BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

The most unique, idiosyncratic figure in rock’s earliest days who burst onto the scene in 1950 with a handful of records that caught the public’s attention before descending into virtual obscurity outside of Louisiana for decades, only to be resurrected in the 1970’s and hailed as a conquering hero.

Henry Roeland Byrd was born in 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, but moved to New Orleans as an infant where, like so many others during the Great Depression he grew up in poverty which had an indelible effect on his future music career. As a child he tap danced in the street for tips and acquired his first nickname, Whirlwind, for his fast feet. After learning guitar and drums he concentrated on piano practicing on a broken keyboard that forced him to improvise to work around the dead notes.

As New Orleans was home to so many professional musicians he received tutelage from two of the city’s most renowned piano “professors”, Sullivan Rock and Tuts Washington. Because Roy’s hands as a kid were too small master Washington’s stride technique he learned to make do by rolling his hand which added another piece to his own emerging style. Then while serving with the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930’s he was exposed to the calypso and rhumba beats of the Latin American musicians in the camp which heavily influenced him as well.

Byrd settled into dual career by the late 1940’s, one as a gambler whose skill at the card game Coon Can was legendary, and the other as a professional musician at the Caldonia Club where he first got his name Professor Longhair due to his shaggy mane. He got his chance to cut records a year later in mid 1949 when Star Talent Records’ owner Jesse Erickson came to New Orleans in search of musicians and signed them to a deal, cutting four sides in an empty club including his first version of the classic “Mardi Gras In New Orleans”. Almost immediately after that a Mercury Records representative inked him to deal under his real name, Roy Byrd, where he re-cut one of the songs he’d done for Star Talent under a new title, “Bald Head”, which would become his one and only national hit.

Then before the year was out Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson of Atlantic Records came to town and hearing of his reputation tracked him down at a hole in the wall club in the middle of nowhere and signed him to a third contract where he re-cut “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” and nine other songs which would form the bulk of his lasting legend.

When Star Talent got around to releasing their cuts on him in February 1950 they quickly made the territorial charts in New Orleans but the other labels followed suit and with accusations flying about who had the rights to his songs, the bigger labels helped to squash the Star Talent sides but by splitting sales between them for the same material it ultimately cost Longhair further hits.

Still in demand he went to Federal Records, the new King subsidiary, but nothing he recorded there met with the same response so he headed back to Atlantic in 1953 for another round of sessions which produced one of his most immortal sides, “Tipitina”. But in spite of being enamored with his records themselves the Atlantic brass had no idea how to market him even though his few tours – including one with Fats Domino – had been met with overwhelming response by young rock audiences.

In the mid-1950’s ‘Fess suffered a stroke which curtailed his recording and playing and without a long term recording contract he resumed playing cards to make ends meet. In the late 1950’s he cut some excellent sides for Ebb Records and later the local Ron Records label where he laid down a third, some say definitive version, of what was now called “Go To The Mardi Gras” in 1959. His recording opportunities after that however were sporadic and he was in increasingly bad health and all but destitute, forced at one point to work sweeping out a record store that once couldn’t keep his most popular records in stock.

In the early 1970’s fate pulled him out of his predicament when the founders of The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival heard his old records and insisted he be found to appear at the first year’s show. In poor condition and wearing a suit so old that it was almost threadbare, ‘Fess climbed on stage and proceeded to knock the crowd off its feet. Soon he was being properly managed for the first time in his life, getting regular gigs and having his medical needs taken care of. His old Atlantic sides were reissued on album which became a surprisingly strong seller and he got new record deals and issued a string of albums over the next few years that matched his initial output from the 1950’s.

In 1978 a local New Orleans bar was christened Tipitina’s after one of his most famous songs and he was given free reign to play there whenever he felt like it, using it as his home base for the rest of his life which sadly wasn’t long.

In 1980 after filming segments for a major documentary on three generations of New Orleans piano players, including his former mentor Tuts Washington and Allen Toussaint, New Orleans’ most important post-50’s songwriter/producer who had become ‘Fess’s musical acolyte of sorts, Henry Roeland Byrd passed away in his sleep at the age of 61. The next day the final album he cut, Crawfish Fiesta, the best studio LP of his career, was released and would go on to earn a Grammy.

For most of his life Professor Longhair was more of an underground legend than a star, and even then it was only to certain constituencies hip enough to dig what he was laying down. In death however ‘Fess became a legend, his catalog given a complete re-airing with his name spoken in reverence by artists far and wide who were captivated by his stylistic innovations. Allen Toussaint put the scope of his impact in perspective when he said simply, “He was the Bach of rock”.
 
 
PROFESSOR LONGHAIR DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

PROFESSOR LONGHAIR’S BOOGIE
(Star Talent 808; February, 1950)
Wild, almost drunken sounding horns riffing over ‘Fess’s unshakable rhythm with a tossed in vocal coda for good measure, this was anything but a typical instrumental for rock as a whole, but oddly enough it was fairly typical for the quirky artist himself. (4)

BYE BYE BABY
(Star Talent 809; February, 1950)
Despite Longhair’s intriguing vocals and solid left hand, this comes across as an unpolished first run through a song that still needs to be worked out some more rather than a finished product and though he piques your curiosity, in this case he doesn’t quite fulfill it. (3)

MARDI GRAS IN NEW ORLEANS
(Atlantic 897; February, 1950)
The single is one of the most indelible songs in rock history, a captivating joyous celebration featuring barreling rhythms, cracked vocals and vibrant scenes, yet it’s the alternate LP cut, not issued for more than twenty years, that has become the defining version ever since. (9)

SHE WALKS RIGHT IN
(Atlantic 897; February, 1950)
While the more well-known LP version is a much stronger and more coherent song, the original single still has some offbeat charm, a solid left hand on the keys and the quirkiness ‘Fess is known for, but that still doesn’t explain Atlantic’s decision to choose it as the one to release. (5)

BALD HEAD
(Mercury 8175; March, 1950)
A catchy, inventive and truly FUN record that’s sparsely arranged but featuring an incredibly dense sound, a vivid story packed with memorable lines all of which is delivered with ‘Fess’s inimitable vocal charm. ★ 10 ★

HEY NOW BABY
(Mercury 8175; March, 1950)
Typical ‘Fess… quirky rhythmic piano, off-kilter vocals, droning inebriated horns and an overriding ebullient spirit that makes it hard to resist in spite of the unusual sound palette. (6)

WALK YOUR BLUES AWAY
(Atlantic 906; April, 1950)
A stripped down sound featuring a throbbing rhythm courtesy of ‘Fess’s piano work, the song is the perfect representation of the “musical shaman” moniker bestowed on him by Ahmet Ertegun… a distinctive track with a hypnotically deep and reassuring vibe. (7)

PROFESSOR LONGHAIR’S BLUES
(Atlantic 906; April, 1950)
Crawling along at a dirge-like tempo with equally drawn-out vocals to match, this is an interesting idea that would’ve benefited from being tinkered with some more, as in later years he adjusted the vocal approach to make the slow pace of the music more effective. (5)