The Tip of a lifetime to the Big Easy
Tipitina’s journey to the point of their dream trip to New Orleans is almost as interesting as the trip itself.
After all, what does a small industrial Lancashire town known for vehicle manufacturing have in common with the United States’ fifth largest port?
Chorley-born Justin, 41, has lived in Leyland since he was three and attended Wellfield High School.
He hated the classical piano lessons he began aged nine but dad Mick forced him to persevere and in his teens he was in bands playing synthesiser-based pop music.
Justin’s love of R&B did not blossom until his late teens when he heard the Jools Holland record A to Z Geographers’ Guide to the Piano.
It introduced him to the boogie-woogie style and the album’s liner notes listed inspirations including Professor Longhair, Dr John and James Booker.
Justin’s research revealed they had something in common – New Orleans.
He was smitten, so much so, that aged 22 he quit his job as a lab’ technician and joined blues band The Detonators.
Justin had known Debbie, 37, who is also from Leyland, for several years from the local music scene before asking her to form a band with him.
Her father was a guitar-playing Ray Charles fan, who showed off his talents at family house parties. Like Justin, she began piano lessons aged nine and cites the influence of John McDermott, her music teacher at Leyland St Mary’s Technical College, who realised she had a great voice and encouraged her to join the school choir.
Debbie performed in several bands and was slowly seduced by the New Orleans sound, including the piano part in Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy, covered by Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin’s The Delta Meets Detroit LP.
After joining forces with Justin he introduced her to his New Orleans piano heroes. The pair went from playing disco music at weddings to fusing blues, jazz and gospel, as well as getting together romantically.
Their first album, I Wish I Was In New Orleans, was released as they immersed themselves not just in the music, but also in books about the city and the HBO television drama Treme, which is set there.
But money was tight, and even when they finally took the plunge and booked a dream 16-night trip this August, it seemed that fate was against them.
Debbie learned she was pregnant with their first child, due in November - so no drink-fuelled excess would be possible.
Then, their connecting flight out of Washington had to turn back after a fuel leak, with fire engines lining the runway as the plane landed. Twenty-six hours after leaving England, they finally arrived in New Orleans at 3am.
Within days, Tipitina were outside Tipitina’s; their Holy Grail.
A thrill-a-minute journey through the city’s musical history ensued. They watched several of their musical heroes perform, including Dr John, and were lucky enough to meet some of them.
“It was everything we expected and more,” says Justin.
“There’s still sadness in the city after the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a lot of people are struggling.
“But music is one of the things that kept the place going, that and the seafood.”
While the pair loved soaking up the music, it was being part of it that really made the trip.
“My favourite moment was playing in the Tipitina club with one of the legendary drummers,” says Justin.
“Another time, they were holding a youth workshop and had no piano players so I ended up teaching the kids.
“And Debbie got to sing with the Shannon Powell Trio, I know she got a huge buzz out of that.”
The pair watched and met British pianist John Cleary, who visited New Orleans aged 19 to do a two-week decorating job but loved the city so much he never returned.
Cleary gave them a fascinating, night-time tour of old New Orleans and invited Justin to join him on stage to play boogie-woogie piano.
That experience, Justin says, left him “floating on air”.
The heady musical good times also inspired a spur-of-the-moment decision by Justin which will further cement the city’s position as a special place in their hearts.
He proposed – and there are no prizes for guessing where.
“We were in Tipitina’s and I got carried away,” he says.
“I had thought about proposing but I certainly wasn’t planning to do it that night.
“But we were having such a good time and I just thought ‘it doesn’t get any better than this’.”
He popped the question during an epic sax solo – and received the answer he had hoped for.
Other highlights for Debbie included a meeting her musical hero, ‘Soul Queen’ Irma Thomas, which at first left her lost for words she was so starstruck.
“She’s absolutely huge and has won Grammys and all sorts,” says Debbie, who sings in Preston’s One Voice Gospel Choir.
“She’s a wonderful lady. She had us round at her house and it was like talking to an old friend.
“We had a brilliant time in New Orleans, yet we still felt we had only scratched the surface.
“I was certainly not expecting to come back engaged and it was funny how that happened in Tipitina’s.”
All too soon, it was back to the reality of Lancashire life, but not before Debbie had chosen an engagement ring from a New Orleans store.
Now, the couple are preparing to move to a new house on Stanning Close, Leyland, and working hard for every penny to raise their child.
Debbie combines her band duties with music tuition in schools.
Although their music is unlikely to make them megabucks, they have a deal with specialist Birmingham record label Big Bear and have a growing reputation on the touring circuit.
Tipitina have gone from playing local pubs like the Fox and Lion in Leyland to securing gigs at Ronnie Scott’s in London.
They are next due to perform at the legendary venue on October 20 – just four days before the baby is due – with Debbie reassured by Irma Thomas’ sage advice that “Your stomach’s pregnant, not your mouth!”.
The inevitable question is: will they do a John Cleary and cement their love affair with the city by moving there?
“If it wasn’t for family ties we would be there like a shot,” admits Justin.
“For now, maybe it’s a possibility for our honeymoon, but in the future, who knows?”
“I feel like we need to go back,” she says.
“The people are very friendly just like in Leyland, but that’s where the similarities end.
“New Orleans is just a totally unusual, unique place.”