A Lesson From Fess
"Stompin' With Fess" a/k/a "Doin' It" (Byrd)
Professor Longhair, from Live In Germany
Continuing the birthday tributes – it’s remarkable how many HOTG musicians were born in December – I couldn’t run a James Booker post without also giving props to Professor Longhair, Henry Roeland Byrd. Fess was an extremely important instigator of funk, as it emerged in post-WWII New Orleans rhythm and blues.
After performing as a street dancer early in life, Fess took up the piano and developed an intensely rhythmic and percussive piano style. While pounding the keys, he could kick an upright piano so often and so hard that he put a hole in it. So tricky were his rhythms that he would have to school drummers at sessions or gigs on the proper accompaniment for his songs. There are distinct Caribbean and Afro-Cuban elements in his playing, as well as that homegrown second line parade syncopation. He could also lay down his own quirky take on barrelhouse boogie woogie, do straight slow blues, country songs (!), plus rollicking concoctions of rock ‘n roll, R&B, and funk, such as what I am featuring here today.
This instrumental workout is from a German concert during his first big European tour in 1978, just a few years before he passed on. It’s called “Stompin' with Fess” here, but in his many other recordings of the tune, it is called “Doin’ It”. This is one of the best recordings of the piece, I think, as the whole band is blowing full force; and Fess’ piano is mixed well. With no reliable documentation, I am going to assume that the tour band is similar to others he had for live gigs at this time with David Lee or Johnny Vidacovich on drums, Will Harvey on guitar, George Davis or David Lee Watson on bass, and Andy Kaslow and Tony Dagradi (now in Astral Project) on saxes. Alfred ‘Uganda’ Roberts was his long-time percussionist; but I don’t hear him on this set.
The list of New Orleans pianists who have acknowledged their debt to Professor Longhair is long, but includes Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, James Booker, Art Neville and Huey Smith. But, as I say, it’s not just the piano players he influenced. The uniquely earthy, elemental funk sense that pervaded his playing and writing was infused into the musical bloodstream of everyone who accompanied or heard him and has become a part of the cultural roots of the city and its musicians. Over the years, even before he was finally recognized for his contributions late in life, he had a profound effect on the feel, the attitude of Crescent City popular music. To my mind, you can’t truly understand the essence of HOTG funk without going back to Professor Longhair and studying what he has to teach.