Professor Longhair emerged as a force in the New Orleans musical community with his initial recordings for the Star Talent label out of Houston and his series of 78s for Mercury, Atlantic and Federal Records issued between 1949 and 1953.
He first drew attention from the record-buying public with sides like “Bald Head,” “Hey Little Girl,” “Walk Your Blues Away,” and his anthem “Mardi Gras In New Orleans,” which was a modest success in the Crescent City but gained more listeners when it was cut by Fats Domino for Imperial Records in 1952.
His early recording sessions were hit-and-miss affairs, often cutting the same handful of numbers (“Bald Head,” “Mardi Gras In New Orleans”) for different labels under different names, until Atlantic Records made a second attempt at establishing Fess as a popular rhythm & blues artist with a 1953 session backed by the J&M Studio recording band with Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Edgar Blanchard and Earl Palmer.
“Tipitina” (backed with “In The Night”) from this session produced by Ahmet Ertegun & Jerry Wexler became one of his most enduring classics, but the record had little impact on the contemporary record marketplace. In fact, it was hard to build a promotional case for the pianist who was billed variously on his Atlantic 78 releases as Roland Byrd, Roy (“Bald Head”) Byrd, and finally Professor Longhair & His Blues Scholars.
Now given his ultimate professional identity, Fess failed to make any headway in the record business and, after cutting “Bald Head” once more (as “Looka No Hair”) for Ebb Records in 1957 and making the definitive version of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” (as “Go To The Mardi Gras”) for Ron Records in 1959, Fess emerged from five years of obscurity to make one final splash on 45 rpm with Watch Records in 1964, first with yet another version of “Bald Head” and then with his brilliant collaboration with Earl King called “Big Chief.”
But still nothing happened commercially and Fess faded from the scene. He was occasionally spotted sweeping the floors at Joe Assunto’s One Stop record shop but rarely performed in public during the remainder of the 1960s.
In 1969 New Orleans music lover Hudson Marquez’s long search for Professor Longhair finally ended when he found him dealing cards in a bar room and babysitting his grandchildren down the street right there in Central City. He was ill, living in poverty, and Marquez got him on the road to performing again. A new electric piano and a place to rehearse at the union hall lifted his spirits and he was ready to play. He started out in some small bars in the Ninth Ward, but his big break came when people saw him playing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in Congo Square in 1971, where he knocked the audience right out. Marquez was there to document the set: “Everybody was stunned—even Dizzy Gillespie and Roosevelt Sykes.” Soon Fess was playing and recording all over the world.
Fess’s dramatic re-emergence on stage was augmented by the 1972 release of an Atlantic Records compilation of his obscure sides from 1949-53 called New Orleans Piano which drew rave reviews and introduced his name and his music to modern audiences.
Fess made a series of recordings with Snooks Eaglin in 1971-72 under the direction of Quint Davis and Parker Dinkins, eventually issued 20 years later by Rounder Records as House Party New Orleans Style, but there was no interest in a contemporary release.
In 1974 he backed up Gatemouth Brown on an album produced by Philippe Rault called Rock & Roll Gumbo, but it was released only by Barclay Records in France with no U.S. edition. Nothing was happening with his recording career, but Fess was able to play around New Orleans and tour the U.S. and Europe to considerable acclaim from the roots music community, drawing enthusiastic responses from the hipper nightclub and festival audiences around the country and wowing people in England and Europe.
During the 1970s Fess worked with Snooks Eaglin, Will Harvey on bass, and ”Sheeba” Kimbraugh on drums. In the mid-70s he replaced Snooks with New Orleans guitarist Billy Gregory for a spell before assembling his contemporary band of Blues Scholars with David Lee Watson on bass, Johnny Vidacovich on drums, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts on congas, and Tony Dagradi and Andy Kaslow on saxophones.
Fess finally made his first full U.S. album in November of 1979 when Bruce Iglauer took him into the studio with Dr. John on guitar and the Blues Scholars to make the album called Crawfish Fiesta. But Fess passed away on January 30, 1980, two days before the album was released on Alligator Records.
