“About five years ago, when I was still pastoring this church, I was up here preaching about something, I forget the exact point I was making. Maybe it was about not judging people by the clothes they wear. Anyway, I looked down at the tie I was wearing, a bright purple. I said, ‘Now, take this tie. This is one ugly tie. I hate this tie.’ At that very second, as my eyes scanned the congregation, they landed on Marshall and Barbara Sehorn and I had one of those moments. I stood there in quiet shock, then said to the congregation, ‘I just remembered who gave me this tie.'”
“The people fell in the floor laughing. When the laughter died down, I stood there for a bit, then said, ‘I love this tie.'”
The redeeming thing about that incident for me the preacher, the culprit, the loudmouth who speaks before engaging brain, is that no one was laughing harder than Marshall and Barbara.
I told that at the beginning of our memorial service for Marshall Estus Sehorn Saturday afternoon at 2 pm in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Kenner. At the end of the little story, I said to Barbara on the front row, “I looked for that tie to wear today, but couldn’t find it. I must have given it away.” They all laughed again, she harder than any of them.
It takes a big man to get two funeral services. If you want to call them that. We cremated Marshall–well, Lake Lawn Funeral people did–over a month ago, following his December 6 death. Marshall had a bad respiratory problem all his life that escalated and worsened in the last few years. He suffered something horribly and was able to speak only with great difficulty. But today, he’s doing just fine, thank you.
The earlier service was December 30 in his hometown of Concord, North Carolina. Half his ashes are being interred there, the other half at a cemetery in Metairie.
Stephanie Screen played her violin before and during the service Saturday. She’s about to get her master’s from Loyola and grew up in our church. The last few years, she would drive over to the Sehorns and play for them. For him, mostly, and Barbara understands. It was about Marshall and everyone’s special love for this precious man.
Ken Gabrielse, our minister of music since 1992, led us in “Amazing Grace” with Allen Toussaint on the piano, and what a special thing that was. Then Ken sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Later, Ken said, “I can go on to Heaven now. I’ve sung Amazing Grace with Allen Toussaint!”
Marshall Sehorn and Barbara Darcey married in the late 1960’s. “She was the love of his life,” said Allen Toussaint, the Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Famer. “You ought to have seen him when they fell in love. He was something.”
Allen said, “We had this recording studio downtown.” I think it was called Cosmo’s.
“I had been trying to put together a song called ‘Working in a Coalmines.’ But it just wasn’t working out. So I left the recording unfinished and went home. A day or two later, I discovered that Marshall had worked with the engineer and taken the front of my song and the middle of it and messed around with it and put it together differently and made it a great song, far better than anything I had thought of.” That song is still being recorded today and used in commercials. And earning money.
Allen Toussaint liked to write and play music but knew nothing about the production and distribution side of the recording industry and had learned to be suspicious of people who did. That’s where Marshall came in. This was his area, going back to the late 1950’s in North Carolina when he got started managing Black singers and singing groups. “When I walked out of the studio,” he said, “that’s when Marshall went to work.” They formed a partnership, SeaSaint Productions, which lasted 30 years.
Allen said, “I’ll tell you what’s happening in Heaven right now. When they hold those concerts each afternoon at three, after the heavenly singers have done what they do, Marshall strolls over and he says, ‘For fifty percent of the profits, I can get you a deal….'”
Allen traveled that tour bus with Marshall–the only paleface in the crowd–and a host of rhythm and blues singers doing one-night concerts. “That was the time when segregation was still at work in America,” he said, “but Marshall never heard of segregation. For him to have grown up in North Carolina, that makes no sense, but it’s true. And he would take us into back alleys and these dives that we Blacks were afraid to go into! But there he was, that big gentle giant, stroking his beard, ready for us to go to work.”
In case you are wondering, yes, Allen Toussaint sat at the piano and gave us a few samples of the rock and roll music he was turning out in those days. When he did the “coalmine” and the “ya-ya” songs, people in the audience were singing along. It was in the church sanctuary but felt so right. As Tom T. Hall wrote along a similar line, “It could be that the good Lord likes a little picking too.” Indeed.
Bill Valenziana spoke. A longtime friend with Marshall, record producer, California resident I think. Great guy.
Both Bill and Allen said something which Marshall’s obituary writer had mentioned: we’re not saying these people would never have made it without Marshall, but so many talents were helped immeasurably by the hard work and support of Marshall Sehorn. People like Wilbert Harrison (Marshall heard him singing “Kansas City” in a Charlotte club and signed him up; the song was number one for 7 weeks), the Neville Brothers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Professor Longhair, and a host of others. Marshall was friends with and produced the album “Venus and Mars” for Paul & Linda McCartney and Wings. The biographer writes, “Tickets were always waiting for Sehorn and company wherever McCartney played.”
