Like an irritating rash that won’t go away, the raving lunatics of radio are now the tomfools of television.
May 8, 2002
The room looks like an electronics morgue. Cables are piled on shelves. A large desk sits in front of a wall draped with wires. On top of the desk is a compact disc player and a plastic owl. There are two folded metal chairs and an amplifier.
You can hear Muddy Waters whipping the crowd into a frenzy. He belts out a few guitar licks and sings, “Everything’s gonna be all right this morning. Oh yeah. Whew!” The drums and harmonica kick in and it’s in full gear.
The door to the set swings opens and Todd Ortego and Joe Burge (aka Dr. Feelgood) strut into the room, moving to the music. Ortego is a long, tall snap bean of a man in a T-shirt and overalls. Burge looks like a retired wrestler from the Mid-South circuit, thick all over and dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, a baseball cap and glasses. They shuffle up to the camera, Burge pops his false teeth out and they saunter back to the desk.
Muddy Waters is singing, “But now I’m a man, way past 21. You got to believe me woman. I have lots of fun. I’m a man. I spell M-A-N.”
They unfold the chairs. Ortego hooks the microphone clipped to Burge’s T-shirt into a cable and then slaps him on the back as if he’s sending him out onto the football field. He turns around and Burge hooks up his microphone. Ortego’s legs and arms are stretched out and he’s quivering, like James Brown waiting for his cape and his cold sweat towel. Burge lays his right hand on his forehead and gives him a quick push. Ortego is smiling and convulsing from the feeling the good doctor has laid on him.
When they sit down, Burge spreads his legs out and crosses them at the ankles. He folds his arms across his broad chest and leans back into his chair. Like Mister Rogers, Ortego kicks his shoes off, but he doesn’t put on a fresh pair of sneakers. He rubs the ball of his foot through a white athletic sock.
“Doc, my feet get hot,” Ortego says. “Your feet get hot?”
“Sometimes,” Burge says.
“See, I’m from Ville Platte. That’s why I wear the white socks.”
“The white socks keep you from getting the athlete’s feet, like whiskey keeps you from getting the worms.”
“Does that really work?” Ortego asks.
“It must,” Burge says. “I’ve never had the athlete’s feet or the worms.”
For better or for worse, The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show is back on the air.
‘Let’s Make It’
Tom Voinche Jr. is the host of KATC’s Good Morning Acadiana. He started KJJB 105.5 FM in Eunice in 1981 and ran the station until he sold it in 1993. In 1987, Voinche approached Ortego with the idea for a three-hour, Wednesday night radio program.
Ortego, a native of Ville Platte, began working for his brother-in-law, Floyd Soileau, at Floyd’s Record Shop at the age of 14. In 1978, fresh out of high school, he opened Music Machine, a record shop in Eunice. Today he sells cassettes, compact discs, beepers and sno-cones (weather permitting). He’s also a disc jockey for weddings, class reunions and other social functions in the area. Voinche wanted Ortego on his radio station.
“Creativity in radio and television comes from personality-driven shows,” Voinche says.
Ortego came up with the idea of a live radio program that featured oldies mixed in with Louisiana music for good measure. He called the program The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show, for its mix of swamp pop and rock ‘n’ roll classics.
“There was a nostalgia for that music at the time,” Ortego says, “and the only place you could hear it was on KVPI in Ville Platte.”
Burge and Ortego don’t agree on the details of how they met. Within a couple of weeks of the show first airing, Ortego claims that Burge called the radio station and said he liked the show. Ortego then invited him over to the station. Burge claims that he bought some commercials for his father’s grocery store, Gene’s Food Store in Basile. Either way, Burge went to KJJB one Wednesday night and returned every week after that. Voinche trained Burge to run the control board and eventually turned the show over to Burge and Ortego.
Burge is a native of Basile in “the sovereign state of Evangeline Parish.” In 1987, he was tired of working in the oilfields and started managing his father’s store. In 1990, after his father passed away, he bought the store from his mother. Ten years later, he closed the store that had been in his family for 56 years and took a job on the night shift as a slot attendant at the Grand Casino Coushatta in Kinder. He also writes a weekly column, titled Bustin’ Loose, which appears in The Eunice News, Ville Platte Gazette and The Basile Weekly.
