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Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd (December 19, 1918 – January 30, 1980), better known as Professor Longhair or “Fess” for short, was a New Orleans blues singer and pianist. He was active in two distinct periods, first in the heyday of early rhythm and blues and later in the resurgence of interest in traditional jazz after the founding of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970. His piano style has been described as “instantly recognizable, combining rumba, mambo, and calypso.”
The music journalist Tony Russell (in his book The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray) wrote that “The vivacious rhumba-rhythmed piano blues and choked singing typical of Fess were too weird to sell millions of records; he had to be content with siring musical offspring who were simple enough to manage that, like Fats Domino or Huey “Piano” Smith. But he is also acknowledged as a father figure by subtler players like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.”
Byrd was born on December 19, 1918, in Bogalusa, Louisiana. His distinctive style of piano playing was influenced by learning to play on an instrument that was missing some keys. He left the city as a baby with his parents, who were most likely fleeing the racial tension surrounding the Bloody Bogalusa Massacre
He began his career in New Orleans in 1948. Mike Tessitore, owner of the Caldonia Club, gave Longhair his stage name. Longhair first recorded in a band called the Shuffling Hungarians in 1949, creating four songs (including the first version of his signature song, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”) for the Star Talent record label. Union problems curtailed their release, but Longhair’s next effort for Mercury Records the same year was a winner. Throughout the 1950s, he recorded for Atlantic Records, Federal Records and local labels. Professor Longhair had only one national commercial hit, “Bald Head”, in 1950, under the name Roy Byrd and His Blues Jumpers. He also recorded his favorites, “Tipitina” and “Go to the Mardi Gras”. He lacked crossover appeal among white and wide audiences. Yet, he is regarded (and was acknowledged) as being a musician who was highly influential for other prominent musicians, such as Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.
After suffering a stroke, Professor Longhair recorded “No Buts – No Maybes” in 1957. He re-recorded “Go to the Mardi Gras” in 1959. He first recorded “Big Chief” with its composer, Earl King, in 1964.
In the 1960s, Professor Longhair’s career faltered. He became a janitor to support himself and fell into a gambling habit.
After a few years during which he disappeared from the music scene, Professor Longhair’s musical career finally received “a well deserved renaissance” and wide recognition. He was invited to perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1971 and at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973. His album The London Concert showcases work he did on a visit to the United Kingdom. That significant career resurrection is best marked by the seminal album “Professor Longhair – Live On The Queen Mary”, which was recorded on March 24, 1975, during an invited-only party hosted by Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney on board of the retired RMS Queen Mary.
By the 1980s his albums, such as Crawfish Fiesta on Alligator Records and New Orleans Piano on Atlantic Records, had become readily available across America. In 1974 he appeared on the PBS series Soundstage (with Dr. John, Earl King, and The Meters).
In 1980 he co-starred (with Tuts Washington and Allen Toussaint) in the film documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together which was produced and directed by filmmaker Stevenson Palfi. That documentary (which aired on public television in 1982 and was rarely seen since), plus a long interview with Fess (which was recorded two days before his sudden death), were included in the recently released project “Fess Up”.
Professor Longhair died in his sleep of a heart attack while the filming of the documentary was under way (and before the live concert, which was planned to be its climax). Footage from his funeral was included in the documentary.
Professor Longhair’s manager through those renaissance years of his career was Allison Miner, of which jazz producer George Wein was quoted saying: “Her devotion to Professor Longhair gave him the best years of his life.” […]
The B-side of the 1985 Paul McCartney single “Spies Like Us”, entitled “My Carnival”, credited to McCartney and Wings, was recorded in New Orleans and dedicated to Professor Longhair. […]
From paulmccartney.com, February 28, 2019:
Last week Paul announced the reissue of the iconic Professor Longhair’s album Live On The Queen Mary, set for release on 5th April. The recording took place on 24th March 1975 aboard the Queen Mary [a British ocean liner docked in Long Beach harbour, Los Angeles] at an exclusive – and by the sounds of it terrifically fun – party put on by Paul and Linda to celebrate the end of recording the Wings album Venus and Mars.
The band had a great time putting together the guest-list and sending out customised invitation cards. Along with invitees George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and The Jackson 5, Paul also flew in a crew of his “N’arwlins” friends to provide the entertainment. This list of luminaries included Professor Longhair, The Meters and Allen Toussaint!
