Mo’ Fess isn’t a Professor Longhair tribute band. It is Professor Longhair’s former band. Four Mo’ Fess band members—drummer Earl Gordon, bassist Reggie Scanlan, saxophonist Tony DaGradi and conga player Alfred “Uganda” Roberts—performed with the ingeniously idiosyncratic pianist and vocalist. Singer-pianist Tom Worrell joins them in Mo’ Fess, filling Longhair’s spot with uncanny accuracy.
Mo’ Fess initially came together at the behest of musician and producer Carlo Ditta. In 2016, Ditta’s Orleans Records released Live in Chicago, a recording of Longhair’s 1976 show at the Chicago Folk Festival. A tape of the performance had been in the possession of guitarist Billy Gregory, one of Longhair’s 1970s-era band members, for 40 years.
To promote Live in Chicago’s belated release, Ditta invited Longhair alumni, including Gregory, Gordon, and saxophonist Jerry Jumonville, to play an album release show at the Little Gem Saloon. Worrell joined them at the piano. Gordon, impressed with Worrell’s renditions of Longhair’s classics, suggested they keep the party going with Mo’ Fess.
“I’ve played with some great keyboardists who wanted to emulate Fess,” Gordon said. “They never could, but Tom, when you close your eyes, comes the closest to Fess.”
The 2019 edition of Mo’ Fess includes Gordon, Worrell, Scanlan, Dagradi, Roberts, guitarist June Yamagishi, saxophonist Lance Ellis, and Brazilian keyboardist Luciano Leães.
Gordon, a stem cell researcher in Calabasas, California, left Longhair’s band and New Orleans in 1979. With his eyes on retirement from the medical field, he now hopes Mo’ Fess will perform more often. The next Mo’ Fess show in New Orleans is July 20 at Tipitina’s. The band’s recent gigs have also included last year’s The Professor Longhair 100th Birthday Tribute at Tipitina’s.
Gordon performed with Longhair from late 1975 through late 1979. “Everybody loved playing with Fess,” he said. “It was magic. He was magic. We’re trying to bring the magic back with Mo’ Fess.”
“It’s a special gig,” Worrell said of Mo’ Fess. “When we played at Tipitina’s, the chemistry was definitely there. It would be nice to play more, but it has to be for special occasions. We can’t play casinos. Either we have to take it on tour and do it for people who never got to hear Fess, or we do it for the people of New Orleans as a special kind of thing.”
Before Mo’ Fess, in the years before Hurricane Katrina, Worrell often performed with another of Longhair’s band members, the late Edwin “Sheeba” Kimbraugh. “He was one of my best friends in my life,” Worrell said. “We played hundreds of gigs together, sometimes just me and him. Having somebody translate the rhythm in real time, somebody who played with Fess, that was invaluable.”
Mo’ Fess at Tipitina’s on Saturday, July 20.