By Dave Walker/The Times-Picayune
NEW ORLEANS — Who dat? Who dat? Who dat started that who dat chant?
“Who dat?” is older than us all, but its association with the New Orleans Saints first flowered in 1983, when a former World Series hero teamed with a local studio, a Neville and several Saints players to cement the phrase in the New Orleans lexicon.
Ron Swoboda, whose diving, game-saving catch for the 1969 New York Mets remains one of the all-time World Series highlights, had come to New Orleans to replace sportscaster Bernard “Buddy D” Diliberto, who had left then-ABC affiliate WVUE-TV for NBC affiliate WDSU-TV.
One of Swoboda’s jobs at WVUE was hosting “On Sports,” a prime-time lead-in to “Monday Night Football.”
Swoboda segmented that highlights-and-high-jinks hour into time for prep football, LSU and Tulane, and of course, the Saints.
Under coach Bum Phillips, the 1983 Saints started the season 4-2, with the losses coming by a combined total of four points.
It had not been so long since the team was the Aints and Diliberto first donned a paper bag.
“The fans were so hungry for something that looked like progress,” Swoboda said. “Bum had had some outstanding drafts by then. They really were going somewhere.
“Everybody was looking for the sign and it seemed like the signs were all good.”
The Saints-specific “Who dat” chant took flight that season in the First Take recording studio on Bienville Street, owned and operated by Steve Monistere.
He heard the “Who dat?” chant at a Saints game early in the 1983 season and thought to combine it with “When the Saints Go Marching In” for radio play.
Saints players Dave Waymer, Brad Edelman, John Hill, Reggie Lewis and Louis Oubre provided the “Who dat?” chant.
Singer Aaron Neville was recruited by drummer Carlo Nuccio. He didn’t have to work hard.
“I had been with the Saints since the late ’60s when they used to come see me and my brothers,” Neville said. “It was a special treat for me being in with some of the Saints, doing the ‘Who dat?’ cheer.”
The football players didn’t come studio-ready.
“That first couple of passes, they were really kind of wimpy about it,” Nuccio said. “It led to a minor altercation between me and Dave Waymer, when I said, ‘No wonder you guys are losing games.’
“It got a little testy.”
The record came out right away and was everywhere.
The origins of “Who dat?” as a football chant are debated around the Internet. Fans of the Cincinnati Bengals have been sporting their own version — as in “Who dey? Who dey? Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals?” — since the 1980 season.
But the phrase itself is far older.
Neville said he heard it as a child: “My mama used to sing some kind of ‘Who dat?’ thing when we were kids.”
The phrase’s roots run deep in black entertainment history — a not-always-proud colloquial thread that winds through minstrelsy, vaudeville and into Hollywood.
A song called “Who Dat Say Chicken in dis Crowd,” with lyrics by pioneering black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, was featured in Edward E. Rice’s “Summer Nights,” ”a vaudeville entertainment” of the late 1890s, according to the book “Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, ‘Coon Songs,’ and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz” by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff.
A popular “Who dat?” routine — one character says “Who dat?” then another says “Who dat says who dat?” — was pervasive in black stage entertainment throughout the early and middle 20th century.
The routine was in the repertoire of the brilliant clown Mantan Moreland (born 1902 in Monroe, La.) who played Birmingham Brown in the “Charlie Chan” movies.
Harpo Marx instigated a raucous — and very difficult to watch, at least through 2010 eyes, given the stereotypes presented in the production number — rendition of a song titled “Gabriel (Who Dat Man)?” in 1937′s “A Day at the Races.”
Many online sources credit ex-Saint Dalton Hilliard for bringing the current chant from Patterson High School to Louisiana State University and then to New Orleans.
Hilliard said he first heard it at the Louisiana Superdome, chanted by fans for his Patterson Lumberjacks team when it played John Curtis for the 1979 Class 2A state championship.
“They were saying, ‘Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say they’re going to beat those ‘Jacks,’” said Hilliard, who now runs a regional energy services company based in Houma.
“I heard it a little bit at LSU, but mostly when I got to the Saints,” for whom he played from 1986 to 1993.
Nuccio said he’d heard the cheer at a couple of high schools, mainly St. Augustine, before recording the song in 1983.
St. Aug brings the tale back to the power of prime-time TV silliness.
WVUE weekend sports anchor Ken Berthelot, who did prep features for Swoboda’s Monday night show, got video of the St. Augustine Purple Knights chanting “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat talk about beat St. Aug?” on a bus to football practice early in the 1983 season.
The chant was new to both Berthelot, a lifelong Louisianan and prep-football fanatic, and Swoboda, a comparative newcomer.
Berthelot’s report played on Swoboda’s Monday night WVUE show.
“I thought, ‘I love this cheer. We’ve got to play this a few times during the week,’” Swoboda said. “It started at Saints games not too long after that.”
The influence of Berthelot’s report on the later Saints craze can’t be verified, though Swoboda for one is convinced of its impact.
Monistere says he heard it at a Saints game during the 1983 season, probably after repeated plays of Berthelot’s St. Aug. story, before recording it.
Swoboda and cameraman Kevin Henry were at the session.
“I made a deal with Monistere,” Swoboda recounted. “I said, ‘If you give me an exclusive on this, I’ll play the heck out of on Monday nights.’ And he said, ‘Done.’”
He said he joined the “Who dat?” chorus, “looking very rhythmically challenged.”
The footage was edited into an MTV-style video — MTV played music videos then — and Swoboda made good on his promise. (Berthelot said archival tapes of his stories were lost in Hurricane Katrina, as was the store of old WVUE tapes that might have contained Swoboda’s original music video, Swoboda said. The Monisteres have a copy of another station’s bandwagon report about the craze, but apparently not the original.)
Neville performs the “Who dat?” version of “Saints” during his solo shows, recently cut a re-recording of the song for Steve Monistere and his brother Sal (who over the years have legally guarded their trademarked ownership of some aspects of the “Who dat?” brand).
He still regularly experiences the weird magic started by that 1983 recording and Swoboda’s understandable exploitation of it.
“I’ll be walking down the street in New York,” Neville said. “And a guy will pass by in a truck and see my (Saints) cap and stop and say, ‘Who dat?’”