When Hugh Laurie was a boy he heard a recording of a concert so amazing it would have a profound effect on his life. It featured the blues legend Professor Longhair playing aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California.
In tribute to this great performance we join Hugh Laurie as he gigs his way across America from the Eastern seaboard of New York to the West Coast of LA playing a concert in homage to his music hero aboard the very same ship.
Along the way Hugh plays the music that influenced him and helped him release a successful album in his own right. We learn why, as an Englishman raised on American music, Hugh has such a strong passion for the blues. The finale is his performance aboard the Queen Mary.
Hugh visits the studios of Ray Charles and plays the blues star’s own piano. He meets Muddy Waters’ son Mudd Morganfield, and duets with Jools Holland. Hugh’s long -time friend and fellow actor Stephen Fry drops into Hugh’s rehearsals to offer his support for the big finale.
Hugh explains the reason for his pilgrimage: “Every good blues song tells a story and in every good story there is a journey. This is a film of my journey and the culmination of a dream I’ve had since I was a teenager.
“As a child there was one musician in particular I loved and that is where the story begins.
“The Queen Mary was the site of a recording by Professor Longhair, the record was called Professor Longhair on the Queen Mary. It was an absolutely seminal record. We are going to the Queen Mary not to recreate the night of that recording but to offer a kind of tribute to a musician who just changed everything for me.
“Growing up not far from the Thames I didn’t know where the blues came from. I just knew I didn’t want to live without it.
“When I first heard that sort of wailing blue note it was like a door opening to this magical kingdom. I hear it as music of great joy and passion and love, and it’s funny a lot of the time. Of course it has pain and heartbreak in it too. In fact I think all human life is in it.
“Growing up in England being a blues fan was a fairly isolating experience, devotees like me tended to be hidden away in our bedrooms listening to the latest US imports and trying to learn every note.”
Hugh shares his passion for the blues with Jools Holland, and visits him at home to duet with him. He reveals how he had asked Jools to teach him to play the blues on the piano. Th response had been he would if Hugh would teach him how to act.
Hugh says: “As a child the piano was a place I got lost in and I would play for hours. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was and how wonderful it made me feel. I have always just loved this music, listening to it and doing it.
Professor Longhair is credited as the man who put funk into music. He first gained national attention in the 1950s with his rumba boogie style of piano playing. But like many blues artists he fell into obscurity with the rise of sixties’ pop.
But then a blues devotee tracked him down and suddenly a new generation discovered his unique sound. His rebirth culminated in his Live on the Queen Mary album in 1975. From that point to his death in 1980 he was celebrated as a living legend, and was later inducted into the blues hall of fame.
“My view of life, such that it is, was influenced by the sounds and stories of Professor Longhair, now in appreciation of his music I am going to travel across the US, starting in New York ending in California, along the way I am going to be gigging in the towns where so many of the songs I love come from, discovering the roots of the music which raised me.
“I realise now being in New York it is an act of straightforward madness for an Englishman to come here and try and enchant audiences with American music. But mad challenges are good.
Hugh Laurie gathered together a band of like minded talented musicians for his journey.
“My passion is music, always has been. Acting is something I find it very difficult. Not that I don’t find music difficult; I sweat and curse over music too. But I find it a much more freer and more passionate experience.
“I have never been confident of anything ever. I am not confident the sun is going to come up. It is not my natural state. I predict disaster almost every day. For that reason I am almost always delighted and relieved by the way the day turns out.”
The band’s tour kicks off in Manhattan, then they head to the birthplace of the blues; New Orleans.
Hugh meets one man who proves you can play the blues no matter where you come from. Jon Cleary from Kent, England, moved to New Orleans 30 years ago as a teenager on his own and completely skint with a dream of playing with the blues greats. Since then he has become a bit of a legend himself.
Jon says that when he got to New Orleans there weren’t many people playing piano so he got to play with his idols who had just been names on the backs of records. Jon has played with the greats including B.B. King and John Booker, and then he gets to play with Hugh Laurie.
Hugh journeys onto Chicago the mecca for musicians from all over the world. Its most famous migrant was the father of Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters. His son Mudd Morganfield is an internationally known musician in his own right. He agreed to play with Hugh while he was in town.
The day of reckoning is approaching - Hugh’s tribute performance aboard the Queen Mary. There is one stop to make for a final burst of inspiration before his finale concert. Hugh drops off at the former studio of one of the greatest musicians of all time, Ray Charles. Since his death in 2004 the studio has been kept as a memorial by Valerie Ervin, president of the Ray Charles Foundation, who worked with Ray for the last decade of his life.
“To come here into the room he actually designed and sit at his piano and actually brush against the marks his fingernails left, it is slightly unnerving. I feel like I have broken into a cathedral and I am desecrating it by breathing the air.”
As Hugh plays Ray Charles’ piano. Valerie says when Hugh plays it was like a touch of Ray coming into the studio.
Hugh says: “Up until a couple of years ago playing music was my own private escape but since I released my first album I have had the chance to fulfill several dreams at once. I am seeing America in a way I never have before. But I am also about to play a tribute to my musical hero Professor Longhair by performing a gig aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
“It will be a combination of many things; exciting thrilling, awe-inspiring, terrifying or just a flat out disaster. There is no way of knowing the blend of ingredients and how it will all work out.
But that’s the fun of it.
“This whole experience for me has been a bit like shoplifting, not that I am experienced you understand. but from the moment that I embarked on this musical journey, set out with a band, made a record, started going on tour kept expecting somebody to shout ‘stop that man’.
For whatever reason that hasn’t happened yet. I feel they are going to set the dogs on me at any moment but it hasn’t happened yet and it is an amazing experience.
“I’m feeling very jittery. Performing before an audience will always get the juices flowing, but particularly this one, its not a tribute exactly, but a musician who has meant so much to me, this feels like a very holy place and a holy undertaking, and I am crapping myself.”
Hugh’s good friend and fellow actor Stephen Fry popped into to watch Hugh and the band rehearse, and to lend his support.
“The BBC asked Hugh and me if we would do a TV series together, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and one of the things we puzzled over is the opening music and Hugh said ‘ you know Professor Longhair’ and I said ‘is that a cartoon character?’ I’d never heard of Professor Longhair. Hugh played this recording Professor Longhair made on the Queen Mary, I think it was called Mardi Gras. It was just a perfect introduction to a comedy show.
“I am so proud of him, and at the same time I am fully aware of the amount of work he puts in. I have known Hugh for over 30 years and there almost hasn’t been a day when he hasn’t played the piano, he hasn’t practiced, and hasn’t got better and better.”
The film concludes with the grand finale aboard the Queen Mary greeted by rapturous applause from the audience.
Directors: Matt Fife, Kari Lia
Executive Producers: Hugh Laurie, Stuart Cabb, Conrad Withey