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Justly worshipped a decade and a half after his death as a founding father of New Orleans R&B, Roy "Professor Longhair" Byrd was nevertheless so down-and-out at one point in his long career that he was reduced to sweeping the floors in a record shop that once could have moved his platters by the boxful.
That Longhair made such a marvelous comeback testifies to the resiliency of this late legend, whose Latin-tinged rhumba-rocking piano style and croaking, yodeling vocals were as singular and spicy as the second-line beats that power his hometown's musical heartbeat. Longhair brought an irresistible Caribbean feel to his playing, full of rolling flourishes that every Crescent City ivories man had to learn inside out (Fats Domino, Huey Smith, and Allen Toussaint all paid homage early and often).
Longhair grew up on the streets of the Big Easy, tap dancing for tips on Bourbon Street with his running partners. Local 88s aces Sullivan Rock, Kid Stormy Weather, and Tuts Washington all left their marks on the youngster, but he brought his own conception to the stool. A natural-born card shark and gambler, Longhair began to take his playing seriously in 1948, earning a gig at the Caldonia Club. Owner Mike Tessitore bestowed Longhair with his professorial nickname (due to Byrd's shaggy coiffure).
Longhair debuted on wax in 1949, laying down 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. His band was called the Shuffling Hungarians, for reasons lost to time! Union problems forced those sides off the market, but Longhair's next date for Mercury the same year was strictly on the up-and-up. It produced his first and only national R&B hit in 1950, the hilarious "Bald Head" (credited to Roy Byrd & His Blues Jumpers).
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 impenetrable boogie "Ball the Wall"). After recuperating from a minor stroke, Longhair came back on Lee Rupe's Ebb logo in 1957 with a storming "No Buts - No Maybes." He revived his "Go to the Mardi Gras" for Joe Ruffino's Ron imprint in 1959; this is the version that surfaces every year at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Other than the ambitiously arranged "Big Chief" in 1964 for Watch Records, the '60s held little charm for Longhair. He hit the skids, abandoning his piano playing until a booking at the fledgling 1971 Jazz & Heritage Festival put him on the comeback trail. He made a slew of albums in the last decade of his life, topped off by a terrific set for Alligator, Crawfish Fiesta.
Longhair triumphantly appeared on the PBS-TV concert series Soundstage (with Dr. John, Earl King, and the Meters), co-starred in the documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together (which became a memorial tribute when Longhair died in the middle of its filming; funeral footage was included), and saw a group of his admirers buy a local watering hole in 1977 and rechristen it Tipitina's after his famous song. He played there regularly when he wasn't on the road; it remains a thriving operation.
Longhair went to bed on January 30, 1980, and never woke up. A heart attack in the night stilled one of New Orleans' seminal R&B stars, but his music is played in his hometown so often and so reverently you'd swear he was still around.
Henry Roeland "Roy" Byrd (December 19, 1918 – January 30, 1980), better known as Professor Longhair, was a New Orleans blues singer and pianist. Professor Longhair is noteworthy for having been active in two distinct periods, both in the heyday of early rhythm and blues, and in the resurgence of interest in traditional jazz after the founding of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
The music journalist Tony Russell, in his book The Blues – From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, stated "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."Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues — From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 157. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. "Introduction". www.history-of-rock.com. Retrieved June 23, 2008.
Professor Longhair was born on December 19, 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. His distinctive style was the result of learning to play piano on an instrument that was missing some keys.
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 other, 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". However, he lacked crossover appeal for white audiences.
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.
He appeared 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.
By the 1980s his albums, such as Crawfish Fiesta on Alligator and New Orleans Piano for Atlantic, had become readily available across America. He appeared on the PBS series Soundstage (with Dr. John, Earl King, and The Meters) and co-starred in the film documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. Longhair died of a heart attack while filming was underway. Footage from his funeral was included.
In 1981, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. He was awarded a posthumous Grammy for his early recordings released as House Party New Orleans Style, and in 1992 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The B side of the 1985 Paul McCartney single 'Spies Like Us', entitled 'My Carnival', credited to Paul McCartney and Wings, was recorded in New Orleans and dedicated to Professor Longhair.