This recording is the result of Longhair’s appearance at the Chicago Folk Festival in early 1976 that was recorded by a local radio station and mixed under the supervision of Billy Gregory, who kept his copy of the tape for about 35 years before presenting it to Carlo Ditta at Orleans Records for a listen.
There have been any number of official and semi-official “live” Professor Longhair recordings issued since the pianist’s untimely passing in 1980, but this record offers incontrovertible evidence of the power and drive of the mid-70s edition of Fess’s band with Billy Gregory featured prominently on guitar.
“I’ve been knowing Billy Gregory since I was 14,” Carlo Ditta testifies. “We’d all look up to Billy, the Rock God. He was in this rock-blues band, Nectar, and they opened for the Jefferson Airplane here in New Orleans, and then they went back to San Francisco with them.
“When the San Francisco band It’s A Beautiful Day came here for the Celebration of Life festival in 1970, they picked up on Billy. They got rid of their guitar player and they took Billy back to San Francisco, and he was the only guy that we knew who made it to the big rock show.
”Billy did three or four years with It’s A Beautiful Day, and he made these albums. We followed him, and all the guitar players from Chalmette to the West Bank knew Billy Gregory. He was a guitar-slinging hippie, and then he left It’s A Beautiful Day and came back from San Francisco to New Orleans.
“We didn’t know much about black artists then. We knew Aaron Neville and Art Neville because they would play at the Ivanhoe sometimes, ‘All These Things,’ all that stuff. We didn’t know about the Meters yet. But the big cross to the white kids was Fess. Billy Gregory became his guitar player when he came back in 1974. That’s kinda why we would go to the 501 Club to see Fess, because Billy was in the band, and that’s how we got introduced to Fess.”
Billy Gregory began to play the guitar at 9 years old, and by the age of 14 Billy was already playing gigs on Bourbon St. In the 60’s and 70s he did recording sessions for Universal, Fame and Stax Records and toured with Professor Longhair, Johnny Adams, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Musselwhite, Mighty Sam McClain and The Neville Bros.
Billy lived in Italy for a few years and toured Europe playing the blues with New Orleans harmonica man Andy J. Forest. Since his return to New Orleans Billy’s been thriving on the Bourbon Street club scene, holding down regular slots with several working bands and often featuring on his own and with diverse ensembles around the area.
“So Billy had these tapes from the Chicago Folk Festival,” Carlo Ditta winds up, “and every time it was a solo, Fess would holler out to Billy, and Billy would bust out with these rock star solos. The radio station in Chicago recorded the show but they didn’t know how to mix it, so Billy mixed it for them and they gave him a copy of the tape.”
Now it’s in your hands, fellow music lovers, and you’ve got some more top-notch “live” Professor Longhair to enjoy at your leisure. Enjoy!
December 9, 2013/
July 27, 2014 /
December 6, 2015
© 2015 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.
Professor Longhair, piano, vocals & whistling
Billy Gregory, lead guitar
Will Harvey, rhythm guitar
Julius Farmer, bass guitar
Earl Gordon, drums
 Intro (0:37)
 Doin’ It (4:55) (Roland Byrd, Professor Longhair Music, BMI)
 Big Chief (3:58) (Earl King, Shirley’s Music, BMI)
 Every Day I Have The Blues (5:14) Peter Chatman, Arc Music/Fort Knox Music/Trio Music, BMI)
 Mess Around (4:54) (Ahmet Ertegun [as A. Nugetre], Unichappell Music Inc., BMI)
 Mardi Gras In New Orleans (3:02) Roland Byrd, Professor Longhair Music, BMI)
 Got My Mojo Working (4:39) )Preston Foster Arc Music/Dare Music, BMI)
 Michigan (2:51) (Roland Byrd, Professor Longhair Music, BMI)
Produced by Carlo Ditta and Billy Gregory
Mastered by David Farrell
Special thanks to Dave Waldham, Don Williams, Justin Zitler, Hudson Marquez, Collin Lapinsky, WFMT