Graded on a Curve: Professor Longhair, Crawfish Fiesta

If Professor Longhair had recorded nothing but ‘59’s “Go to the Mardi Gras” he would still be a national treasure. But fortunately he recorded a whole lot more. And it’s a likely story that record store shelves have been undernourished over the years by the potency of Fess’ musical elixir, but his final album Crawfish Fiesta was a grand attempt to reverse this trend. Alas, it too fell out of print. Alligator Records has done the world a tremendous solid by reissuing this fantastic slab of New Orleans gusto, and if a party where people dress up and cavort is in your future, this record will serve as an ideal soundtrack.

In the development of the vast and diverse musical legacy of New Orleans there is nobody more crucial than Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd, better known to the world as pianist Professor Longhair. Born in 1918, he was old enough to have soaked up formative musical nourishment from the raw energy that radiated like spirit fuel throughout jazz music’s thriving early years (of which New Orleans was the birthplace, of course), but he was also young enough to fall right into the forefront of the formulation of a fresh musical sphere, specifically rhythm and blues, that exploded during the economic and cultural boom period directly after WWII.

The crib notes on the Professor’s widely influential but stridently individualist achievement is that he combined a Caribbean left hand with a boogie-woogie right hand and in so doing became a prime example of 20th Century American Music’s strongest thread, that being Creative Synthesis, a fiber reflective of his country’s status as Melting Pot.

In Fess’ case, this mixture resulted in the ignition and sustainment of countless celebrations all over the city and the globe he called home, either through his magnetic and incomparable performance style or on the justifiably lauded early recordings (now insanely rare and pricey in original form) he made for a handful of labels like Star Talent, Mercury, Wasco, Federal, Ebb, and most famously Atlantic.

While he had only one nationwide hit with 1950’s “Bald Head” (R&B #5), recorded for Mercury as Roy Byrd and His Blues Jumpers, the man did enjoy a surplus of regional success, and his fiery but smooth brilliance touched every important figure in the first three decades of New Orleans R&B, a circumstance that naturally (if slowly) spread his rep far and wide.

He got his live start playing a break between the sets of the legendary Dave Bartholomew, was a contemporary of Smiley Lewis and Fats Domino (proving highly influential on the later) and was directly involved with such indispensible Crescent City names as Allan Toussaint, The Neville Brothers, Dr. John, and The Meters. But by the 1960s, hard times and a big shift in popularity from blues-based material toward the rich modernity of soul music meant the Professor had effectively stopped recording, making his living as a janitor and by gambling.

If down on his luck, his fortunes were naturally going to change. Fess was one of the most fortunate benefactors from the roots revival that began in the late-‘60s, his undiminished playing gracing festival stages first in his home city and later on the road, where he was particularly (and unsurprisingly) loved on the European continent.

And revelatory exposure was provided to countless fresh ears through the release of the simply mandatory New Orleans Piano in 1972, a collection of the man’s ‘50’s sides for Atlantic, a label that proved so vital a catalyst in waxing and widely distributing so much of the era’s R&B gestalt.

But while the Longhaired One’s profile was greatly increased in the ‘70s, his discography during that decade didn’t grow substantially, and what did get recorded was often scarce in his home country or worse remained unissued until after his death. There was Rock ‘N’ Roll Gumbo, released in ’74 and featuring the great Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown on guitar and violin, but that was pressed up through the French Blue Star label, which meant its availability stateside was basically nil.

Live on the Queen Mary, a ’78 show captured at a party hosted by Paul and Linda McCartney was more easily obtained, but by the end of the decade the Professor apparently only had two records in print in the US, a fact that meant New Orleans Piano was the disc on which his stature largely rested. Understandably this fact didn’t sit at all well with those who knew firsthand that this amazing artist still had ten magnificent fingers and much of importance left to say.

