Born Henry Roeland Byrd, December 19, 1918, in Bogalusa, LA; died of a heart attack, January 30, 1980; son of James and Mae Byrd (both musicians); married Alice, c. 1940; seven children (one deceased). Street dancer in New Orleans, c. 1929; served in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s; prizefighter; dancer in floor shows at nightclubs, including work with Redd Foxx and Champion Jack Dupree; war veteran; piano player in nightclubs, c. 1949; toured with various groups, including the Four Hairs Combo, Professor Longhair and His Shuffling Hungarians, Roy Byrd and His Blues Jumpers, and Professor Longhair and the Clippers, 1949-60; did solo work as Roy "Bald Head" Byrd and Roland Byrd; worked for One Stop Record store, c. 1968; toured the U.S. and Europe in the 1970s as Professor Longhair and the Blues Scholars; appeared at Montreux Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, and the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, France; toured Scandinavia.
With a complicated piano style that integrated blues, rhumba, African, and Jamaican rhythms, Professor Longhair was one of a handful of musicians whose work inspired the growth of rock 'n' roll. Next to Fats Domino, Longhair is known as one of New Orleans' most influential musicians. Longhair, however, never knew fame and fortune--he was virtually out of work in the 1960s and he died a poor man. A resurgence of popularity in the 1970s helped to popularize Longhair with a younger generation. After his death in 1980, his music lived on in the legions of performers he influenced, including Dr. John, Fats Domino, Huey Smith, James Booker, and Allen Toussaint.
Born Henry Roeland Byrd in a small, Klan-infested town in Louisiana, Longhair moved to New Orleans with his family when he was a young boy. Longhair used to dance outside hotels, where he was exposed to the piano styles of such musicians as Kid Stormy Weather. After failing at guitar lessons, he taught himself to play a piano that he found abandoned in an alley. Modeling his playing on the artists he had heard, he also infused his own combination of boogie-woogie, calypso, jazz, samba, and dance rhythms. The effect was so unique his style was virtually impossible to copy.
Jerry Wexler, one of Longhair's producers, said that he had once played a Professor Longhair record to a world-famous jazz pianist. "Totally intrigued," Wexler recounted in Rolling Stone, "that man ... tried to duplicate Fess' style. An hour and some busted knuckles later, he retired in confusion. 'I heard it,' he said, 'but it's impossible to play.'"
Longhair collected rhythms wherever he went. In the 1930s, as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps, he worked with men from many different countries, including Spain, the West Indies, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. "I just copied all their changes and beats," Longhair confessed, "and kept the ones I liked."
Also in the early 1930s he earned a living as a dancer, teamed up with Champion Jack Dupree and Redd Foxx. Foxx and Dupree were to quickly move on and split up the trio. Longhair stuck around New Orleans and got his big break in 1949, when he was asked to sit in for Dave Bartholomew's keyboardist at the Caldonia Inn. The club's manager, Mike Tessitore, promptly fired Bartholomew and hired Longhair, dubbing the long-locked musician "Professor."
The next year, Longhair made his most popular record, Bald Head. He worked for a while with a variety of backup bands, with names such as Professor Longhair and the Clippers and Roy Byrd and his Blues Jumpers. In 1954 he suffered a stroke that kept him hospitalized for nearly a year. He was plagued with varying illnesses for the rest of his life--pulmonary edema, bronchitis, and cirrhosis, to name a few. Records made between 1955-59 were not well received and Longhair was out of work for much of the 1960s. At one point, he worked sweeping out a record store owned by a man who helped him record his biggest hit single, "Go to the Mardi Gras." Although Longhair had written this song, he never received royalties for it. He was destitute for most of his life, living in badly-kept dwellings in New Orleans slums. Two separate fires devastated his rental homes. It wasn't until the last year of his life that he could finally afford to buy a small bungalow.
In the early 1970s his career turned around. At a Mardi Gras festival, he virtually brought the house down. A spectator recalled that "when he started playing that upright--it sounds like a cliche--but everything else stopped dead on the other stages. There were four acts playing, simultaneously, and the crowd just gathered and gaped. They had never heard anything like him. It was truly a magic moment."
In 1973 Atlantic released a compilation of Longhair's earlier hits, entitled New Orleans Piano. And Longhair continued to record in that decade, releasing three albums: Rock and Roll Gumbo, Live on the Queen Mary, and Crawfish Fiesta. Sales never reached dizzying heights, but Longhair traveled both in the U.S. and abroad, playing in clubs and in festivals that showed young fans what his music was all about.
However, his resurgence was not to last for long. On January 30, 1980, Longhair suffered a massive coronary and died in his sleep. Three days earlier, he had performed at the club Tipitina, named after one of Longhair's famous songs. His manager, Allison Kaslow, had remarked that the performance "was total perfection." Longhair had told her, "Tonight I finally got it together." At his funeral, he was remembered with bountiful bouquets from many music greats, including the Neville Brothers, Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Paul McCartney, and others. Allen Toussaint commented that "it would be difficult for anyone ever to play like Fess did, to get his energy and his sound, because it had so much to do with the way women would jump and wriggle when he played, and the feelings he brought to the music from the way he lived, the people he knew in the streets and alleyways of New Orleans."
Posthumous releases of Longhair, including Mardi Gras in New Orleans and The London Concert, continued to sell well into the early 1980s.
by Nancy Rampson
Professor Longhair's Career
- Selective Works
- Bald Head, Mercury, 1950.
- New Orleans Piano, Atlantic, 1972.
- Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo, Barclay, 1975.
- (Contributor) New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Island, 1976.
- Live on the Queen Mary, Harvest, 1978.
- Crawfish Fiesta, Alligator, 1980.
- Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Krazy Kat, 1982.
- The London Concert, JJP, 1984.
- Down Beat, April 1980.
- New York Times, July 31, 1980.
- Rolling Stone, March 20, 1980.
- Spin, May 1987.
- Time, February 11, 1980.