The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicks off its 47th iteration today, April 22. To celebrate its patron saint, we take a listen back to a particularly fierce live version of Professor Longhair's take on "Mess Around."
In 1976, Henry Roeland "Roy" Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair, was almost 60 years old, and his career was on the rise. Of course, it wasn't his first go-round: He'd been a performer since childhood, first tap-dancing on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, then trying his hand at the guitar and drums before finally landing on piano. The piano served him well. Throughout the '40s and '50s, he recorded for both local and national labels songs that are now lauded as New Orleans classics, fusing blues and boogie with Afro-Cuban rhythms (like rhumba and habanera) and boisterous local street-parade sounds.
By the late '60s, though, Fess' field had gone fallow. Though his recordings had become well known and appreciated in blues circles, his health was bad and he gigged rarely, if at all. He sometimes picked up work sweeping the floors at the One Stop Record Shop on South Rampart Street, where records he'd cut were still on the shelves. Fess wasn't exactly missing, but it's at this point in his biography — around 1969 or 1970 — that dueling narratives of discovery turn up. One is that the artist and music fan Hudson Marquez tracked him down dealing cards in a Central City tavern. The other is that a young Quint Davis, who would go on to become the producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, found him at the record shop with the help of Davis' friend Allison Miner, who worked at Tulane University's Hogan Jazz Archive. Miner, who died in 1995, managed Fess' career at the end of his life; the Jazz Archive now houses research materials she was collecting for a biography of the pianist.
The rebirth of Fess is one of the great canonical stories of New Orleans' musical self-mythology. The enduring indie nightclub Tipitina's, named for his composition, was founded in 1977 by a collaborative of young music fans, in large part to give the aging and newly revered star a regular place to play. A massive mural of his face dominates its stage, staring down like Our Great Leader; a bronze bust stands just inside its front door. The house he bought with the proceeds of that new wave of interest has been turned into a museum.
Regardless of who it was that "found" and nurtured Professor Longhair back into fighting shape on the keys, the early '70s were the turning point that made him such an icon. In 1971, he played the second New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival along with guitarist Snooks Eaglin. A year later, his Atlantic singles from the late '40s and early '50s were released as an LP called New Orleans Piano. The following year, he played both the Newport and Montreux Jazz Festivals. Fess was working again, and work revitalized him. In an interview for a posthumous profile of the artist in a 2001 issue of the New Orleans monthly music magazine Offbeat, Quint Davis recalled that Fess "started taking vitamins, eating cheese, drinking milk, wearing glasses, and he was able to walk again and kick the piano."
That renewed vigor is electrically audible on a newly unearthed live recording from the University of Chicago's February 1976 folk festival, released this month by the New Orleans music impresario Carlo Ditta's Orleans Records. (Its liner notes, penned by the legendary poet, activist and hippie John Sinclair, cite the Hudson Marquez version of Fess' "origin" story.) A local radio station had recorded the show; Billy Gregory, Fess' guitarist at the time, supervised the mixing session and hung onto his copy of the tape for decades before bringing it to Ditta, an old friend and (not for nothing) the producer who corralled a laundry list of local R&B legends for New York punk Willy DeVille's 1990 album of New Orleans classics.
The short, hot set captured roughly on tape in Chicago shows Fess in prime form: rolling, rhumba-boogie-woogie piano patterns pounded out with force, but as elegant and swooping as calligraphy, under his signature strange, throaty vocal squawk. The interplay with guitarist Gregory is a highlight of the show. Gregory had come home to New Orleans in about 1974, after a stint with the Bay Area psychedelic-rock band It's A Beautiful Day, and had been Fess' regular sideman since his return. On stage in Chicago, the two players are locked in together, the chugging guitar buttressing the driving piano and then lashing out in wild electric-blues solos, often at Fess' shouted encouragement.
The solo that tops off "Mess Around" is especially fierce, and the inclusion of the song makes for a certain cool symmetry: The composition, written by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, is bubbling over with New Orleans piano DNA. Ertegun wrote it for Ray Charles in the early '50s — but only after a trip to New Orleans, during which a foray to a black nightclub on the other side of the Mississippi turned up Professor Longhair playing as a one-man band. The sides Fess had cut for Atlantic shortly afterward had helped drive the rebirth of his career in their compilation as New Orleans Piano — and here he was in '76, tearing up "Mess Around" at the top of his game during that legend-cementing second act.
Professor Longhair died in early 1980, about four years after the Chicago concert. On this raw tape, you can hear that those years must have been happy ones.
Live In Chicago is out now via Orleans Records.