I received an email a little while back from a reader in California, who wondered if there might be a connection between Dr. John’s 1982 “Touro Infirmary” — which I wrote about here — and Muggsy Spanier’s “Relaxin’ At The Touro.”
From what I was able to learn online, Spanier was born in Chicago in 1906 (or 1901 according to this site), and supposedly fell in love with jazz as a result of seeing King Oliver performing in that city when he was quite. A cornet player, he became a fixture on the Chicago jazz circuit, again while still very young (appearing on his first recording as early as 1924).
Touro is of course a real place in New Orleans, then and now. I’m not sure what Spanier was doing in New Orleans, but his experience with that institution seems to have come about in early 1938, when he “collapsed,” and ended up there convalescing for a number of months. Says Red Hot Jazz:
Only his terrific will to live and the skill of Dr. Ochsner pulled him through a lengthy stay at the Touro Infirmary, although there were times when it was “certain” he’d never live again, much less blow his horn. He managed to do both, and the success of his comeback was climaxed when he opened at the Sherman Hotel’s Old Town Room on April 29, 1939, with his Ragtime Band.
As I understand it, his “Relaxin’ At The Tour” — a quite seductive instrumental number — was recorded in 1939 as well. Many references say the tune became, in effect, his “theme.” Red Hot Jazz again:
For many years a myth has been making the rounds about a so-called “First pressing” of the record Relaxin’ At The Touro being imbedded in a wall at the Touro. Catherine C. Kahn, Touro Infirmary Archivist says that Muggsy was brought into Touro by busboys from the Blue Room, near death, and saved by several fine surgeons: … They have numerous memorabilia about Muggsy, photographs [of] Muggsy, playing his horn flat on his back on a gurney.
What they don’t have is a record in the wall or floor. They’ve never found anyone who has actually seen a record in the wall or floor. They have a plaque on the wall to commemorate Muggsy’s stay in the hospital, perhaps that got confused with a record in the wall.
Multiple sources agree that Spanier died in 1967.
Made some 15 years after that, Dr. John’s reworking of “SJI” into “Touro Infirmary” is said to be an ode to a buddy who ended up in a bad way, via, it would seem, drug addiction. I don’t personally hear any musical echo of “Relaxin’ At the Touro” in “Touro Infirmary,” and so far as I know Dr. John didn’t have Spanier in mind.
But in poking around on this a bit, I was pleased to discover that Spanier did a version of “SJI,” which I promptly acquired. It, too was instrumental, and pleasingly soulful. Whether he thought about “SJI” while at The Touro, or about Touro while playing “SJI” — that, I cannot say.