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.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Blues At The Crossroads - The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts

Remember me telling you last week that I rarely attend live events anymore for various reasons?  Well, I stand corrected.  I actually went to hear some LIVE blues this past weekend.  This past Sunday night (February 13), the Blues At The Crossroads tour came to nearby Meridian, MS for the evening.  It was a star-studded event, as far as blues events go, paying tribute to that most influential of blues men, Mississippi's own Robert Johnson, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth (oddly, this is the only Mississippi date for the tour). 

The concert was headlined by a rock group, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, but the guest star list was phenomenal.....a list of Mississippi blues stars past and present.  Representing the present, and future, of Mississippi blues were drummer/guitarist Cedric Burnside and singer/guitarist Steve "Lightnin'" Malcolm.  Representing the storied past and present of Mississippi blues were long time Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin and the living legend himself, David "Honeyboy" Edwards.

Honeyboy Edwards
Believe it or not, I was not planning on attending.  There were several reasons for this.....the biggest one being that I'm an idiot.  How could I miss seeing Honeyboy Edwards when he's only about thirty miles away??!!  I mean, the man is LIVING HISTORY, for goodness sake!!!!  He was there in the 30's when Robert Johnson played, was there the night Johnson was poisoned, and he's seen or played with just about anybody who was anybody in the blues from the mid 30's onward.  Be that as it may, I was not planning to attend....until a friend happened upon a pair of tickets and invited me.  He ended up not being able to go because he was sick, so my brother and I attended.

The concert was being held at Meridian's MSU Riley Center.  The Riley Center was an opera house, beginning in the late 1800's.  It hosted vaudeville acts, minstrel shows, and silent movies, before becoming obsolete and shutting down in 1927.  It remained shuttered for over seventy years, forgotten by most people (the bottom part of the building was actually one of the town's swankiest clothing stores for years), until a drive started in the late 1980's to restore it.  Millions were spent to refurbish the opera house itself and to convert the rest into a state-of-the-art conference center.  If this sounds like a commercial to you, get over it, because if you ever get an opportunity to see someone perform there, you will quickly agree that this is one of the best places to hear music that you will ever visit.  Trust me.  Not only that, but performers absolutely love to play here.  The acoustics are fantastic.  The only problem is the fact that there were fewer Super-Size Combos back in the days when this theatre was built, so that means the seats are narrower and therefore closer together, so if you don't know your neighbor at the start of the concert, you're pretty familiar with them by the time it's over.  This is a minor annoyance, however, that you forget as soon as the music starts.

Todd Park Mohr
Big Head Todd opened the show.  The group's front man, singer/guitarist Todd Park Mohr, first heard Robert Johnson in the 80's as a college student at the University of Colorado.  Mohr wasn't exactly fired up about Johsnon at the beginning, but slowly grew to appreciate the genius of his much that Big Head Todd's next recording project, out in March is a tribute to Robert Johnson, from which this concert series came into being. 

Mohr opened the show with an acapella reading of the old song, "John the Revelator," then strapped on a guitar for a couple of other Johnson tracks before being joined by BHT keyboardist Jeremy Lawton, Lightnin' Malcolm, and Cedric Burnside on drums for several tracks, then the rest of BHT (drummer Brian Nevin and bassist Rob Squires) joined in.  For the most part, the rockers played it straight on the blues tunes, and they sounded great, especially the twin drum attack of Burnside and Nevin.  Their version of "Love In Vain" was particularly good.  Mohr did a fine job singing and playing guitar.  He didn't try to overdo it, either vocally or instrumentally, as sometimes happens at these sort of events.  

Cedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm
After several more Johnson songs, the group left the stage and turned things over to Lightnin' Malcolm, who performed a pair of solo acoustic tracks from two of Johnson's major influences.  First, he performed a stellar version of Son House's "Walkin' Blues," and then Willie Brown's "Future Blues."  For the middle portion of the show, Malcolm served as a gracious, and entertaining, master of ceremonies.  Though he was born in Missouri, Malcolm has played with many of the great Mississippi blues legends over the years (even making an appearance on M for Mississippi) and is definitely a star of the future.

