By BILL MOTCHAN, Special to the CCJN
When Mark Samuels was nearing his 13th birthday, he was playing music while preparing for his bar mitzvah at what was then called the Conservative Congregation of New Orleans. Today it is known as Shir Chadash or “New Song” and that may be appropriate given his affinity for music. That initial attraction to music became even more focused when he played music alongside Wynton and Delfeayo Marsalis in high school and met their younger brother, percussionist Jason Marsalis, who was then a wunderkind three-year-old.
Initially, Samuels played a hand-me-down, metal clarinet. He later switched to saxophone when a band teacher couldn’t abide the screechy sound springing from Samuels’ clarinet. His love for music notwithstanding, Samuels acknowledged his strong card as he pursued an education in business and finance at the University of Texas. This led his to eventually earning an MBA degree.
He seemed destined for a future as a business consultant with additional emphasis on computers. He moved to New York and worked for three years at Arthur Andersen Consulting before moving back to New Orleans and working for an energy company for nine years. The company was eventually sold and Samuels wanted to try something completely different—doing work he enjoyed. It was then that he turned to work with the recording industry. It helped that he had maintained relationships with contacts in the music world, including those in the Marsalis family.
As the founder and president of Basin Street Records, Mark Samuels is a mensch. He lives by a code of integrity and honor. Last year, he celebrated the 20th anniversary of his label, which continues to thrive in a very competitive industry. Recently, he spoke in a telephone interview with the CCJN about the memorable events that have led him to become a respected and successful music executive.
“I had a lot of connections in music, and I was asked to produce a jazz showcase two years in a row for the Cutting Edge Music business conference,” Samuels recalled. “For one showcase, I booked Kermit Ruffins. His manager and I started a conversation that lasted for a year and a half, and he ultimately asked if he could borrow $5,000 to make a Kermit Ruffins album. Instead, we decided to start a record label together.”
At the time, Ruffins was already a popular, well-known musician. The charismatic trumpet player had recently departed from the Rebirth Brass Band. It wasn’t his first record, but this presented an opportunity for a breakout album.
Samuels took on the task with gusto. For six weeks, he put thousands and thousands of flyers on cars and telephone poles promoting a live album. When it came time to record, Tipitina’s was packed, no easy task for a 1,000-seat club.
“We sold out Tipitina’s that night,” Samuels said. “We recorded one set, then we repeated the set, so we recorded all the songs twice. Then, in February 1998, we had the album release party and we sold out Tipitina’s again.”
The resulting album, “The Barbecue Swingers Live,” was a commercial and critical success. It was released in early 1998, sold hundreds of copies at French Quarter Fest and over 1,000 copies at Jazz Fest. A review in The Times-Picayune at the time called it “positively refined” and credited meticulous sound-checks and rehearsals. Live recordings are unpredictable and a band can feed—positively or negatively—off of the energy of the audience, Samuels agreed. The full house generated by his guerilla marketing tactics and his industry were definitely a plus.
On the strength of Samuels’ first effort, Basin Street Records was off and running. He struck lightening again a month later on March 7, 1998 when he had a chance encounter with Matt Dillon, Wynton Marsalis’ road manager. It was at a Kinko’s and Samuels was making copies of flyers for a Kermit Ruffins show. Dillon invited Samuels to a show for Dillon’s group that night. At that show Samuels visited with the young trumpeter in Dillon’s band, Irvin Mayfield, who also led a fledgling band called Los Hombres Calientes. That Latin-inspired band included acclaimed Mayfield and world famous percussionist Bill Summers, and his longtime friend, Jason Marsalis.
Samuels was impressed by what he read about the band’s first two shows, and Summers mentioned they wanted to record an album before Jazz Fest—the following month. That’s not a lot of lead time, but Samuels told them it could be done if both parties agreed to terms quickly. Four days later, on March 11, Los Hombres Calientes signed a three-record contract with Basin Street Records. The recording was completed on time and the resulting album was another big success for the fledgling label; it was named Billboard Magazine’s Latin Jazz Album of the Year. To promote Los Hombres Calientes, Samuels went back to the streets, passing out flyers and even walking through French Quarter Fest wearing a sandwich board.
The music industry was clearly a good fit for Samuels, so he left his job at the energy company for good. In an industry notorious for duplicity and slimy agents, Mark Samuels was an outlier. He showed good faith and worked hard to help his clients. It didn’t hurt that his first album featured Kermit Ruffins and that their partnership has lasted through the 20-plus years since “Barbecue Swingers Live” was released.
“To have somebody like Kermit Ruffins be our debut artist was pretty outstanding, but there’s honesty and integrity, which are two of the most important ingredients I try to embody,” Samuels said. “And Kermit and I to this day have a relationship based on trust, honesty and integrity. He honors his words and I honor mine and it’s been a great relationship.”
