Professor Longhair: Tipitina

Inside the National Recording Registry

Friday, January 20, 2012

The New Orleans piano player Henry Roeland Byrd made a name for himself as Professor Longhair, a former street hustler turned self-taught musician who started recording in his early 30s. In 1953 Atlantic records released "Tipitina." “As a kid you heard that song seven or eight times a day,” remembers musician Irma Thomas. At first, it was a hit only in New Orleans, but it's gone on to inspire generations of musicians. It was among the music chosen during the past year by the Library of Congress for its National Recording Registry.

Allen Toussaint calls himself a disciple of Professor Longhair and says learning the song “felt like a rite of passage.” But not even Toussaint, the dean of New Orleans songwriters, knows what “Tipitina” is. Was it a place? A person? Hugh Laurie, the actor who recently recorded his own take on the song, relishes the mystery. “I thought it was better not knowing. It adds to its mystique and its power to make me laugh and cry all in one go.”

Inside the National Recording Registry, our series highlighting works in the National Recording Registry, receives production support from the Library of Congress.

    Music Playlist
  1. Tipitina and Me
    Artist: Allen Toussaint
    Album: Our New Orleans
    Label: Nonesuch
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Tipitina [Original Single Version]
    Artist: Professor Longhair
    Album: New Orleans Piano
    Label: Atlantic
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Tipitina [LP Version]
    Artist: Professor Longhair
    Album: New Orleans Piano
    Label: Atlantic
    Purchase: Amazon
  4. Go to the Mardi Gras
    Artist: Professor Longhair
    Album: 'Fess: Anthology
    Label: Rhino
    Purchase: Amazon
  5. Tipitina
    Artist: Hugh Laurie
    Album: Let Them Talk
    Label: Warner Bros
    Purchase: Amazon
  6. Handa Wanda
    Artist: The Wild Magnolias
    Album: The Wild Magnolias
    Label: Polygram Records
    Purchase: Amazon

Contributors:

Erik Beith, Ben Manilla and Devon Strolovitch

Comments [7]

Merna from New Orleans

Tipitina was a song Professor Longhair wrote about a little woman named Tina who walked on her tip toes all the time & used to pass by the record store on Rampart Street where Fess and Mac Rabanac(Dr John) worked. Everyone called her Tipping Tina is the explanation Dr John came up with in his book "Under a Hoo Doo Moon".

Jan. 27 2012 09:45 AM
Kline

Why isn't the Douglas/Thomas correction on the Podcast?? C'mon guys!

Jan. 25 2012 08:21 PM
David from Studio 360

Joseph from Anchorage--Thanks for the correction. It was a freaky mistake that I can't explain, since we know Irma Thomas' work well. We caught it after a couple of stations (like yours) had aired our show, and sent a corrected version of the show to most of our stations. This kind of thing is always embarrassing, and never more so than when the victim of the mistake is a living legend.

Jan. 22 2012 12:18 PM
Joseph from Anchorage

Wonderful piece on Professor Longhair and Tipitina. Thanks. BTW, it is Irma Thomas-- hope you correct your mistake next week. She is a legend in New Orleans and deserves respect.

Jan. 22 2012 12:03 AM
Elaine from Unted States

Thank you so much for this story. I have loved this song for a very long time, but never knew anything about Professor Longhair--Fess--until I read the liner notes in "Let Them Talk," Hugh Laurie's new blues CD. I can vouch for one thing: "Tipitina," especially as rendered by Laurie, is addictive. I can never play it just once, and it seems to always lead me to wonder who & what the song is really about. The answer, I guess, is that it's about whatever we want it to be. For years, Louis Armstrong represented all I knew about New Orleans blues, but his music was eclipsed by Ray Charles in the early 1950's and beyond, and the postwar radio airwaves were saturated with either R&B or jazz, then called "race music" in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Delta Blues just wasn't in our musical diet back then, but once I started listening to it, mostly by playing old Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton 78's owned by family members, I realized how much it touched and invigorated me -- all at the same time. Hugh Laurie's obvious worship of Fess and Delta blues comes thru so lovingly and compellingly in "Let Them Talk." It's my guess that "Fess" would be honored and proud--and more than a bit startled-- to learn that he and his music have survived into the 21st Century and so many thousands of new listeners have "discovered" him and the musical magic that were a staple of the musical scene more than half a century ago. Although I'm sure New Orleans Blues was never out of style for those who were raised and steeped in it, it now has been revitalized and introduced to thousands all around the world, and they're obviously loving it. For me, it's the most exciting, passionate, soulful sound I've heard since that day in the early 1950's when Ray Charles first split the air with , "I've Got A Woman." Thanks again for showcasing this music and the artists who have brought the joy of Delta Blues back to life.

Jan. 21 2012 05:09 PM
David from Studio 360

Thanks for the comment, Wayne. You can hear everything we've done in the series at http://www.studio360.org/series/inside-national-recording-registry/.

Jan. 21 2012 03:40 PM
Wayne Manigo from DC

After hearing today on NPR, I immediately began to follow you on twitter and facebook. Looking forward to hearing the rest of this series!

Jan. 21 2012 02:51 PM

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