A group calling itself the Wild Magnolias, participating in the local "Indian masking" traditions and performing New Orleans Mardi Gras music, extends at least back into the 1950s. The group's lead member was called the Big Chief, and at least three Big Chiefs are known to have headed the band for short stints prior to 1964: Leon, Flap, and Joe Lee Davis. In 1964, Bo Dollis became Big Chief of the group, having previously participated in other Mardi Gras tribes such as the White Eagles and the Golden Arrows.
In 1970, the group cut a 45rpm single for Crescent City Records, entitled "Handa Wanda". In addition to their usual ensemble of vocalist and a battery of percussion instruments (snares, tom toms, cymbals, beer bottles, cans, and so forth), the group culled together a number of local musicians, including pianist Willie Tee and guitarist Snooks Eaglin, as their backing band, called the New Orleans Project. The single received little airplay on radio but was successful in jukeboxes and through local word-of-mouth. On the strength of the single, the group signed with Barclay Records, a French label, and secured distribution of their albums in America with Polydor Records. Two critically acclaimed full-length albums followed, in 1974 and 1975, and a single, "Smoke My Peace Pipe (Smoke it Right)", cracked the Billboard Black Singles chart, peaking at #74 in 1974. At the height of the group's popularity, they booked dates at Carnegie Hall and the Capital Centre in Washington, D.C..
Polydor elected not to release the second album stateside, which would not see release in America until 1993. The group returned to New Orleans and local festivals. In the late 1980s, Allison Miner expressed interest in restarting the band's career, and booked them on new tours along with signing them to Rounder Records, who released an album of theirs, I'm Back...at Carnival Time (featuring the ReBirth Brass Band) in 1990. In 1992, the Magnolias toured Europe as part of Willy DeVille's "New Orleans Revue" (along with Dr John, Johnny Adams, and Zachary Richard). They can be heard on DeVille's album Big Easy Fantasy. They recorded an album for an Australian label in 1996, and in 1999 signed with Capitol Records subsidiary Metro Blue to release Life is a Carnival. With a permanent backing band, the group began embarking on worldwide tours.
In 2001, Boudreaux left the group as a result of disputes with the group's manager over guarantee payments.
In 2007, the group's two 1970s albums were re-released as a two-disc set with bonus materials on Sunny Side Records.
2013's New Kind of Funk LP marked the first Wild Magnolias record fronted by Dollis' son, Gerard "Bo Jr.," who also now serves as Big Chief of the tribe. The LP also brought Monk Boudreaux back into the Magnolias fold, following Dollis' successful reclamation of The Wild Magnolias' trademark from his former manager. Boudreaux continues to occasionally perform with the group.
Big Chief Bo Dollis died in January 2015.