NPR – Rock and Roll Summer School – the Piano Pounders of New Orleans

29 09 2009

Original article and broadcast available on NPR

Rock ‘n’ Roll Summer School: The Piano Pounders Of New Orleans

by Tom Moon

Every Wednesday this summer, we’re offering a quick course in early rock ‘n’ roll. Your professor will be Tom Moon, NPR contributor and author of the book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. These overviews of music, mostly from the 1950s, are not intended to be comprehensive, but to help curious listeners dive in and explore some of the genre’s often-overlooked building blocks. Whether you’re a novice or a rock snob, join the conversation below.

This Week: The Piano Pounders of New Orleans

A small but fervent group of devotees argues that rock ‘n’ roll truly begins in the late 1940s, with the emergence of the pioneering wildman of New Orleans piano, Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair.

The slippery-fingered pianist and singer once described his approach as a mixture of “rumba, mambo and calypso,” and that’s just scratching the surface: There’s also plenty of New Orleans backbeat grease, some boogie-woogie and more than a touch of the blues in it. As is true of every early rock breakthrough, the styles Byrd appropriates are ultimately less important than the feeling. His irreverent spirit makes the music intense and infectious.

Professor Longhair’s first release, New Orleans Piano, contains tracks recorded in 1949 and 1953. Alas, there’s little archival video from that era. But here’s Fess a few decades later, performing “Tipitina,” an enduring original from that initial release, with The Meters.

Read more, after the jump…

Professor Longhair wasn’t the only revolutionary pianist electrifying New Orleans clubs in 1949. That year also marks the emergence of the great Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino, whose early single “The Fat Man” is sometimes cited as the first million-seller of the rock era. Domino wasn’t quite as agile on the keys as Professor Longhair, but he had other gifts, including an ear for memorable refrains and an effortless, incessantly swinging rhythm that now looms as one of the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll.

Here’s Domino performing his 1955 hit “Ain’t That a Shame.”

The trail doesn’t end with these pioneers: See Extra Credit, below, to discover other legends who helped expand the stylistic perimeters of New Orleans piano — and, along the way, rock ‘n’ roll, too.

Professor Longhair: “Tipitina” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” from New Orleans Piano
Fats Domino: “Ain’t That a Shame” from Walking to New Orleans: Greatest Hits
James Booker: “Junco Partner” from Junco Partner

Allen Toussaint: “Whirlaway” from The Complete Tousan Sessions
Dr. John: “Iko Iko” from Dr. John’s Gumbo
Champion Jack Dupree: “Stack-o-Lee” from Blues From the Gutter
Huey “Piano” Smith and His Clowns: “Little Liza Jane” from Having a Good Time

Some people have argued that the polyglot music that erupted in New Orleans in the late ’40s can’t be considered rock ‘n’ roll — that it’s either too diverse or closer in origin to R&B. If Professor Longhair and others weren’t making rock ‘n’ roll, what were they making?

What explains the phenomenon of so many talented piano players emerging from one city? Is this the legacy of Jelly Roll Morton?




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