The way Carlo Ditta tells the story of how he got his hands on a previously unreleased recording of Professor Longhair, it takes a minute. He starts with an anecdote about how guitarist Billy Gregory played in music stores with that big hat pressed low on his head. Then, Gregory went off to San Francisco, played with Jefferson Airplane and It's a Beautiful Day. Ditta's voice takes a turn, and then he's talking about "the crazy hippie" Hudson Marquez getting beaten up before finding Fess.
"Fess was hiding because he was gambling and he didn't want to be found that bad," Ditta said. "So, he found him and paid his union dues and got him a rehearsal hall and a piano."
Ditta's French Quarter was a weird place in the 1960s, but one thing led to another, and Gregory ended up in Professor Longhair's band, along with guitarist Will Harvey, bass player Julius Farmer and drummer Earl Gordon.
Decades later, Gregory would give Ditta a recording of that band's performance at the University of Chicago's Folk Festival on Feb. 1, 1976. Originally broadcast by WFMT-FM in Chicago, Gregory mixed the recording and held onto it for years. Now, however, the recording will have new listeners. Ditta's Orleans Records is releasing the recording through Select-O-Hits. "Professor Longhair: Live in Chicago" will be available on vinyl on April 12, and on CD on April 15.
Because Ditta was friends with Gregory, he landed at the then-young New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival a few months after the Chicago recording took place. He snapped a few photos of the band, which are now the album artwork for the new release.
Professor Longhair, whose real name was Henry Roeland Byrd, was a rhythm and blues pianist with a style of play marked by Afro-Caribbean rhythms and New Orleans flair. He was mostly sought after by fellow musicians and became a heavy influence on players like Dr. John and Allen Toussaint. It's Professor Longhair's whistling that most people think of when they think "Go to the Mardi Gras." His version of "Tipitina" is widely considered a standard in New Orleans music.
"It never just fluttered the airwaves. They were always going after something a little more sane, you might say, a little more where everyone can know where one, two, three, four is," Toussaint said of Longhair's playing in a 1988 interview with Jim Gabour. "With Fess, it would be all kinds of ways because it was that crew coming down the street. You can hear that. In Fess' music, you can hear the Mardi Gras Indians coming down the street."
Longhair died in 1980, and while recordings of his music aren't necessarily rare, they offer a look into the construction and building blocks of New Orleans classics.
"It's been a while, so no one knew about it," Ditta said of the newly released recording. "And it gives me the chance to tell my story."