Gérard “Bo Jr.” Dollis has spent much of his life as an understudy for his father, Bo Dollis, the late great singer of the Wild Magnolias. Young Dollis watched and learned that his father had the dual role of leading the electric funk group Wild Magnolias and the Indian Mardi Gras tribe of the same name.
Gerard also learned from other personalities in the New Orleans music community: Cyril Neville, Rockin ‘Dopsie Jr., the late blues singer Marva Wright.
And now he’s finally ready to introduce himself as his own man, albeit with a household name.
He has just released a double album with the revealing title: “My Name Is Bo”. Produced by Cyril Neville, himself a powerful singer and percussionist, “My Name Is Bo” aims to establish Gerard as a fully trained and diverse artist.
To this end, the album is divided into two distinct halves. A record is made in the traditional Indian style of Mardi Gras, with vocals and few instruments other than tambourine and acoustic percussion.
The second half, more contemporary, fully amplified, presents a variety of styles, both from New Orleans and elsewhere: funk, R&B, zydeco, even reggae.
On Saturday, Dollis plans to chair an album release concert at Tipitina. The structure of the show will mirror that of the album. He will wear a feathered Indian Mardi Gras costume for the first series of traditional songs and percussion. He’ll then change into civilian clothes for the night’s second electrified funk set and more. Rockin ‘Dopsie Jr., “Big” trombonist Sam Williams and Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli are all expected to sit.
Show time is 9 p.m. Tickets are $ 15 upfront, $ 18 on the day of the show. Tipitina’s requires proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results from the previous 72 hours for admission. And, according to city and state regulations, masks are mandatory indoors when you’re not actively eating or drinking.
All members of the Wild Magnolias have been vaccinated in preparation for a planned tour of Spain later this month, which was ultimately canceled due to rising rates of COVID-19 infection.
Given the wave of delta variants, Dollis is in favor of Tipitina’s admissions policy.
“I feel a little better with them doing this,” he said. “I’m a little nervous and a little excited at the same time (about playing a show). There is a showdown going on.
He was a boy when he first joined his father on stage. With his glorious and powerful vocals, Theodore “Bo” Dollis and his colleague Big Chief Monk Boudreaux joined forces in the early 1970s to graft traditional vocals and rhythms to electric funk grooves and strident guitar solos. The Wild Magnolias’ eponymous debut album in 1974 and its follow-up, “They Call Us Wild”, are classics of New Orleans canon.
The senior Bo has led the Wild Magnolias, both the group and the tribe, for over 30 years. Along the way, he introduced Gérard to the family business. In a highly publicized performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Bo pulled Gerard – barely 8 at the time – on stage without warning, and punched a microphone in his face. The boy, dressed in a neon green T-shirt matching the neon green feathers of his father’s Indian costume, did not miss a beat.
The following year, for the first time, Gerard “masked Indian” – he stepped out in ceremonial costume with the Wild Magnolias tribe on Mardi Gras morning. He soon traveled with the Wild Magnolias group to Japan, France and other distant destinations while still in college. He would bring his passport to class to prove to his teachers that his stories were true.
In the years following Hurricane Katrina, as Elder Bo’s health steadily declined, Gerard took on the responsibility of leading the Wild Magnolias. He modeled his singing style, as well as his high octane performance, after his father’s.
Under Gérard’s leadership, the Wild Magnolias have honored the traditions established by his father. The band’s Mardi Gras Indian funk classics – “Smoke My Peace Pipe”, “New Suit”, “Party”, “Handa Wanda” – were always a part of every show.
But a cover of the psychedelic and soulful smash of the Temptations “Papa Was a Rollin ‘Stone” often prefaced “Smoke My Peace Pipe”. New original compositions have also appeared in the sets, with influences ranging from reggae to blues to hip-hop.
Bo Dollis died at age 71 in January 2015, a few weeks before Mardi Gras. At first, Gérard did not know if he should continue. Ultimately, he decided to carry on the family legacy.
At first, he mostly followed the path traced by his father. The Wild Magnolias’ 2013 album “A New Kind of Funk”, the first with Gerard as the conductor, was essentially a tribute to senior Dollis. It contained traditional Indian songs as well as songs that Bo Sr. loved.
But for the new “My Name is Bo”, Gerard was determined to forge his own path. “I had enough songs of my own, without trying to duplicate anyone or sing old things.”
He contacted Cyril Neville to help guide him.
“Cyril was one of the people I grew up with. He’s one of the people I’ve seen grow through everything: Indian music, R&B, funk, soul – something that I try to do as well.
He was initially nervous about approaching Neville, then relieved when Neville immediately agreed to produce the album and co-write material. “He was all excited,” Dollis said. “That night he was sending me songs.
Neville emailed music files to Dollis; Dollis emailed the lyrics to Neville. They then match the music with the appropriate lyrics and put the arrangements together. The fact that they were on the same page became clear when they realized that they had each independently written a song called “Indian Blues”.
Dollis initially thought that a set of lyrics he had written titled “What About Us” should be paired with a rock / funk groove. But Neville suggested something else: reggae.
Dollis was skeptical of his ability to be successful. “But Cyril made me feel comfortable enough to sing reggae, blues and even zydeco.”
In the future, Dollis hopes to honor her father’s legacy while forging his own.
“I try to take my own steps, not just cover hers. A lot of people were still looking for my father. The transition was difficult. But now it’s here.