New Music From Professor Longhair, Who Taught New Orleans How to Play The Piano
Stardom may have eluded him, but as a newly released recording demonstrates, Professor Longhair set a standard for Crescent City piano that no one will ever top.
The superb blues rocker Professor Longhair (real name: Henry Roeland Byrd), died in his sleep in 1980, two days before his album Crawfish Fiesta shipped from the warehouses of Alligator Records in Chicago.
Everyone around Fess, particularly journalists, expected Crawfish Fiesta to be the breakout event for a 62-year old vocalist and genre-defying keyboardist whose songs had eluded the national limelight.
Without an artist to tour, the disc fell short of the firmament. Still, Crawfish Fiesta is a grand slice of rhythm-and-blues with Fess’s rumba-studded piano and seasoned vocals, enhanced by Dr. John on a sizzling guitar. Fess was at his peak, backed by his band, the Blues Scholars with hot horn charts and his favored drummer, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts.
The funeral on that freezing January day was one of the largest and most chaotic in a city of brass band burials, and a powerful scene in Stevenson Palfi’s documentary, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. Five thousand people pressed toward the mortuary steps; it took a half hour and two bands marching in opposite directions to part the masses so the pallbearers could bring the coffin down and lift it into the hearse.
Professor Longhair looms large in the long line of New Orleans piano players, from Jelly Roll Morton and Champion Jack Dupree to Allen Toussaint, Ellis Marsalis, Fats Domino, James Booker (the subject of a dazzling new film, Bayou Maharajah by Lily Keber), Art Neville, and Harry Connick Jr.
Professor Longhair played piano with a parade inside his fingers. His romping keyboard style stretched the “Caribbean left hand” (in the words of Andy Kaslow, his last saxophonist). He captured a rhythm of feet on the street, melding simulations of up tempo horns layered in a strongly percussive flavor, resonant of the habanera or tango sound.
The long afterlife of Professor Longhair’s music is one of those rare cultural narratives in which an artist’s posthumous impact gains continuing momentum to spark a look back at the music and the man. He has had enduring influence on the later generation of pianists extending New Orleans sound—Tom McDermott, Marcia Ball, Davell Crawford, Joe Krown and the British-born Jon Cleary, a Crescent City mainstay who won a Grammy this year for Go Go Juice.
Byrd’s major Mardi Gras songs are played by pop bands and larger marching bands during Carnival season, much more so than the hits of Fats Domino or compositional gems of Allen Toussaint. Toussaint, who died last fall, paid tribute to Fess in two recorded variations of “Tipitina.” What works for concert halls and lounges does not always carry comfortably into a parade.
We turn then to Professor Longhair: Live in Chicago, a new album of previously unreleased material recorded in 1976 at a Chicago folk festival, issued by Orleans Records, a small specialty label, pegged for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, the annual two-week celebration of all things musical in New Orleans, which began on Friday.
After 40 years in the vault, Professor Longhair: Live in Chicago comes out sounding amazingly fresh. Among the high points is “Big Chief,” a paean to the Mardi Gras Indians composed by the prolific Earl King, who wrote the song for Fess and sang the lyrics in the classic 1964 version. King’s clarion voice rises from the bursting horns and Fess’s rippling keyboard: “Me Big Chief me got ‘em tribe/ Got my Spy Boy by my side.” The song gets miles of airplay every year during Carnival season in New Orleans.
King didn’t make the 1976 gig in Chicago and Byrd had no horns that day. He carried four pieces: Billy Gregory on lead guitar, rhythm guitarist Will Harvey, drummer Earl Gordon and on a fulsome bass guitar, the late Julius Farmer, who went on to a long career in Italy before a twilight back in New Orleans. Solid players all, but with a pared-down band, Fess whistled his way through “Big Chief,” instead of singing the lyrics.