Honeyboy Edwards
Finally, the moment everyone had been waiting for......Malcolm introduced Honeyboy Edwards, who slowly made his way to center stage, using a quad cane and support from one of the roadies and his manager, Michael Frank (who backed Edwards on harmonica).  Even though he's 95 years old, I was sort of surprised at how frail he appeared coming to the stage.  He gingerly took his seat next to Lightnin' Malcolm, and proceeded to start trying to tune his guitar, with a little help from Malcolm.  When he started playing the guitar, the frailness disappeared and he seemed to burst with energy.  His fingers flew all over the guitar.  Vocally, he struggles at times, but is still effective.  It was just an incredible experience watching him do those old songs, like "Take A Little Walk With Me" and "That's All Right."  Every once in a while, he'd take off on a little guitar run and look over at Malcolm like, "Not too bad, eh?"

Hubert Sumlim & Honeyboy Edwards
After three or four songs, Hubert Sumlin joined the trio on stage, along with Burnside.  Sumlin has battled myriad health issues over the past few years and was accompanied onstage by his oxygen tank.  Not that anyone noticed once he started playing those amazing idiosyncratic out-of-this-world notes on his guitar.  I have to admit that Sumlin's contributions to Howlin' Wolf's legacy were their main selling point to me as a neophyte, but as a solo act, he's never really grabbed me as much.  I saw him years ago at the New Orleans Jazz Festival when he played with Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang and he was really on fire that day.  The other night, he was really feeling it, too, joining Edwards for a couple of songs and, after Edwards left the stage, even taking his place behind the mic for a rousing version of "Sittin' On Top Of The World."

Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards, & Lightnin' Malcolm
One thing that really amazed me about both of these men was how they seemed to come to life once they had their guitar in hand.  Though both of them had to have assistance to get on the stage, once there, the years seemed to fall away.  I thought, if they are this good now, how good must they have been back in the day.  I beg you, please go see these living legends, and any others that are still plugging away out there like B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, etc..., while you still have the chance to do so.

Big Head Todd had returned to the stage for the last couple of Hubert Sumlin's songs (including an excellent reading of "Smokestack Lighthin'") and closed things out with some modernized versions of more Johnson songs.  Their modern interpretations worked just fine and were well-received, but after the appearance of the two legends, it all seemed a bit anti-climatic.  When the set ended and the band came out for an encore, they pulled out all the stops for two of Johnson's classics....."Dust My Broom" and "Crossroads."  Then they brought Edwards and Sumlin out for the final two songs as the crowd roared their approval.  All in all, it was a very enjoyable show.  Unfortunately, pictures and video were forbidden during the show since it was being taped, but there's footage out there to be seen.  Check out this montage of performances captured by some nice chap at YouTube.  While it's not as good as being there (I thought Honeyboy was better on Sunday night), it should be enough to encourage you to check it out if they're in your area.

In addition to Sumlin and Edwards, other living legends like B.B. King, James Cotton, and Charlie Musselwhite have appeared on various shows at various locations.  Big Head Todd's new release will be in stores in March, with guest appearances by many of these same artists, so be on the lookout.

(Added 2/24/11) - the group posted a video from the MSU Riley Center earlier this week.  Check it out.

Other essential related listening.......

Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards - Delta Bluesman (Earwig):  Most of Honeyboy's recordings are worth having, but this one is special because it features some of his best modern recordings from the late 70's to the early 90's, plus a generous helping of his 1942 Library of Congress recordings.  There are also snippets of an interview with Edwards, where he discusses some of the songs as well as some stories about his life.  This is a great place to start with your Honeyboy Edwards collection, and every blues fan should have at least one of his records.

About Them ShoesHubert Sumlin - About Them Shoes (Tone Cool):  As I stated above, I'm not as excited about Sumlin as a solo act as I was when he played with Howlin' Wolf.....his vocals are not that strong, his playing can be a bit erratic, and sometimes he hasn't had the most inspiring musicians in support....but this release pretty much gets things right.  He has some excellent support in Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, James Cotton, Paul Oscher, Blondie Chaplin, and Bob Margolin.  All of Sumlin's recordings are worth a listen, but this one is probably the most consistent.

2 Man Wrecking CrewCedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm - 2 Man Wrecking Crew (Delta Groove):  If you see these guys during this tour, you will want to get your hands on this disc.  Mississippi Hill Country Blues at it's finest, these guys have been around it forever and play off each other so well, you'd swear they would have to be brothers.  You can bet ol' R.L. is up in Heaven sittin' down and loving every minute of their act.

Complete RecordingsRobert Johnson - Complete Recordings (Sony Legacy): you don't have these already.  If you don't have them in one format or another, just don't tell anybody and either order them on Amazon or Ebay or somewhere.  That's the only way you can really find out what all the fuss is about with the most influential blues artist of all time.