The July 29, 1987, issue of The Eunice News declared that the “Swamp and Roll Show has caught on in a big way in Eunice.” Swamp ‘n’ Roll was on a roll, but Burge and Ortego wanted to play more zydeco music. They started a new show on Sunday afternoons on KBAZ, a country music station, called Front Porch Zydeco. When KBAZ was sold, they moved the program to Sunday afternoons on KJJB.
Voinche gave Burge and Ortego free reign over both radio shows.
“It wasn’t slick, but it was real,” he says. “I was real pleased with that. It was some of my prouder moments.”
‘Doing it to Death’
It’s Wednesday night, 7 p.m.
Dr. Feelgood starts the show with a disclaimer: “Warning: The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show contains adult language, nudity and subversive political commentary. Test results show that The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show may cause dizziness, enlargement of the prostate gland, constipation, hair loss and ringworm. Do not attempt to listen to The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show without first consulting your physician or your favorite TV evangelist.”
The Bar-Kays break into “Soul Finger.”
Swamp ‘n’ Roll was the Wednesday night, South Louisiana party. The show blended local music – including Cajun, swamp pop, New Orleans R&B and zydeco – with soulful, nationally known numbers by artists like James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. Every commercial was announced live with a wry sense of humor and there was always a host of characters cutting up in the background.
Everyone in Swamp ‘n’ Roll’s live studio audience had a nickname bestowed upon them by either Burge or Ortego. The Human Jack, Marvelous Malcolm, Miss Judy, The Sheriff, Big Corner, Jude, Tim de Lansmeg and Bird were all integral parts of the show.
Herman Fuselier, entertainment editor for The Daily Advertiser, was a sports writer at The Daily World in Opelousas when he first heard the show. He is also host of Bayou Boogie, a weekly half-hour Louisiana music TV program on KDCG and an hour long, South Louisiana music program of the same name on KRVS.
“There was always a party atmosphere surrounding it,” he says.
It sounded like a party because it was a party. It was common for someone to walk into the studio and leave the door open, letting the sounds of the traffic on West Laurel Avenue bleed onto the microphones and over the airwaves.
Sometimes the jokes Burge and Ortego cracked were taken seriously, like the time they offered a free Swamp ‘n’ Roll T-shirt to the first guy who could produce a nude photo of his spouse. Within 20 minutes they had a winner. A listener had taken a Polaroid of his nude girlfriend at home and driven to KJJB. She waited in the idling car as Burge and Ortego dug up a T-shirt.
About once a month, Big Corner would bring in his barbecue pit from Lawtell and cook up a feast of pork steaks, served with white bread and Jack Miller’s barbecue sauce.
“It’s something we can’t do at home,” Burge says. “Miss Gloria (his wife) and Miss Debbie (Ortego’s wife) stay on us about what we eat. But when we cook on the show, it’s our time to splurge. It’s kind of like when the Romans would get together and eat and drink.”
The 30-second live commercials were never scripted and Ortego says, “We’d have to work at it to do a commercial under 30 seconds. Our 60-second commercials average out to two and a half minutes.”
John R. Young Chevrolet in Eunice was a long-time sponsor of the show and Burge liked to encourage male listeners, especially “if you’re an ugly man, you need to go buy you a Camaro from John R. Young so you can get you a chick.” Of North State Street Conoco in Eunice, Burge would wrap up the commercial by reminding listeners that if they filled up with 10 gallons of gas or more, owner Gerald LeJeune would let them rub his bald head for good luck.
Voinche says the commercials on Swamp ‘n’ Roll hearkened back to the days when “radio was really in touch with its community. Time was treated completely different in those days. The idea then was to sell the product. You weren’t selling time, you were selling products and services.”
Burge says the approach worked and that “the people go and tell (the sponsors) that they hear this stuff. It might be a little unorthodox, but they hear it and that’s the name of the game. It’s like when your washing machine develops a new noise. After a while you don’t notice it. If you play the same commercial 30 times a month, it becomes part of the landscape and people don’t really hear it. When we do it – because we have no script – it’s different each time.”
