Alison Fensterstock. Your purchase helps support NPR programming. Professor Longhair. Courtesy of Orleans Records hide caption.
To Cosy - I Will Give You My Love its patron saint, we take a listen back to a particularly fierce live version of Professor Longhair's take on "Mess Around. InHenry Roeland "Roy" Byrd, better known as Professor Longhairwas 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 or — 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. Miner, who died inmanaged Fess' career at the end of his life; the Jazz Archive now houses research materials she was collecting for a Professor Longhair - Mess Around 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 compositionwas founded in 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.
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 issue of the New Orleans monthly music magazine OffbeatQuint Professor Longhair - Mess Around recalled that Fess "started taking vitamins, eating cheese, drinking milk, wearing glasses, and he was able to walk again and kick the piano.
Live In Chicago Orleans Records hide caption. That renewed vigor is electrically audible on a newly unearthed live recording from the University of Chicago's February 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. The short, hot set captured roughly on tape Professor Longhair - Mess Around 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 Professor Longhair - Mess Around with guitarist Gregory is a highlight of the show. Gregory had come home to New Orleans in aboutafter 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 Professor Longhair - Mess Around 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 The Felice Brothers - The Felice Brothers — 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 earlyabout four Professor Longhair - Mess Around after the Chicago concert.
On this raw Whos For Lunch Today - Albert Hammond - The Free Electric Band, you can hear that those years must have been happy ones.
Live In Chicago is out now via Orleans Records. Accessibility links Skip to main content Keyboard shortcuts for audio player. Don't Tell Me! NPR Shop. Facebook Twitter Flipboard Email. April 22, AM ET. Amazon iTunes. Enlarge this image. Courtesy of Orleans Records.
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