The roots of the fabulous body of music that was produced in New Orleans in the twentieth century can be traced back to the ensemble playing of the black funeral bands, the powerful rhythms of Mardi Gras parades, country blues from various areas in the Mississippi delta and the barrelhouse piano players. The piano became the signature instrument for the music of New Orleans, whether jazz, blues or R&B and Professor Longhair was the musician’s musician who set the style.
Henry Roeland Byrd, born in Bogalusa, New Orleans, was given the name “Professor Longhair”, after playing at a club in the French Quarter, to honour his mastery on the piano. His piano style was a mixture of Latin rhythms, boogie-woogie and barrelhouse. His legacy can be heard in the recordings of Fats Domino, Dr John, Allen Toussaint and others.
In the 1940s, Professor Longhair was playing with Caribbean musicians and listening to Afro-cuban music, developing a style of playing that has been called “rumba-boogie”.
He began his career in New Orleans in 1948 and in 1949 recorded his signature tune “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”, followed later by “Tipitina” and “Go to the Mardi Gras”. All three are well-known now, but at the time his popularity was strictly local. Professor Longhair had only one national commercial hit, “Bald Head”, in 1950, under the name Roy Byrd and His Blues Jumpers. In the sixties he made very little impact, but fortunately his career was resurrected, when he was invited to play at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1971 and at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973. He played in London and then, in 1975, on the Queen Mary liner at a party organised by Paul and Linda McCartney. Alligator Records and Atlantic Records re-issued some of his old recordings. Appearances in film and television cemented the interest in his work. He died in 1980.
As a founding father of New Orleans R&B, Professor Longhair attracted praise from a wide range of musicians.
“He’s The Bach of Rock!” (Allen Toussaint)
“One of the off-handed founders of modern day popular music” (Rolling Stone Magazine, May 1972)
“Fess, the high Priest – The King of it all.” (Mac “Dr. John” Rebenack)
“He’s a seminal force, a guru, an original creator of the New Orleans piano style….. the teacher of great players like Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Mac Rebenack, James Booker, and Huey Smith. All acknowledge him as The Great Master.” (Jerry Wexler)
“Professor Longhair put ‘funk’ into music; he’s the father of the stuff.” (Dr. John)
The house on Terpsichore St. where Professor Longhair lived was damaged by hurricane Katrina and fell into disrepair (see headline photo) but has been brought back to life as a museum, which opened in 2015.
Professor Longhair was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981. In 1987, he was awarded a posthumous Grammy Award for his early recordings, released with the title “House Party New Orleans Style”. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
Photo 1: The House on Terpsichore St. where Professor Longhair lived Photo by Infrogmation 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 2: Piano Part, Professor Longhair’s “Misery” Dr clave 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 3: The Professor Longhair Museum 2015 robbiesaurus (Wikimedia Commons)