Samuels credits his parents for being good role models and the tenets of Judaism for treating others with respect. Lighting the Shabbat candles followed by a family dinner was a weekly Samuels tradition. His mother was the first woman president of Shir Chadash, and his father was a leading contributor of Israel Bonds.
As a young man, Samuels was youth co-leader of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans’ annual campaign. As an adult, he and his first wife Patti visited Israel as part of the formerly titled Lemann-Stern Jewish Federation leadership development program.
Basin Street Records quickly made a big impact on the recording industry, and Samuels continued to recruit an impressive talent roster of world-class artists. One of those was British-born piano legend Jon Cleary. On April 27, 2008, Cleary played the Acura Stage at Jazz Fest, and Samuels was backstage. That’s when he had a chance encounter with another nice Jewish boy, Billy Joel.
“I said ‘Hello Mr. Joel—when I was in high school with Wynton Marsalis, we recorded a piece on vinyl and we did a medley of your songs. It was really fun.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Why do you think I want to know that you and Wynton Marsalis recorded my greatest hits when you were in high school? I don’t want to be reminded that I’m that old!”
He has many fond memories like that after two decades in the music business. While Basin Street Records has flourished, Samuels has experienced more than his share of heartbreak and sorrow. Perhaps most significant was the loss of his first wife Patti, who died tragically in an auto accident just before Thanksgiving in 2000. The New Orleans Community School (formerly New Orleans Jewish Day School) bears the inscription, “Inspired by Patti Arnold Samuels.”
After her death, Mark Samuels was suddenly thrust into the role of single parent of three young children. His business was thriving, but in 2005 Mother Nature intervened.
“When the levees broke, my house and office were destroyed,” he said. “I had a full time staff of six people; I had a 3,000 square foot office space on Canal Street, I had just released six albums in one day the previous year and in 2005, I had just released three albums just before Jazz Fest. Then, in August, I had five feet of water in my house, and a foot and a half of water in my office.”
Like many others, Samuels evacuated. He found a welcome refuge in Austin.
“I called my fraternity brothers there,” he continued. “I was a Sigma Alpha Mu at the University of Texas. One fraternity brother said: ‘Don’t worry, you show up on Monday, your kids will be enrolled in the Jewish day school; we’ll get your oldest enrolled in the high school.’ I spent one school year in Austin.”
Samuels’ parents also moved to Austin, so he and the kids stayed there. To keep the business running back in New Orleans, he drove back and forth 29 times (500 miles each way), operating out of a coffee shop with a laptop computer. It was just like the old days when he was a one-man shop. Samuels persevered and got his house rebuilt. In fact, he was one of the first in his Lakewood South neighborhood to rebuild and get his kids back home. Those road trips also allowed Samuels to keep in contact with his future wife, Kara Hadican, a New Orleans attorney.
Returning home for good, Samuels was forced to downsize the business. The growth of streaming services as delivery platforms meant it was no longer necessary to maintain a large inventory of product. He’s now down to a 700-square foot facility and two full-time staffers.
“I’ve learned to live with the reality of the economics of this industry,” he said.
Basin Street Records continues to generate big name talent. Joining veterans Jeremy Davenport, The Rebirth Brass Band, and Davell Crawford are hot new artists like Saràyah, Lena Prima, and Bonerama. In the shadow of Irvin Mayfield’s complicated legal situation, Samuels continues to stand by his longtime client and confidant.
Mayfield and his business partner Ronald Markham were indicted in December 2017 and charged with 19 felony counts for using their positions on the city’s public library charity board to transfer $1.3 million in public library donations to the jazz orchestra that paid each of them six-figure salaries.
“I know the building they were going to get the money from the foundation to build, got built,” Samuels said. “It seemed like a good win-win to me. In our world, people are innocent until proven guilty, and in my mind now, he’s innocent. He lost the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and he’s lost his reputation. And he’s an innocent man right now. I hope he’s innocent. In my mind he still is. And I’m going to give my friend the benefit of the doubt,” Samuels added.
That sense of loyalty—another Samuels trait often in short supply in his industry—defines the man who has persevered through personal tragedy and the temporary loss of a house. Samuels, now 56, remains positive about the future of his record label, and his family, which now includes a fourth child born after his marriage to Kara. Hurricane Katrina and the levees breeches were an experience many New Orleanians had to overcome. Not everyone made it through intact, he noted.
“That moment gave me an appreciation of life,” Samuels said. “Having already lost my wife, after the levees broke, I knew I would be ok. I don’t know what life would be like without those events. It’s a weird thing but I feel very fortunate to be here today and be in a loving relationship in a rebuilt beautiful home and neighborhood. What I’ve been through is not something that everyone is going to be able to experience in their life. It gives you an appreciation for everything around you. It gives you an appreciation for life, it gives you an appreciation for what you have.”