For the first time in my life, I wondered recently: What does Tipitina's mean? What can you tell me?
The question of who or what Tipitina is has perplexed people ever since Professor Longhair, born Henry Roeland Byrd, first wrote and recorded a song by that name in 1953. The international fame of Tipitina's, the Tchoupitoulas Street music club that opened in 1977 and was named after Longhair's song, only added to the mystery.
The song displays the Caribbean-tinged piano style for which Longhair, whose nickname was "Fess," also is widely known. Unfortunately for historians and musicologists, his singing style makes most of the lyrics incomprehensible. Just about all we can make out is Longhair calling the name "Loberta," asking where she's been and why she has a "belly full of gin."
"Professor Longhair had all these apocryphal stories about where the name 'Tipitina' came from," writer/artist Bunny Matthews told Gambit in 2008. "One was that his neighborhood pot dealer was Tipitina. She had no feet, just two stumps. And she would hobble out to the car to bring the weed out, tipping over. Her name was Tina, so she was Tippy Tina." New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival producer Quint Davis, who helped revive Longhair's career in the 1970s, shared a different story: "Fess told me that 'Tipitina' was the name of an African volcano that he found in a book. I don't know if that's definitive, but it's what he told me."
In a 2012 interview with WNYC public radio, pianist and composer Allen Toussaint said, "I've heard that it was some island that someone knew about." Actor/musician Hugh Laurie, who recorded the song on his album Let Them Talk, was clueless. "I don't know if it's a place or a drink or a skin complaint. I thought it was better not knowing. It adds to its mystique and power to make me laugh and cry all in one go."
Longhair died in 1980. In 2010, the Library of Congress added the song to the National Recording Registry in recognition of its cultural and historical significance.