Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Professor Longhair, the Bach of Rock

I wish I could have been in New Orleans last night to celebrate what would have been Professor Longhair's 98th birthday. His daughter, Pat Byrd, runs a museum in Terpsichore Street which celebrates the life of her famous father and yesterday an event took place in Willow Street to remember Fess - the Bach of Rock, as he was called by Allen Toussaint, and his contribution to New Orleans music. Among those who were there were Dr John and Deacon John so it must have been some evening. New Orleans Woodie Armand St Martin was also there and said on Facebook: 'Had a great time performing several Professor Longhair inspired tunes at the big Professor Longhair birthday celebrations at The Willow in New Orleans, along with a great line-up of New Orleans musicians and fans; produced by Pat Byrd and Jimmy Anselmo with musicians Deacon John, Dr John, Tommy Worrell, J D Hill, Reggie Scanlon, myself and more,'
I visited the museum in October with the other Woodies on our road trip. We were lucky, as the museum has no advertised opening times. We were spotted lurking outside and invited in by Pat who was very welcoming. Fess lived in the house before his death and today it is a shrine to his memory. Pat does everything she can to make sure he is not forgotten - not that this is likely given the great music he left behind and his influence on other New Orleans piano players. I never got to see him play live but his memory lives on in the city's most famous music club Tipitina's. Despite early success with Mardi Gras In New Orleans, recorded originally in 1949, and other successful records such as Tipitina and Baldhead, he was, by 1970, very much down on his luck, living in a decaying wooden hut in South Rampart Street. His rediscovery in 1971 led to appearances at Jazzfest and European festivals such as Montreux and he recorded several albums during the 1970s prior to his death in 1980.
Today, Pat Byrd is determined to keep her father's memory alive. She does it for love and while we were at the museum, looking at photos and memorabilia of her father, she asked for nothing in the way of financial recompense. Each of us was photographed by her standing by a photo of her dad (see photo below), but she wouldn't allow any photos of herself or of items in the museum. She was thrilled to see that I was wearing a Professor Longhair T shirt that I bought during my first visit to New Orleans in 1989. Apparently all her old stock was destroyed by Katrina, so this is now a collector's item!
Fess had little opportunity to enjoy his success and was badly treated in his early years by record companies and others. According to Red Tyler. quoted in John Broven's Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans, 'he was abused and misled by a lot of local people that handled him.' It was only in later life that he found a wide audience, especially in Europe. Today, though, he is remembered with a degree of reverence, and rightly so.
Here's the exterior of the museum.


At 10:50 pm , Blogger john marriott said...

Nice article Nick. I too never saw him live but hoped I would on my first visit to New Orleans in March 1980. Alas he died just days before so never had the opportunity. Fantastically influential musician whose records I never tire of hearing.


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