A number of Eastern religions believe in the magical life-shaping qualities of sound. In the West, we tend to scoff at such notions, preferring to build our culture on more tangible foundations. But there is one Western sound that has had an unparalleled revolutionary effect on our life and culture. That sound is Rock and Roll. In every home in our country, and in millions of others around the globe, we are on first name terms with the icons who we believe conceived and created this sound Elvis, Fats, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, John and Paul. But, besides being the fathers of our musical-cultural revolution, Presley, Domino, Penniman, Lewis and Beatles Lennon & McCartney have one other quality in common: they were all inspired by, influenced by, or in some cases plain stole, the music of a tall, skinny New Orleans piano player by the name of Professor Longhair.
Professor Longhair started life on December 19th, 1918 as Henry Roeland Byrd, the only son of Ella Mae and James Byrd of Bogalusa Louisiana. Henry's grandparents, Americus and Amanda Byrd, had come to Bogalusa escaping a legacy of slavery in Mississippi, but by the time Henry was born the South's undying racial tensions and growing lawlessness forced his parents out of town. James moved to Ponchatoula and Ella Mae took Henry to New Orleans where her younger brother, William, lived. William employed Ella Mae's musical skills as a piano player, putting her in a jazz combo in his West-Bank sideshow in Algiers.
Young Henry's early musical education came from his mother but he was initially drawn to the lower, street echelons of the entertainment industry. As a boy of 10, his first paying gig was for a snake oil salesman selling a cure-all called Hadacol. Hadacol could do anything. It could even "make an old man young again" as Henry was to write in his first recorded song Hadacol Bounce. But all Hadacol did for Henry, as a young boy was to earn him a few pennies through ritual racial humiliation. The snake oil salesman would attract attention to his pitch by calling on a plant in the audience (Henry) and ask him if he would like the pie the salesman was holding in his hand. When Henry replied, "yes,” the salesman would smash the pie in his face. After three years of this Henry moved on in showbiz, taking up tap dancing.
To this day, young black males tap dance on the streets of New Orleans' French Quarter for nickels and dimes - and in 1930 teenager Henry Byrd was one of them. He perfected a unique move in which he would run a few paces up a wall, turn and come back down, explaining his nickname at the time - "Whirlwind".
But Whirlwind soon discovered there was a better living to be made inside the clubs that lined the French Quarter than on their streets and decided to become a guitarist. But playing a cheap guitar with steel strings cut his fingers up to the point that it was too painful to enjoy and he moved on to drums and finally piano.
Still too young to be legally allowed in clubs, Henry started teaching himself piano on instruments which belonged to street players or had been discarded into back alleys, and working around the keys that still produced a sound, created for himself a percussive left hand and a rocking scatter-boogie right.
The sound attracted the attention of New Orleans' working piano players Champion Jack Dupree, Sullivan Rock and Tuts Washington. Dupree, who at the time was a comedian, gave Byrd piano lessons in return for Byrd giving him singing lessons. Rock painted a charcoal mustache on the kid to make him look old enough to get into his gigs and let him sit in on occasion. But it was Tuts Washington who Byrd admired most and Tuts took him under his wing, teaching him the elements of New Orleans piano onto which Byrd was to graft his many influences and against which he started singing.
At this beginning of his musical career Byrd's already singular style of playing and singing was unable to be categorized. He says, "When I started playing the music I was playing nobody knew what it was.” We now know it contained many of the elements of what came to be called, through various evolutions, rock'n'roll, R&B, funk and reggae. But it was at the time a revolutionary style unknown to anyone and even fellow musicians took time to understand what it was Byrd wanted when playing with him. "I had to train the fellows to do things I wanted them to do because it's hard to assemble (the sound) together."
As he assembled various combinations of musicians life got in the way. A stint in the army, in a Civilian Conservation Camp, a period as a cook in a red-beans-and-rice joint as part of a short-lived marriage and even a shot at a career as a boxer came and went; the latter ending after his first fight in which he got teeth knocked out and promptly quit.
By 1947 Byrd had decided to stick to music and called himself "Little Lovin' Henry,” a name which didn't encourage employment. "The mens didn't like their women being around no man with that name, see, and it wasn't no good to me."
With a band he called The Midriffs Byrd landed his first steady gig in 1949 at one of the most prestigious New Orleans black night spots, the Caledonia Inn, replacing Dave Bartholomew’s Swing Band. The owner of the Caledonia referred to Byrd as a "piano professor" and marrying it to his hairstyle of uncustomary long hair the persona of Professor Longhair was born under the renamed title of the band - Professor Longhair and his Four Hairs Combo. The other three hairs were Professors No Hair, Need some Hair and Ain't Got No Hair, the latter being sax player "Apeman" Black who shaved his head. 'Fess, as Professor Longhair came to be called, credits Apeman's shiny pate as the inspiration for his lyric to Baldhead ("Looky there/She ain't got no hair") which he recorded first in 1949 for the Star Talent label. The recording became mired in union disputes and he recorded it again in 1950 for Mercury. The Mercury recording of Baldhead was a hit, going all the way to number 5 on the Billboard R&B chart.
