Friday, February 25, 2011

Blues Legends - Professor Longhair

You would be hard-pressed to name a modern New Orleans piano player who wasn't influenced by Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair.  From Fats Domino to Allen Toussaint to Dr. John to Art Neville to James Booker, all worshipped at the altar of Fess and learned their lessons well.  Despite his long list of famous, successful, and ardent admirers, Fess never came close to achieving the measure of success he deserved during his lifetime.

No one came close to sounding like him, with his Carribean-based rhumba rhythms on the keys, backed by that incessant New Orleans second-line beat, and his distinctive vocal style.  If you heard a Domino, Toussaint, or Huey "Piano" Smith record from the 50's or 60's and were awed by those impressive rolling flourishes, you should know that Professor Longhair did them first and probably taught them how to play them, too.

Born in 1918 in Bogalusa, he grew up in the Crescent City streets, tap dancing for tips in the French Quarter.  He also tried his hand at boxing and also as a card sharp.  In the late 30's, he began playing piano, but really got serious about it in the late 40's, influenced by local piano wizards like Isidore "Tuts" Washington, Kid Stormy Weather, and Sullivan Rock.  A local club owner gave him his professional name, based on Fess' shaggy hairdo.  In 1949, he cut his first records, as Professor Longhair and the Shuffling Hungarians.  One of the four tracks would become an anthem for the Mardi Gras season, "Mardi Gras In New Orleans."  This song (from a later-recorded version for Ron Records called "Go To The Mardi Gras") is still played from one end of New Orleans to the other every Mardi Gras.

Those sides didn't see much daylight because of union difficulties that eventually shut the record label down.  However, Longhair made many great records throughout the 50's.  His lone R&B hit was recorded for Mercury in 1950, the comical "Bald Head." 

Probably his best work was for Atlantic Records during two sessions (1949 and 1953).  These tracks were later collected on the long-player, New Orleans Piano.  The immortal "Tipitina" became his signature tune over the years, named for an erupting volcano that Fess had heard about and the name of one of the Crescent City's foremost music clubs for over thirty years.  By the way, the video is from Fess' 1974 appearance on the TV show, Soundstage.  That's the Meters, New Orleans' premier funk band, backing him.

The arrival of the 60's signalled the beginning of a long dry spell for the piano wizard.  Except for a mid 60's recording of another Longhair classic, "Big Chief," Fess fell on hard times, giving up on the music business and returning to card hustling.  He was rediscovered by a New Orleans fan, Hudson Martinez, who passed on an interview tape to Quint Davis, one of the founders of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Alison Miner, who worked at the Tulane Jazz Archives.  They found Longhair sweeping floors in a record shop that had played his records only a few years before.  Within a year, he was playing at Jazz Fest, which was still in its infancy in 1971.  When he sat down at the piano, it was like he had never been away.  He became a mainstay at Jazz Fest from that point on.

His return to live performing coincided with Atlantic's reissue of his New Orleans Piano album and word began to spread outside of New Orleans.  Soon, Fess became an icon overseas and embarked on a European tour.  If anything, his playing skills improved during his lengthy hiatus and his style became even more distinctive.  He became a favorite of artists like Paul McCartney, even playing at a party in McCartney and his wife Linda's honor on the Queen Mary in 1975.

During this time, however, he still struggled to get albums released, even though he was recording some wonderful music.  A 1972 session recorded in Baton Rouge and Memphis, with Snooks Eaglin on guitar, was not released until fifteen years later.  One of his finest recordings, with Gatemouth Brown in support, was initially only released in France.  The Queen Mary concert was released in 1978.

Things began to turn around in 1979, as Fess managed to get two great opportunities.  First, Alligator Records was about to release an album featuring him with Dr. John and his own band, called Crawfish Fiesta.  Next, a documentary was being made about New Orleans piano players that featured Longhair with his idol, Tuts Washington, and his disciple, Allen Toussaint, called Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, which was to culminate in the trio playing together at Tipitina's.

This is the blues, however, so naturally all that good fortune was not to be.  Professor Longhair died in his sleep on January 30, 1980, the day Crawfish Fiesta was released, and two days before the Tipitina's concert.  The other two players went on with the show and the documentary ended up including footage of Fess' funeral.

Though Fess was gone, amazingly enough, his music wasn't.  Throughout the 80's, many of Longhair's albums, long on the shelf, began to see the light of day, the two 1971 sessions were issued on Rounder (winning a Grammy Award) and Rhino.  Several live concerts were issued, including a two-disc set recorded during Mardi Gras in 1978 at Tipitina's.  Many of his early recordings from the 50's on labels like Ron, Ebb, Watch, and Mercury were reissued, as well as another reissue of his New Orleans Piano set.

Though the music scholars may sit and argue about the merits of Professor important his music, how influential he was, and how he bridged the gap between blues, jazz, and even world music, the bottom line is that the most important thing about his music was how darn much fun it was to listen to.  No one ever played with the sheer joy and delight as Fess did.  That's what stands out for me, and likely for you as well.

Essential Recordings

Every blues fan should have at least one Professor Longhair record in their collection.  Here are a few possibilities.

New Orleans Piano: Blues Originals 2New Orleans Piano (Atlantic) - This is the primer for New Orleans piano, Fess' wonderful early 50's output featuring all of the classic sides.  He recorded most of these many times, but this is basically the cream of his early recording output.  Aim Records also has a collection of many of his early recordings for other labels that's worth a listen as well, most of which are not available elsewhere.

House Party New Orleans StyleHouse Party New Orleans Style (Rounder) - The first of the two releases featuring tracks from the Baton Rouge/Memphis sessions of the early 70's.  This one features Fess with the incredible Snooks Eaglin on guitar and some tracks with Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste.  Never was an album more appropriately titled.  This is just a stone blast from start to finish.  The second set, on Rhino, is easier to find and is equally good, featuring many songs rarely recorded by Fess. 

The London ConcertThe London Concert (JSP) - While all of his live recordings are worth having, this is my personal favorite.  Teaming with his regular percussionist, Uganda Roberts, Fess is really in the zone for this exuberant set that's a fun ride from start to finish.

Rock N Roll GumboRock 'n Roll Gumbo (Sunny Side) - Many fans argue that this is Fess' best post-comeback recording, and it's certainly a strong one with able support from Gatemouth Brown on guitar and fiddle.  Their version of "Jambalaya" practically sizzles with Creole flavor.  You'd never know that Fess lost everything he owned in a house fire three days before recording started.

Crawfish FiestaCrawfish Fiesta (Alligator) - The perfect Professor Longhair disc, featuring his own band at the time, with assistance from Dr. John.  This is a keeper from start to finish.  If only he could have hung with us a little bit longer.

Fess: AnthologyFess, The Professor Longhair Anthology (Rhino) - Okay folks, this one has all the essential tracks, plus many tracks previously unavailable on CD, including a song from the documentary, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together.  I can still remember plugging this one into my stereo and watching my kids dance.  This is a great place to get started, if you can find it.  It's currently out of print.

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