So enter Crawfish Fiesta, recorded in 1979 at the behest of Bruce Iglauer’s Chicago-based independent Alligator Records. Fess unexpectedly passed from a heart attack on January 30, 1980, and this LP, issued mere months afterward served notice to anyone predisposed to care that the artist was as crucial in late age as he was in his more untamed younger days.

Alligator Records was an ultimately fitting home for the man’s final studio work, but from my perspective back in the late ‘80s, it was also a somewhat unlikely one. First of all, Alligator was an imprint largely dedicated to enshrining the living producers of the electric Chicago blues, and many of us who had voraciously ate up the still blistering sounds of the label’s flagship band, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, were substantially less enthused by the more sophisto direction that made up the majority of Alligator’s output.

That sum total wasn’t so much invested in slickness as it was just unapologetically professional in intent. Hound Dog aside, Iglauer was generally disinterested in serving up additional helpings of the blues in its raucous, more primal form (that would come later, largely through Fat Possum). He was instead concerned with documenting the far more urbane work (often replete with horn sections) of younger artists and bands that were successfully extending the Chicago blues as a commercial (if still quite regional) entity. However, Iglauer also provided a home for blues vets like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, and Roy Buchanan to strut their stuff without having to contend with someone else’s corporate bottom line. A commendable activity any way it’s sliced.

And it’s in Alligator’s sponsorship of older worthy hands that Professor Longhair’s relationship with the label comes together like a warm handshake of sincere respect and admiration. The man’s music was blues-based after all. Yes, the abovementioned professionalism is here. Hell, none other than Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John plays guitar on this thing, doing a nice job of stepping aside for the master.

If the tough and direct aura of ‘50s-vintage recording techniques undeniably adds a little something extra to early R&B (to say nothing of assorted other sounds from the same timeframe) it’s to the deep credit of producers Andrew Kaslow and Iglauer (with assistance from Rebennack) that they avoided trying to create some kind of well-intentioned, but in the end bogue nostalgia trip. So the association with Alligator shapes up into one of total good sense.

But Crawfish Fiesta also doesn’t err in forcing the issue of Fess’ relevance. They very sensibly understood that putting the man into a class-A studio surrounded by a bunch of sympathetic musicians would take care of itself; the sparks would fly, and all they’d have to do was find the best way to capture them. By extension all we’d have to do was listen to gather that Professor Longhair remained an estimable maestro right up to the very end.

Along the way fabulous chestnuts like opener “Big Chief” and that hunk of loony inspiration “Bald Head” are given terrific readings that display the leaders’ keyboard artistry as being in constant progress. His soloing on “Bald Head” in particular is much different than his playing on the original Mercury 78. But it’s on the brief “Willie Fugal’s Blues” and on the title track that his abilities as a pianist of continual growth are given their best showing.

As the record progresses there are some superb cover selections. Solomon Burke’s “Cry for Me” is given a terrific reading, but the take of his cohort Fats Domino’s “Whole Lotta Loving” goes the farthest in explicating Fess’ absorption of the tradition he helped create while simultaneously driving home his own natural individualism. His loose scat singing on “Whole Lotta Loving” alone makes Crawfish Fiesta’s acquisition an absolute must. And if you already have it, a second copy might just be your future; this fresh edition concludes with a previously unissued bonus track.

Some tough grumps might try to insist that New Orleans Piano is the best example of Professor Longhair’s greatness. Don’t listen to ‘em. The availability of the man’s non-Atlantic ‘50s material has driven home that his work for the Ertegun Brothers wasn’t even the finest stuff he recorded during that period.

If admirable, Atlantic was in retrospect maybe a little too cautious (and hands-on) in their association with this wily genius. During this phase the best approach was to maybe just start taping and get out of his (and the band’s) way. Check out the spectacular work he did for Ebb for proof.

Crawfish Fiesta bookends perfectly with the best of that early material and secures the status of this truly key 20th Century musician. It’s as funky and inventive as it was in 1980, and every home should hold a copy.


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