December 19, 1918 – January 30, 1980; born Henry Roeland Byrd, also known as Roy “Bald Head” Byrd and as ‘Fess’
One of the founding fathers of New Orleans R&B, Roy ‘Professor Longhair’ Byrd was so down-and-out at one point that he was reduced to sweeping the floors in a record shop that once could have sold his records by the boxful.
That he made such a marvellous comeback testifies to his resiliency, and like many in his profession he’d spent a lot of his younger years on the street. During those years he became well acquainted with how pianos functioned. He would occasionally come across abandoned and mostly wrecked pianos dumped in the alleys and discovered how to fix them, or at least get most of the notes going again. Teaching himself as he went along he recalls that as he played he had to avoid those notes that he knew didn’t work at all.
Apart from his moving and exquisite rattling arpeggios (which look pretty straight forward until you have a go) he was famous for whistling and his own gravelly brand of yodelling. His rich style of playing proved a big influence on the fabulous Dr.John.
Longhair grew up on the streets of New Orleans, tap dancing for tips on Bourbon Street with his buddies. A natural-born hustler and gambler, Longhair began to take his playing seriously in 1948, earning a gig at the Caledonia Club. Owner Mike Tessitore gave him his professorial nickname (due to the shaggy hair).
Longhair made his first recording in 1949, four tracks (including the first version of his signature “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” complete with whistled intro) for the Dallas-based Star Talent label. Union problems saw these tracks taken off the market. Longhair’s next date for Mercury the same year was far more successful. It produced his first and only national R&B hit in 1950, “Bald Head”.
The pianist made great records for Atlantic in 1949, Federal in 1951, Wasco in 1952, and Atlantic again in 1953 (producing the immortal “Tipitina,” a romping “In the Night,” and the lyrically indecipherable boogie “Ball the Wall”). After recuperating from a minor stroke, Longhair returned to recording on Lee Rupe’s Ebb logo in 1957 with a storming “No Buts – No Maybes.”
Other than the ambitiously arranged “Big Chief” in 1964 for Watch Records, the ’60s held little charm for Longhair. He abandoned his piano playing until a booking at the fledgling 1971 Jazz & Heritage Festival resurrected his career. He made several albums in the last decade of his life, most notably ‘Crawfish Fiesta’ for Alligator.
I have an old video cassette copy of a PBS TV programme called ‘Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together’ – Professor Longhair, whilst booked to feature passed away during the making of this film so the makers included a little tribute funeral footage instead.
Professor Longhair went to bed on January 30, 1980, he never woke up.