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Professor Longhair and his eternal Last Mardi Gras

by Dave Heaton

Nowadays, Professor Longhair's status as a legend has been cemented. Many of his albums are widely available, and he's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early inspiration for rock. He's often given titles like "The King of New Orleans Piano" or, as New Orleans piano legend Allen Toussaint called him, "the Bach of rock." His lengthy career and colorful life story (the one where he goes from a local musical legend to a poor janitor in a record store to an underground music hero to a worldwide musical legend) have been pretty well documented.

He's a legend in many circles, for sure, but it's still important to call attention to what made him so great: his music. It's especially relevant because now, 20 years after his death, several years after his Hall of Fame induction, his best albums seem really underheard. And what I consider to be by far his best album, The Last Mardi Gras, is currently not in print, and has never been released on CD. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The uninitiated might want to know more about Professor Longhair and his music. Born in 1918 as Henry Roeland Byrd, Longhair had a 30+ year career (from the late 1940's to 1980) playing piano and singing songs that fit into the genre that's often called New Orleans music (you know, Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, etc.), a mixture of jazz, blues, R&B and all sorts of other things. In Professor Longhair's case, the "other things" are his voice and his style of playing piano. In the Last Mardi Gras liner notes, producer Albert Goodman writes about Longhair's interesting sounding vocal style: "To say that he has a distinctive style would be to miss the point completely. The fact is that Professor Longhair is one of those highly imaginative performers who throw their voice all over a song, producing a kind of vocal fantasia that is analogous to the play of jazzman's horn." His unique style of playing piano was described by Longhair himself as a mixture of "rhumba, mambo and Calypso." This all adds up to music which is familiar, using common instruments and musical genres, but completely unlike anything else. His music sounds to me like dance music and the blues, a sort of odd combination. He plays all over the piano, leading with both hands, pounding rhythms and melodies left and right. His music is upbeat, the perfect party music. This is probably why he played at Mardi Gras nearly every single year of his music career, up to two years before his death in 1980.

One interesting thing about Professor Longhair's musical legacy is that he played nearly the same songs on every album. Seriously. He had a reservoir of 30 or so songs that he pulled from for his entire career. Some songs came and went over the years, but a good number of the songs he played at his first recording session, in 1949, also appear on albums and live recordings he made in the years right before his death. This might sound like laziness, but it's something much more interesting than that. It's a stab at perfection, at constantly working with the same fantastic songs until they get better. And better. And better.

And boy did he get better. I have nothing against New Orleans Piano, the album collecting his earliest recordings. Nor, for that matter, do I have anything against any Professor Longhair album that came after that one. To be honest, any album you pick is up by Professor Longhair will be a great purchase. Still, as the years go by, Longhair sounds much more assured, both in his piano playing and his singing, and, in general, he sounds like he's having a lot more fun playing. His playing is looser, more comfortable, and therefore there's more room for creativity. Not only did his voice get "better," technically speaking, over the years, but he sang both more expressively and seemingly with more ease, in the later years. I think there are many musicians who have grown musically as they've added the years. But with Professor Longhair it's so easy to hear in the works he's left behind, mostly because they have so many of the same songs. You can take "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and compare versions made in 1949 and 1978 (and many in between), and see how the song has changed.

In February of 1978, Professor Longhair played what would become his last Mardi Gras party, at the club Tipitina's (named after Longhair's classic song "Tipitina") and recorded the album The Last Mardi Gras, released on Elektra in 1982, after Longhair's death. I admit to not hearing every single Professor Longhair album, but of the 10 or so that I've heard, this is by far my favorite, for many reasons. First, The best Longhair albums are always the live albums. It always sounds like he really shined, and really felt at home, when playing live, especially in his hometown of New Orleans. And the band he plays with here sounds fantastic, a bunch of accomplished musicians, and includes two saxophone players, who add nice textures to a few of the songs. Towards his career's end, Longhair seemed to be working with more additional instruments. Some of the songs here (and some others) also have horns on the fine Longhair album "Crawfish Fiesta," his final studio recording. The horn arrangements on some songs on The Last Mardi Gras are especially ingenuous. They add new hooks and hidden melodies to the songs. Take, for example, Longhair's staple rendition of Hank Williams' "Jambalya." Every time I hear this version of the song, the part that sticks in my head, despite Longhair's great delivery and the song's catchy lyrics, is the horn licks the saxophone players have added in the background. But most importantly, here Professor Longhair sounds like a man at the top of his game. From start to finish, the album perfectly captures what Professor Longhair's music was all about. Since it's a double album, with 19 songs, most of his "classic" songs are here. Throughout his career, he played a mix of his own songs and songs written by others. The best of both are here, including "Big Chief," "Cry to Me," "She Walks Right In" (which here segues into "Shake, Rattle and Roll"), "Hey Now Baby," "Carnival in New Orleans," and many more. His piano playing really shines on a few of the instrumentals, like "Rum and Coca Cola" and "Boogie Woogie." He kicks off both songs with a really elegant, shimmering manner of playing.

Overall, The Last Mardi Gras is both a really fabulous tribute to Longhair's musical legacy and one great party album. But, as I mentioned, it's never been released on CD. "Why even mention it, then?", you might ask. Well, because though it might be a "lost" album, it really, really deserves to be found. I found my copy at a local library, which still has a ragtag collection or phonographs. Seriously, these days you never know where you'll find a rare or lost album.; I've found rare albums in clearance bins at mall clearance stores. Of course, it's a shame that this sort of hunting even has to be done, that important musical documents become almost nonexistent because record labels stop pressing them. Maybe some day, an independent reissue label will be convinced to be it out. Until then, however, a decent number of Professor Longhair albums are still widely available, and waiting to be heard.

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