Earlier this month we spoke with Paul to learn a little more about how this very special performance from Professor Longhair came to be recorded and released. The story begins with Paul describing how he became inspired by the music culture of New Orleans, and why Professor Longhair [whom Paul fondly referred to as ‘Fess’ during our chat] was invited to play.
Now with the intro out of the way, we’ll let Paul do the talking because he tells it best!
Paul: When we were doing ‘Venus and Mars’ we were in New Orleans. Or “N’arwlins”, as they like to say! It was just great to visit the city and be part of that Louisiana culture. Because we were actually making the album, we stayed there for quite a while – it was over a month – so we really got into it. During that time, it was also Mardi Gras and we got immersed in the local culture. You know, New Orleans music. Creole music is very unique. It’s a unique style, which you would hear at clubs and things and that’s where I heard Professor Longhair. Or Roy Byrd, which is his real name.
He had this great style, this kind of rolling piano style. And he was singing this song called ‘Tipitina’, which is like one of his hits. He’s got this very interesting vocal sound, it was almost like a yodel. A funny little break in his voice… [Impersonates Professor Longhair singing ‘Tipitina’]. That’s a very bad impression of it…
PM.com: [Laughing] No, that’s pretty good!
Paul: Really? [Chuckles] But his left hand would be… [makes the sound of a piano picking out the three notes in a chord as a bass line] and his right hand is rolling blues stuff, and it’s very distinctive. You hear it, and it’s like: ‘Wow, that’s New Orleans!’
PM.com: So you saw him play live?
Paul: Yeah, we saw him live. We had been down to a club to see him. It was like, ‘Wow, great! Cool guy!’ So we just loved him and we invited him around the studio …because I was ripping him off! I just loved the style so much that I composed something called ‘My Carnival’ and it’s got the same riff, basically, that he plays… I just couldn’t play it as well! But it’s the bass line definitely (sings Professor Longhair-style bass line). It was very similar. So I thought, well I can’t just rip him off and have him find out about it and think, ‘Oh, he’s just ripped me off! So I’ll invite him to the session and be honest about it!’ So I did and said: ‘Hey listen, you’ve totally influenced me, but I’ve done this song’. And one of the nice things about where we were recording was Sea-Saint Studios, which was with Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint who were partners in that studio. So they knew all the New Orleans guys, like Ernie K. Doe. People who we knew who had hits and they would come down to the studio too. So you’d rope them in on the track and it would turn into a bit of a party. So, that’s where we knew him from, Professor Longhair.
When we finished ‘Venus and Mars’, even though the album didn’t have a “New Orleans sound”, the flavour of us being there for so long is in there. For me, when I think of the album, I think of New Orleans. So, we were going to have a launch party and I was looking around for something interesting, something exciting for us to do. And I heard that the Queen Mary – the old, original Queen Mary – was now in Long Beach, which is just outside LA. And it was now some kind of a hotel thing and was available for functions. You could hire it, you could hire the big ballroom. So we think, ‘Oh, well that’s perfect! We should do that and we should have a guest-list with all the LA celebs and people like this’. Which meant it was a pretty cool guest-list! So we’re thinking, ‘Oh, who’s going to entertain? Well, our favourites are currently The Meters and Professor Longhair.’ So we asked The Meters if they would back him and if he was happy to play with them. And everyone was happy. So that’s what we did: we booked them for the party! And then we thought, ‘Well, this an opportunity not to be missed. We should record it ‘cause they’re such favourite artists of ours!’ So again, we asked if they minded being recorded, which they didn’t, they were very happy to do that. And so we got this record out of it, which was very exciting.
I still remember the great thing The Meters used to do was that they used to start their act in their dressing room. So they would start off… [Paul starts tapping a glass, air drumming and singing] Somebody would have a drum. Somebody would have a tambourine. Somebody would have little claves. And they would just come into the hall from the dressing room playing. They just come walking in… [Carries on singing] Then they get up on the stage… [Sings…] Then they get their instruments on seamlessly …and suddenly it would be their opening number. It was such a great idea!
PM.com: So, as they’re coming on to stage, they’re already playing?
Paul: They’re playing… the whole band’s together. They’re playing these rhythmic things, signing, chanting, coming on. And as they get up on stage, one of them will drop his tambourine and pick up a guitar, and then the next one would get on the drums and lose his conga. They didn’t stop and then start again, they were just seamless. They just seamlessly became a live band.
PM.com: That’s such a great way to start a show!
Paul: That is a great way to start a show, yeah! They did that and then Professor Longhair came on and did his bit. And it was lovely. Really great!
Last updated on March 2, 2019