Originally released in 1978 on Harvest Records, Professor Longhair’s Live on the Queen Mary documents a legendary performance from the Venus and Mars album release party thrown by Paul and Linda McCartney and Wings in 1975.
On the day of its re-release across digital platforms, on CD and on newly remastered 180gram vinyl LP, we exclusively bring you this fascinating and emotional foreword by Hugh Laurie.
Professor Longhair was born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa, eastern Louisiana. And is there any part of that statement that isn’t already musical? Yes, Bogalusa has four beats, against Bethlehem’s triplet, but the name still has a holy fizz to it. The town was thrown up at the beginning of the last century to feed the local sawmill, a vast mechanical dragon that chewed its way through half a million acres of virgin pine forests across Louisiana and Mississippi. Needless to say, it chewed up some people too. In 1919, a ferocious union dispute grew into The Bloody Bogalusa Massacre, and forced the Byrds towards New Orleans.
I should let you draw your own religious parallels at this point. But it feels dishonest not to say that New Orleans is my own private Jerusalem, and had been for many years before I ever went there. In my teenage mind, the city existed as the birthplace of a divine force on this earth, born in slavery and occupation, and spread through the teachings of…well, New Orleans has had more prophets than it knows what to do with.
He would cannibalise them, taking hammers from one, dampers from another, strings from a third,
The young “Roy” Byrd, so the story goes, learned to play piano on a succession of broken instruments he found abandoned in the back streets of New Orleans. (This was a time, remember, when there were more pianos in the US than baths. Pianos were, literally, litter.) He would cannibalise them, taking hammers from one, dampers from another, strings from a third – an almost perfect parable of his later musical genius – and bring them back to life. There were often keys missing in the middle octaves, where the wear is heaviest, and perhaps that had something to do with the development of his astounding rhythmic feel. I say astounding because, at that time, popular music swung, and would swing for the next thirty years or more. That was just how you did it, how your forebears did it, how music was supposed to sound. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway – all of these giants were swingers, and their audiences grew to hear and love music that way. But Henry Roeland Byrd – he was still some way off his elevation to The Chair – heard something very different.
He called it his gumbo, and I’m absolutely not qualified to list the ingredients. But I can tell you how they taste to me, if you’ll allow it. There’s a Jimmy Yancey left hand, straightened out to allow for Bogalusa instead of Bethlehem (four seats at the bar, stand back all you gently swinging triplets), then a pushing and pulling of those four syllables (hey, ga, shuffle up nice and close to lu), until spaces appear, gravitational rhumba holes that pull the heart
out of your chest. To my ears, then and now, this is music that moves, struts, even marches. (For a while, Byrd had earned a living in a dance trio alongside Champion Jack Dupree and Redd Foxx, and how many kidneys would I give to have seen the three of them together?) There’s a Latin sauce in there too, close to what Jelly Roll Morton called ‘The Spanish Tinge’, and a splash of calypso in the right hand patterns, with sixths and major sevenths suddenly punching you on the shoulder, rousing you from whatever melancholy you thought you were entitled to.
All of this before I was born, and a lot of it before he became Professor Longhair, a name struck by the manager of The Caldonia Inn in 1949. Nowadays, it would be tested by shiny brand executives and, most probably, thrown out – but Longhair stuck with it, often changing the name of his backup bands instead: The Clippers, The Mid-Rifs, The Blues Jumpers and, my own favourite, The Shuffling Hungarians. (I had the temerity to list a recording of Tipitina as “A Hungarian Shuffle” in tribute, and I think I got away with it…)
There was something about that picture that spoke to me. The chin in hand, that laconic look in his eye, and the imagined voice,
At this point I need to confess exactly how shallow I am. If the concept is even possible, I am profoundly shallow. My first encounter with Fess, as his friends called him, was not musical but visual. I saw the cover of Professor Longhair Live On The Queen Mary – a black and white portrait of Fess by Linda McCartney – and bought the record without hearing a note. I don’t think I’d ever done that before, and certainly haven’t since, but there was something about that picture that spoke to me. The chin in hand, that laconic look in his eye, and the imagined voice, calling across the aisle of the record shop: “Kid… yeah, you with the godawful hair and the weird red triangles on your cheeks… listen to me. You can walk on by and live something that’s a little bit like a life, or you can stop and pay attention.”
