Big Chief, Part 2: Fess, Earl & Wardell
"Big Chief, Part 2" (E. King/W. Quezergue)
Professor Longhair, Watch, 1964
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
Of the standard, ever-popular songs of Mardi Gras, there are two associated with Professor Longhair, Henry Roeland Byrd: “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” aka “Go To The Mardi Gras”, which he wrote; and “Big Chief”, written by Earl King. Both songs were signature tunes for “Fess” that he almost always performed, any time of year. Since the focus for my week-long lead-up to Fat Tuesday has been Mardi Gras Indian influenced tunes, I’ve picked “Big Chief, Part 2” to close it out.
In 1964, hip songwriter/performer Earl King and arranger/bandleader Wardell Quezergue brought Fess into the studio to record “Big Chief”, which King had written years earlier. They surprised Fess, who hadn’t been active in a while, with a big session, including a large horn section. As it turned out, the song ended up being about five minutes long and was split up on the A and B sides of the record, with Part 1 being instrumental, and Part 2 having Earl King singing the lyrics and whistling as the song faded. He had intended his vocal to just be a guide for the band that Fess would overdub later, but that never happened.
While King wrote the lyrics and the basic song structure, I am sure it was Professor Longhair who devised the finger-tangling piano riff that few people other than he could ever play well, though it has been covered numerous times. Also, it is said that, in rehearsal, Fess showed drummer Smokey Johnson the syncopated beat he wanted by playing it on a cardboard box. Johnson took the quirky, demanding groove in stride and pulled it off flawlessly; but, by the end of the session, his fingers were bleeding.
The song was not a commercial success and even took a few years in New Orleans to catch on as an annual Mardi Gras favorite; but, when it finally took hold, it has had amazing staying power.
The players on this session included Smokey Johnson, drums; Curtis Mitchell, bass; Mac Rebennack, guitar; and, of course, Professor Longhair, piano. The horn section was from Quezergue’s band, the Royal Dukes of Rhythm.