Archival live performance captured at the 1976 Chicago Folk Festival offers a fine reminder of the genius of Professor Longhair.
Call it the marginalization of the black musician, this effect in which performers go for long stretches of time – often decades – between the vital, influential recordings of their formative years and their late period “rediscovery” at the hands of largely white audiences seeking the “authentic” in their music. This happened to very nearly every bluesman of note who suddenly found themselves musically and culturally relevant to a new generation of listeners long after their hopes of success had begun to fade within the grooves of the increasingly scarce 78 recordings that until then had served as their recorded legacy. And while some were left bitter by the experience, many couldn’t help but find themselves mildly amused if not slightly humbled by the impact their recording career had on subsequent generations of musicians.
And while the digital age has seen such lionization of previously overlooked performers expand well beyond those of measurable influence into virtually every dusty, forgotten corner of the music industry, there still remain those of great import who have more to offer to contemporary listeners. Long lauded as the father of New Orleans R&B, Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd nevertheless still found himself languishing in near obscurity until the final years of his life. Having made a series of important recordings for labels such as Atlantic, Federal and Wasco beginning as early as 1949, by the mid-1960s, he found himself not reaping the fruits of his recorded labor, but, somewhat ironically, sweeping the floors of a local record shop just to get by.
But then the music of New Orleans began to resurface in the public consciousness thanks to the likes of the Neville Brothers, Dr. John and the Meters. And with them came a whole host of the city’s finest overlooked musicians, Professor Longhair chiefly among them. By the late 1970s, he was back on the R&B radar with re-recordings of some of his previous should’ve-been-hits and a slew of impressive live performances. It’s right in the midst of all this that the live performance on Orleans Records latest release, Live In Chicago, was captured during the 1976 Chicago Folk Festival.
Recorded a year after his first live album, Live On The Queen Mary, a gig that came about at the behest of none other than Paul and Linda McCartney who were hosting a party aboard the Queen Mary, Live In Chicago builds on the energy and intensity of that landmark recording by adding guitarist Billy Gregory to the mix. With Gregory essentially sharing equal billing with the Professor in his fiery modern electric blues soloing, the performance stands as the perfect marriage of rhythm (Longhair) and blues (Gregory). Together, with a competent backing band, they tear through a handful of Longhair standards as well as a few blues workouts that serve to showcase Gregory’s impressive chops.
With the expected favorites like “Big Chief” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” given an energetic overhaul, even those who’ve heard these New Orleans standards time and again will find themselves enthralled by the approach taken. On “Big Chief”, Gregory’s funky rhythm guitar playing undercuts Professor Longhair’s iconic tumbling, syncopated piano line in a way that only serves to heighten the rhythmic intricacy at work within the song’s relatively short run time. Similarly, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” is given a funky blues workout thanks to Gregory’s decidedly ‘70s-style blues/funk playing. Where the studio recordings tend to be pleasant readings of the track, in this particular setting, the song opens up and lets the rhythm move things forward. While the piano and guitar are notably front and center, it’s the wickedly funky syncopation of Earl Gordon’s snare drum that steals the show and raises the overall level of the performance to something wholly new and different.
Elsewhere, Gregory manages to steal the show with his blistering solos on “Got My Mojo Working” and “Every Day I Have the Blues”. While the latter features a laid back, in-the-pocket groove over which he deploys a series of elegant lead lines, the former serves as an ideal showcase for his fiery fretwork. Not to be outdone, Professor Longhair proves himself to be in fine voice, tearing through the track with an energy and intensity of a performer half his age. Together, they raise “Got My Mojo Working” to a new level, imbuing it with an impressive dynamism that moves it to the upper ranks of renditions of this oft-covered blues standard.
At a criminally short seven tracks — eight counting the introduction — Live in Chicago offers a tantalizing glimpse into what must have in person been nothing short of a revelatory experience based on the riotous crowd response. Throughout, the band cooks and the Professor provides ample evidence for the reverence afforded him as the king of New Orleans R&B. That he would be dead within four years is an unfortunate end to a latter day career resurgence that saw him at the top of his game. But at least he could go out knowing he’d made an impact and delivered some of the best music of his career in the years leading up to his death at age 61. Live in Chicago is proof positive of that and a welcome reminder of all one of the Crescent City’s greatest performers had to offer.