Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Professor Longhair

  • New Orleans Piano [Atlantic, 1972] B+
  • Live on the Queen Mary [Harvest, 1978] A-
  • Crawfish Fiesta [Alligator, 1980] A
  • The Last Mardi Gras [Atlantic/Deluxe, 1982] A
  • Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo [Dancing Cat, 1985] A-
  • Houseparty New Orleans Style [Rounder, 1987] A-
  • 'Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology [Rhino, 1994] A
  • Live in Chicago [Orleans, 2016] *

Consumer Guide Reviews:

New Orleans Piano [Atlantic, 1972]
Thirteen boogie blues (from sessions in 1949 and 1953) by one of Dr. John's earliest mentors, a local legend named Roy Byrd. The kind of record that's nice to have around because you're not likely to own anything remotely like it, but the liner notes make you wonder why Atlantic didn't trouble to obtain rights to all the stuff on other labels. B+

Live on the Queen Mary [Harvest, 1978]
Roy Byrd's pianistic intricacies--which inspired Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and other New Orleans luminaries--come through better on this live recording than on Atlantic's '50s compilation. This I credit to the hazardously busy (and uncredited) bass-and-drums accompaniment, which provides enough movement down below to allow Prof to really get rolling up top. Blues backup isn't supposed to work that way, but these guys get away with it, and good for them. P.S. Prof sings off-key a lot. P.P.S. It doesn't matter--sometimes it's even cute. A-

Crawfish Fiesta [Alligator, 1980]
Why is this record better than all other Professor Longhair records? Well, the backup is more sympathetic (sweet and sour horns) and the songs well-chosen (rhumbafied blues from Muddy Waters and Jay McNeely and Walter Horton) and Fess's tendency to waver off pitch on the vocals is turned to advantage (cf. Dr. John). Also, there aren't that many Professor Longhair records--two U.S. LPs total for the man who invented modern New Orleans piano. And now he's dead. A

The Last Mardi Gras [Atlantic/Deluxe, 1982]
Recorded live in two nights in 1978 by the odious Albert Goldman, this full-price double-album has a look of crass class--how many "Tipitina"s does the world need? And indeed, a few of the new tunes are genre exercises and many of Fess's vocal deviations fail to qualify as the jazzy fantasias Goldman palms them off as. Nevertheless, his Longhair is better performed (as well as much better recorded) than Nighthawk's Mardi Gras in New Orleans oldies and a lot steadier than Harvest's Live on the Queen Mary. And though the hard, punchy drive of Alligator's Crawfish Fiesta makes for a more consistently exciting record, the lazy insouciance of the tempos and horn parts here sure feels like New Orleans to me. A

Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo [Dancing Cat, 1985]
Everybody should own a Longhair album, and this exceptionally consistent 1974 session--which adds two tracks and a hotter piano mix to the sporadically available French version--won't disappoint. It's got Gatemouth Brown on guitar and fiddle and makes an excellent companion piece to Alligator's peakier Crawfish Fiesta, with which it shares a tough uptempo edge and zero songs, not even "Bald Head" or "Tipitina." It does, however, duplicate a lot of material on Atlantic's endlessly seductive double live Last Mardi Gras. So cogitat emptor, and kudos to none other than George Winston for making such reflection possible in the good old U.S.A. A-

Houseparty New Orleans Style [Rounder, 1987]
If you don't know why Fess is a national treasure of obstinate localism--not rock and roll or blues or even r&b, just Nworlins--these lost recordings from just after his 1971 revival will teach you a lesson. Fess's wobbly vocals and careening piano apotheosized the city's crazy independence the way Allen Toussaint's did (if not does) its pop affability. With eight of fifteen songs otherwise available, novices can skip it if they promise to start somewhere else. Treasure hunters need only be apprized that Snooks Eaglin is on every track and Ziggy Modeliste behind four. A-

'Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology [Rhino, 1994]
A local hero or less for most of his life, rumba boogiemeister Roy Byrd is the greatest rock and roller ever to peak past 50. Yet although all his excellent albums seem to permute "Bald Head," "Tipitina," "Hey Now Baby," the heaven-sent "Big Chief," and a few others into a canon, this two-hour set is where to figure what comes next--the only LP it plows under is Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo, reissued in 1985 by an adoring George Winston. Its strength is '50s singles, all at least near-classic save an overproduced "Big Chief," but I prefer the second disc, culled from the many ad hoc band sessions a belatedly feted 'Fess cut in the '70s. Not blues and not jazz and not exactly rock and roll, not as simple as Fats Domino or as popwise as Allen Toussaint or as schooled as James Booker, Longhair supposedly learned to play on a junked piano with an octave or two of surviving keys, and for the rest of his life he made that compass an infinitely expanding universe. His Latin-tinged time was on a par with Monk's, James Brown's, anyone's, and he was also a clown and a nut. If you've never heard him, you don't know as much as you think you do. He'll kick your funnybone and tickle your ass. A

Live in Chicago [Orleans, 2016]
Noticeably alive even backed by blues bros at folk fest, he could be live-er still ("Big Chief," "Got My Mojo Workin'") *

See Also