Fess-tivities And Booker Keeps On Gwine
Were he still with us, Henry Roeland Byrd, a/k/a Professor Longhair, would have turned 89 just a few days ago, on the 19th. It's been a while since I posted anything by Fess, so I thought I would do one from way back that mentions Christmas, and something from one of his better live recordings. I'm also throwing in one of James Booker's festive, razzled-dazzle numbers for holiday lagniappe. Enjoy.
"Curly Haired Baby"
Roy 'Baldhead' Byrd, Federal 12061, 1952
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I actually posted this one within the first few months of starting HOTG; but only a few die hards will remember that, yet alone still have the cut. In 1951, Fess recorded "Curly Haired Baby", sort of a thematic counterpoint to his ever-popular "Bald Head/She Ain't Got No Hair", along with three other sides, in New Orleans, during a brief fling he had with Federal Records. The liaison resulted in two singles being issued around the start of 1952. The first (12061) had our featured tune, with "K. C. Blues" on the flip, while 12073 paired "Gone So Long" and "Rockin' Wth Fess". The singles were credited to Roy 'Baldhead' Byrd to capitalize on the Mecury recordings he made in 1949. One of those sides was "Bald Head" (shown as by Roy Byrd and the Blues Jumpers), which rose into the R&B top 10 in 1950, becoming Fess' only national hit. But, of the four Federal sides, only "Gone So Long" made any noise, selling fairly well regionally.
Since the Professor continually recycled his material over the course of a career in excess of 30 years, "Curly Haired Baby" is interesting in that he never recorded it again, nor did he play it live, as far as I can tell. Strange, since this is a compelling song and a fantastic performance. The lyrics are good; and Fess' vocal is strong and in control. Then there's that catchy up and down again riff going on in the verses, played by Fess' left hand, and doubled and tripled by the guitar and sax, lending an exotic boogie-woogie feel. On the instrumental breaks, things shift into a rockin' jump blues mode, with the piano pushing and shoving the song along. Holding it all together, the drummer plays a subtly syncopated shuffle underneath, using brushes! An effective New Orleans hybrid, it's a bit more musically sophisticated than some other of Fess' recordings of the era - and even later - with less of that raw, off-kilter edge. I don't know why he left "Curly Haired Baby" behind; but it's a shame it got away for so long. It was re-mastered from a 78 rpm disc by Nighthawk for their 1981 Mardi Gras In New Orleans LP and CD sampler compilation of Longhair's sides from 1949 - 1957.
"Her Mind Is Gone" (Roy Byrd)
Professor Longhair, from The Last Mardi Gras, Atlantic, 1982
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Speaking of recycled tunes, "Her Mind Is Gone" initially appeared in 1949, as the flip side of Fess' first and only hit, "Bald Head", on Mercury 8175. It resurfaced again in 1972, when he recorded it in Memphis at Ardent Studios for a project produced by Quint Davis that was not released at the time but later appeared on the Rhino CD, Mardi Gras In Baton Rouge. From then on, at least, it was a regular part of the Professor Longhair gig repertoire. The final recording of the song appeared on his LP (and later CD), Crawfish Fiesta, released in 1980 by Alligator Records, which Fess did not live to see released, passing away the day before it went on sale.
Today's version is from the 1982 Atlantic LP, The Last Mardi Gras, recorded in 1978 on the Friday and Saturday nights before Mardi Gras (February 3rd and 4th) at Tipitina's, the New Orleans club named after Longhair's well-known song. The last Mardi Gras? Well, the album's producer, British writer Albert Goldman, figured later that it was technically Fess' last Mardi Gras, because a police strike cancelled the celebration in 1979, and Fess died shortly before Mardi Gras the next year. Goldman, then the music critic for Esquire magazine, wrote an article on Longhair pointing out his greatness and the travesty that he was still living and performing in New Orleans, but ignored by record companies and forgotten by the rest of the world. As a result, Atlantic offered Goldman the chance to produce a live recording on Fess. How strange the record business can be. Of course, Goldman knew next to nothing about doing something like that, but was given the green light and a big budget for the project anyway. A large 16 track mobile recording facility was trucked down from Nashville to document the gigs. In the spirit of giving Fess what he wanted to help make it a memorable performance, a baby grand piano was rented; and some fine local musicians* of his choosing were secured to play. Goldman recorded two sets each night and ended up with over four hours of tracks, which were winnowed down to 18 songs for the double LP (later released by Rhino/Tomato on two CDs, Big Chief and Rum And Coke, with additional tracks).
