The Tipitina's Record Club

Professor Longhair in his living room! Etta James—live—at Tipitina's!! Previously unknown James Booker recordings!!! All of it unreleased and unheard???

In the music world, spare time spurred by COVID closures led to many good ideas and side projects. Few have been better than Tipitina's Record Club (TRC).

"We were left with no touring and the club wasn't open, and so our manager was like, this is the time to move forward," says Robert Mercurio, bassist for the band Galactic, which owns Tipitina's, the storied New Orleans venue. Mercurio founded TRC with Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman. "We had a well-known brand, and along with the rise of vinyl and online vinyl clubs, we thought this would be really cool," Mercurio said. "We decided the holidays 2021 was the appropriate time to get the calendar going, so Ben and I started to find the content."


Alongside hurricanes (both the dangerous drinks and the destructive storms), Mardi Gras, and some of the world's most flavorful food, music is one of the things New Orleans is best known for. And there's so much of it: Spend time in the Crescent City—talking to locals, listening to lore, shaking trees—and unreleased and forgotten material seems to fall from the sky. "We went to the vaults of Tulane University, The Historic New Orleans Collection, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation (who own the NOLA Jazz & Heritage Festival), and listened to recordings, and consequently we've come up with some really exciting stuff.

"Quint Davis, the producer of JazzFest, has been a huge help. He used to roll around town with a reel-to-reel recorder. When he managed Professor Longhair, he recorded a rehearsal in Fess's living room, which became the 2021 TRC release Fess at Home. Early on in the pandemic, he opened up his man cave of recordings to Ben and I. We'd spend days over there, finding stuff and pointing it out to him, and he'd be like, 'Oh my god, I haven't heard this in 40 years!'"

Finding the music is the fun part. Clearing the music for release is less enjoyable. "One of the partners in our record club is our lawyer," Mercurio said with a knowing, good-natured laugh. "That was a very early thing. We realized 'My god this is going to be so much work.' ... So many of these New Orleans artists have been ripped off and taken advantage of, and the last thing we'd want to do is come in and add to that."

At first, the plan was to secure 500 subscribers, the number needed to break even. The club has since topped 3000.


Contentwise, the club's releases have been spectacular. In addition to Fess at Home, highlights from the club's first year and a half include Kung Pow!! Live at Tipitina's, a live set by the Radiators, longtime Tip's favorites, and the double-LP set Coolin' Off, Galactic's 1996 debut, which had never been released before on vinyl. For deep NOLA collectors, there's a live recording by that rarest of New Orleans piano professors, the miraculous James Booker. The most recent entry is from singer Johnny Adams, After All the Good Is Gone, a reissue of a 1978 release.

The looming question for audiophiles is, does the value of hearing rare content top the need for pristine sonics? Despite many well-equipped, capably staffed studios past and present—not to mention sonic magician Cosimo Matassa, who captured some of the most compelling NOLA music ever with a single microphone and a ramshackle mono tape machine—the history of New Orleans music is filled with bad recordings of good music. Mercurio says he and Ellman do a lot of Pro Tools prep—so, no, the mastering chain is not pure analog. The final files are mastered by Brent Lambert at Kitchen Mastering in North Carolina. Lacquers are cut by either Greg Reierson at Rare Form or Adam Gonsalves at Telegraph. LPs are pressed at New Orleans Record Press in the 9th Ward. All TRC LPs come in colored, 180gm pressings. So far, the pressing quality has been good, and it gets better with each release.

"There have been sources that we found that were not up to snuff and could not be rescued sonically," he admits. "The Booker didn't sound so good at first, but we did a lot of work on it. There's not an infinite amount of recordings of Booker"—indeed James Booker recordings are rare—"so you kind of have to weigh that. The Professor Longhair at Home, it's an extremely out-of-tune piano, but that's part of the charm of it. Technically it's not a great recording, but it's him playing by himself in his house."

First issues of unreleased, newly discovered recordings are catnip for NOLA music collectors, but TRC has other ambitions, to mix new releases of historic live recordings with reissues and new records by current artists. "We definitely want to do a Cajun record. We definitely want to do a zydeco record. A trad-jazz album. There's so many more genres within the scope of our club. We could put out rock stuff from New Orleans artists like Anders Osborne. We want one-third reissues, one-third archival live recordings, and one-third new content to kind of be our mission," Mercurio said.

"We've really been trying to lock in on a Meters recording, and strangely enough, they weren't recorded live as much as you might think. And the recordings that are out there are not that great sonically. We found one, but there's a lot of hurdles there, but rest assured, they're still at the top of our list.

"We have been in talks about producing a new artist from the ground up. Not to diss any of the other vinyl record clubs, but a lot of those are just reissues, right? We knew we wanted to have a focus on New Orleans and Louisiana recordings, and we wanted them to be unique and most never heard before."