Gary Edwards, a prominent businessman in the New Orleans music industry whose Sound of New Orleans label recorded many regional bands and musicians, died on September 22 after a short illness, at home on Music Street in New Orleans with his wife Jennifer. He was 79.
Born on November 28, 1941, Gary wore many hats during his 50-plus years in the New Orleans music business. In 2015 he received the Lifetime Achievement in Music Business Award at OffBeat‘s 2014 Best of The Beat Awards ceremony.
Gary grew up in rural Lee's Landing, east of Ponchatoula, Louisiana. His parents Zilphia Raiford Edwards and Shelby Edwards owned and operated Edgewood Grocery, a laboratory for Gary’s later entrepreneurship. Throughout his youth he worked daily at the business where raconteurs, rascals and relatives abounded. He was surrounded by many cousins, aunts and uncles. The bookmobile arrived at the store regularly with books chosen for Gary by his beloved “bookmobile ladies,” who helped educate him. It was at the store and amid this large family that he learned many life lessons, humor and the art of storytelling.
Gary graduated from St. Paul’s School in Covington in 1959. He had an abiding affection for his school, his classmates, and the Christian Brothers who taught him. As a teenager, he played the guitar and bass in several local R&B and rock ‘n’ roll bands. Enrolling in Southeastern Louisiana University after high school, Gary managed Cave Tangi in Hammond. One act he booked early on was a young man named Mack Rebennack, later Dr. John.
After college, Gary taught high school chemistry and math in Houma, Slidell and New Orleans. All the time, he was playing music, although he didn’t believe his own musical skills measured up to New Orleans’ great musicians. He decided instead to try to make a living in his passion, the music business.
Gary got a job working in a music instrument shop and eventually owned the business. Through the shop, he nurtured a relationship with his primary influence, pianist and composer Ellis Marsalis. In 1970 Gary approached Quint Davis as a sound system expert, and eventually managed the sound for four stages at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. There Gary met Sherman Washington, leader of the Zion Harmonizers and another major influence. Gary started his own record label, Sound of New Orleans, to record the Zion Harmonizers, whose sound he loved for its honesty. A favorite at European music festivals, Washington also introduced Gary to several European festival promotors, contacts that he maintained for decades.
During the 1980s Gary’s rental and retail sound equipment business grew to be one of the largest in the South, supplying sound for the likes of Chuck Berry and James Brown. He also opened the largest record store in St. Bernard Parish, Is Music, nurturing many aspiring young musicians and giving advice. While operating Is Music, Gary continued to expand his interest in the recording studio. Studio work led Gary to his third major influence, Cosimo Matassa, famous for his rhythm and blues recordings in the 1950s of Fats Domino and Little Richard, among others. Gary adopted Cos’ hands-off production style for his own label’s recordings.
Another great source of pride throughout his life was his work with the Blue Room at the then-Fairmont Hotel in the 1980s, where he produced musical shows for the world’s best performers.
A major fire in 1988 destroyed Gary’s Mid-City building and all contents. Gary eventually moved to St. Louis and didn’t return to New Orleans until 1992. While in St. Louis, he almost single-handedly started the St. Louis Blues Festival. Upon his return to New Orleans, Gary rebuilt his recording studio. He recorded the Treme Brass Band and Algiers High Steppers, among others, facilitating the 1990s growth of New Orleans brass band music globally.
By the beginning of the millennium, Gary had amassed a large catalog of New Orleans music. Then came Katrina and the resulting flood of his studio building and all his equipment and instruments, another devastating loss. Gary and Jennifer met in June 2004 and were scheduled to get married on September 24, 2005, at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans. Instead, they got married in a generous friend’s back yard in Katy, Texas on September 10, 2005. They remained in Houston until 2008.
Throughout this period, Gary continued his established work with booking musicians for European jazz festivals. Local musicians who stated that they would never have gone to Europe without Gary number in the hundreds. They include Oscar Washington of the New Wave Brass Band, who said, “One of the best in the business. Brought me to places I would never have gone.” Gary worked for over 25 years with Umbria Jazz Festival, until Covid. He is mourned by many Italian friends. With Umbria Jazz, he also traveled to festivals it produced in Melbourne, Australia in 2006 and China in 2016 and 2018. He was fascinated by China.
Frémaux and Associates, a French record company, issued two compilations of Gary’s recordings on its label in the 2010s. Patrick Frémaux said, “He was a long-time business partner, but most of all, a major promoter of New Orleans’ heartbeat, music and cultural legacy. He will be missed.”
Gary’s hobbies included constant tinkering with his vintage Mercedes cars, working in his workshop on any projects he could dream up, and tending his garden. His family had raised strawberries when he was young, and he never abandoned his interest in growing plants. He and Jennifer travelled together in Italy over the last sixteen years and enjoyed Italian food and wine there and at home. They loved taking local trips to Ocean Springs, Mississippi and spent Mardi Gras 2020, pre-Covid, at Grand Isle. He touched many lives in positive ways, always had a smile on his face, and never said anything bad about anyone. Gary was essential to the city's music, as an instrument store owner, producer, promoter, studio owner and record man.
Gary is survived by his wife, Jennifer, his daughter Amanda Edwards of Chicago, Illinois, his brothers Mark Edwards (Carol) of Ponchatoula and Barry Edwards (Sherry) of Destrehan, and his sister Noreen Edwards Metz (Mark) of Evanston, Illinois, and nephews, nieces, and grand-nephews and grand-nieces. The family thanks Gary’s long-time friend, John Paul, who supported Jennifer and Gary throughout the last year as his health was failing. The internal medicine team and nursing staff at Tulane Medical Center, including Dr. Joshua Huddleston, Dr. Kaylor Wright, and Dr. Jacob Khoury, were invaluable throughout his last illness. As always, Gary attracted musicians no matter what the situation, and predictably, Dr. Wright is a violinist and Dr. Khoury a jazz guitarist. Many thanks to them and to Passages Hospice.
Relatives and friends are invited to attend the memorial gathering at Greenwood Funeral Home, 5200 Canal Blvd, New Orleans, on Saturday, October 23, 2021, starting at 1:00 PM, followed by a celebration of life service in the chapel at 3:00 PM. A private family ceremony following at the family cemetery in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. In lieu of flowers, please consider memorial donations to the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic and Assistance Foundation. Due to COVID 19 regulations, please follow the current restrictions and everyone attending is required to wear a mask and adhere to social distancing. The family invites you to share your thoughts, fond memories, and condolences online, at www.greenwoodfh.com
Photo taken by: Elsa Hahne/Offbeat Magazine
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