December 15, 2005

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.


Blogger Red Kelly said...

"The Bach of Rock", baby!

4:27 PM, December 15, 2005  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Fess is best!

12:36 PM, December 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Fess play in New Orleans only a year or so before his passing. That performance was the moment when I became a fan. Back then there was a record shop over near the French Market where I picked up a couple albums by Professor Longhair with the allowance I had saved up. I now have many Professor Longhair CD's in my collection.

8:21 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, Carl. While I saw some great New Orleans music back in the 1970's, I never got to see Fess live. I can understand how seeing him could make almost anyone an instant fan.

About Fess on CD: He did not have a big repertoire of songs, as one can tell by looking at track listings. Some versions them are better than others, especially live, depending on the band, etc. So, try to listen before you buy. You can't go wrong with his final studio LP, Crawfish Fiesta, if you don't have that, get it. I also recommend finding his early sides for Star Talent, Mercury, Atlantic, and Ebb, which have been comped on varous CDs (not always in his name, though - some are on collections like the big Mercury box set or Specialty label comps) over the years - not that those are all still in print; but one can still find 'em here and there.

9:36 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger The Reaper said...

Dan - I suspect you've already heard, but for your readers, some sad news out of NOLA: Bonerama's Brian O'Neill died of a heart attack on a gig Thursday night. :-(

7:30 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

No, I had not heard. I saw Bonerama in Memphis Thankgiving weekend. Brian will be missed up front on the line. That is really too bad; but thanks for letting me (us) know, Reap. There's a short notice up on their website.

8:58 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rhino Records released a two-CD box set of Professor Longhair music back in 1993. I believe it's out of print now, but you could probably find a copy on ebay. Don Snowden wrote the historical information in the set's booklet. I highly recommend it if you can find it.

5:19 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More sad news: the man who did as much as anyone to bring Fess' music to a wider audience has died. Stevenson J. Palfi, who produced the award-winning documentary "Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together" about Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington and Allen Toussaint, took his own life in his home on Banks St. in Mid-City on December 14.

6:24 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

I've neglected mentioning that fine documentary. It is a must see for any fan of New Orleans music and Fess, and for piano players in general. I was not aware that Mr. Palfi was no longer with us.

9:08 PM, December 18, 2005  

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