If New Orleans is a heaven of a sort, and is populated by saints (who of course march in on a regular basis),
leading that number will be none other than Saint Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair. Professor Longhair is one of those artists who’s talent and influence is inestimable, yet is known to most only as a curious name.
What he is/was is no less than the Godfather of New Orleans R&B, a master pianist.
"If Professor Longhair is such an important force in the birth of rock'n'roll why
isn't he famous?” Or, "Why have I never heard of him?” The answer is one of the most fascinating,
tragic and ultimately inspiring stories in modern America.
Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair was born December 19th, 1918 in Bogalusa Louisiana. Henry's grandparents, had come to Bogalusa escaping a legacy of slavery in Mississippi, but by the time Henry was born the South's undying racial tensions and growing lawlessness forced his parents out of town.
His mother took Henry to New Orleans where her younger brother,
Young Henry's early musical education came from his mother but he was initially drawn to the
lower, street echelons of the entertainment industry. As a boy of 10, his first paying gig was for a
snake oil salesman. The snake oil salesman would attract attention to his pitch by calling on a plant in
the audience (Henry) and ask him if he would like the pie the salesman was holding in his hand.
When Henry replied, "yes,” the salesman would smash the pie in his face. After three years of this Henry
moved on in showbiz, taking up tap dancing.
To this day, young black males tap dance on the streets of New Orleans' French Quarter for nickels
and dimes - and in 1930 teenager Henry Byrd was one of them. He perfected a unique move in which
he would run a few paces up a wall, turn and come back down, explaining his nickname at the time -
To young to be legally allowed in clubs, Henry started teaching himself piano on instruments
which belonged to street players or had been discarded into back alleys, and working around the
keys that still produced a sound, created for himself a percussive left hand and a rocking scatter-
The sound attracted the attention of New Orleans' working piano players Champion Jack Dupree,
Sullivan Rock and Tuts Washington. Dupree, who at the time was a comedian, gave Byrd piano
lessons in return for Byrd giving him singing lessons. Rock painted a charcoal mustache on the
kid to make him look old enough to get into his gigs and let him sit in on occasion. But it was
Tuts Washington who Byrd admired most and Tuts took him under his wing, teaching him the
elements of New Orleans piano onto which Byrd was to graft his many influences and against
which he started singing.
At this beginning of his musical career Byrd's already singular style of playing and singing was
unable to be categorized. He says, "When I started playing the music I was playing nobody knew
what it was.” We now know it contained many of the elements of what came to be called, through
various evolutions, rock'n'roll, R&B, funk and reggae. But it was at the time a revolutionary style
unknown to anyone and even fellow musicians took time to understand what it was Byrd wanted
when playing with him.
As he assembled various combinations of musicians life got in the way. A stint in the army, in a
Civilian Conservation Camp, a period as a cook in a red-beans-and-rice joint as part of a short-lived
marriage and even a shot at a career as a boxer came and went; the latter ending after his first
fight in which he got teeth knocked out and promptly quit.
By 1947 Byrd had decided to stick to music and called himself "Little Lovin' Henry,” a name which
didn't encourage employment. "The mens didn't like their women being around no man with that
name, see, and it wasn't no good to me."
With a band he called The Midriffs Byrd landed his first steady gig in 1949 at one of the most prestigious
New Orleans black night spots, the Caledonia Inn. The owner of the Caledonia referred to Byrd as a "piano professor" and marrying it to his hairstyle of uncustomary long hair the persona of Professor Longhair was born. Professor Longhair later came to know as Fess. His 1950 Mercury recording of Baldhead was a hit, going all the way to number 5 on the Billboard R&B chart.
Although few artists fared well at the hands of their record companies, Fess did worse than most.
"I was putting all my time, as much as I possibly could, into music, but I wasn't getting paid...
I talked to fellows who said my records were doing great but I still hadn't received any money...
No matter how good you are you can't make a living.” So when the 60's rolled around and the
British invasion took over American charts and bandstands Fess, with two sons Roeland Jr. and
Alexander, was woefully unprepared for total musical unemployment.
Fess was forced to find an alternative source of income and used his mental agility and digital
dexterity to excel at card playing. Staying away from what he called "chance games" and
concentrating on "skill games" Pit-a-Pat and Coon Can, Professor Longhair the musical innovator
became once again Henry Byrd, Card Hustler.
His Son Roeland Jr. was shot to death on the street, and his health started to fail. Apart from
joining Earl King on his 1965 recording of New Orleans Mardi Gras classic Big Chief, Professor
Longhair dropped out of sight and by 1970 was presumed to have either disappeared or died.
On January 14th, 1977, a defunct juice bar in Uptown New Orleans opened as a club that was to become
the focal point of New Orleans music. Tipitina's, named after Fess's song, had Fess as a partner and gave
him a regular place to play. Audiences started to grow and so, finally, did Longhair's reputation and came to a complete standstill and Professor Longhair began what was to become the most fertile, recognized and rewarding years of his career.
In 1978 Professor Longhair set off on has first European tour and followed it in 1979 with his equally
successful first national tour of the United States, a record deal with Alligator Records and the promise
of a worldwide tour opening for The Clash.
At the age of 62, his first album, Crawfish Fiesta, was completed and shipped to stores for release on
January 31st 1980. On January 30th, the eve of the record's release, Professor Longhair
died peacefully in his sleep.
Accolades followed his death including a 1987 Grammy for his early Atlantic recordings released
as House Party New Orleans Style and his 1992 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
By Grant Morris