After playing with Dave Bartholomew’s band from the late 1940s and serving as an army musician in Korea, Wardell emerged as a bandleader in his own right in the mid-1950s with his Royal Dukes of Rhythm. He also worked as an arranger with the cream of New Orleans musicians, including Professor Longhair and Fats Domino.
In 1964, he formed Nola Records, and Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’” from the label reached number 2 on the R&B chart. Other artists on the label include Eddie Bo, Willie Tee and Smokey Johnson. Later, he recorded King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff”. When major labels including Stax and Atlantic initially rejected them as uncommercial, Stax eventually released “Mr Big Stuff”, and it became the biggest selling, most successful release on the Stax label (currently over 3 million copies), outselling Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and the other Stax acts. “Groove Me” was released on the Chimneyville label, a huge hit (King Floyd’s biggest), and was covered by artists as diverse as Etta James and Tom Petty. Quezergue was also the keyboardist on both hits. Quezergue arranged Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue”, which “crossed over” and also became the label’s (Malaco) biggest seller.
At the same time, Wardell was charting, at Berry Gordy’s request, stage arrangement for Stevie Wonder and other Motown acts.
As a result of these successes, Quezergue’s skills as an arranger, and Malaco’s studios, became in demand in the 1970s, and were used by artists as diverse as Paul Simon, Willie Nelson and B. B. King. He also worked with G.C. Cameron, former lead singer of The Spinners (“It’s A Shame”) and The Temptations, the Pointer Sisters, and many more.
Quezergue also produced and arranged the Grammy Award-winning Dr. John album Goin’ Back to New Orleans in 1992. Already an award winning classical composer and conductor, in 2000 he created an extended composition entitled “A Creole Mass”, drawing on his experiences in the Korean War.
In 2005, Wardell was awarded “Best Produced CD of the Year”(by the NY Blues and Jazz society) for his first sessions with singer-songwriter Will Porter. Also a Blues Foundation nominee, the sessions featured Billy Preston, Leo Nocentelli, The Louisiana Philharmonic Strings, and Nola’s best musicians. The CD was awarded 4 stars by AMG, and received what Quezergue called “the best reviews of my career”.
In May 2009, Wardell Quezergue received an honorary doctorate from Loyola University New Orleans for his selfless dedication to enhancing the careers of others, while remaining in the background; for his dedication to teaching others, especially the young aspiring musicians of the city, leading many great New Orleans musicians to refer to him as “my teacher;” and for his contributions to the sounds of the city, particularly the driving horn sounds of the 60s and 70s, for which New Orleans music became known.
On July 19, 2009, a tribute was mounted to Wardell Quezergue at the Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. By all standards, the show was a triumph, its concept begat from Dr. Ike and the Ponderosa Stomp crew. A nine-piece band was assembled and imported from New Orleans to back up singers like Dr. John, Robert Parker, Jean Knight, and The Dixie Cups, just to name a few. Veteran writer/arranger/bandleader/producer Quezergue showed everyone that he still had it, as he conducted the whole concert.
In 2011 Quezergue finished work on what he called his “two most important works”; his classical religious work “The Passion” and the sophomore recording for Will Porter. On August 25, 2011, Quezergue approved final mixes of 15 tracks of the Will Porter project, featuring duets with Dr. John, Bettye Lavette, Barbara Lewis, jazz bassist Jimmy Haslip, Leo Nocentelli (all multiple Grammy nominees/awardees,) with, once again, the best of New Orleans, including the 12 last recordings of the late drummer Bernard “Bunchy” Johnson, and the Louisiana Philharmonic Strings.
Wardell Quezergue passed away September 6th, 2011, at the age of 81, but his music and legacy will live on forever.
“The stellar cast includes Warren Bell Sr., Roderick Paulin, Joe Saulsbury, Julius Hardy and Carl Blouin in the saxophone section; Tracy Griffin, Barney Floyd and Brian Murray among the trumpets; Craig Klein on trombone; the legendary Sam Henry on keyboards; Wardell’s son Brian Quezergue on bass; guitarists Leo Williams and Detroit Brooks; and drummers Bunchy Johnson and Leon Alexander. Quezergue’s crisp, juicy charts are well-played throughout, and the soloists make almost uniformly excellent contributions to the music.” – John Sinclair