The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show didn’t go unnoticed. There were articles about the show in The Basile Weekly, The Eunice News, The Daily Advertiser and The Daily World. By 2000, the show had been featured in Billboard and Rolling Stone and Burge and Ortego had been interviewed by VH-1. They were gaining new fans on the Internet and the show was making money. That’s when the bottom dropped out.
The station was sold to new owners. Ortego didn’t think they had anything to worry about. They had an established audience, good press to back them up and, more importantly, the show was making money.
In April 2000, Swamp ‘n’ Roll’s 13th anniversary show had already been planned. It was set for the first Wednesday in May. Big Corner would grill 100 hot dogs and give them away to the first 100 listeners who drove up to the station. On the last Tuesday in April 2000, the new management of the station called in Burge and Ortego, cancelled Front Porch Zydeco and gave them the option of doing Swamp ‘n’ Roll on KEUN 1050 AM, KJJB’s sister station.
“Basically, he wanted to send us to purgatory, to the AM,” Burge says. “We wanted the FM, on prime time. Our record stood for itself. We were a solid money-maker for 13 years. They wanted to move us from the major leagues to the minor leagues, and we wouldn’t compromise … A lot of people wanted to know why we didn’t go to the AM. We had set a standard for ourselves and we wanted to maintain it. There are too many times that Louisiana shows are put on the AM to die. We’re from here and we weren’t going to step down.”
Karl De Rouen is president and general manager of KEUN and KJJB in Eunice. In 2000, Roger Cavaness, of Cajun Communications in Pineville, bought half of the stock in both stations. De Rouen says that he didn’t want to pull Swamp ‘n’ Roll off the air, but that Burge and Ortego did not take him up on his offer to move the show to the AM dial. He says KJJB switched its format to a classic country music format and “the new management’s belief is that purity in your format is a necessity.” The new format left no room for the show and De Rouen says the station has doubled its listeners since then.
“Swamp ‘n’ Roll had a great cult following,” he says. “I didn’t like to make that decision, but it’s just one of those things you have to do. You have to look at the numbers first. I hated doing it, especially with Joe and Todd. They were buddies of mine.”
“It was okay with me,” Ortego says. “We weren’t going to compromise with someone else’s business decision, even though he had the right to make that decision. Now Joe, he was ready to fight. That’s Dr. Feelgood’s fishing. That’s what he does.”
Instead of saying farewell the following night on KEUN, which Ortego says, “could barely cover Eunice,” they walked down the street to KBON 101.1 FM. They sat in with Paul Marx, owner and general manager, on his Wednesday night program and thanked their listeners for 13 years.
Four months later, Burge and Ortego revived Front Porch Zydeco and brought it to KVPI 92.5 FM and 1050 AM in Ville Platte. It airs on Sunday afternoons from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m.
For two years, The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show went on a hiatus.
‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’
On a Wednesday evening, March 6, 2002, the TV version of The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show premiered on KDCG, channel 22 in Opelousas, and on its translator frequency, KLFT, channel 21 in Lafayette. The show airs on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. and is rebroadcast on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m.
General Manager Thom Daly thinks it’s safer for the show to be on television.
“They have a unique way of looking at things that’ll make you laugh. It’s hard to listen to them and drive at the same time,” he says.
Roddy Dye also had problems listening to the radio show while driving. He says he caught himself “sometimes pulling over on the side of the road and laughing to tears at the commercials.” Dye is the sales manager for KDCG.
For Dye, the radio show was a weekly event and he scheduled his Wednesday evenings so that he wouldn’t miss it. He even started taping it and sending the copies to his brother in Alabama.
“These guys are the essence of South Louisiana – great music and plenty of humor,” Dye says. “It all revolves around friends, family and having a good time. They keep Acadiana abreast of what’s new and remind them of what’s old.”
Liz Hernandez is Swamp ‘n’ Roll’s producer, a luxury the show went without for 13 years, and she remembers “just listening to them on the radio and laughing at them boys.”
