New Orleans. Summer 1977. I was a freshly-graduated 21-year-old with a student work permit arranged under the British Universities North America Club scheme. I had fixed myself up with a job selling ice cream and, after a flight to JFK and a night in a seedy hotel off Times Square in New York, I took the 30-hour Greyhound bus ride to the deep south.
The Crescent City was my destination and, at that time, I knew little about it. I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought I was going to the land of Mark Twain and riverboat gamblers on the mighty Mississippi – and, musicially speaking, I was just going to check out the Animals’ House Of The Rising Sun.
I vividly remember my first foray into New Orleans’ French Quarter, sitting under the shady trees of Jackson Square and thinking just how far away from home I was. Alone, excited, and more than a little scared, it seemed like another world. The first thing that hit me, after the intense heat, was the sound. There was music everywhere, the like of which I had never heard before; the mysterious, unfamiliar rhythms were immediately intoxicating.
After a couple of days driving round the city’s less than salubrious residential areas selling ice cream from a converted post office van, I soon realised that my life expectancy might be spectacularly reduced if I continued so I quit and finally secured a job in the (much safer) accounts department of Godchaux’s clothing departmental store on Canal Street. I rented an apartment on Toulouse Street in the Vieux Carré and in the evenings I continued my musical education.
I had been a Delta blues fan since discovering Robert Johnson after delving into the roots of the British blues of Cream, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the original Fleetwood Mac and the American Southern rock of the Allman Brothers Band and their magnificent Live At The Fillmore East album. However, nothing had prepared me for the musical gumbo I was about to experience in New Orleans: jazz, funk, cajun, zydeco, soul, blues, R&B, boogie-woogie, gospel – the ingredients seemed endlessly rich.
I began visiting the city’s music clubs and I remember seeing Fats Domino at Rosy’s (and shaking his hand afterwards), the newly-formed Neville Brothers, the Meters and various cajun and zydeco bands at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street. And, just to underline the 'breadth' of my enlightenment, I also saw Leo Sayer at the Municipal Auditorium – perhaps I was becoming a little homesick!
Then one afternoon, while exploring the city’s famous Garden District on foot, I wandered into a bar off the beautifully named Tchoupitoulas Street (the word means ‘those who live at the river’ in Chochtaw). It was a small, newly opened joint and it was almost empty when I went in. I ordered a beer – a Pabst Blue Ribbon (the evidence is above) – and sat down to rest my weary legs. There was a piano at one corner of the room and it wasn’t long before an old guy wandered in, sat down and started playing. He was just doodling at the keyboard really but I was captivated by the syncopated rhythms and after listening for a while I finished my drink, got up and left to continue my walking tour – blissfully unaware that I had just been treated to a private performance by Professor Longhair at Tipitina’s.
At the time, I had no idea who Professor Longhair was and had never heard of New Orleans’ now legendary music venue Tipitina’s (the latter was more forgivable as the bar had been open for only a few months) but later on when I had more deeply absorbed the music and history of the city I was aghast. I don’t know for sure that the piano player was Henry Roeland 'Roy' Byrd (Longhair’s real name) but since the club was opened specifically to allow him to perform in the final years of his life I’m pretty sure it must have been – it certainly makes for a better story if it was!
Seduced by the city and its music (and with lifelong friendships having been made), I returned the following summer and then in 1981-82 spent a year working as a bartender in the Gumbo Shop restaurant in the French Quarter. This time I was able to experience the city during Mardi Gras and danced in the streets, along with hundreds of thousands of others listening to the carnival’s anthems Go To The Mardi Gras and Big Chief by – of course – Professor Longhair. By now I had more of a handle on the history of the city and its music and later, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in May, I sought out other classic performers such as James Booker, Dr John and Allen Toussaint.
My favourite example of New Orleans music, though, has to be Professor Longhair’s Tipitina. The club in which I (probably) saw him that summer was created for him and named after one of his most famous songs and, as a regular visitor in subsequent visits to the Big Easy for the Jazz Festival, it has a particular resonance for me.
’Fess was born in 1918 and was a pioneer of New Orleans rhythm and blues, creating the syncopated piano style combining blues, ragtime, zydeco, rhumba, mambo and calypso that has come to symbolise the city’s musical heritage. Tipitina, which was originally recorded in 1953, derives its melody from Junker’s Blues by another New Orleans luminary Champion Jack Dupree and has become a quintessential New Orleans standard and a huge influence on those who followed, especially Fats Domino and Dr John (and latterly even the Oxford-born actor-turned-musician Hugh Laurie).
According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Longhair in 1992, ‘the hum-along nonsense syllables and stutter stepping left-hand rhythm is both a symbol and staple of New Orleans music’.
It is joyous, infectious stuff, and you shouldn’t listen to it sitting down. The lyrics may be largely nonsensical – and Professor Longhair, who died in 1980, never even explained the meaning of the word Tipitina, enhancing the song's mystique – but it really doesn’t matter. Just listen and enjoy.
Tipitina tra la la la
Whoa la la la-ah tra la la
Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla [little mama wants a dollar]
Tra ma tra la la