Even as I write the words, though, I am cowed.
- Posted on Mar 4th 2011 4:30PM by James Sullivan
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Henry Roeland Byrd -- better known as Professor Longhair -- created the rolling piano style that has defined New Orleans rhythm and blues for more than half a century. He wrote the city's signature song, 'Mardi Gras in New Orleans.' He wrote the song that named the city's most famous nightclub, Tipitina's. And his comeback in the early years of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, after dropping so far out of sight that he was presumed dead, set the tone for the city's annual revival meeting.
Nicknamed the "Bach of Rock" by another New Orleans great, Allen Toussaint, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roy Byrd developed a unique blend of boogie-woogie and Caribbean music that he described as "a little mambo, a little calypso and that trick that I does." As a kid he tap-danced for change on Bourbon Street. After trying his hand at guitar and drums, the boy taught himself to play the keys on a broken piano left in an alley.
When he was booked to play the Caledonia Inn, the owner billed the act as Professor Longhair and His Four Hairs Combo. It took a while to stick. The newly christened Professor's backing band was sometimes called the Shuffling Hungarians. After cutting his first singles in 1949 for a small Dallas record label, Byrd moved to Mercury Records, which released another of his signature songs, 'Bald Head,' under the name Roy Byrd and His Blues Jumpers.
Fess, as his fans eventually came to know him, recorded 'Tipitina' for Atlantic in 1953 after impressing Ahmet Ertegun with a stomping performance. But in an era notorious for the music industry's poor treatment of its artists, Professor Longhair's case was especially discouraging. By the early 1960s, fed up with scraping by, he stopped playing music.
Some years later, when young Quint Davis and his friends began putting together their wish list for a new music festival that would celebrate their city's unique heritage, Professor Longhair was at the top of the list. Everyone who had defined New Orleans music for the past two decades had absorbed the Professor's teachings, from Fats Domino and Little Richard to Toussaint and Dr. John. But Fess' life had been hard. He'd suffered a stroke in the late 1950s, and lost his son, Roeland Jr., in a shooting. When the Jazz Fest founders located the pianist, he was working as a janitor in a record store.
Longhair's comeback at the second annual Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1971 made him the event's guiding light. For the next decade, he would close the festival each year. The rediscovered keyboard genius began to recoup much of the recognition that had originally eluded him. Paul McCartney invited him to perform at the ex-Beatle's landmark party on the Queen Mary. Tipitina's opened in 1977, giving Fess a regular showcase in his hometown. There was even talk of him opening a tour for the Clash.
By the beginning of 1980, Fess had finished recording a new album, and he was in the process of filming a documentary called 'Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together,' alongside Toussaint and another New Orleans legend, Tuts Washington, who predated even Byrd. The album, 'Crawfish Fiesta,' was scheduled for release on the last day of January. On Jan. 30, Professor Longhair went to bed and didn't wake up. He was 61.
The documentary, which was to end with a performance by the three masters, featured Fess' funeral instead.