His famous whistling on “Go to the Mardi Gras,” alternately titled “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” springs from a driving sound like a locomotive heading down the track. The whistling is soaring precursor to those song lines, inviting you to ride on down to Mardi Gras: “On Rampart and Dumaine/ Going to make it my standing place/ Until I see the Zulu Queen”—queen of the parade of the Zulu Social Aide and Pleasure Club.
In Chicago, Byrd whistled a melodic echo of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” (which comes two cuts later on the CD) in supplanting the vocals on “Big Chief.” If he’d had a saxophone or sax-cum-trumpet in Chicago, it’s a safe bet that he would have sung the lyrics to “Big Chief,” as he did on other recordings and live performances.
The pulse of his percussive piano is on fine display nonetheless, and even with a leaner sound, Professor Longhair: Live in Chicago is a welcome work from for a master bluesman.
Fess’s unique stylistic attack and the core songs of his repertoire enjoy a continuing arc in the cosmos, influencing countless musicians, not to mention a former U.S. poet laureate, Robert Pinsky. The title poem of Pinsky’s 2007 volume Gulf Music is in part a tribute to Fess.
“In the music I was listening to in my early or mid-teens he was maybe one of the hints or guides toward the universe of jazz—that Caribbean or Cuban element,” Pinsky told The Daily Beast.
“Piano, gospel-inflected, stride-inflected—there is something more complicated, more various, in Fess’s playing, in itself and in relation to his vocals, than, say, with Fats Domino or Jerry Lee Lewis.”
That “Caribbean or Cuban” element set Fess apart from the New Orleans star of his generation, Fats Domino, whose rolling boogie piano and honeyed baritone on love songs made a generation of white and black kids get up to roll and rock, even if not at the same concerts and clubs. Domino had a career of million-selling hits, unlike Fess, whose line of early, rocking blues never made that milky way.
Fess traveled an early hard luck road as a gambler and bare-fisted boxer who punched for bills on a blanket before hitting his stride in the ’50s. He had a string of pumping dance tunes, but only “Bald Head” in 1950 was a commercial hit. “Bald Head” sings of a boy who discovers that his wife is bald and “wished he’d a married on some other night.”
The boy is so embarrassed by his bald-headed wife that when they go out, he gets drunk “down by Lee Circus’s Park”—read: the park around Lee Circle where the Confederate general stands atop an iconic 60-foot column—the boy “wants a little loving.” But he’s sloshed and in kissing her “knocks the wig off.” Shame underneath Robert E. Lee!
Fess’s fortunes waned in the late ’60s, even as his anthems like “Go to The Mardi Gras” and “Big Chief” became staples of radio play. Slow to gain currency in the outer world, Professor Longhair made a comeback in the ’70s with the Blues Scholars, but his early, unexpected death deprived him of a seat on the hit train.
Jerry Lee and Little Richard were chart-busting artists, and high-octane personalities—the stuff of whom TV movies are made. Not so Fess, who for most of his years lived on the edge of poverty, near his old central city haunts on S. Rampart Street. But the intricacy of his music, how the parts come together as blues, R&B, and rock-and-roll, poses a perennial challenge to keyboard sophisticates: can they play Fess?
Rather like the challenge that Louis Armstrong poses for trumpeters: how well can you play “West End Blues?”
Fess’s music thrives with New Orleans brass units and big school bands with youngsters in uniforms trooping in the winter parades. “Go to the Mardi Gras” is a staple of Carnival marches, though none of them try to emulate Byrd’s magical whistling in the recordings—horn charts are easier.
The whistling is another piece of the Longhair package: a sinuous line of notes soaring from the chops like a flute over the driving piano. You can call that whistling a manifestation of folk music, or blues, or inspired R&B—whatever label you paste on how he whistled, it stands alone.
It has become a rite de passage for any keyboard player working in that keyboard tradition to display a mastery of “Tipitina.” The Domino hits, while contagious dance music, are much easier to play. In the final measure, Fess’s great appeal, and the aesthetic challenge to which a continuing line of players will likely warm is the poetic fluidity of that Caribbean left hand.
Jason Berry’s books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II.