Hard Hitting Blues: Professor Longhair

The style of piano that Jelly Roll Morton originally heard in New Orleans was probably ragtime and primitive blues tempered by European influences; remember that Morton was a Creole, part of New Orleans’ elite people of color. By the 1920s, African-Americans were becoming more and more prominent in the city’s musical landscape, many of them coming from rural areas where they were not exposed to the European cultural elements common to the city. The result was that blues, and the more primitive boogie-woogie piano form were heard much more than they previously had been. Many of the musicians who played this style of music left the city and, like their jazz brethren, headed toward northern industrial cities like St. Louis and Chicago.

In 1929 Pine Top Smith, whose composition “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” is usually acknowledged as the first composition to use the term “Boogie Woogie” in its title, was shot dead in Chicago. Jimmy Yancey, a Chicago native, was still playing house rent parties around the city, but he was barely recorded and earned his living chiefly as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox. In 1936 Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis recorded the boogie-woogie piano records that caught the attention of John Hammond, who brought Ammons and Lewis, along with Pete Johnson to New York for his 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Soon a full-tilt boogie craze was underway, a craze that was not unlike the 1970s disco craze; it lasted until near the end of World War II.

Meanwhile, back in New Orleans there were musicians who stayed and did what they had always done. The city was like a time capsule in many ways, because with many of the city’s musicians gone, there was little development of the city’s jazz and blues. Those who remained played the same forms they had as long as they could make some money at it. The decrease in the number of venues meant that fewer could earn livings as full time musicians. One musician who learned early on that there were ways other than music to make a living was Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd, later known as Professor Longhair. Byrd was born in Bogalusa, L.A. in 1918 and raised in New Orleans. He was interested in music, as so many in the Big Easy are, and he learned music primarily from his mother, who played piano, and from the church.

Byrd spent the depression years taking odd jobs that included shining shoes and selling newspapers. He hung out on Rampart Street and listened to the pianists he would later claim as influences: Stormy Weather and “Tuts” Washington. In addition, he learned to dance, influenced by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and soon was working the clubs, dancing and playing piano alongside such famous musicians as Champion Jack Dupree. Supposedly Dupree asked the young Byrd to show him some of his piano work and in return gave Byrd a singing lesson or two. Soon he began to transfer the rhythm he learned from dancing to the piano. He learned some fundamentals of the boogie piano style from Sullivan Rock, an influential New Orleans pianist about whom little is known. “Tuts” Washington, a formidable blues pianist, also taught Byrd how to play blues.

Byrd lived the life of a blues musician, and like Jelly Roll Morton, did a lot of odd jobs and side gigs to support himself while pulling together his musical style. Unlike Morton, Byrd remained in New Orleans where he earned good money as a gambler and professional card player. He also took his turn in the boxing ring. At 135 pounds, Byrd was known as “Whirlwind”. In a remembrance published in the New Orleans States-Item he recalls, “I was pretty good, too. I gave it up, though. I quit the first time I got my ass whipped . . . It was better than unloading bananas from ships. I still don’t like the taste of bananas to this day.” He admits that he didn’t really have that many bouts and that the fights weren’t even very organized: “We’d just fight in the alleys, back rooms, and take whatever they would throw on the floor.”

Throughout the 1940s Byrd played in a succession of bands and received his nickname in 1947 while playing at the old Caldonia Inn, a hangout for an offbeat crowd that included a number of transvestites. The owner of the club called the group Professor Longhair and the Four Hairs Combo since they wore their hair at a length that was unheard of — “almost against the law” recalls ‘Fess, at that time. In the late ’40s and early ’50s Longhair recorded all of his classic sides, including the famous “In the Night”, “Ball the Wall”, “She Walks Right In”, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”, and “Tipitina”, which lent its name to the Crescent City’s most famous bar and musical hangout. Longhair’s music is a combination of boogie-woogie and blues, with a pinch of Latin rhythm, mostly rhumba or mambo, thrown into the rhythms of the left hand.

This Afro-Caribbean influence has always been heard in the music coming from southern Louisiana, and it was frequently heard in the music of Jelly Roll Morton, who favored a habanera rhythm. Listening to the loping rhythms of “Tipitina” or the hopped-up energy of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” the sound is unique and unmistakable. So are the yodeling vocals that threaten to lose control at any moment, but never do: “Tipitina oo-la-malla-walla-dalla try my tral-la-la.” The song, like a few others, was a modest hit in New Orleans and the surrounding are, but never gained a national audience. Longhair remained unknown and gradually faded away from the scene. When blues writer Mike Leadbitter located Longhair in 1970 he was working as a janitor, sweeping out a record store on South Rampart Street.

Then, a strange thing happened. A young promoter decided to revive Longhair’s career. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was the first appearance for the R&B pioneer, and from there he began appearing in local clubs again. Soon he was playing at festivals in Newport, Chicago, Montreux, and embarking on a North American tour. His recordings had been mostly unavailable for some time, a situation that was remedied by the Atlantic Records release Professor Longhair: New Orleans Piano, which is still an excellent starting point for discovering Longhair’s music. New recordings were produced, one of the best being Crawfish Fiesta, on which Longhair’s band is augmented by Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) on guitar. Other standout recordings include Rock ‘N Roll Gumbo (which features fellow Bogalusa native Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown) and House Part New Orleans Style. In 1993 Rhino Records released the mother lode of Longhair collections, the two-disc Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology. This is a cornerstone disc for anyone at all interested in blues, R&B, the music of New Orleans, or the pioneers of rock music.

Fess passed away on 30 January 1980 as his revival was hitting full stride. His funeral was one that New Orleans hadn’t seen in many, many years, a full-fledged jazz funeral complete with a huge second line. The wake was videotaped for a documentary that had been in progress at the time of Longhair’s death at the behest of his widow. Some found it ironic that Longhair should attract so much attention now that his life was over. “These cameras are 65 years too late” said Art Neville, who acknowledged the influence of Byrd’s playing on his own style. “Where were they all those years Byrd was playing, but couldn’t cut records?” Though Byrd’s lack of popularity is often blamed on his refusal to travel outside New Orleans or his lack of vocal prowess (which makes no sense), there is no doubt that he was a victim of the economics of the recording industry. “He played a seminal role, parochial, but he never had the fortune to ride the crest of recording sales,” said Jerry Wexler, who produced some of Longhair’s classic sides for Atlantic. “His immortality is ensured not only by the records he made but by the few men who mastered his style, the apostles who carried the pianistic gospel according to Fess to the world: James Booker, Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint, Art Neville, Mac Rebennack. Longhair is the Picasso of keyboard funk.”