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December 2015

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Professor Longhair
Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo
Dancing Cat Records

Professor Longhair

When Professor Longhair arrived in Bogalusa, Louisiana to begin recording what would eventually become Rock ‘N’ Roll Gumbo, it had been ten years since he had released a record of any kind. For an artist of his status, this bordered on criminal, but the great piano man had languished in obscurity for years, working as a janitor to support himself, sweeping out record stores where his own recordings once were sold. He was booked to perform at the 1971 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and that appearance served to rejuvenate his career as a performer.

Just three days before the Bogalusa sessions, Fess’s house in New Orleans burned to the ground and he lost everything that he had. Whether this affected him or not was unclear based on his studio work, because he played like a man possessed, charging through blues, boogie, calypso, and R&B with equal dexterity. He played many New Orleans standards, most of which he was originally responsible for; “Hey Now Baby,” “Meet Me Tomorrow Night,” “How Long Has That Train Been Gone,” “Dr. Professor Longhair,” “Tipitina,” and his anthem, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” He plays all of these songs with such enthusiasm and passion that you can’t help but be moved, and to move, when you hear them.

Longhair also does some impressive reinterpretations of other classics, such as the Ray Charles instrumental, “Mess Around,” which he attacks at breakneck speed. This particular reading of “Junco Partner” (a song he recorded multiple times) is one of his best, and he works wonders with Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and Little Walter’s “Mean Old World,” two songs seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum, but transformed into Crescent City classics by Fess.

Key in the success of Rock ‘N’ Roll Gumbo is the presence of several essential backing musicians, beginning with the percussionists Alfred “Uganda” Roberts (congas) and Sheeba, a.k.a. Edwin Kimbraugh (drums). Fess liked to train his percussion men himself, often starting from scratch, and he had trained Sheeba nearly a quarter century earlier. Bass player Julius Farmer was also essential to the proceedings, and was a fresh-faced youngster right out of music school at Southern University. Another key ingredient was at guitar. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was in town, having just recorded an album and he and Fess bonded, both personally and musically.

Believe it or not, the disc almost didn’t see the light of day in the U.S. Released in France and other European countries in 1977, the album saw very limited distribution, even after the Professor passed away in January of 1980. In 1985, jazz pianist George Winston was able to reissue it on his Dancing Cat Records label, with remixing and remastering, plus the addition of two previously unreleased songs. From that point, the album enjoyed wider distribution.I even remember seeing it in the Record and Tape Tent during my first visit to Jazz Fest in the mid ’80s.

Anyone who enjoys New Orleans music, particularly piano, should have Rock ‘N’ Roll Gumbo in their collection. Professor Longhair recorded many memorable albums during his lifetime, but this easily ranks with the best of his work.

--- Graham Clarke
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