Born: December 19, 1918, Bogalusa, LA
Died: January 30, 1980, New Orleans, LA
Professor Longhair is no longer physically present, but his spirit will forever be part of the New Orleans music community. Although Longhair died over two decades ago, his legend and influence still thrive. His repertoire continues to be reinterpreted by contemporary artists and his original recordings are constantly repackaged and made available to a new generation of listeners who are as mesmerized by his quirky music as previous ones.
Longhair’s style was obviously limited, but his sound was so unique and off the wall it really didn’t matter. His appeal was his offbeat songs and instantly identifiable piano style, which he once described as a blend of “rumba, mambo and calypso.”
When he sang his voice tended to crack when he sought the higher register, but it remained curiously appealing. He even whistled like a possessed mockingbird. With a small combo, or even just a drummer, Professor Longhair could really “Ball the Wall.”
Longhair’s given name was Henry Roeland Byrd and he was born December 19, 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana.
Longhair’s father deserted his family and his mother brought the family to New Orleans so she could find work. As a child he tapdanced on Bourbon Street for spare change, accompanied by two friends who provided rhythm by banging on cans and wooden crates. Longhair’s mother played several instruments and she encouraged her son’s interest in music. His first instrument was the guitar, but he abandoned it because it made his fingers sore and the strings kept breaking. As an adolescent he began going by a joint called Delpee’s where a lot of blues and boogie-woogie pianists performed. “I remember Fess putting smut [charcoal] on his lip so he looked old enough to get in the joint,” recalled the late piano legend Tuts Washington. “I tried to show him these strides that I play but he couldn’t make them. He had to roll his left hand to cover what I can. That’s how he came up with his style.”
Longhair also continued to dance and Washington encouraged him to buy a set of drums because he was so rhythmic.
Longhair played drums briefly, but lost interest because it was too difficult hauling them around. Eventually Washington gave the youngster a few lessons because “he played too good not to be playing something.”
Another early influence was Sullivan Rock who showed Longhair how to play “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.” Once he discovered how a song was put together, Longhair began adding his own embellishments and found he had a natural talent for ad libbing. Whenever he wasn’t dancing for tips, he could be found in one of the many joints on South Rampart Street banging out tunes on a piano. By the mid-1930s, Longhair’s knees gave out so he concentrated solely on the piano although he was also considered a worthy gambler.
In 1937, Longhair joined the Civil Conservation Corps (the C.C.C.) a W.P.A. project. In exchange for $50 and room and board, Longhair joined the crews that graded levees, cut grass along the highways and felled trees. He also was expected to drill and attend C.C.C. classes. However, Longhair was shrewd enough to realize he could avoid a lot of work by entertaining the other workers on the piano in the recreation hall. During this period, Longhair was introduced to calypso and mambo beats via Latin groups that played at the base.
Longhair spent a brief time in the army during World War II but got a medical discharge. He had a stint as a part-owner at Jimmy Hicks’ Barbecue Pit where he cooked and fronted a gambling operation. When it was slow around the Pit he played on the cafe’s piano. Eventually Longhair sold his interest in the business to Hicks and he went back to playing music. When the out-of-town record companies began looking around New Orleans for talent in the late 1940s, Longhair was an obvious choice. At the time Longhair was making a name for himself with the Three Hair Combo at the Caldonia Inn and drawing rave reviews. In October of 1949 he was recorded by the Star Talent label. Longhair cut four sides for the Dallas-based label including “She Ain’t Got No Hair” and the original version of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans.” Apparently the discs were withdrawn from sales when it became known that non-union musicians played on the session.
Longhair bounced back and was signed by Mercury for whom he waxed “Baldhead” (as Roy Byrd) which made it to #5 on the R&B charts in 1950. Even before his two Mercury 78s were on the market, Longhair was back in the studio and cut ten sides for Atlantic including “Hey Little Girl” and a remake of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans.” In 1951, he cut “Gone So Long” for Federal (As Roy “Bald Head” Byrd). The following year he was on the road in Missouri and recorded “East St. Louis Baby”—an altered version of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans”—for Wasco (as Robert Boyd).
In 1953, Atlantic was back in the picture and it was then that Byrd scored locally with the superb “Tipitina,” a song supposedly inspired by a woman with no toes who sold marijuana. During the mid-1950s, a mild stroke curtailed his playing, but he was back in the studio in 1957 and recorded “Looka No Hair” for Ebb. The following year he was signed by the local Ron label. After a nice ballad “If Only I Knew,” Longhair cut the definitive version of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans,” the version most listeners are familiar with.
Jobs were becoming increasingly harder to find as his style seemed dated when compared to up-and-comers like Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe and Lee Dorsey. Longhair didn’t record again until he cut the bizarre “Whole Lot Of Twistin’” for Rip Records. His switch to Watch in 1963 produced better results. After a fine remake of “Baldhead,” Longhair cut his second certified Carnival classic, “Big Chief.” According to Earl King, who wrote “Big Chief” and sang and whistled on it, Longhair was unnerved when he got to the studio. Apparently, he assumed there would be only four musicians on the session. When he got to Cosimo’s studio, arranger Wardell Quezergue was there with nearly a dozen horn players. Longhair regained his composure and his playing was brilliant.
“After ‘Big Chief,’ Fess was on a new energy level,” said King. “One week he was totally out of it. The next he was all enthusiastic about being musical again and he would be playing again everyday.” Unfortunately, Longhair’s enthusiasm was short-lived, “Big Chief” didn’t take off after its initial release and his Watch follow up, “Willie the Prince,” was dreadful. He almost quit playing entirely and his health was deteriorating. The only contact he had with the music community was at One Stop Records where he swept the floor on occasion and got a few bucks around Carnival when his records sold a few copies.
