On the day of the festival, Fess family members gathered in the Bogalusa park from across the region, moved and honored by the recognition of Henry Roeland Byrd.
Five highly acclaimed musicians, at least three of whom played with “Fess” before his death in 1980, signed on to help put the “Heritage” in the BBHF by playing the music of and beloved by the man born in Bogalusa as Henry Roeland Byrd on Dec. 19, 1918.
Guitar player and vocalist John Mooney, conga player and percussionist Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and drummer Johnny Vidacovich all played with Professor Longhair. Keyboard player David Torkanowsky and bassist David Barard might have also shared a stage or studio space with the music legend, but even if they didn’t, they all embody and promote the quintessential New Orleans sound that Fess helped sire.
The tribute players are widely considered legends in their own right.
Mooney is known for his extraordinary slide work, for adapting acoustic playing to a modern electric format, and for his distinctive, soulful vocals. When he was just 16, his talent caught the attention of legendary Delta blues singer Ed “Son” House, who took him under his wing.
Then Mooney moved to New Orleans where he jumped into the Big Easy’s rich music scene. He played regularly with local greats like Earl King, the Meters, Snooks Eaglin, and the man who he said “greatly influenced” his music, Professor Longhair.
For more than three decades the New Orleans blues guitar player has recorded and toured with his band, Bluesiana, and notable friends like Dr. John and John Cleary.
Roberts also has a close connection with the Bogalusa-born subject of the tribute. The noted percussionist grew up in Tremé, and started off playing bongos in the French Quarter. Before long, he switched to congas and earned a seat as the house percussionist in Allen Toussaint’s Sea Saint Studios where he played on recordings including the Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way.”
Then in 1972, during the second annual New Orleans Jazz and Heri-tage Festival, producer/ founder Quint Davis introduced Roberts to Professor Longhair. The two toured and recorded together, and with the likes of Snooks Eaglin and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, for the next eight years until Fess’s death.
Renowned New Orleans jazz drummer Johnny Vidacovich also shared the stage with Fess as well as with Mose Allison, Bobby McFerrin, Stanton Moore and Charlie Hunter to name just a few. A member of the internationally acclaimed Astral Project, he became one of the most sought after drummers in New Orleans and earned awards, rave reviews and accolades throughout the industry. Vidacovich is on the faculty of the highly touted Loyola University music school, and gives weekly workshops at Tipitina’s in New Orleans.
The extraordinary assembly of musicians, with New Orleans notable David Torkanowsky sitting in on the keyboards, played in celebration of Professor Longhair’s contributions to the heart and heritage of his art.
Bass man Barard is described as Dr. John’s “go to man” for that funky New Orleans’ sound. Since he’s recorded with the Neville Brothers, Patti LaBelle, Marcia Ball, Dave Bartholomew, Ramsey Lewis and with Dr. John for decades, he’s sure to add an awesome, authentic touch to the tribute to Professor Longhair.
The inaugural Bogalusa Blues and Heritage Festival opened with a powerful set in honor of a true pioneer and a native son. And while some of those who share Fess’s blood absorbed the moments from spots beside his sculpted bust, others joined hands with folks in the crowd and danced with the free, unbridled spirit of the music.