Graded on a Curve: Professor Longhair,
Live in Chicago

Prior to his passing in 1980, the New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair reliably delivered the goods to club and festival audiences far and wide. For evidence, please consult Live in Chicago; cut at the University of Chicago Folk Festival on February 1, 1976, it offers a fine dose of the man’s immediately recognizable sound.

Professor Longhair’s 1970s renaissance is one of the sweeter late acts in the whole of 20th century American music; throughout the decade Henry Roeland Byrd was knocking out crowds on festival stages across the USA and Europe, but before the Alligator label’s 1980 release of Crawfish Fiesta the pianist was still primarily known on home stereos for his ‘50s work as collected by Atlantic on their classic ’72 LP New Orleans Piano.

Amid his newfound fortune new Fess material was largely approached with disinterest; as detailed in John Sinclair’s notes for Live in Chicago, he did record with Snooks Eaglin circa ’71-’72, but the results languished on the shelf until Rounder put them out in ‘87 as House Party New Orleans Style (Rhino followed suit four years later under the tile Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge).

Rock & Roll Gumbo paired the Professor with the guitar and violin of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, but it was contemporaneously issued only in France on the Blue Star imprint, and other than Live on the Queen Mary, a ’78 album capturing a performance at a party hosted by Paul and Linda McCartney, there was basically nothing else.

A glance at the flood of posthumous product could leave a novice a tad flummoxed over where to start; the 2CD Mardi Gras In New Orleans – Complete Recordings 1940-1962 on the Jasmine label provides a terrific one stop shop for the early stuff, but for vinyl lovers New Orleans Piano and Crawfish Fiesta are the essential bookends to a splendid if rocky career.

After that it’s up for grabs, and Orleans Records’ freshly waxed Live in Chicago unwinds as nicely as any live Fess these ears have encountered. Taped in a room full of receptive listeners, the set was broadcast on Windy City radio station WFMT-FM and subsequently produced and mastered for release by Carlo Ditta and Billy Gregory, both NOLA musicians and the latter in attendance on the evening in question as lead guitarist in the Professor’s band.

Alongside Gregory the group is filled out by the rhythm guitar of Will Harvey, the bass of Julius Farmer, the drums of Earl Gordon, and of course those ten grand digits; lobes familiar with the Professor’s tenure with Atlantic (as well as the Star Talent, Mercury, Wasco, Federal, Ebb, Ron and Watch labels) and Crawfish Fiesta, which hit racks mere months after his unexpected death in January of 1980, might feel disappointment over the lack of horns, but the omission does little to lessen these dealings.

The small amount of folks recognizing Gregory as a member of the San Francisco-based hippie era psych outfit It’s a Beautiful Day may experience reservations over his input herein, but he keeps any rock scene gratuitousness in check as the assembled players do a sturdy job in support of the Longhaired One’s potent artistry.

Many benefactors of the ’60s-’70s roots revival were frankly past their prime, but that’s not the case with Fess. After a short introduction Live in Chicago illuminates the leader’s nimbleness on the 88s courtesy the rollicking instrumental “Doin’ It.” Not only are the fingers spry, but the composition, an original seemingly entering the pianist’s discography during his comeback (it figures on both House Party New Orleans Style and Rock & Roll Gumbo) suggests an all-around retention of abilities.

As keyboard science gets dished the participants come together and really begin to cook; once the Professor calls out for Billy he responds with additional energy, breadth, and most importantly good taste, an attribute crucial to the music’s success as the strained meanderings of some second-rate blues hack would diminish the proceedings terribly.

Take this album’s reading of Earl King’s “Big Chief” for example; missing the horns from the version cut by the Professor for Watch in ’64, this workout still smokes as the rhythm section remains focused on propelling the track’s infectiousness while avoiding overplaying. Likewise, Gregory’s interjections accent rather than attempt to dominate the tune as Fess gives the boards a glorious handling and his warm vocals bring it all home.

The guitar becomes somewhat busier on “Every Day I Have the Blues,” the increase in licks understandable as it’s a standard most often linked with B.B. King. The rendition here underscores the desire to branch out, though in doing so the charm of the source is retained as it gets infused with ample personality.

The same occurs on side two’s opener “Mess Around,” a number made famous by Ray Charles (though written by Atlantic impresario and Longhair associate Ahmet Ertegun) that became a frequent part of Fess’ repertoire in his reemergence; along with the typically lively piano it’s a nifty showcase for the drumming of Gordon.

Naturally “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” was an inevitable choice for the performance, and this run-through is easily up to snuff. “Got My Mojo Working” serves a roughly similar purpose as “Every Day I Have the Blues” and allows Gregory another opportunity to step out a bit; the spotlight stays firmly on the keys however, with “Fess’s Boogie” wrapping up an LP that’s main fault is its shortness.

No, the playing isn’t as shit-hot as on the best of his ’50s run, but he’s still very much got it, and for anybody looking to add a Professor Longhair live recording to the abovementioned studio necessities, Live in Chicago is a strong bet.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text