Hernandez says that “at times they can make you a little nervous, but so far I’ve been able to maintain semi-control.” She says Burge and Ortego are catching on quickly to the nuances of a TV broadcast. She’s also getting a better feel for what they want to do. She wants some order to the show, but she doesn’t want to polish it.
“It can’t be perfect,” she says. “Then it wouldn’t be The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show. They have to have spontaneity. The soul of the show is their antics.”
Ortego says the show is “real loose. It makes it easy for people to relate to it. We don’t try to make people think that we’re something we’re not.”
“Me and Todd are ourselves,” Burge says. “Stop and think about it. A lot of personalities, somebody tells them what to say and what to wear and how to act. They have no part in the creative process. They’re basically a puppet. With The Swamp ‘n’ Roll Show, what you see is what you get. We’re honest.”
“It’s just a radio show on the TV,” Ortego says. “If you’re on the radio you can do four songs in a row. On television you have to have something to look at. If there was solid music, I don’t think it would be that interesting, not that we’re that interesting to look at.”
Burge and Ortego have faces made for radio. Instead of pearly, white teeth, Burge has a set of false teeth. Instead of flawless enunciation of a script and pointless banter, Burge speaks with a thick Cajun accent and Ortego has a loud, baritone voice. They don’t wait for each other to complete their sentences. They talk at the same time, trying to beat each other to the punch and to get in the next wisecrack. Instead of politely questioning their guests about an upcoming community event, they’re more likely to trade lies with Geno Delafose about his cows getting out of the pasture or listen to Lil’ Bob tell the story of trading his horse for his first drum set
The TV show is an hour long. There’s less music, but there’s more time to visit with guests about the music they like.
At times, the show borders on bawdy, not with outright vulgarity, but with innuendo subtle enough to slip past little pitchers with big ears. As an affiliate of the family-friendly PAX television network, KDCG promotes programming for the entire family.
Dye says Swamp ‘n’ Roll doesn’t go against KDCG’s mission. He says it’s a characteristic of South Louisiana’s paradoxical nature.
“We know what they’re talking about and every family in South Louisiana does that same thing around the crawfish boil or the barbecue,” he says. “Take a look at South Louisiana during Mardi Gras and then look at them during Lent. How do you explain that?”
Fuselier agrees. “I don’t know if it would work anywhere else except for South Louisiana. People in Minnesota probably won’t get it, but people in Mamou love every minute of it,” he says.
Dye says the show hasn’t stepped on anyone’s toes yet.
“We’ve got more e-mails on that show than any other show that’s been broadcast,” he says.
Voinche knows how difficult it is to make the transition from radio to television. He says radio is “a medium where everything is left to the imagination. It’s a lot of make-believe in the listener’s mind generated by the jock. On television, what you see is what you get. To pull it off on television requires an extra bit of effort.” But he says he doesn’t have any doubt that Ortego and Burge will continue to pull it off.
Fuselier also had his suspicions about how well the radio show would translate to television, but after seeing it a few times and being a guest on the show, he says, “I’m glad it’s back. It got to be a Wednesday night tradition for me. Now that it’s back, even though it’s only an hour, I really look forward to it every Wednesday night.”
Swamp ‘n’ Roll is starting to reclaim its old audience while building a new one through television. There’s even talk about the show being made available on cable. Daly says that KDCG is negotiating with Cox Communications to rebroadcast the station’s programming on Cox’s cable television network. Steve Creeden, assistant manager of Cox Communications in Lafayette, confirms that Cox is in negotiations with KDCG.
Ortego isn’t letting any of this go to his head. He’s keeping his priorities straight.
“Regardless of how popular this show becomes, if it’s a Wednesday and the weather’s really good, I’m not going to miss a good fishing day for this,” he says. “If the speckled trout are biting in Vermilion Bay, Swamp ‘n’ Roll will be a rerun that night. The Simpsons do it, so why can’t we?”
Burge is optimistic about the show’s future and thankful for the chance he’s had.
“It’s been a groove,” he says. “For 15 years we’ve been doing what we want to do. We haven’t made a king’s fortune at it, but we’ve made people happy. If it all stopped today, we could look back on it and say, ‘Yeah, it was worth it.'”