So I did, and I did. Which is why I will always owe a debt to Linda McCartney for the portrait, and Sir Paul for making that recording happen in the first place. We all do.
Because that live version of Tipitina, oh sweet Lord. If the record had nothing else on it, it would still be a treasure beyond price. An eight bar carousel, spinning around the old Junker’s Blues, starting with a distracted pattern of notes over the opening chord. You picture the master laying out his tools on the bench, every now and then testing their sharpness on his thumbnail. It sounds as if Fess isn’t yet sure he’s going to go through with it – maybe he will, maybe he won’t – but, of course, he is sure. What follows is a musical definition of sure.
To this day, I don’t know who or what Tipitina is or was, and I’ve never wanted to. The sounds were new to me, as were the rhythms, so why not the language too? When you travel to a magical kingdom, and mount the broad steps of the temple in a daze of awe and wonder, you don’t need to hear someone chatting about mortgage rates. (I’m pretty sure Tipitina isn’t about mortgage rates, but you get the gist. I am ignorant, and happily so, of a song I have played or listened to most days of my adult life.)
Ten years went by, the way ten years do, and I was lucky enough to make a comedy pilot for the BBC with a man called Stephen Fry. The producer raised the subject of title music, and before he got to the end of the sentence, I said “Go To The Mardi Gras by Professor Longhair”. There was a pause. I think it was the producer who eventually said “Go to the what?” and Stephen who said “Professor who?” but it might have been the other way round. I said it again, and again, and kept saying it until they agreed to have Fess accompany us on our first ever television outing. Only once, I’m sad to say, because the BBC couldn’t afford the weekly royalties. For the series that followed, they had a famous jazz pianist try and replicate Fess for our own title sequence. The words “replicate Fess” will be making some New Orleans players laugh somewhere.
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Another couple of decades went by, during which… I don’t know, I think I got a haircut. And then a record company asked me to name the most significant venue I could think of from which to launch an album of New Orleans music. As quickly as I’d named Professor Longhair for the title song of our BBC show, I said “The Queen Mary”. And suddenly there I was, in Long Beach, California, bending my knee to the spirits that had gone before.
To play in that room, breathe that same air, sing some of Fess’s songs with The Copper Bottom Band at my back – I don’t have the words to express what that meant. I can only say that, for a few brief hours, I was on holy ground, and the memory of it will live with me forever. Perhaps the only experience that comes close was playing at the temple itself, the old 501 Club on Napoleon Avenue in New Orleans, re-named Tipitina’s in Fess’s honour. At the entrance to the club, there is a fine bronze bust of Fess, his pate shining bright from all the affectionate touches of players and patrons as they pass by. When you go there, as you surely must one day, bow your head to the Professor, will you?
No, Fess, to my mind, was more like the uncle. The one who doesn’t much care what grades you got, but will happily teach you the other stuff of life,
Is it even possible to place Fess on a family tree? He’s not a parent, I don’t think. Among piano players, I can see Fats Domino more easily in that role, raising his brood with a firm but loving hand while also spreading the more conventional 12/8 wisdom far and wide. No, Fess, to my mind, was more like the uncle. The one who doesn’t much care what grades you got, but will happily teach you the other stuff of life: how to dance, throw a punch, fan a deck of cards, hot-wire a car, hold your liquor and everyone else’s. In other words, how to live.
Of course he never had the reach of Fats Domino, because that’s not the way the world works. But, as the late and deeply lamented Allen Toussaint said, in Stevenson Palfi’s magnificent documentary, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together: “You see all the strobe lights now, on your TV? Well, Fess was Edison.”