Professor Longhair, ‘Tipitina’ and oola walla malla dalla
In the precious years leading up to the explosion of a newfangled form of popular music known as rock ‘n’ roll — circa 1955 — in a time when so many seminal musicians were molding their own distinctive amalgams that would launch a revolution, a singular figure emerged from the smoky, seedy bars and clubs of New Orleans. HIs contributions to the heady musical scene were unlike anything the world had ever heard — and, in hindsight, will probably never hear again. Henry Roeland Byrd, otherwise known as Professor Longhair, cut and released “Tipitina” in 1953, and with its syncopated rhythms, rollicking blues piano — famously dubbed boogie-rhumba — hints of gospel and one-of-a-kind vocals (such as “oola malla walla dalla”), the song became the model for all New Orleans piano rock that would ensue.
Professor Longhair died in 1980, but his musical legacy is alive and well. Not only is “Tipitina” his signature song, but it’s also one of the most ubiquitous, revered and influential cuts ever to come out of New Orleans. Synonymous with New Orleans’ rockin’ party vibe, the song is widely seen as one of the most crucial landmarks in rock ‘n’ roll history. After sailing under the popular radar for decades, “Tipitina” is now musical canon — not to mention the namesake of one of the city’s most well-known music clubs.
- “Tipitina” was recorded where so many other iconic New Orleans R&B platters were: Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios on Rampart Street. Because of the large amount of work he put in as a producer for the track, Matassa received a songwriting credit.
- Some discussion has existed as to which musicians backed up Longhair on “Tipitina,” but two other local music legends and studio musicians — drummer Earl Palmer and tenor saxophonist Lee Allen — definitely worked on the recordings.
- OK, we gotta ask — what in the blazes is “Tipitina” about? Because of Longhair’s laid-back (and at times out of tune) vocals and goofy, somewhat incomprehensible enigma of a lyric sheet, it’s hard to pin down. Some say it’s a reference to a legless weed dealer, while others believe it’s a faraway island. A few agree that Tipitina refers to a volatile volcano in Africa. And who’s this Loberta gal? Yeah, she’s 21, she likes her gin parties until the wee hours, and (the narrator hopes) she’s ready to ball. Oola malla walla dalla, indeed.
- The 1953 sessions were part of the second contract Longhair held with Atlantic Records. In addition to the initial sessions he recorded for Atlantic in ’53 (the ones that produced “Tipitina”), Fess — as Professor Longhair has become known — had gone into the studio in late 1949/early 1950 with Atlantic; those sessions birthed arguably his second-most lasting tune, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” backed with “She Walks Right In,” which was issued in February of 1950.
- “Tipitina” was initially released as a single in 1953 (with “In the Night” as the B side), but it and Fess’ other Atlantic recordings were packaged and released in 1972 as a long-player, titled “New Orleans Piano.” At the time, Longhair was enjoying a renaissance after years of obscurity and poverty, thanks to the awakening of fans to his music, including a landmark, breakthrough performance at the still-nascent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Fest.
- “Tipitina” — both the original and ensuing re-recordings and live versions — have studded numerous other albums and CD compilation, even well after his death in 1980.
- One of the quirkiest characteristic of “Tipitina” is arguably its most important: the significant influence of Caribbean music. In addition to barrelhouse piano blues and boogie-woogie, Fess absorbed the music of the islands, which had filtered into the New Orleans music scene in the early 20th century. Wrote allmusic.com’s Lindsay Planer, “Among the more discernible inspirations behind the steady pulsating arrangement, one detects undercurrents and connections to the vibrations of the West Indies, specifically the tricky syncopated shuffle of calypso.”
- “Tipitina” might be recognized today as Professor Longhair’s most durable and well known song, but when it was released in 1953, it didn’t make much of a splash on the national charts. In fact, it wasn’t Fess’ biggest hit — that honor would go to 1950’s “Bald Head,” which was actually recorded under the name Roy Byrd and the Blues Jumpers. “Bald Head” reached No. 5 on the Billboard R&B charts, while “Tipitina” barely skirted the bottom of the lists.
- The melody of the song was cribbed from an earlier release, Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker Blues,” recorded in 1941 and itself based on a song by barrelhouse bluesman Willie Hall. Both from New Orleans, Dupree learned the song from Hall, the former’s mentor, and became the first artist to commit “Junker Blues” to wax. In addition to influencing Longhair’s “Tipitina,” it also inspired “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by Lloyd Price, two more songs that are in the New Orleans music canon.
- In 2010, the Library of Congress placed “Tipitina” in the library’s National Recording Registry.
- Because “Tipitina” and Fess have become symbols of New Orleans, especially its music, the song has been used in several movies and on film soundtracks, including “The Big Easy,” “Double Jeopardy,” “Cape Fear” (Scorsese-De Niro version) and, believe or not, “Flipper.” Which is about a dolphin that, apparently, boogies.
- One band was so enraptured with the song and its progenitor that its members named their group after the legendary cut. The English band Tipitina formed around 2000 after its members — especially its leaders, singer Debbie Jones and pianist Justin Randall — heard and assimilated Fess’ rhythmic magic, and fell in love with the city that birthed so many music legends, especially piano players and singers. “The name is so connected to the music,” Randall told the Times-Picayune in 2013, shortly after the group visited New Orleans for the first time. “You couldn’t really pick a name that is more connected.”
“Tipitina” has been covered by numerous musicians, and the number of artists it has influenced is incalculable. It’s greatest value, however, might be in its very existence as a musical embodiment of New Orleans itself: It’s a little wild, a little weird, but undeniably fun and embraceable. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke wrote that the song “captured the lazy tempo of life in New Orleans’ steaming humidity … (with a) volcanic tangle of funeral march drums and Longhair’s piano.” In an interview with The Word magazine, British actor and musician Hugh Laurie, who covered “Tipitina” for his debut album, added: “It’s an amazing thing, and it’s a distinctively New Orleans thing. And an awful lot has been built on it since Professor Longhair did it.”