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In 1971, Henry Roeland Byrd (Professor Longhair) was seven years removed from the recording scene in New Orleans. In bad health, malnourished, and penniless, Byrd’s magic fingers pushed a broom in a local record store, a forgotten man, while his songs, such as “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” and “Big Chief” were among the most popular records spun during the Carnival season in the Crescent City.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage founder George Wein insisted that Professor Longhair, if he was still alive, needed to be a part of the Festival, and after a nearly year-long search, two fans, Quint Davis and Alison Kaslow, finally located Byrd just in time to launch his second career with a well-received appearance at the 1971 Festival.
After that performance, it only made sense to try and get Fess in the studio. The live music scene in New Orleans at the time was not as lucrative as it is today and Byrd’s options were pretty much limited to neighborhood bars and parties.
The recordings, done in 1971 in Baton Rouge and in 1972 in Memphis, were originally intended as demos for a future record, but they capture perfectly the music that Fess played in those days. Sadly these tracks were not released until 1987 (six years after Longhair’s death), when Rounder Records released 15 of the 34 tracks on Houseparty: New Orleans Style.
Fess’s Latin-tinged boogie woogie blues riffs, coupled with the incredible fretwork of guitar wizard Snooks Eaglin (who accompanied Fess on his initial Jazz Fest appearance and was one of the few guitarists he ever partnered with), were an unbeatable combination, as they reprised such Longhair classics as “She Walk Right In,” “Tipitina,” “Big Chief,” and “No Buts and No Maybes,” in addition to standards like “Cabbagehead” and “Every Day I Have The Blues” that, although composed by other artists, were given the Professor Longhair sound.
Eaglin even gets a chance to step out front on the funky instrumental "'G' Jam."
The rhythm sections for these sessions were also legendary, consisting of Will Harvey, Jr. on bass and Shiba on drums for the Baton Rouge session and Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste with George Davis on bass for the Memphis session. Fess didn’t have much patience with most conventional drummers, but Shiba (who was also a close friend and gambling partner) and Modeliste were two of his personal favorites and, probably due to their unconventional styles, they complimented his unusual keyboard style perfectly.
The late Robert Palmer, noted musical scholar and author of Deep Blues, called Houseparty: New Orleans Style “the finest of Fess’s post-comeback albums” and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. It is definitely his most blues-oriented, features probably the best set of backing musicians he ever had, and he plays with such exuberance, it’s as if he was afraid he would never get the chance to play, much less record, again.
The remainder of these sessions was finally released four years later, in 1991, by Rhino as Mardi Gras In Baton Rouge. The songs on this album are mostly old New Orleans R&B classics (“Jambalaya,“ “Sick and Tired,“ “There is Something On Your Mind,“ “Whole Lotta Loving,” and a nifty Fats Domino medley) interpreted in the unique Professor Longhair style, along with some of Fess‘s classic tracks revisited (“Mardi Gras In New Orleans,” “Tipitina“, “Rum and Coca Cola,” “Hey Now Baby“), plus there are several tracks from the Memphis session that include a horn section consisting of New Orleans legends Alvin Batiste (tenor sax and arranger), Edward "Kidd" Jordan (baritone sax), Willie Singleton and Clyde Kerr (trumpets).
These tracks are just as impressive as the Rounder release, but will be more familiar to longtime fans. Though Professor Longhair played most of these songs on dozens of albums, they never sounded the same. Each had its own eccentric little twists and turns that made it different from the other versions.
Although everything Professor Longhair recorded is worth owning, these two discs capture some of his most intense and energetic playing, which is really saying something.
-- Graham Clarke
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