To Goldman's credit, he got Cosimo Matassa to come in and mix down the raw tracks at Sea-Saint Studios for the finished product, the result being that this is a great sounding live recording, definitely the best ever rendered on Professor Longhair with a band. So, despite his being in uncharted waters, Goldman achieved his goal spectacularly well, documenting some priceless performances with Fess in top form on his home turf with a band that could pretty much keep up with him.
On this reiteration of "Her Mind Is Gone", you can feel that distinctly New Orleans funk-sway thing going on. The drums are subdued, and yet work well in interplay with the congas and Fess' always funky keyboard hand jive, as he is provides the main rhythmic drive of any song. He had such a strong, unique sense of groove and mastery of it that anyone who played with Fess successfully just found a way to support and complement him - he didn't need to have anything laid down for him. A follower he was not. From his beginnings, he intuitively brought the Afro-Caribbean feel into his style and kept the always implied funk of his hometown second line street beats alive in his grooves, inspiring generations of musicians to do it, too. At the end of most of his songs, Fess could be heard saying "thank you" very humbly. I wish I could have been at just one of his shows to shout back, "No, Fess, thank YOU!"
*George Davis (THE George Davis!) - bass
'Big Will' Harvey - guitar
David Lee - drums
Alfred 'Uganda' Roberts - conga drums
Anhony 'Tony' Dagradi - tenor sax (solo)
Andrew Kaslow - tenor sax
"Keep On Gwine" (Melvin Lastie)
James Booker, live in Germany
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For a little icing on the cake, I thought I'd toss in this James Booker tune, recorded live at a club in Germany while he was on tour in the late 1970s. Titled several ways at various times on live recordings, "Keep On Gwine" (written by New Orleans cornetist Melvin Lastie), I believe to be correct for this one. I chose it simply to demonstrate and marvel at Booker's strikingly inventive keyboard dexterity. On may songs, he would throw in some flourishes here and there; but 90 per cent of the time, he held back much of what he had. You have to listen to a lot of Booker to begin to appreciate what he could really do, enduring at times his verbal rants, many playful musical trivialities and noodlings, and other idiosyncrasies of his personalty and style. But, when he would let it it rip, his amazing technique could just pour out and wrap you in rapture.
As you can hear even in this brief piece, Booker's piano stylings stand in sharp contrast to what Professor Longhair was about. Compared to Fess, Booker at times can seem almost frivolous, not because he wasn't a monstrous master of the keyboards, but because he was not at all concerned it seems with the groove in service to a fundamental blues/R&B/funk idiom. He left hand rhythm can often seem to have a childlike simplicity as he makes his explorations, sometimes tortured, sometimes ecstatic, of a multi-verse of musics, threading together classical, ragtime, blues, rock, pop, schlock, latin, and certainly more I am forgetting, into a stream of consciousness (make that a torrent of consciousness) spew that flowed whenever he would sit at a piano as a solo performer (as a session player and sideman, and on organ, he was much more controlled). Like Longhair, he played a fairly stable repertoire of tunes during his solo career. Those songs were just starting points for his spontaneous performance art. Neither he, and certainly not his audience, had any idea where a song or a gig would lead or where it would end up. Would he be dazzlingly brilliant, distracted and erratic, or stop in the middle of a song and leave the stage, perhaps to go cop some dope, or all of the above? That was the show. As I said in another post on the man, I only got to see him perform live one time, at the Maple Leaf Bar, where he had a regular gig for years. It was within a year of his death. There were just a few people in the place; and he aborted more songs in midstream than he completed. He would just get up and wander off muttering to himself, returning in few minutes, longer at times, to start another one. It was fascinating to watch, if you like entertainment train wrecks. My girlfriend at the time thought I was nearly as crazy as Booker for sitting there enduring it. But, having missed Fess live, I just somehow knew that I needed to be there to try to find out what he was about. Of course, I'm still trying to do that.
"Keep On Gwine" is from a good night, a very good night by the sound of it. All the European performances he recorded seem to be that way. If you're intrigued, try to find some of that; and check out the YouTube videos of Booker, too, for a few glimpses of him in action. Before I forget, his birthday was on the 17th. He would have been 68.