Born Henry Roeland Byrd, 18 December 1918, Bogalusa, Louisiana
Pianist, vocalist, songwriter.
Professor Longhair (nickname "Fess") is regarded as one of New Orleans' most influential artists. His rhythmic innovations made his style of piano playing unique. Every prominent New Orleans R&B pianist - Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Mac Rebennack, Allen Toussaint, James Booker among them - has acknowledged Longhair as a source of inspiration.
Born in poverty, Roy Byrd grew up in New Orleans where he became a tap dancer and street musician in his teens. His first instrument was the guitar, but eventually he found the piano more interesting. Barrelhouse pianist Sullivan Rock (who died in 1942) was his biggest influence. After wartime service, Byrd gained a residency at the Caldonia Inn club, whose owner christened him Professor Longhair. By that time he had developed a piano style that combined Caribbean elements (rumba, mambo) with more standard boogie woogie and barrelhouse rhythms.
In 1949 he made his first records, for the Star Talent label, which credited the artist as Professor Longhair and his Shuffling Hungarians (many years before it became fashionable to adopt bizarre names). The A-sides of his two Star Talent singles were the first versions of two of his most famous tunes, "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and "She Ain't Got No Hair". But Star Talent was soon forced out of the business for holding non-union sessions. Still, Longhair's name reached important people like Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson of Atlantic Records, who undertook a trip to the South in 1949 and wanted to sign him. "I'm terribly sorry, but I signed with Mercury last week", Longhair told them. Then he added "But I signed with them as Roy Byrd. With you I can be Professor Longhair". Both Atlantic and Mercury released records by Byrd/Longhair in 1950. The Mercury remake of "She Ain't Got No Hair", released as "Baldhead" and credited to Roy Byrd and his Blues Jumpers, became a national R&B hit (# 5), the only chart entry of his career. After a stint at Federal, Longhair returned to Atlantic in 1953. This time he recorded with a heavier beat, backed by top session men like Lee Allen, Red Tyler and Earl Palmer. Only two songs from this November 1953 4-track session were released, coupling the classic "Tipitina" with "In the Night". The Atlantic recordings from 1949 and 1953 were collected on the album "New Orleans Piano" in 1972 and included previously unissued gems like "Ball the Wall". The CD reissue (1990) has three extra tracks and is still in print.
A mild stroke interrupted his career in the mid-1950s and for some years he performed infrequently. In 1957 Longhair had three good singles released on Ebb, the label of Lee Rupe, Art Rupe's ex-wife. These included his most frantic rocker, "Look What You're Doing To Me", and another remake of "She Ain't Got No Hair", this time titled "Looka No Hair" (which even got a Dutch release - my introduction to Longhair). The next year he signed with the Ron label (run by Joe Ruffino), where he recorded the definitive version of "Go To the Mardi Gras", which still gets plenty of airplay in New Orleans during Carnival season. He was arrested on Carnival day 1960 for suspicion of drug possession and didn't return to the studio until 1962, when Wardell Quezergue produced a session for the Rip label. Quezergue also produced his records for the Watch label, including "Big Chief" (1964, co-produced by Earl King), a vast improvement on the Rip recordings.
But after his Watch contract ran out, Longhair sank into obscurity and almost totally abandoned playing. He earned a living from gambling and odd jobs. From his teens, Byrd had always been a good card player and had a reputation as one of the best coon-can players in New Orleans. When English blues expert Mike Leadbitter tracked him down in April 1970, he described their meeting as follows : "He was down and out, and very sad, as neglect, frustration and poor health had taken their toll. The man we met was no longer a big recording artist, but an old man forgotten by the recording industry."
The 1971 New Orleans Jazz Festival was the major turning point in Longhair's career. Accompanied by Snooks Eaglin, he was the unabashed sensation of the festival and suddenly everyone wanted to take care of his business. This led to European tours in 1973 and 1975 and new recordings. Also, the 1972 release of the "New Orleans Piano" LP (mentioned above) did much to resurrect his career. Professor Longhair had finally made it, one of the most spectacular comebacks of the 1970s.
When Paul McCartney hired Longhair to play a private party aboard the Queen Mary in 1976, Byrd had no idea who Paul McCartney was. He had never even heard of the Beatles. Even though he'd been to Europe and all across the USA, his world was right there on Rampart Street with his family.
Longhair's final album, "Crawfish Fiesta", for Alligator, was completed shortly before he died of a heart attack in January 1980. In 1991 he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as an "early influence". As a vocalist, Professor Longhair was a classic blues shouter. As a pianist, he was a force of nature, with an idiosyncratic style, reflecting the freewheeling good-time spirit of the Crescent City.
More info :
Further reading : the chapter on Professor Longhair in Jeff Hannusch's book "I Hear You Knockin' : The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues" (1985), page 15-34.
CD recommendations :
Discography : http://rateyourmusic.com/artist/professor_longhair
Acknowledgements : Jeff Hannusch, Mike Leadbitter, Joop Visser, Don Snowden.
Dik, February 2014
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