If New Orleans is a heaven of a sort, and is populated by saints (who of course march in on a regular basis), leading that number will be none other than Saint Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair.
Professor Longhair is one of those artists who’s talent and influence is inestimable, yet is known to most only as a curious name. What he is/was is no less than the Godfather of New Orleans R&B, a master pianist (who influence no less than Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint) and an inspired performer. Whether he was jamming with the Blues Jumpers, the Shuffling Hungarians (?!?), or the Four Hairs, he squeezed absolute magic out of the piano and spread it over the grooves.
Longhair made his one and only chart appearance in 1950 with ‘Bald Head’ and continued to record for several labels, including Mercury, Atlantic (for whom he recorded the original version of his legendary ‘Tipitina’) , Ebb, Federal, Ron, Rip and Watch through the 50’s and 60’s.
The three 45s he recorded for Watch in 1964/65 – a remake of ‘Bald Head’, ‘Big Chief Pts 1&2’ and this 45 - represented the “end” of the first, long phase of the Professor’s career. Working with Earl King, Mac Rebennack, Smokey Johnson and Curtis Mitchell, Fess laid down some of the rockin’est sides of his career. The Watch version of ‘Big Chief’ is revered today by funk and soul collectors for it’s intense, second line drums and powerful horn arrangement. It is rightly regarded as a New Orleans classic and is a cornerstone of any Mardi Gras compilation.
The number we gather to discuss today is a certifiable curiousity in the Longhair oeuvre. ‘Third House From The Corner’ opens with a distant, ringing piano line (much like the opening to ‘Go To The Mardi Gras’) and is immediately smothered by a loud, somewhat overmodulated organ. As far as I can tell, it’s Fess playing the organ here. The playing doesn’t have the smoothness of a James Booker, sounding at times like someone who was more comfortable on a piano than an organ (ruling out – at least for me – Booker, who was dazzling on both instruments). The background is a simple rhythm guitar line (zat’you Doctor John?), rattling maracas (the drums are practically non-existent here), and a tight horn section.
Things really heat up at the beginning of the third “verse”. Someone (Earl King, I think) sings ‘Let me hear you hear you sing your song now!’ and Fess drops in with a helping of his patented vocalizing. I say vocalizing, because no matter how much I enjoy Professor Longhair’s voice, I hesitate to call what he does “singing”. Much like his vocal on ‘Tipitina’ (a tune who’s melody works its way in here) Fess starts to let loose a sound that’s a funky mélange - 10% crawfish boil, 30% hair tonic, and 60% “stayed out too late having a good time”. It’s not hard to picture him pumping the organ keys, leaning into the microphone and letting loose a string of insane ‘Tra-La-La’s’ with a big ole smile on his face.
Though I’ve seen references that suggest these sessions were arranged by Wardell Quezerque, I have also heard it suggested that the driving force here was Earl King. King wrote ‘Third House From The Corner’ (as well as composing ‘Big Chief’ and singing lead on Part 2 of that record).
The bottom line is that while this is far from Professor Longhair’s greatest performance, it’s one of his most interesting, and not one your likely to hear when the master is being discussed. What it is, is a solid, fun, mid-60’s New Orleans party record with some great players on it. Hearing Fess work the organ is akin to someone like John Coltrane picking up a bassoon – what comes out the business end of the thing may not be the most amazing thing he ever produced, but it’d certainly be worth a listen (or two, or three).
After his sides for Watch, Professor Longhair dropped out of sight, working menial jobs, a prophet without honor in his own land. It wasn’t until he appeared at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 1971 that the world outside of the Crescent City started to wake up to the wonder of his piano playing. He would record and tour fairly steadily until his death (at only 62) in 1980.
'Third House From The Corner', 'Big Chief' and other great cuts have been reissued on 'New Orleans Soul 60's: Watch Records'.
NOTE: I finally picked up a copy of the "New Orleans Soul 60's: Watch Records" comp, and the version of 'Third House From the Corner' included on the CD is significantly different from the version released on 45. It features a prominent vocal by Earl King that does not appear on the record.