By 1970, Longhair’s recordings had circulated around the world to the point where he’d become a New Orleans piano legend and the subject of several articles in European blues magazines. He also came to the attention of two young New Orleanians, Allison Minor Kaslow, who worked at the Tulane Jazz Archive, and Quint Davis, who was just beginning to produce the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Both spent months searching high and low for the man, but it was Davis who tracked Longhair down at One Stop.
“He wasn’t playing at all then,” said Davis. “He was in a totally depreciated state physically, along with poverty and rejection. But he always had this great spirit to endure no matter what. He was living in a little house without a pot to piss in and ready to start over with nothing for an unknown public. He really believed he could have a reincarnation. So I followed up and got him to play the Jazz Festival at Congo Square.”
As it turned out, his appearance at the 1971 Festival, where he performed with guitarist Snooks Eaglin, was the turning point in Longhair’s career. “The first time I saw him he came hobbling through Congo Square,” said the late Kaslow. “He had short hair and was wearing a suit that had been pressed so many times that it shined. But when he played it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Byrd was so hip and full of energy. I couldn’t believe here was all this talent seemingly going to waste. He was different person after that. It was like he was suddenly ten years younger.”
Eventually Davis assumed Longhair’s management but finding jobs initially was arduous. Parker Dinkins, a friend of Davis who had a label called Ahura Mazda, financed a session in Baton Rouge to test the waters but initially they had no takers. The tapes lead to an invitation to play the 1973 Montreux Festival in France and attracted the interest of Albert Grossman at Bearsville Records who paid Davis and Longhair a $25,000 advance. Grossman cut Longhair and Eaglin in Woodstock and New York City but Parker Dinkins, who also made the trip to the Empire State, said that most of these sessions were unusable. He also reported Grossman began making fun of Longhair and he lost interest in the project. As a result, all of these tapes languished on the shelf for over 15 years. 1973 was also the year Atlantic issued the landmark reissue New Orleans Piano LP which presented his earlier Atlantic masterpieces. The album drew worldwide acclaim and Longhair gained even broader attention, which further sped up his metamorphism. “His health started getting better and he started taking care of business,” said Davis. “He started taking vitamins, eating cheese, drinking milk, wearing glasses and he was able to walk again and kick the piano. Having all those spiritual and mental juices back again and to be physically active at the piano—man, it made all the difference in the world to him.”
Jobs around town were gradually picking up when tragedy struck. Davis rented a larger house for Longhair and his family which also served as an unofficial rehearsal hall. During the 1974 Jazz Fest, the house caught fire and burned to the ground. Longhair wound up with nothing but the clothes on his back as the house was uninsured. A hastily arranged benefit was arranged at the Warehouse which raised $4,500. Realizing Longhair was in a jam, transplanted French producer Phillipe Rault offered him $750 to cut a record with Gatemouth Brown on the Barclay label. The tragedy had no effect on his music as the resulting Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo was one his most satisfying contemporary efforts.
Starting over wasn’t easy. Besides working Uptown at Jed’s, Longhair occasionally played at the 501 Club and another European tour was arranged in 1975. At this time, Kaslow took over Longhair’s management as Davis was committed to organizing the Jazz Fest. Under Kaslow’s direction, Longhair increased the size of his band, even adding a steel drummer, and upped his appearance fee. He also came to the attention of Paul McCartney, who was in town to record in 1976. McCartney arranged for Longhair to play on board the Queen Mary, had the show taped, and helped license the tapes to Harvest Records.
The following year, an ambitious group of young New Orleanians, led by Henry “Hank” Drevich, tired of having few places for Longhair to play. They put together some money and ideas, and leased the old 501 Club. In honor of Longhair, they appropriately renamed the venue Tipitina’s. If you were lucky enough to have seen Longhair perform there, you will never forget it.
Despite the long odds, Professor Longhair had finally made it. He was able to buy a comfortable house on Terpsichore Street and move his family there. “Byrd finally got to the point where he didn’t have to struggle,” said Kaslow. “He was making a comfortable living. You never saw a happier man. He would lend money to his friends and buy diapers for some woman’s baby in the neighborhood.”
Longhair largely stayed busy playing at Tipitina’s or other Uptown clubs, but also toured the country and still traveled to Europe where eager audiences were enthralled by his unique brand of New Orleans music. During November 1979, Longhair made a long overdue studio album, Crawfish Fiesta, at SeaSaint Studio with Dr. John on guitar. “He’d never been more satisfied with anything he recorded,” said Kaslow, who co-produced the session, which appeared on the Chicago-based Alligator label. “Everything went perfectly. He couldn’t wait for it to come out.” Sadly, he never saw it. On the night of January 30, 1980 (the LP was to be released two days later), as he often did, Longhair drove with his grandson and his crippled friend Richard to Picou’s, an all-night bakery, where they picked up coffee and a dozen twisters. Longhair came home without eating the twisters or drinking the coffee, complaining of heartburn. He laid down and never got up.
Longhair’s wake and funeral nearly crushed the tiny Majestic Funeral Home on Dryades Street. In attendance were Atlantic Records Executive Jerry Wexler, Allen Toussaint, Ernie K-Doe and Earl Turbinton, who later performed a saxophone eulogy at Longhair’s graveside. Longhair was buried in a borrowed crypt (engraved “Matthews”) at Mt. Olive Cemetery in suburban Gentilly. It’s no secret that a great deal of the city’s musical magic was buried along with Longhair on that cold gray February morning. “He just created that happy music,” said Kaslow. “Hearing it again on record is just not the same. He was one of a kind.”
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