Today occupying that slot would ensure fame, a respectable amount of money and, with the right amount of luck and promotion, a career. But in 1950 America and the American music business was very different. America was markedly divided into black and white in every way, including music. White radio stations, which were by far the majority, simply did not play music by black artists. And white people, for the most part, simply did not listen to black radio.
To put the social and music milieu in stark perspective it was June 25th 1949, only months before Professor Longhair recorded the Mercury version of Baldhead, that Billboard re-named its weekly chart of "Race Music" with the euphemistic "R&B". Baldhead went on the R&B chart because it was recorded by a black man and therefore was only played on black radio. Some musically aware white people did listen to black radio, including a Crown Electric company truck driver from Tupelo Mississippi called Elvis Presley. Compare the "revolutionary" Elvis Presley Sun Sessions with Professor Longhair's recordings, made up to 5 years earlier, of Hadacol Bounce, Baldhead, East St. Louis Rag (which became Mardi Gras in New Orleans) and Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand and you will concur with Albert Goldman, Elvis's biographer, that "Professor Longhair gave Elvis Presley his blue suede shoes voice" and the arrangements gave producer Sam Phillips the sound. Professor Longhair's influence on other of his far better known colleagues can be heard in Her Mind is Gone, Hey Now baby, and Professor Longhair's Boogie, all recorded between 1949 and 1953. Little Richard recorded Tutti Frutti in New Orleans in 1955. Fats Domino, produced by Dave Bartholomew (whose band Fess originally replaced at the Caledonia), recorded Ain't That a Shame in New Orleans in 1955 and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On and Great Balls of Fire in 1957.
Although few artists fared well at the hands of their record companies, Fess did worse than most. "I was putting all my time, as much as I possibly could, into music, but I wasn't getting paid...I talked to fellows who said my records were doing great but I still hadn't received any money...No matter how good you are you can't make a living.” So when the 60's rolled around and the British invasion took over American charts and bandstands Fess, with two sons Roeland Jr. and Alexander, was woefully unprepared for total musical unemployment.
Fess was forced to find an alternative source of income and used his mental agility and digital dexterity to excel at card playing. Staying away from what he called "chance games" and concentrating on "skill games" Pit-a-Pat and Coon Can, Professor Longhair the musical innovator became once again Henry Byrd, Card Hustler.
Along with the strain of poverty, his personal life and female entanglements became complicated. Roeland Jr. was shot to death on the street by "Sundown" Morton, the intermittent lover of the mother of his children Alice Walton, and his health started to fail. Apart from joining Earl King on his 1965 recording of New Orleans Mardi Gras classic Big Chief, Professor Longhair dropped out of sight and by 1970 was presumed to have either disappeared or died. This was the year that three New Orleanians in their late teens, Allison Miner, Parker Dinkins and Quint Davis, set out to find Fess to put him in their first New Orleans music festival.
They didn't find him in time for the first festival in Congo Square but in 1971 Davis tracked him down to the One Stop record store on Rampart Street where the now 52 year old Byrd swept the floor, packed goods and made deliveries as well as his limp and labored breathing would allow. Through depressing disillusionment and abject poverty, he hadn't touched a keyboard in years. He said "I got a piano sitting up in the corner that I can't even work because I can't (afford to) get it fixed". So Davis, Dinkins and Miner got it fixed for him, fixed his health and got him ready for the second New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Professor Longhair's return to the stage was literally a show stopper. As he played, the entire festival audience, the food vendors and even the musicians playing on other stages stopped what they were doing and came over to listen. The festival came to a complete standstill and Professor Longhair began what was to become the most fertile, recognized and rewarding years of his career.
Davis formed a management company to which he signed Professor Longhair and with Dinkins set about correcting Byrd's finances. Although a real record deal still remained elusive a band was assembled and live dates followed, including a spot at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973.
As the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival grew into one of the most successful music festivals in the world, so did the strain on its organizers. Dinkins moved into a law and recording business, Miner fell out with Davis, moved to New York and while Davis concentrated on the festival and other music business interests leaving Fess without the attention he needed. On September 24th 1976 Fess severed his contract with Davis and again found himself in the musical wilderness with no record label, no manager and no steady gigs.
That all changed when Allison Miner returned to New Orleans married to saxophonist Andrew Kaslow. Kaslow became Byrd's musical arranger while Miner took over as manager and Professor Longhair's career finally began to hit its stride.
On January 14th, 1977, a defunct juice bar in Uptown New Orleans opened as a club that was to become the focal point of New Orleans music. Tipitina's, named after Fess's song, had Fess as a partner and gave him a regular place to play. Audiences started to grow and so, finally, did Longhair's reputation and standing in the music business. He received visitors Paul McCartney, Robbie Robertson, Robert Plant and many others.
In 1978 Professor Longhair set off on has first European tour and followed it in 1979 with his equally successful first national tour of the United States, a record deal with Alligator Records and the promise of a worldwide tour opening for The Clash.
At the age of 62, his first album, Crawfish Fiesta, was completed and shipped to stores for release on January 31st 1980. On January 30th, the eve of the record's release, Professor Longhair died peacefully in his sleep.
Accolades followed his death including a 1987 Grammy for his early Atlantic recordings released as House Party New Orleans Style and his 1992 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
By Grant Morris
Professor Longhair website