Tipitina – Professor Longhair
Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla
Tra ma tra la la
Tipitina’s nightclub in New Orleans
It’s the sound of New Orleans. That cuban rhumba habañera boogie-woogie plinky plonky syncopated piano rhythm that lurches from his fingers into your bones. His voice is twisted, looping, gutteral, lyrical nonsense emanating therefrom. It is unique, too unique to be popular, although others found a way to play his style commercially. It is a lonely twisted tree growing out of the mangrove swamp, steamy and heavy, gnarled and semi-tropical, earthy and wet.
I can’t remember my way into the music of New Orleans, but it was late 80s sometime, either a Dr John concert or a book I found, possibly a compilation album, a documentary on the TV ? Simon Korner had Dr John – The Night Tripper’s – 1st LP Gris Gris when I met him aged 14, but it didn’t really hook me. The salty funk of the delta took another 15 years to seep into my pores. Once it does, it takes hold, like voodoo smoke, never to be fully exhaled. I think the first New Orleans album I bought was Smiley Lewis‘ Greatest Hits – another piano player from that city of pianos, which included the songs I Hear You Knocking and Blue Monday, both more successfully covered by Fats Domino (see My Pop Life #126). But I’m starting to suspect that the LP pictured above was next – Professor Longhair : New Orleans Piano. The New Orleans R’n’B sound was forged by Dave Bartholomew and others, (including Longhair) and has a Cuban influence you can hear in the rhythm mainly – that “rock’n’roll” riff from Country Boy, Bartholomew’s 1949 single, would be repeated endlessly throughout the 1950s on Shake Rattle & Roll, Rock Around The Clock and hundreds of other songs. Musical historians reckon that Cuban/Mexican bandleader Perez Prado was influential, he who popularized the mambo. Without going into the mathematics and bar-lines of all the different shuffles, the geographical alignment of New Orleans and Havana, and the twice-daily steamboat that traversed the Caribbean from the 1850s onwards, meant that musical cross-fertilization was inevitable, and fecund. Ragtime, jazz and boogie-woogie all originated in the Crescent City, and it was called Music City until someone decided that Nashville could steal that title, if not the soul of the place. Not even Hurricane Katrina could do that.
In early 1992 Jenny and I were in Los Angeles for the premiere of Alien 3, directed by David Fincher. The following day I had a meeting with director Herb Ross for his next feature Undercover Blues. Perhaps the fluff & fizz around Alien convinced him, but I was offered the role of Leamington, number 2 bad guy to Fiona Shaw‘s evil villain. It was a comedy, and it was to shoot mainly in New Orleans. I had a date that I wasn’t available on – my wedding day, July 25th. Rather incredibly (in hindsight) the band we got together to play the wedding party in the evening, consisting of people I’d gone to school with, played pretty much an hour of New Orleans R’n’B. This wasn’t my choice (I’d asked for Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Tamla) but Andrew Ranken‘s, who was our singer. Fair enough, we enjoyed the gig and the rehearsals (see My Pop Life #126) and then a few days later we’d flown out to New Orleans itself for our honeymoon, and a few days work on an MGM movie. Serendipity chance and luck.
New Orleans is made of music and food and drink. Our hotel room at Wyndham’s (or Westin?) had a lovely bowl of fruit, a bottle of champagne in an ice-bucket and a card from production congratulating us on our marriage and welcoming us to Louisiana. We were yards from Bourbon St and the French Quarter, but not quite in it. It stays up late. The next few weeks were a rather wonderful blur of eating, drinking and live music, mixed in with a little work now and again. Herb Ross turned out to be a bit of an arse, (shouting at high volume to me and the whole crew : “Ralph ! Ralph, you’re doing exactly what I asked you NOT TO DO!!!”) as did Dennis Quaid, but Kathleen Turner was great, and so was Fifi Shaw and they would come out dancing with the crew in the evenings, and take the piss out of the director in the daytime.
It’s a fantastic city. Famous restaurants have lines outside to eat the food – no thanks, we’re not in prison. We ate with Fiona Shaw, but mainly with each other. We visited the Preservation Hall which presents a musical history of New Orleans jazz, we walked through the muggy streets, perspiring gently, we rode the St Charles Streetcar named Desire up to the Garden District and saw the mansions and spanish moss of the light-skinned creoles and white bourgeousie. We saw the legendary marching bands, a funeral parade, we saw live jazz most nights, soul music, honky tonk and country on other nights. And, eventually, we visited the legendary nightclub Tipitina’s on Napoleon St, out near Metairie Cemetery where the dead are buried above ground to protect them from the high water table. That Tipitina’s, referenced by Professor Longhair in this song. Hot, vibrant, steamy, pulsing with tourists and locals alike eating beignets, jambalaya, crawfish pie, filet gumbo…
Professor Longhair was born Roy Byrd in 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He learned to play on a piano missing quite a few keys, possibly contributing to his unique style, and formed a band called The Shuffling Hungarians in 1949. You love him already don’t you? He wrote and recorded his two major signature tunes in this period – Tipitina and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. He would re-record them both in 1974 after spending ten years as a janitor during the 1960s and gambling himself into poverty. He also recorded the standards Mess Around, Jambalaya and Rockin’ Pneumonia, and the songs Cry To Me and Junco Partner which we’d played at our wedding. He had a huge influence on the N’Awlins boogie-woogie piano style, happily admitted to by Dr John, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino and others. He passed away in 1980.
Professor Longhair’s image dominates the stage at Tipitina’s
I guess it’s the crossroads thing – between north america and the caribbean, between France and America, between black and white, between Africa and Europe, but New Orleans has an atmosphere that you can’t find anywhere else in North America, or indeed anywhere else that we’ve been. One of my favourite moments was paying for some vinyl in a record shop on Canal Street, being asked where we were from and asking the same question of the shopkeeper. He was from New Jersey, but said he chose to live in New Orleans because it was the capital of music in North America, perhaps the world. He added for context that had he lived a century earlier he might have chosen to live in Vienna (see My Pop Life #157). The mix, the gumbo, the racial blurring – the character of the place is live and let live. And the music which has come out of the place – from Huey ‘Piano’ Smith to the Neville Brothers, Little Richard to Lloyd Price, Allen Toussaint to Lee Dorsey and all the cajun twisters Queen Ida, Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco and Rockin’Dopsie, back to jazz greats Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, has been the funky nutrient-rich sound has that fed american popular music for over 100 years. If you haven’t been there yet, make a date.
Original from 1953 :
from 1974 :
Fess explains his lineage and plays Tipitina for us:
sadly this film was taken down by someone who wants to own things rather than share them