33 years after death, Professor Longhair is still the soundtrack of Carnival

Photo by MICHAEL P. SMITH -- Bruce Iglauer, right, co-producer of 'Crawfish Fiesta,' said of Professor Longhair, 'Nobody was more particular than Fess was. He would do a take and we would think,
Photo by MICHAEL P. SMITH -- Bruce Iglauer, right, co-producer of 'Crawfish Fiesta,' said of Professor Longhair, 'Nobody was more particular than Fess was. He would do a take and we would think, "Boy, that was the one!" But then he'd say, "I can do it better." '

33 years later, Professor Longhair is still the soundtrack of Carnival

Bruce Iglauer, the founder of roots-music label Alligator Records, never tires of Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair. Likewise, 33 years after the New Orleans piano master’s death on Jan. 30, 1980, Longhair is the musician his city never forgets — especially during Carnival time.

Iglauer doesn’t like to play favorites with the nearly 300 albums in his Alligator catalog, but the 1980 Longhair release “Crawfish Fiesta” has a special resonance for him.

“It’s one that I come back to over and over again,” he said from the label’s office on Chicago’s North Side.

Alligator recently re-released “Crawfish Fiesta,” Longhair’s final studio album, in 180-gram vinyl format. Iglauer added a previously unreleased rehearsal performance of “River’s Invitation” as a bonus track.

Longhair sings: “Well, I spoke to the river, and the river spoke back to me. The river say, ‘Good evening little lovin’ Doctor Professor Longhair. Boy, but you look so full of misery! Well, if you can’t find no happiness up there, you can come on down here and make your home with me.”

Iglauer co-produced “Crawfish Fiesta” at Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans on a mid-November weekend in 1979.

“We gave Fess more artistic control than he’d had over anything he’d done before,” he said. “Fess never made a bad record, but he had a special commitment to this one.”

Longhair’s supporting players were mostly members of his young band, the Blues Scholars.

“They were all huge fans of Fess,” Iglauer said. “So there was no sense of anybody being there for themselves. Everyone was there for the project.”

Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, the New Orleans singer-pianist who became a national star in 1973 with “Right Place, Wrong Time,” wasn’t in the Blues Scholars, but Tad Jones, a Longhair-loving local music historian, invited him to the sessions.

In 1959, Rebennack, then still in his teens, produced and played guitar for the definitive version of Longhair’s Carnival anthem, “Go to the Mardi Gras.” Of course, Longhair manned the piano for the “Crawfish Fiesta” sessions, so Rebennack, who’d switched from guitar to keyboard in the ’60s, returned to his first love. He worked mostly as a member of the rhythm section.

“Mac felt like it was his job to make sure things were locked up right,” the producer said.

Most of the songs on the finished album, including “Big Chief” and “Bald Head,” were part of Longhair and the Blues Scholars’ stage repertoire.

“There was a sense of ease about things,” Iglauer recalled. “Everybody knew the arrangements, so it was a question of getting great performances.”

Blues Scholars drummer Johnny Vidacovich, whose studio credits include the final James Booker album as well, also remembers the sessions’ ease. “It was a piece of cake, real fun, real quick,” he said last week.

Nevertheless, Longhair was meticulous about his performances.

“Nobody was more particular than Fess was,” Iglauer said. “He would do a take and we would think, ‘Boy, that was the one!’ But then he’d say, ‘I can do it better.’ And then he’d show us.”

Jones, the late writer who’d memorably documented Professor Longhair in a 1976 Living Blues interview, attended the sessions.

“Tad added his boyish, in-love-with-the music vibe to the whole thing,” Iglauer said.

Chasing a big fish

Prior to the 1979 “Crawfish Fiesta” sessions, Iglauer had, for some years, unsuccessfully pitched record-deal offers to Professor Longhair’s manager, Quint Davis. Davis, producer-director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, played a major role in Longhair’s early 1970s career resurrection.

“I was still a neophyte in the business then,” Iglauer recalled. “Quint was looking for that major-label deal. He made that clear — politely, professionally, but clear.”

Iglauer phoned Davis in the summer of 1979 on behalf of a friend who wanted to book Longhair for a blues festival at the University of Notre Dame. Allison Miner, Davis told him, had become Longhair’s manager. Iglauer subsequently arranged the Notre Dame gig with Miner and, near the end of the call, mentioned his desire to produce a Longhair album for Alligator.

“I was thinking, ‘Ha-ha. Sure. Fat chance,’ ” he said. But Miner called back the next day. Professor Longhair and his band were playing two nights in New Orleans that weekend. She asked Iglauer to fly down for the gigs. “After catching my breath, I said, ‘Sure, I’ll be there.’ ”

The unknowable Fess

Upon meeting Longhair that weekend in New Orleans, Iglauer found him cordial but private.

“Of course, record company guys don’t have the best reputations,” Iglauer said. “Fess probably was trying to decide whether I was a straight-up guy or somebody else who would make a deal with him that would never be honored. That had happened to him often in his past.”

Wariness of the music business aside, bassist George Porter Jr., a key player in the Meters, the funky Meters, his own Runnin’ Pardners band, countless recording sessions and more, also remembers the private side of Professor Longhair. Porter performed with Longhair and the two musicians were neighbors whose back doors faced each other.

“Fess had his buddies, a bunch of guys who would come hang by his house with him,” Porter recalled. “But I really don’t think that anybody in the city alive today can say, ‘Man, me and Fess was tight.’ Fess was a mystery.”

Prior to a 1976 performance on the Steamboat Natchez, The Times-Picayune reported, Longhair admitted that he didn’t like to “mix and mingle.”

Despite the professor’s shyness, bassist Reggie Scanlan — a member of the Radiators for 34 years and a current member of the New Orleans Suspects — said his gigs with Longhair were always joyful.

“That was one of the most wonderful experiences you could imagine,” Scanlan said. “He was such a nice guy, such a gentleman, a pleasure to be around.”

Fess’ swan song

Upon getting up on a late January morning in 1980, Iglauer saw a message on his telephone answering machine.

“I pushed play and it was Tad Jones. He was crying so hard that he couldn’t talk. He finally just hung up the phone. There was only one thing that I could think of that could have happened. I called Tad back and it was true. I didn’t know what to do. It was just so impossible that this could happen on the day we were releasing the record.”

When Longhair died in his sleep in the wee hours of Jan. 30, he was at the doorstep of what may well have been his greatest fame.

“It was a shock,” Vidacovich recalled. “Because it was the day his record came out. And we felt for sure it was about time we stopped making lame money and doing lame tours. We had some good stuff lined up — and then he died.”

Longhair was gone, but his music never left the New Orleans soundtrack. And the response to “Crawfish Fiesta” was universally positive. The Village Voice, for one, dubbed it a masterpiece.

“People knew this record was special the first time they heard it,” Iglauer said.

John Wirt is The Advocate’s music writer. He can be reached at jwirt@theadvocate.com.