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Tipitina's: The "Fess" story that lives on

Like many great stories, love affairs, and places in New Orleans, Tipitina's began because of a passion that we wanted more of. Here's how the story goes.

Hank Drevich and a group of friends attended a Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd or "Fess") gig at Jed's in the late 1970's and found themselves blown away by the piano playing. After the show, Hank asked Longhair where he would be playing next and with a smile he replied, "Probably the Jazz Festival," which was still six months away (1). Soon thereafter, "The Fabulous Fo'teen" devised a plan to create a venue that would showcase local and rediscovered musicians (2).

Inside Tipitina's (photos courtesy of: Wiki Media Commons)

Of course, as a testament to their love of Professor Longhair's music, the founders named the club after the 1953 Longhair hit "Tipitina." Longhair claims his "Tipitina" refers to either the name of an African volcano he found in a book or his nickname for the neighborhood pot dealer (3). Today, a bust and portrait of Longhair still adorn Tipitina's entryway (4).

The 1984 world's fair in New Orleans drew patrons away from traditional bars and clubs within the crescent city. All-day free music shows directly affected Tipitina's business, and the club was forced to close its doors in the summer of 1984 (5). Tipitina's would remain closed for a little over a year as a change in ownership occurred.

After the reopening came the Tipitina's Foundation, music office Co-Ops, internship programs, youth music workshops, and music to keep the culture we love alive. And that means keeping "Fess" at the heart of Tipitina's.

Beyond the dedicatory name, Tipitina’s has become inseparable from the legacy of its patron saint Professor (Fess) Longhair (6). The building itself acts as a pseudo museum of Longhair ephemera. The bust of Henry Roeland Byrd (Fess) greets guests at the door while a mural of his face watches over all from atop the stage.

More discreetly exhibited are a number of historically significant photographs by Michael P. Smith. Smith was one of the founders of Tipitina’s in 1977, having invested $1,000 (7). Aside from his role as a member of “The Fabulous Fo’teen," Smith was also a recognized cultural photographer and often turned his lens to the subject of Tipitina’s performers, particularly its namesake Fess.

The upstairs dance floor exhibits numerous historical photographs including an image of Fess’ hands on a piano shaped birthday cake, taken at his 59th birthday celebration in Tipitina’s inaugural year (8). Located within the building’s main stairwell is a large-format print of a commemorative poster featuring another photo of Fess taken by Michael P. Smith.

In addition to the link between Fess’ legacy and the club’s physical location, the Tipitina’s Foundation is also working to preserve his story beyond the walls of the venue. In 2012, the foundation began work on an effort to restore Longhair’s Central City home. When completed, the restoration would feature a small museum of Longhair memorabilia as well as function as a home for Byrd’s daughter and grandson.

Mary Von Kurnatowski of the Tipitina’s Foundation said, “There are very few people and places that are as inextricably linked as Professor Longhair and Tipitina’s; Spiritually, artistically, emotionally, historically."

Now that's the way you keep a spirit alive.

 

Sources:

  1. Desplas, John. “Keeping The Drive Alive.” The Wavelength Aug. 1982: 23.
  2. “A Place for Fess.” Gambit Weekly Jan. 2008.
  3. “A Place for Fess.” Gambit Weekly Jan. 2008.
  4. Eskenazi, Gerald. “70,000 Football Fans Make New Orleans Throb with Super Bowl Mania.“The New York Times, 25 January 1981.
  5. “Nightspots Say Fair Drawing Their Crowds.“The Associated Press, 17 June 1984.
  6. Donnelly, Tim. “Tipitina’s Turns the Big Three-Oh!” Jambands.com, 30 January 2008.
  7. Berry, Jason. “Remembering Mike Smith.” In the Spirit: The Photography of Michael P. Smith. Ed. Erin Greenwald. New Orleans: The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2009.
  8. Smith, Michael. “Professor Longhair’s Hands on Birthday Cake.” 1977. Photo. The Historic New Orleans Collection.

This information was edited for content, and you can find the full publication, which was published on MediaNola on 11/29/2009 here.

Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at kelley@nolavie.com.