Fess's song "Tipitina" was covered by Hugh Laurie on the 2011 CD album "Let Them Talk". Laurie is a long-time fan, having used Fess's "Go to the Mardi Gras" as the theme for the pilot episode of A Bit of Fry & Laurie.Cite error: The named reference russell was invoked but never defined (see the help page). "Biography by Bill Dahl". Allmusic.com. Retrieved May 28, 2009. Oliver (ed.), Paul (1989). The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Blues. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publisher. pp. 280–281. ISBN 0-631-18301-9. Allaboutjazz.com - accessed May 2009
In the 1940s, Professor Longhair was playing with Caribbean musicians, listening a lot to Perez Prado's mambo records, and absorbing and experimenting with it all. He was especially enamored with Cuban music. Longhair's style was known locally as rumba-boogie. Alexander Stewart states that Longhair was a key figure bridging the worlds of boogie-woogie and the new style of rhythm and blues." In his composition "Misery," Professor Longhair plays a habanera-like figure in his left hand. The deft use of triplets in the right hand is a characteristic of Longhair's style.
Tresillo, the habanera, and related African-based single-celled figures have long been heard in the left hand part of piano compositions by New Orleans musicians, for example—Louis Moreau Gottschalk ("Souvenirs From Havana" 1859), and Jelly Roll Morton ("The Crave" 1910). One of Longhair's great contributions was the adaptation of Afro-Cuban two-celled, clave-based patterns in New Orleans blues. Michael Campbell states: "Rhythm and blues influenced by Afro-Cuban music first surfaced in New Orleans. Professor Longhair's influence was ... far reaching. In several of his early recordings, Professor Longhair blended Afro-Cuban rhythms with rhythm and blues. The most explicit is 'Longhair's Blues Rhumba,' where he overlays a straightforward blues with a clave rhythm." The guajeo-like piano part for the rumba-boogie "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" (1949), employs the 2-3 clave onbeat/offbeat motif. The 2-3 clave time-line is written above the piano excerpt for reference.
According to Dr. John (Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, Jr.), the Professor "put funk into music ... Longhair's thing had a direct bearing I'd say on a large portion of the funk music that evolved in New Orleans." This is the syncopated, but straight subdivision feel of Cuban music (as opposed to swung subdivisions). Alexander Stewart states that the popular feel was passed along from "New Orleans—through James Brown's music, to the popular music of the 1970s," adding: "The singular style of rhythm & blues that emerged from New Orleans in the years after World War II played an important role in the development of funk. In a related development, the underlying rhythms of American popular music underwent a basic, yet generally unacknowledged transition from triplet or shuffle feel to even or straight eighth notes. Concerning funk motifs, Stewart states: "This model, it should be noted, is different from a time line (such as clave and tresillo) in that it is not an exact pattern, but more of a loose organizing principle."Palmer, Robert (1979: 14). A Tale of Two Cities: Memphis Rock and New Orleans Roll. Brooklyn. Stewart, Alexander (2000: 298). "Funky Drummer: New Orleans, James Brown and the Rhythmic Transformation of American Popular Music." Popular Music, v. 19, n. 3. Oct. 2000, p. 293–318. Stewart (2000: 297). Campbell, Michael, and James Brody (2007: 83). Rock and Roll: An Introduction. Schirmer. ISBN 0-534-64295-0 Kevin Moore: "There are two common ways that the three-side [of clave] is expressed in Cuban popular music. The first to come into regular use, which David Peñalosa calls 'clave motif,' is based on the decorated version of the three-side of the clave rhythm. By the 1940s [there was] a trend toward the use of what Peñalosa calls the 'offbeat/onbeat motif.' Today, the offbeat/onbeat motif method is much more common." Moore (2011). Understanding Clave and Clave Changes p. 32. Santa Cruz, CA: Moore Music/Timba.com. ISBN‐10: 1466462302 Dr. John quoted by Stewart (2000: 297). Stewart (2000: 293). Stewart (2000: 306).
FilmographyDr. John's New Orleans Swamp (1974)Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together (1982) – award-winning 76-minute documentary film featuring Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington, and Allen Toussaint
Black or white, local or out-of-town, they all had Longhair's music in common. Just that mambo-rhumba boogie thing.—Allen Toussaint Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 161. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.