Monday, October 11, 2010

Rock 'n Roll Gumbo

Professor Longhair

Pianist, composer, and singer, Professor Longhair, (aka Fess) is one of the most important musical figures in New Orleans' musical history. Born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa, Louisiana on December 19, 1918, he became the embodiment of New Orleans rhythm and blues . His style fused blues, boogie-woogie, and gospel, which he combined with calypso, rhumba, and second-line parade rhythms. This "rhumba-boogie" piano style, forever changed the sound of rhythm and blues piano.

Longhair began to take his playing seriously in 1948, earning a gig at the Caldonia Club where Mike Tessitore bestowed Professor Longhair with his professorial nickname.

Debuting on Star Talent records in 1949, Fess laid down the first version of his signature "Mardi Gras in New Orleans". Longhair's next date was for Mercury producing his first and only national R&B hit in 1950, "Bald Head". Longhair made other great recordings for various labels early in his career most notably for Atlantic Records in 1953 producing the immortal "Tipitina." He re-recorded the New Orleans anthem "Go to the Mardi Gras" for Ron records in 1959. This is the version played every year during Mardi Gra.

Fess' career was resurrected in the early 70s with the help of Allison Miner and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival founder, Quint Davis. His performance at the 1971 Jazz Festival put him on the comeback trail. He made a slew of albums in the last decade of his life, including Rock 'n Roll Gumbo, Live on the Queen Mary (prompted by Fess fan Paul McCartney), House Party New Orleans Style, and the stellar album Crawfish Fiesta which features an all-star New Orleans lineup of Dr. John, Johnny Vidacovich, and Tony Dagradi.

On January 14, 1977, a group of music visionaries created a club in Longhair's honor named for one of his most revered recordings, Tipitina. Their desire was to create a quality venue for Fess to perform at during his final years.

Fess died on January 30, 1980, and was inducted into the W. C. Handy Blues Hall Of Fame on November 16, 1981, and the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame on January 15, 1992.

Professor Longhair was the guardian angel of the roots of New Orleans music. He was a one-of-a-kind musician and man, and he defined a certain style of rhumba-boogie funk that WAS New Orleans R&B from the late 1940s all the way through to his death in 1980. All New Orleans pianists today owe Fess. He was the guru, godfather and spiritual root doctor of all that came under him.-Mac Rebennack