Henry Roeland Byrd, the New Orleans pianist known to the world as Professor Longhair, has been dead for 35 years. But he’s by no means forgotten. At the recently concluded (and rain-sodden) Jazz and Heritage Festival, there he was above the Arcura stage — or rather, an image of him seated at a horseshoe-shaped keyboard — looking down on the crowd like a presiding spirit or deity.
His career had more downs than ups, he suffered from poor health and poverty, and his overdue comeback starting in the late ’70s was cruelly cut short by his premature death. But “Fess”, as friends and fans affectionately called him, continues to inspire musicians — and not only in New Orleans — and delight listeners. His unique style, compounded from the blues, boogie-woogie, and Cuban rhumba and habanera, doesn’t just make you feel good; it arouses joy. Even when the Professor is playing the blues, there’s an irrepressible sense of pleasure and enjoyment.
As his friend, student, and musical partner Dr. John put it, “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 1950s 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.”
Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1918, Byrd and his family moved from that Klan-dominated city to New Orleans when he was a child. A self-taught pianist, he didn’t read music but boasted a great ear and formidable keyboard chops. (He learned to play on a discarded old piano that was missing several keys.) He began his recording career in the late ‘40s/early ‘50s heyday of New Orleans rhythm and blues, making local hits like “Bald Head” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” (the latter now can be heard in a Subaru TV commercial). In the early years, he recorded for several labels, under different names — Roy “Bald Head” Byrd, Professor Longhair and His Shuffling Hungarians, Professor Longhair and His Blues Scholars — which limited his prospects for wider recognition, as did his reluctance to leave his hometown to tour. His discography isn’t ample, comprising a few studio albums, several live recordings, and many compilations of varying quality. So the release of Live in Chicago, a seven-song set recorded at the 1976 Chicago Folk Festival, is a very welcome addition to his catalog.
Fess fans can thank two people for this unexpected gift: Carlo Ditta, the producer who released it on Orleans Records, an independent label specializing in New Orleans R&B and related styles, and guitarist Billy Gregory, who played with Fess on the Chicago date. Gregory mixed the original tape that was broadcast on Chicago radio and held on to it for some 25 years before he brought it to Ditta.
Gregory and Ditta have quite a bit of history between them. They’ve known each other since they were teenagers in the late ’60s, the older Gregory having been a local hero who played in Nectar, a New Orleans band that opened for the Jefferson Airplane when they played the Crescent City. Gregory relocated to San Francisco, where in 1971 he joined It’s a Beautiful Day, an adventurous band whose eclectic style blended jazz, folk, rock, and classical. Gregory performed and recorded with them until 1974, when he returned to New Orleans and became Professor Longhair’s lead guitarist. Ditta, also a guitarist, would go to the 501 Club — later renamed Tipitina’s, after one of Professor Longhair’s most famous tunes— to catch the band and its “guitar-slinging hippie”.
Flash forward 40 years to a very different New Orleans music scene, where Gregory is a familiar presence in Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street clubs and Ditta a producer, recording artist, and gigging musician who frequently performs with the radical poet John Sinclair. How serendipitous, and fitting, that the guitarist who played in Fess’s band and the fan who turned up at their gigs would reunite for Live in Chicago.
Ditta and Gregory mastered and produced the album (which is available in CD and on vinyl) from the original analog tape. They’ve done a great job — the mix is bright, clear, and well-balanced. Fess’s piano and vocals are up front (as they should be), but Gregory’s quicksilver, often dazzling solos, as well as his comping, come through strongly. Rhythm guitarist Will Harvey and bassist Julius Farmer (veterans of earlier Professor Longhair bands) and drummer Earl Gordon round out the quintet. This is one of Fess’s smaller ensembles — no horns or additional percussion— and the stripped down format is just right. Who needs saxophone solos or conga beats when you’ve got Professor Longhair and his hotshot guitarist Gregory romping through classics like “Big Chief”, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”, and “Mess Around”?
The set, opening with the funky instrumental “Doin’ It”, includes outstanding renditions of two classic blues, “Got My Mojo Working” and “Every Day I Have the Blues”. The first is one of Muddy Waters’ best-known numbers, but Fess makes it his own. Waters complained about sexual frustration – “got my mojo working/but it just don’t work on you” — but Fess boasts about his musical prowess — “I’m gonna have all you women/dancing at my command/I ain’t foolin’!” Introducing “Every Day”, he remarks, “I haven’t played it in quite a while”, perhaps forgetting that he’d played it the previous year, at a show for Paul and Linda McCartney later released as the album Live on the Queen Mary. But there are no cobwebs on this version, not with Fess’s boogie-woogie piano, his soulful vocal, and Gregory’s soloing.
In his memoir Under a Hoodoo Moon, Dr. John recalls that “Fess had a thing about getting high on reefer when he played. When he was high as a pine and feelin’ fine, he would be ready to ‘frolic.'” “Come on boys, let’s frolic presto”, he’d say to his band. But, as Dr. John observes, “frolicking was serious business for him, and when he dropped the command on you, he meant it.”
Live in Chicago is the sound of the marvelous musician that was Henry “Professor Longhair” Roeland Byrd frolicking one more time.
By George De Stefano – PopMatters
May 5, 2016