-hat dance around the 4th beat. Notice the different variations that Ernest adds bass in the second bar. I have noted this in the written example by placing one of the bass notes in parentheses in the pdf below. This clave groove makes this song unique and contributed a lot of the funkiness to this track’s feel.

Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine” recorded in 1966 is a great example of the “playing in cracks” and the”big four” concepts described above. It has a half swung two beat feel that displaces the snare and adds interesting cymbal accents in the second bar which highlight the 3rd and 4th beat and add a breath to the beat. The drummer Albert “June” Gardner was both an R&B and jazz session player who worked with acclaimed producer Allen Toussaint and legendary singer and label owner Sam Cooke.

“Cissy Strut” released on the debut album by The Meters in 1969 is a New Orleans funk classic. Zigaboo Modeleste‘s groove is quirky with broken hi=hat pattern, syncopated bass and snare rhythms, and cymbal accents on the big four, similar to “Working in a Coal Mine”. During the bridge, Zigaboo plays a more traditional second-line groove on the snare drum again accenting the big four with cymbal and bass drum accents. This groove is loose and free and has a lot of variation. There is only one pattern written in the pdf, but drummers should study the feel from the original recording below as well as many of the variations played by other drummers like Dennis Chambers and Johnny Vidacovich who have covered this song over the years.

Earl King’s “Trick Bag” was recorded in 1962 and features a snare drum centric second-line inspired groove played by the legendary jazz drummer Bob French who was both an influential drummer and band leader as well as a DJ on the famous New Orleans radio station WWOZ. This song exemplifies how economically many New Orleans drummers played often playing ride patterns on the snare or the rim of a drum in lieu of not having or not using the cymbals. James Black, John Boudreaux, Smokey Johnson, and Earl Palmer, were contemporaries of French who also played with a similar style.

“Tipitina”, recorded in 1953, is not a song that a lot of folks outside of New Orleans know about, but to those who have spent any amount of time in the city, this song is considered part of the essential standard repertoire. It is also the name of one of the premier music venues in NOLA. One of the first and only national hits by Professor Longhair, who is arguably one of the most influential piano players from New Orleans ever, this song exemplifies the “rhumba piano” style (Doleac, 2013) that influenced almost every New Orleans piano player who has followed including: James Booker, Dr. John, Art Neville, Harry Connick, Jr., Henry Butler, Jon Cleary, and Jonathan Batiste, just to name a few. Longhair played the piano almost like a drum at times and the drum pattern played by Earl Palmer on this recording mirrors the piano. Palmer plays the song in a traditional second-line style crafting the groove primarily on the snare and bass drum with a supporting hi-hat foot pattern on 2 & 4. Earl is one of the most recorded drummers of all time and can be heard on many hit songs, jazz recordings, and film soundtracks. This song is one his first recordings of note and is a prime example of the second-line style.

The classic Ray Charles songs “What’d I Say Pts. 1 & 2” is not a New Orleans groove per say, but illustrates the vast influence the latin tinge and “piano rhumba” style played by Professor Longhair had on his R&B contemporaries of the 1950’s. It is not surprising that this song is commonly covered by musicians in NOLA to this day. Jazz drummer Milt Turner plays a rhumba beat with a muted snare (snare turned off) where he alternates between rhythm using the ride bell, rim, and toms throughout the main sections of the song and a hand muted conga-style rhumba during the breakdown section. The rhythms have slight variations but generally follow the written example below. Drummers should keep this rhythm loose and feel free to add some embellishment especially during the breakdown sections.

Unfortunately, the scope of this blog is not extensive enough to cover the vast catalog of New Orleans grooves. I hope to add later posts to cover some of the other New Orleans drumming styles in later posts. I hope these examples, links, and resources attached to this post will give those interested in further research a great start. Good luck and enjoy the loops and transcriptions below!

Loops and Lessons

A note on the transcriptions:

Funk and latin rhythms are often written in cut-time or 2/2 as opposed to 4/4 as it makes the rhythms look cleaner for many musicians. This can be a little confusing for some players who aren’t used to this convention. Even though the rhythms are broken up into two bars instead of one and can be counted in two instead of 4, this is purely arbitrary and every player should study the recordings first and foremost to understand the feel.

These grooves are full of nuance and should be played with a loose feel with some   variation. They can be tricky to write out because of the many variations that the drummers play with. Don’t try to just read the examples verbatim. Add variation that will make them comfortable for you. Make them your own. When I would hear drummers play “Tipitina” or “Cissy Strut” in New Orleans the groove would always be different and idiosyncratic to the player. This is as much a part of the evolving nature of New Orleans music which is constantly rooted strongly in tradition with each iteration adding a makeover to these classics. Current artists like Dumpstaphunk, Rebirth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, and Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, all cover many of these classics and breath new life into these classic tracks.

Soul and R&B grooves part 1Soul and R&B grooves part 1 – drum transcriptions

References and Links

Crescent Cymbals (Producer). (2013, October 30). Johnny Vidacovich: Secrets of second line drumming [Video file]. Retrieved July 22, 2018, from

Doleac, B. (2013). Strictly second line: Funk, jazz, and the New Orleans beat. Ethnomusicology Review, 18.

Moore, S. (2001). New Orleans Second Line Rhythms. Percussive Notes, (October), 28-31.

Moore, S. (2005). Take it to the street: A study in New Orleans street beats and second-line rhythms as applied to funk. New York: Carl Fischer.

Riley, H. (1998). Ragtime and beyond: Evolution of a style. Place of publication not identified: Warner Bros Pubns.

Riley, H., Vidacovich, J., & Thress, D. (2006). New Orleans jazz and second line drumming. Van Nuys, Calif: Alfred Publishing.

Spera, K. (2016, September 08). Easy Beat: New Orleans Drummers Roundtable. Retrieved July 22, 2018, from


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