In the midst of one of the richest, most-storied and diverse music cities in America, one venue stands at the pinnacle of the New Orleans music scene. For fans far and wide, the definitive New Orleans music experience isn’t complete until they’ve set foot in this club. Similarly, musicians from all walks of life consider playing its stage a rite of passage – a small feat that they can share with some of rock’s most legendary and celebrated performers. This club is Tipitina’s, or simply Tip’s as it’s know around town.
Like many of New Orleans’ musical landmarks, the story of Tipitina’s unfolds alongside that of one of the city’s most treasured icons and one of Rock and Roll’s most unheralded influences. In the late 1940s, pianist Henry Roeland Byrd, known more commonly by his stage name, Professor Longhair, ushered in a new style of playing, one that blended percussive boogie-woogie rhythms with explosive rhumba-flavored melodies. While during this heavily segregated era, his music was considered too “racy” for many audiences, the sounds he created would eventually lay the foundation for the early recordings of artists such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis and a new style of music called “Rock and Roll.”
While Professor Longhair would never enjoy the crossover success of his contemporaries, he did manage to cultivate a large local following and achieve modest success amongst R&B fans. New Orleans legends such as Allen Toussaint and Dr. John would go on to site “Fess,” as he became know, as one of their formative influences, but by the time the 70’s rolled around Fess’s career had floundered and he had all but disappeared from the music industry. That was until he experienced a great resurgence, one which coincided with the dawn of the now famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. As Professor Longhair went on to encounter an unprecedented level of popularity, his health began to wane. In 1977, a group of individuals converted what was formerly a juice bar into a music venue to commemorate Longhair’s legacy and to give the ailing icon a place to play in his final years. Three years later, at the age of 61, Professor Longhair passed away. Yet today, 30 years later, his spirit shines as bright as ever.
The name Tipitina’s was derived from the title of one of Fess’s most memorable melodies, and since his passing, the club located on the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas has flourished, establishing itself not only as the premiere music venue in New Orleans but also as one of the most sought after clubs in the country. With a large mural of Professor Longhair painted above the stage and marquees and posters from its fabled past adorning the walls, there’s a certain air of wonderment and excitement that permeates its atmosphere. It has the feeling that at any given moment a music set of mythic proportions is waiting to unfold – and then, it does.
Just within the past few weeks Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Patti Smith, current climbers the Drive-By Truckers, and local favorites such as Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and George Porter Jr. have all graced its stage. However, no one lays claim to Tip’s these days quite like funk juggernauts Galactic whose annual all night Jazz Fest concerts more than live up to the stories they inspire. Another choice outing worth checking out at Tip’s is the weekly Sunday night Fais Do Do hosted by Cajun music kingpin Bruce Daigrepont. And if you’re a musician, the Tipitina’s Foundation’s weekly workshop series will give the chance to learn firsthand from many of New Orleans’ finest. Next time you have a free evening, Fess up and head out to Tipitina’s.
Capt Abernathy // Groovescapes.com