Professor Longhair ‘Mardi Gras in New Orleans’ 2CD (Jasmine) 4/5

Highly unorthodox and largely self-taught, Henry Roeland ‘Roy’ Byrd, aka Professor Longhair aka ‘Fess’ to die hard fans, could only ever have come from Louisiana and his utterly compelling and individual style combines elements of Cuban rumba and mambo with the blues. In fact he can even whistle a good tune into the bargain. This excellent compilation provides a comprehensive overview of the years 1949-1962, even if the Rhino anthology offers a wider panoramic view of his career as a whole. That said, this new compilation gains in other ways, containing hard to find 78s and 45s and cutting across a slew of independent labels from Federal to RON and RIp, from Atlantic to Ebb, and not forgetting Mercury, Star Talent and Wasco. Professor Longhair belongs to a select number of pianist who have graced the music scene of New Orleans and these include the recently deceased Allen Toussaint, James Booker and Tuts Washington, and at a later stage, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, Art Neville and of course Dr. John, not forgetting ‘Fats’ Domino.
Pride of place belongs to, ‘Go the Mardi Gras’, which has rightly become the title track of this compilation. It typifies the sound that Longhair is famous for and immediately conjures up the festive mood that reigns supreme in the Crescent City. Just as compelling a groove is Tipitina’, with one of the earliest version featured here. The ‘Fess recorded sporadically over the period covered here and switched labels regularly, However, what he may possibly lack in quantity, he most certainly makes up for in the sheer quality of the music. Of note is the early appearance of Mac Rebennack on guitar, later to find fame as his alter ego, Dr. John, on piano, while stalwart accompanist John Boudreaux helped create that percussive sound that is the hallmark of the New Orleans groove.

Only the 1963/4 records for the Watch label are missing from this period, but Professor Longhair would retreat to relative obscurity for the rest of the 1960s before making his comeback in 1971. It is true to say that his ‘rediscovery’ by the late Mike Leadbitter catapulted the ‘Fess to his greatest popularity and therefore his untimely death in 1980, aged sixty-two came as a complete surprise and coincided with the shooting of a documentary devoted to the great pianists of New Orleans. That DVD makes for compulsive viewing and the second half is devoted almost entirely to the funeral and procession that the people of New Orleans laid out for one of their own.

Just one minor quibble that does not detract too much from the package as a whole. The two Wasco sides have been cleaned up from the original vinyl rather than master tapes (probably on longer in existence) and in the process some of the vibrancy of the original recordings has been lost. A case of a little snap, crackle and pop being preferable on this occasion. Otherwise, an exemplary and, in some respects, an innovative selection, most certainly, and guaranteed to keep the feet tapping.

Tim Stenhouse