MAY 14, 2017
ARTIST: PROFESSOR LONGHAIR
RELEASED 1964 ON 7” 45
As embodied by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, and other greats, New Orleans R&B was chart-topping business in the late 50s and early 60s. But that music, groundbreaking and iconic, was somewhat more conventional than this Nawlins record.
Professor “Fess” Longhair, born Henry Byrd, was a funky, loose, virtuosic pianist who arguably is the true creator of what we know as New Orleans music, responsible for standards like “Bald Head,” “Go to the Mardi Gras,” and “Tipitina.” He was 46 years old when he cut this record in 1964, having lived a hardscrabble life despite his talent.
On “Big Chief Pt. 2,” his nimble, droplet-like keyboard runs, influenced by gospel patterns and Cuban rhythms, skitter over the proceedings like an ice skater in an earthquake, surrounded by proto-breakbeat drums and polytonal horns. But the Professor didn’t create this insanity alone.
Ulis Gaines, an administrator at local label Nola Records, was credited with writing the lyrics. (He’s listed on the record label as Goines.) It’s apparently the only song he ever wrote, leading one to wonder whether he simply appropriated some local poetry or was listed as author for legal reasons. Some sources posit blues guitarist Earl King, the lead vocalist on the record, with the words.
Wardell Quezergue, also a veteran of the New Orleans scene, composed the music, arranged the backing musicians, and played the shaker. The Professor channeled the chaos and rode herd. The producer was Joe Assunto, a horn player and record store owner who also co-ran the label (Watch) that released “Big Chief Pt. 2.”
The result is…Latin…and it’s Creole…and it’s fully American. It’s a mambo as well as a frantic R&B joint, nearly out of its mind with brassy, aggressive energy. The words appear to be either a salute to the glories of wine, women, and song as sung by a Mardi Gras reveler, or a desperate warning cry of the torture of wine, women, and song as sung by Mardi Gras reveler. Maybe it’s both; that would be very New Orleans.
On this 45, “Big Chief” was split over two sides, part 1 and part 2. Part 2, being a more succinct summing-up of the overall vibe, become a smash in Atlanta, Miami, Charleston, S.C., and (naturally) New Orleans in early spring 1965. (Attempting to envision this on the radio, following a record by Herman’s Hermits or Dean Martin, may result in vertigo.)
“Big Chief” didn’t, and couldn’t, go national, being utterly regional in style and substance. Few people in the north would have known what to do with such unconventional, explosive music. The greater world didn’t really catch up with this New Orleans vibe until Dr. John and Labelle came around in the psychedelic late 1960s.
Professor Longhair died at age 62 in 1980 of a heart condition just as a new album was being released and the filming of a documentary, starring him and New Orleans piano colleagues Allen Toussaint and Tuts Washington, was under way.