A Beignet from the Big Easy: On King Oliver, Professor Longhair, and “Frank’s Place”

Well, we’re a couple of month out from Mardi Gras still, but December 19 ought to be its own New Orleans holiday anyway, for it is at once the birthday of King Oliver, Professor Longhair, and Tim Reid, star of Frank’s Place.


Jazz pioneer Joe “King” Oliver (1881-1938) was a cornet player and trumpeter often considered a sort of link in the chain between the legendary Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong.  Perhaps that phrase I started with “jazz pioneer” has been watered down through overuse, so let’s stress that operative word “pioneer”. He was one of the first, one of the founders. He wasn’t just an innovator of a pre-existing style of music, he was one of the figures who brought the entire form into being.

Oliver started out playing in brass bands in the fabled Storyville section of New Orleans around 1908, where he was considered one of the hottest musicians in the city. A little over a decade later (the early ’20s), by which time his kind of music was becoming a popular phenomenon, he left NOLA and settled in Chicago to form his popular Creole Jazz Band, and later his Dixie Syncopators. Bad health and financial setbacks forced his decline throughout the 30s, killing him by 1938. A great introduction to his music is the Archeophone Records release King Oliver, Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Records. 


And here’s an example of why I wanted to clarify King Oliver’s place in history, because so too is Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd, 1918-1980) a New Orleans music pioneer, he simply invented a later style. The original New Orleans jazz, now known as “Dixieland” or “hot jazz” came into being around the time Professor Longhair was born. Several other related musical styles had come and gone in the meantime. On a parallel track, during the same years, the blues was birth and kept evolving. New Orleans has its own blues style, one branch of which is rhythm and blues, much of which has a Latin and/or Caribbean flavor. And a pioneer of THAT was Professor Longhair.

Fess, as he was nicknamed, came up during the post World War Two period, when there was a huge vogue for Latin music and culture in the U.S. He is best known for the 1949 tune “Go to the Mardi Gras”, which is virtually now an official anthem for New Orleans. He is also known for his much-covered 1953 tune “Tipitina”, and the comical 1964 hit “Bald Head” (which I can’t imagine wasn’t at least a partial inspiration for the Beach Boys’ 1967 “She’s Going Bald”). Professor Longhair’s rumba and mambo influence rhythms are unmistakable; it’s among the first things I think of when I think of NOLA. He was a major influence on younger artists like Fats Domino, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Huey “Piano” Smith. Oh, and indirectly, Paul McCartney. No, it’s not a huge component of the Beatles sound, but a tune like “Lady Madonna” is clearly McCartney “doing” Fats Domino, and it was Fats who first brought something like the Professor’s sound to mass audiences. In the mid-70s. McCartney paid the pioneer back by inviting him to play at the launch party for Venus and Mars on the Queen Mary. The result was later released as a live album. The ’70s in general were a kind of Renaissance time for Professor Longhair, where he was presented and praised at festivals, and released a string of new albums. He died just before there was a major wave of popular wave of love for New Orleans music, cuisine in culture in the 1980s, which led to this:


Scarcely anyone’s ever heard of it, but I’m comfortable calling Frank’s Place (1987-88) one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. In some ways, perhaps the fact that it was cancelled after a single season did the show one left-handed favor: it never had the opportunity to jump the shark or decline or morph into something else. Its one season will always be one season of perfection. It was created by Hugh Wilson, creator of WKRP in Cincinnati and is essentially a starring vehicle for WKRP’s Venus Flytrap Tim Reid, heading up a killer ensemble cast that includes his wife Daphne Maxwell Reid (later of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Tony Burton from the Rocky movies, and veteran Frances E. Williams as the “Oldest Living Waitress”, among several other solid players. As the titular Frank, Reid is a college professor from the Northeast (sometimes it seems to be Boston, sometimes Providence) who inherits a New Orleans restaurant from his absentee father, whom he never met. Initially, he figures he’ll just sell it to the staff (who want to buy it) and go home. But the instant he returns home (second episode) he is flooded with bad mojo from the New Orleans fortune teller who fixed it that way. At least, that’s what he believes; he’s very superstitious.

Which of course is one of the qualities that helps him adjust to his adopted city. Voodoo isn’t just a stereotype, it’s a cultural reality, if not a supernatural one, as are the food and music of this town, all of which this show celebrates, from the Louis Armstrong-sung theme song “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” to every plot of every episode, which usually invoke some culture clash between Frank and the local customs and mores. Reid is an incredibly winning star to be at the center of it: a charming, handsome leading man type, slightly shy, but with an irresitable propensity to light up and go a little “schticky” when the moment calls for it. As the center of the show, he reminds me quite a lot of Hal Linden as Barney Miller. The show also unavoidably has similarities to Cheers, and in a strange way, Green Acres (Frank being an educated and “cultured” guy surrounded by people who work with their hearts and guts rather than their heads).

Unusual for its day, though it is shot on a traditional sitcom set, it is shot in the one camera “cinematic” style, and with no audience or laugh track. It probably freaked some people at the time, but nowadays it evokes other shows that followed in its footsteps such as Picket Fences. It’s frequently hysterically funny — but you do your own laughing. Audiences were too dumb for that, I guess, back in 1988. I don’t know that they’re any smarter nowadays, but now we have more channels. Anyway, as a love poem to New Orleans, Frank’s Place ranks in my heart along with Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke (2006), and the HBO show Treme (2010-13), both of which I’m overdue to write about. It’s probably less “authentic” than the other two in some ways, but that would just be a quality it shares with almost all other network tv shows!

Read more about about my love affair with New Orleans on my cultural travel blog the Trav-a-Log, starting here. 

For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 



    • It bears investigation! Only the segregated black vaudeville circuits and tent shows and the like were available to most musicians of his sort (and color) in those days, and many black jazz and blues musicians did work there. (Some, like Jim Europe, managed to work in mainstream “white” vaudeville by backing white acts. That’s the exception). But Ive come across no mention yet that King Oliver did (which doesnt mean that he didnt). Most of the venues Ive come across in connection with him are saloons, night clubs, dance clubs, cabarets — that sort of thing.


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