Fess' Lost Mardi Gras In New Orleans
"Mardi Gras In New Orleans" (Roy Byrd)
Professor Longhair and His Shuffling Hungarians, Star Talent 808, 1949
After mentioning this original recorded version (78 rpm) of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” in the previous post on Joe Lutcher’s “Mardi Gras”, I thought I’d put it up, too. I can’t say that either Professor Longhair or Lutcher directly influenced the other in the writing of their tributes to Fat Tuesday; all I’m pointing out is that there are similarities between the two songs in terms of subject matter and rhythm – plus both were recorded and released the same year, with Lutcher’s coming first. Just makes me curious.
As discussed above, Lutcher's “Mardi Gras” has a remarkable rhythmic groove with a decidedly Latin slant to it through the percussive elements laid atop syncopated march drumming that would be familiar to New Orleans revelers. You hear in Longhair’s tune, too, syncopated drums and a Latin tinge that is more subtle, as it comes through the rhythm of his left hand bass notes on the piano, rather than percussion accompaniment. This Caribbean and ultimately African undercurrent has long run through New Orleans music and was also tapped by the great Jellyroll Morton much earlier. Through his own creative intuition, Longhair early-on incorporated blues/rhythm and blues proto-funk and a Latin feel directly into his playing style, which he called “blues rhumba” in one song title. And, you can hear the result on this posted track, his first commercial release.
Of course, as I mentioned, “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” (#808, credited to Professor Longhair and His Shuffling Hungarians) and its follow-up (#809) were quickly withdrawn and shelved by the label, Star Talent out of Dallas, Texas, due to use of non-union musicians on the session. So, hardly anybody heard either of them; but Longhair had been making waves locally as a broken-mold musician through his club gigs, even before that. Following the Star Talent debacle, he cut some sides for Mercury near the end of 1949, resulting in a top ten R&B chart hit in early 1950, “Baldhead” (#8175, as Roy Byrd and His Blues Jumpers), which was a remake of a tune he had cut for Star Talent, “She Ain’t Got No Hair”. While that number was still in the charts, Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, who was in town scouting talent, induced Longhair to into a now famous session where Fess recorded some classic sides, including a remake of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans”, which became his first 78 (#897) for the label. Credited to Roy ‘Baldhead’ Byrd to capitalize on his current hit, Fess’ Mardi Gras song was popular locally, but did not break nationally. Several other singles on Atlantic were issued on him, one as Professor Longhair & His Blues Scholars, another as Roland Byrd (his full name was Henry Roland Byrd); but, when these did not do well outside of the city either, Atlantic went on to other history making, before returning in 1953 to do another session on him.
Professor Longhair’s quirky rhythmic sense proved a challenge to many drummers he played with over the years, as he was way ahead of his time with time; and only the best funky drummers could ever fathom him. But, combined with unique piano key running, his rhythmic thrust profoundly influenced much of the music of his hometown right up to the present. And certainly it is he and not Joe Lutcher who is remember and given credit, which is as it should be. After all, however hip and clever (even influential) Lutcher’s “Mardi Gras” was at the time, it was a one-off thing, whereas Fess’ unique style from the start was simply who he was and how he expressed himself musically; and he played that way until the day he died, some thrity years after his first recording date.