NEW ORLEANS —It wasn’t a fish fry of the kind Louis Jordan sang about in his 1949 New Orleans-set hit “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” but it was a house party: “Fess’ House Party New Orleans Style.”
During Saturday night’s “Fess-tivities” at Tipitina’s, a small stream of local keyboard maestros made their way to the piano, mostly playing songs identified with the late Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair — or Fess for short. The pianists performed beneath the club’s giant portrait of Professor Longhair.
The portrait looms above the stage in the house that Fess built or, more precisely, the music venue founded in 1977 by Professor Longhair’s fans who wanted a place where their hero could practice his special brand of musical joy.
Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis, former Radiators’ member Ed Volker and Jon Cleary joined the night’s house band, led by George Porter Jr. and largely composed of his Runnin’ Pardners group.
Because Professor Longhair’s songs are such a big part of New Orleans music, probably every musician in Tip’s performs his songs often, even when they’re not at a Professor Longhair-specific event.
Saturday’s show was extremely Fess-specific: a benefit to renovate and preserve the home that Professor Longhair and his family resided in prior to his death in 1980 at age 61. The Tipitina’s Foundation, United Way of Southeast Louisiana and Project Homecoming are working to convert one side of the Terpsichore Street duplex into a museum and the other side into a home for his daughter, Pat Byrd.
Byrd attended Saturday evening’s benefit at Tipitina’s as well as the Saturday afternoon tribute to Professor Longhair staged at the Bogalusa Blues and Heritage Festival. The new Louisiana festival took place in the city of her father’s birth.
“I’ve been crying all day,” Byrd said as she stood on the sidewalk on the Napoleon Avenue side of Tip’s. “I know they’re tears of joy, but I wish he was here to see how much people love him.”
Inside Tip’s, Dr. John, Porter and the house band bounced and swaggered through “Junco Partner,” a local anthem that’s been part of the repertoire of Professor Longhair, James Booker, Dr. John and many more piano professors. Dr. John also launched a marathon rendition of Mardi Gras favorite “Big Chief,” originally recorded by Professor Longhair in 1964, by replicating its rippling piano intro.
Often reserved on stage, Dr. John smiled as he glanced into the crowd near the stage while a house full of people bobbed and danced throughout the club.
Singer-pianist Cleary, a funky Englishman who made New Orleans home and based his career on the city’s music, sat in for “Big Chief.” Earlier, the cowbell-banging Cleary had performed a set of Fess songs, including one of his personal favorites, “No Buts − No Maybes.”
Volker, who uses the alias Zeke Fishhead for his post-Radiators solo career, sang and played his “Long Hard Journey Home,” a song inspired by his dream about seeing Professor Longhair smiling down from the clouds.
Porter, whose myriad bass-playing credits include backing Professor Longhair, showed his enthusiasm for Saturday night’s Fess party on his face and in his playing. He and his monstrous Runnin’ Pardners began their pre-piano guests set with another of the professor’s classics, “Bald Head.” The teenage T.I.P. Interns band, led by Donald Harrison at the piano, opened the night with a preview of young New Orleans talent.