Generous, kind, gentle, sweet man, living and working in a dog-eat-dog world where cut-throat competition was the rule. When I met Marshall in the mid-1990’s he had had to declare bankruptcy and was the target of a lawsuit by some company over something I never understood. No one who knew this man–who truly knew him–ever thought he had done anyone wrong.
Did I tell you how he and Barbara started coming to church? Jim and Sheila Parrie owned a frame shop on West Esplanade in Metairie and did some jobs for the Sehorns. Jim was a former rock promoter himself, so he and Marshall had lots to talk about. They also discussed Jim’s t-shirts. Those shirts–every last one of them–gave loud, strong witness to Jesus Christ. Jim had come to know the love of God and peace that passes understanding through Christ and he wanted everyone to share the blessing.
In those days, Jim was playing “Jesus” in our Christmas pageants. With his long black hair, beard, and slim build, he was just right. That’s how he came to invite Marshall and Barbara to the pageants. They came and just kept on coming.
I still recall Jim Parrie telling me they would be coming, and what special people they are. “They’re dignified people, Brother Joe,” he said. “Let’s not put the Baptist full-court press on.” Gotcha, Jim.
They came to know Christ and I baptized them. They had a renewal of their wedding vows on their 25th anniversary and invited all their old friends. Saturday I asked, “How many of you were at that service?” At least 25 raised their hands. I told them, “They did that because they wanted you to know the change that Jesus Christ had made in their lives. That was the whole point.”
Mr. Davis was there. The longtime business partner of James Brown, the “godfather of soul,” he and Brown had called each other Mr. Brown and Mr. Davis all those years. We had met before, Mrs. Davis reminded me. “You drew our pictures. Later, we had a painter in the French Quarter paint us and paid some good money. But yours was a better likeness.” See why I like these people?
Oh, I asked Mr. Davis if James Brown had left the world solvent. He said, “He made big money. He left his family a hundred million dollars.”
None of my business. Just curious about this small brush with a kind of life I know nothing about. And do not want to know any more than I do now.
We passed the microphone around in the memorial service for anyone who wanted to say a few words. A number did. The last one however took the cake. I had to ask Barbara later who he was, and he shall remain nameless here. He was 75 or 80, I suppose, and a true character even to the formal outfit he was wearing with a continental tie. “Marshall only loved three people in the world,” he strangely began. “Barbara, Allen…and me.” He went on for a good 10 minutes, one thing after another.
In the reception which followed in the church hall, an elderly gentleman came up and introduced himself. Cosimo Matassas. Owner of that studio downtown which they called “Cosmo.” We talked for 10 minutes. What a precious man, what fascinating stories. I said, “Why didn’t you speak in the service?” He said–and I might not should say this–“I planned to, but I didn’t because of that guy who spoke at the end!”
I said, “Why? Why should that stop you?” He said, “Because it was lies. Everything he said was lies.”
When I asked another speaker about that, he confirmed it. “That’s why I walked out at that point.” I had not noticed.
Characters. You want ’em. We got ’em. Welcome to New Orleans. Somehow all this seems fitting. Marshall lived his life surrounded by characters and might have been the biggest one of them all.
I told you how I picked up Gladys Knight’s autobiography at the bookstore and looked up Marshall Sehorn in the index, and turned to the section where she tells of his arriving at their home in Atlanta to sign a recording contract. She was 16 at the time, I think, and she and her cousins–the Pips–would have to travel to New York City. Mrs. Knight was unwilling to let her little girl go off with strangers. That is, until Marshall said, “And Mrs. Knight, we want you to come along.” That’s all it took.
Gladys Knight said, “He was the biggest white man I had ever seen.” Barbara told me he once weighed 250 pounds. One of the speakers said, “Oh, he was much bigger than that.” Put him in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, and with his full beard, he was fearsome.
“But the gentlest man on the planet,” someone said.
The other day, Barbara told me, “Marshall grew up poor and never had much in the way of clothes, so he loved clothes. We have closets full. Suits, boots, shirts. Even a couple of white suits, in case you know of someone who needs one.” I don’t.
I asked if she was ready to get rid of these things, that it seems too soon. She just hates for them to be sitting there not being used by someone. She plans to keep out several items which were so typically Marshall.
I know a few preachers in the area who are soon going to be appearing in their pulpits better dressed than they ever have been before.