Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd – better known to the world as Professor Longhair or “Fess,” for short – stands as the foremost exponent of New Orleans piano style. Byrd’s idiosyncratic style is a rhythmic jambalaya reflecting the freewheeling, good-time spirit of the Crescent City. Professor Longhair soaked up influences from close-at-hand sources – barrel house boogie-woogie, Caribbean rhythms like the rumba (many of his relatives were West Indian), and the Crescent City’s “second line” parade rhythms – but the way he pieced these elements together is what made his style such a marvel of fluidity and drive. He has been hailed as “the Picasso of keyboard funk” and “the Bach of rock.” Professor Longhair also served to influence profoundly a generation of New Orleans pianists that came up behind him, many of whom made their mark in the interlocking worlds of rhythm & blues and rock and roll. Some of his more prominent musical heirs include Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John), Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, James Booker and Allen Toussaint.
The Henry Roeland Byrd story is fundamentally the story of an artist who created his own musical world, constantly refining and elaborating a distinctive personal style. It may have been too idiosyncratic to ever capture mainstream popularity during Longhair’s lifetime, but it was so striking and individual that it ultimately became the definitive standard for New Orleans piano players.
He was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, on December 19, 1918, and lived in New Orleans from the age of two onward. As a child, he learned how to play on an old piano that had been left in an alley. It only had a certain number of keys because it was a piano someone had left for the trash man. Most of the keys were broken, and some of the keys didn’t have hammers or strings attached to the hammers…How many piano players in their childhood only had eight or ten keys to work with?
Longhair grew up on the streets of the Big Easy, tap dancing for tips on Bourbon Street with his running partners. Local 88s aces Sullivan Rock, Kid Stormy Weather, and Tuts Washington all left their marks on the youngster, but he brought his own conception to the stool. A natural-born card shark and gambler, Longhair began to take his playing seriously in 1948, earning a gig at the Caledonia Club. Owner Mike Tessitore bestowed Longhair with his professorial nickname (due to Byrd’s shaggy coiffure).
He seriously began to master his instrument while working at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1937. After a stint in the service during World War II, he returned to New Orleans and began playing at clubs like the Caledonia, a neighborhood bar just outside the French Quarter. He was called Professor Longhair, the “professor” part being an honorary nickname bestowed on New Orleans piano wizards.
Longhair debuted on wax in 1949, laying down four tracks (including the first version of his signature “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” complete with whistled intro) for the Dallas-based Star Talent label. His band was called the Shuffling Hungarians, for reasons lost to time! Union problems forced those sides off the market, but Longhair’s next date for Mercury the same year was strictly on the up-and-up. It produced his first and only national R&B hit in 1950, the hilarious “Bald Head” (credited to Roy Byrd & His Blues Jumpers). Soon after, he was signed to Atlantic Records and began recording under the aegis of the label’s producer/executives, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.
The pianist made great records for Atlantic in 1949, Federal in 1951, Wasco in 1952, and Atlantic again in 1953 (producing the immortal “Tipitina,” a romping “In the Night,” and the lyrically impenetrable boogie “Ball the Wall”). After recuperating from a minor stroke, Longhair came back on Lee Rupe’s Ebb logo in 1957 with a storming “No Buts – No Maybes.” He revived his “Go to the Mardi Gras” for Joe Ruffino’s Ron imprint in 1959; this is the version that surfaces every year at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Justly worshipped thirty five years after his death as a founding father of New Orleans R&B, the Professor was nevertheless so down-and-out at one point in his long career that he was reduced to sweeping the floors in a record shop that once could have moved his platters by the boxful.
Fess’ story would have probably ended here had it not been for 2 New Orleans music aficionados, Quint Davis, and Allison Minor, who were instrumental in launching the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the early 1970’s.
They only knew about Fess from his recordings, but were determined to find him and include him in the festival. It took them nearly a year, but they found the dynamic musician working at a record shop sweeping floors. What they found was not at all what they where hoping for. Fess was in bad shape; living in poverty, with weak knees, unable to eat, walk, or use the bathroom without help. Davis and Minor nursed Fess back to health and, still weak, the piano master somehow managed to take the stage at the 1971 festival.
Then, in a story etched in the halls of live music fame, it happened…. Before everyone’s eyes, right there on the stage, a Phoenix was reborn! Backed by Bluesman Snooks Eaglin, after years of anonymity and virtual poverty, the career and life of Professor Longhair made a major turn. He gave an exhilarating performance that literally bought the rest of the festival to a stand-still! Everyone there, the musicians, the vendors, the audience, stopped and witnessed the return of Professor Longhair. Suddenly, with a single performance, Fess found himself revered by a whole new generations of fans.
Davis assumed the role of manager and Fess started rebuilding his career. He began playing local clubs and a demo tape won him a European tour with The Meters. Fess recorded several songs, but they wheren’t released until much later. Actually, the only “new” Professor Longhair album was just a collection of his recordings for Atlantic Records from 1949 and 1953, but the original disks had become prized collector’s items, and it sold well, boosting Fess’ career.
That Longhair made such a marvelous comeback testifies to the resiliency of this late legend, whose Latin-tinged rhumba-rocking piano style and croaking, yodeling vocals were as singular and spicy as the second-line beats that power his hometown’s musical heartbeat. Longhair brought an irresistible Caribbean feel to his playing, full of rolling flourishes that every Crescent City ivories man had to learn inside out (Fats Domino, Huey Smith, and Allen Toussaint all paid homage early and often).
