Musicians take to the stage in tribute of Professor Longhair
24th September 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Fess House Party Benefit
Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John has fond memories of hanging out with Professor Longhair, Henry Roland Byrd, at Fess’ house at 1738-1740 Terpsichore Street in Central City. Longhair purchased the home in 1979 when success finally caught up with the innovative, rhythm and blues pianist and vocalist who remains legendary. The opening of Tipitina’s, which was named for one of Fess’ most popular songs, in 1977 helped boost the career of this highly influential, eclectic artist who was proud to buy his first home. He died, too soon, on January 30, 1980 at the age of 61.
“He was happy,” remembers Rebennack, who headlines an all-star benefit, Fess’ “House Party New Orleans Style” on Saturday, September 29, 2012 at Tipitina’s. Proceeds will go toward the renovation and preservation of the family home.
“He had a chair where he could press the buttons to turn the record player on all on one arm,” Dr. John continues. “On the other arm he had buttons to press to kill bugs. There were so many little buttons for this thing and that thing. He was sitting there ‘chairin’’’ just pressing buttons. Miss Alice (Fess’ wife) used to cook for him and sometimes he would cook for her. He was an off the hook guy.
Professor Longhair and Alice’s daughter, Patricia Walton holds the title to the two-story building. Following the renovation, she plans to live on the second floor with her son, Ardell, who is also a musician. “That was Fess’ favorite sprout,” Rebennack says in a dialect all his own of Patricia.
It is anticipated that the commercial, street-level space will be utilized as a museum of sorts to house memorabilia from Professor Longhair’s remarkable career. The Tipitina’s Foundation, the United Way and Project Homecoming have joined forces on the project with each applying their own expertise to get the job done. For instance, Project Homecoming has the ability to recruit volunteers for carpentry work and the like. Architect Rick Fifield, who it is said is working for “extremely discounted” compensation, is responsible for the design.
“I think it’s a historical monument,” Dr. John declares, “and it should be put together. I think if somebody was really hip, they’d put his chair back in it with all the f….n’ wires and the record player and radio. It’s like hysterical; it wasn’t just anybody it was Byrd. He was a first. In the same way Crawford (Sugar Boy) had some positive shit, Fess always had some positive underneath shit. He just came at you in a different way. I had some of the most kick times hanging with Byrd.”
Saturday night’s benefit includes performances by pianists Dr. John, Jon Cleary and Ellis Marsalis. Bassist George Porter heads what will undoubtedly be a stellar band backing up the keyboardists. Saxophonist Donald Harrison, who is the artistic director of the Tipitina’s Foundation Internship Program, will lead the student-filled Tip’s Interns Orchestra. Showtime is 8:30 p.m.
Harvest the Music
“So we’re doing a good gig then,” says Dr. John on learning that the proceeds from the food and beverages sold during his Wednesday evening performance at Lafayette Square benefit the very worthy Second Harvest Food Bank. The pianist and vocalist will be leading his own band, the Lower 911, at the gig with special guest, pianist/vocalist Jon Cleary.
Dr. John has been touring for the last three months with Cleary as the featured artist. It’s not the first time these two talents have teamed up to tour. “Way back when, I took him on the road in Europe after this drummer, an Irish kid pulled my coat about him,” Rebennack recalls. Cleary, who played guitar with the group then, clarifies the statement saying that it was 1983, he was 19 and the “kid” was a terrific drummer named Kieran O’Conner.
“He turned out to be a good little guitar player and keyboard player,” says Dr. John of Cleary. “And that drummer could really double-clutch.”
During this summer’s tour and as he will at the Harvest the Music show, Cleary primarily mans the electric keys with Rebennack on the acoustic piano. Both musicians began their musical journeys as guitar players and offer audiences a taste of their alter egos at the shows.
“It’s fun to switch around with him,” says Cleary, who features Dr. John on his latest CD, Occapella.
With Dr. John, there’s never any telling what direction a set list might take.
“I’m playin’ shit from every record,” Rebennack says. “Every day I write a different show. You’ve got to keep the guys on their toes a little bit. That’s what I’ve been doin’ for a gang-and-a-half years. I try to write up a set that wakes these mother f*****s up. I figure if I can wake them up, maybe they’ll keep me awake. And maybe they won’t but who knows until you get there.”
The free Harvest the Music Series continues each Wednesday through October 24, 2012. This week Natalie Mae and Johnny Sansone open at 5 p.m.
Road Trip Tribute
Henry Roeland Byrd was born on December 19, 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. For the first time, there will be a major event to recognize the birthplace of the great pianist and vocalist Professor Longhair. The Bogalusa Blues and Heritage Festival debuts on Saturday, September 29 at Bogalusa’s Cassidy Park. Artists include such notables as guitarists Tab Benoit and Kenny Neal, vocalist Luther Kent and more.
There will be a special tribute to Fess, whose career kicked off when he moved to New Orleans in 1948 and began working at the original Caledonia in the Treme. (It was demolished when Armstrong Park was built). Onboard to celebrate Professor Longhair will be some artists who had the privilege of working with him including percussionist Uganda Roberts and drummer Johnny Vidacovich.
Gates open at 10 a.m. and admission is $10. Children under 12 are free. For more information go to www.bogalusablues.com.
This article originally published in the September 24, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.