This was written in 2010, just before the release of Widespread Panic’s album, “Dirty Side Down.”
Never heard of Professor Longhair before talking with John “JoJo” Hermann, the self-acknowledged baseball freak who is known to the rest of Greater Earth mainly for his extreme keyboard skills with Widespread Panic.
He played in a high school band (and truthfully, I’m not sure if he meant the “high school band” or a “high” school band or a band he played in during high school — I’m betting the latter).
“We played the Doors, the Stones, the Beatles and Allman Brothers and everything else,” JoJo says. “But somebody in my senior year turned me onto Professor Longhair, Dr. John and New Orleans boogie woogie. I got turned onto that and it changed my life.”
Mr. and Mrs. Hermann had hopes and dreams for their boy. They wanted him to become a doctor or a lawyer, something with a guaranteed good income. Instead … “I quit school, dropped out and joined a band, joined a Reggae band from Jamaica (Queens, NY, not the island),” Hermann says.
This was the music that drew him in, that ultimately cast its spell. Plus, it probably didn’t hurt that the Jamaicans in Queens had the good herb. Probably. “So I’m out there learning how to play Reggae , and one of the other guys was like, ‘check out this piano player named Professor Longhair,'” he says.
The Professor was a New Orleans institution, writer of such songs as “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Tipitina,” and an influence on virtually every pianist who played in the Big Easy. When he’s not playing for Panic, JoJo plays in a Professor Longhair cover band (“we do a couple of gigs a year, mainly birthday parties and weddings” he says).
This is the part where I dub JoJo Hermann ‘Professor Ballcap,’ because the man is a teacher whether he considers himself one or not. Here’s something: Did you know that a major portion of Reggae’s roots were in New Orleans? Professor Ballcap clued me in: “Jamaica was the only island in the Caribbean that could get New Orleans radio — well, Jamaica and Cuba, but Cuba was so isolated and cut off in the 1960s. But Jamaica and New Orleans are closely tied.”
Reggae grew out of several musical styles, including traditional Jamaican music (like ska) and American R&B. Jamaicans were influenced by the sounds coming out of megastations based in New Orleans and Florida. And Reggae became its own distinct genre in the 1960s (thank you, Megan Romer, for ‘Reggae Music 101.’ And thank you, JoJo, for the spark).
So, while Panic’s own roots are in Athens, the band is truly Widespread. JoJo lives in the Nashville area with his family and (of course) follows baseball, especially the New York Mets (his home team as a kid). He watches games and reads the box scores everyday during the season (including the grapefruit/cactus league seasons, God help him), loves the MLB Network, hates the designated hitter, and learned to tolerate and occasionally root for the Atlanta Braves. And the truth is, Hermann never lived in Athens for very long, spending about 20 years in another college town, Oxford, Mississippi.
“Athens chewed me up and spit me out — it was too much my thing,” he says. “Lived there for about two years and moved back to Mississippi before I lost my mind.”
He doesn’t give much thought to the “business side” of the band, and considers him lucky that he doesn’t have to.
“We have great business people, the managers, the people in the office, and if it wasn’t for them I’d be living in a school bus in some ditch outside of Knoxville,” he says. “The reason I have a good life is because we have business people to tell me that my business ideas are completely insane.”
He joined Panic in 1992 and has been through the thick and thin of it with his pals, who together overcame the death in 2002 of beloved lead guitarist Michael Houser (whose Panic attacks inspired the name of the band way back when). “When Mikey passed, you know, it was just a whirlwind of desperation,” he says. “But we’re like a cat with nine lives. With Jimmy (Herring, lead guitarist) now, it’s like we’re really in a groove.”
Professor Ballcap admits he is a little geeked about the band’s upcoming studio album (Dirty Side Down, set for a May 25th release), for a few reasons.
“This time the process harkened back to when we made records with Mikey. It feels like the band is the band. Jimmy is such a big part of it, and we’re reunited with John Keane in Athens. I love this record.”
Also, JoJo gets to sing a few leads. “This is the first record I’ve sung on in 10 years. Hey, I’m not saying I’m good, I’m just saying the opportunity was there.”