Tragedy struck in 1974, when a fire broke out and destroyed the house that was Fess’ Family home and rehearsal space. Thankfully no one was hurt, but Fess lost everything he had. The house was uninsured and he was left with nothing. As it so often does, the New Orleans music community rushed to his aid with benefit concerts, and recording session time was arranged to help him. Out of those recordings came what is widely regarded as one of the best albums of the mid 70’s; Rock and Roll Gumbo.
In 1976, Fess gained further attention when Paul McCartney hired him to play at a private party that the famous Beatle was having on the Queen Mary. Fess had no idea who Paul McCartney was, but he took the job, and the performance was recorded and released as Fess’ next album. In 1977, a venue in the New Orleans French Quarter called the 501 Club was reopened. It’s specific purpose was to give Fess a regular place to play. They renamed it “Tipitina’s”. By the end of 1978, for the first time in his life, the good professor was living comfortably from his music.
John Bonham & Professor Longhair
“He progressed not in the general way of the world-he progressed in Professor Longhair’s world,” reflects Allen Toussaint. When Professor Longhair delivered something, it didn’t follow any close suit to what the world was into.”
“There was a factor of not relatin’ [to his music] but not because it was old-fashioned,” says Allan Toussaint. “It’s not like a whole lot of people were doing his kind of music at one time and then stopped. Through many periods, and I say many because Fess lived through several periods, Fess was always off the beaten path.”
Says Toussaint, “Fess broke it up everywhere we went – he was as big a hit as Fats Domino was. And I mean literally broke it up. We played Kansas City, and the guy owed us money and wanted to take out the damage Fess had done to the piano by kicking the piano when he played. We wouldn’t go for that.”
Other than the ambitiously arranged “Big Chief” in 1964 for Watch Records, the ’60s held little charm for Longhair. He hit the skids, abandoning his piano playing until a booking at the fledgling 1971 Jazz & Heritage Festival put him on the comeback trail. He made a slew of albums in the last decade of his life, topped off by a terrific set for Alligator, Crawfish Fiesta.
“He did not have a decent piano. That was before New Orleans music and the festival was popular, so there were still overtones of racism and separatism, and there was no place for Byrd. There were no club dates. Once he did come out of retirement, he worked at Tulane University and got some gigs on Bourbon Street.” “Fess came out of retirement and started to play , and it was the one thing that everybody in the audience has in common. Black or white, local or out-of town, they all had Longhair’s music in common, just that mambo-rhumba thing. he started to play and I was shooting, I looked back and everybody from the festival was coming there like lemmings.”
He didn’t let it stop – he just didn’t let another group from another corner pf that area jump in on him. When he stopped playing, there wasn’t anybody else playing in the entire festival. They gave up – there any audience.”
Professor Longhair simply made some of the most captivating music the world has ever known, music that is virtually unrivaled for its pure joyousness. As more people encounter that soothing voice and the sheer verve of his pianistic innovations, they will inevitably be drawn deeper and deeper into the seductive, timeless charms of his music. Because once you learn to rawmp and stawmp that way – they ain’t no goin’ back.
As a vocalist, Professor Longhair was a classic blues shouter. As a pianist, he was a unique force of nature – or, more accurately, New Orleans. It was a city whose sense of festivity he celebrated with such anthems as “Tipitina” (now the name of the city’s most fabled music club), “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Big Chief.” Longhair remained locally popular as a working musician from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, rarely venturing off his home turf. He abandoned the music business in 1964 to work odd jobs and deal cards for a living.
After languishing in obscurity Professor Longhair was rediscovered and enlisted to play at the second New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1971. His comeback included tours of Europe and albums for major labels as a new generation discovered his inimitable “mambo-rumba-boogie” style. All the while he remained the patron saint of Jazzfest, closing out the final show each year until his death in 1980.
A group of his admirers bought a local watering hole in 1977 and rechristened it Tipitina’s after his famous song. He played there regularly when he wasn’t on the road; it remains a thriving operation.
In 1979, along with Allen Toussaint and Tuts Washington, Fess took part in a film documentary called “Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together”, and signed a contract with Chicago’s famed blues label Alligator Records. Supported by a crack team of New Orleans musicians (including Dr John, in a now rare appearance on guitar,) he recorded what many believe was the best album of his career, Crawfish Fiesta. Those who knew Fess say he was more proud of this recording than any other he did. The album, recorded at Allen Toussaint’s Sea Saint Studio and produced by Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer, earned great accolades, was critically praised, and won the Handy Award (later renamed the Blues Music Award) for Best Album of the Year from the Blues Foundation. Sadly, Fess never saw the great success of Fiesta, or even it’s release. The piano genius suffered a heart attack and died in his home on January 30, 1980 — the night before the album’s release.
In a city known worldwide for it’s lavish funerals, Fess’ was something unforgettable. In 40 degree weather — bitingly cold by New Orleans standards –hundreds of friends, loved ones, and fans waited for hours before the 10am service. The funeral procession stretched 10 blocks, and included such New Orleans legends as Allen Toussaint and Ernie K-Doe, who gave the eulogy. The Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band played and the mourners second-lined in the streets as a city said goodbye to the man who’s music was, and still by and large is, the very essence of the City of New Orleans.
His music is played in his hometown so often and so reverently you’d swear he was still around. Longhair