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Professor Longhair

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Professor Longhair
Professor Longhair at 1975 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Professor Longhair at 1975 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Background information
Birth nameHenry Roeland Byrd
Also known asFess
Born(1918-12-19)December 19, 1918
Bogalusa, Louisiana, U.S.
OriginNew Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
DiedJanuary 30, 1980(1980-01-30) (aged 61)
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
Instrument(s)Vocals, piano
Years active1948–1980

Henry Roeland "Roy" Byrd (December 19, 1918 – January 30, 1980),[1] better known as Professor Longhair or "Fess" for short, was an American singer and pianist who performed New Orleans blues. 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".[1]

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."[2][3]


Former home of Professor Longhair, in 2015

Byrd was born on December 19, 1918, in Bogalusa, Louisiana,[2] the son of Ella Mae (née Rhodes) and James Byrd. His distinctive style of piano playing was influenced by learning to play on an instrument that was missing some keys.[2]

He began his career in New Orleans in 1948. Mike Tessitore, owner of the Caldonia Club, gave Longhair his stage name.[4] 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.[4] 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.[4] He also recorded his favorites, "Tipitina" and "Go to the Mardi Gras".[2] He lacked crossover appeal among white and wide audiences.[2] 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.[5][6][7]

After suffering a stroke, Professor Longhair recorded "No Buts – No Maybes" in 1957.[4] He re-recorded "Go to the Mardi Gras" in 1959.[4] He first recorded "Big Chief" with its composer, Earl King, in 1964. In the 1960s, Professor Longhair's career faltered.[2] He became a janitor to support himself and fell into a gambling habit.[8]

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.[2] His album The London Concert showcases work he did on a visit to the United Kingdom. That significant career resurrection saw the recording of the album Live on the Queen Mary,[9] which was recorded on March 24, 1975, during a private party hosted by Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney on board the retired RMS Queen Mary.[10][11]

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.[8] In 1974 he appeared on the PBS series Soundstage (with Dr. John, Earl King, and The Meters).[12] 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.[4] 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 2018 released project "Fess Up".[13][14]

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).[4][8] Footage from his funeral was included in the documentary.[4] He was interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in New Orleans.[15]

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."[16][17][18]



Professor Longhair was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981.[19] In 1987, he was awarded a posthumous Grammy Award for a collection of recordings produced by Quint Davis in 1971 and 1972 released as House Party New Orleans Style.[20] He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.[21]

Professor Longhair was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2016 at his former home in New Orleans.


His song "Tipitina" was covered by Hugh Laurie on the 2011 CD album Let Them Talk. Laurie is a long-time fan, having used Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras" as the theme for the pilot episode of A Bit of Fry & Laurie. Laurie used to perform these two songs regularly during his world concert tours of 2011–2014 with The Copper Bottom Band, and in March 2013 paid tribute to Professor Longhair in a special concert on board RMS Queen Mary.[22][23]

The New Orleans music venue Tipitina's is named after one of Longhair's signature songs, and was created specifically as a venue for Longhair to perform in his aged years. A bust of Professor Longhair, sculpted by bluesman Coco Robicheaux, greets visitors upon entering the venue.[24]

Afro-Cuban elements


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.[25] He was especially enamored with Cuban music. Longhair's style was known locally as "rumba-boogie".[26] Alexander Stewart stated that Longhair was a key figure bridging the worlds of boogie-woogie and the new style of rhythm and blues.[27] In his composition "Misery," Professor Longhair played a habanera-like figure in his left hand. The deft use of triplets in the right hand is a characteristic of Longhair's style.

      \new PianoStaff <<
        \new Staff <<
            \relative c'' {
                \clef treble \key f \major \time 4/4
                \tuplet 3/2 { r8 f f } \tuplet 3/2 { f f f } \tuplet 3/2 { f f f } \tuplet 3/2 { f f f }
                r4 r8 <e g> <d f>4 \acciaccatura { c16 d } <c e>8 <bes d>
                \tuplet 3/2 { r8 f' f } \tuplet 3/2 { f f f } \tuplet 3/2 { f d bes } \tuplet 3/2 { f g gis }
        \new Staff <<
            \relative c, {
                \clef bass \key f \major \time 4/4
                f4 d'8 a c4 d8 a
                bes4. d8 f4 d8 a
                bes4. d8 f4 d8 e,
    >> }

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, such as 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 stated, "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."[28] The guajeo-like piano part for the rumba-boogie "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" (1949) employs the 2-3 clave onbeat/offbeat motif.[29] The 2–3 clave time line is written above the piano excerpt for reference.

Piano excerpt from the rumba boogie "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" (1949) by Professor Longhair. 2–3 clave is written above for rhythmic reference.

According to Dr. John, 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."[30] This is the syncopated, but straight subdivision feel of Cuban music (as opposed to swung subdivisions). Alexander Stewart stated 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.[31] Concerning funk motifs, Stewart stated, "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."[32]






  • New Orleans Piano (1972) (also known as New Orleans Piano: Blues Originals, Vol. 2)
  • Mardi Gras In New Orleans 1949–1957 (1981)
  • Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge (1991)
  • Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology (1993)
  • Fess' Gumbo (1996)
  • Collector's Choice (1996), half an album of hits
  • Way Down Yonder in New Orleans (1997)
  • All His 78's (1999)
  • The Chronological Professor Longhair 1949 (2001)
  • Tipitina: The Complete 1949–1957 New Orleans Recordings (2008)
  • The Primo Collection (2009)
  • Rockin’ with Fess (2013)

Source: Professor Longhair discography, AllMusic[34]


  • Dr. 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
  • Fess Up (2018), The feature-length interview with Professor Longhair



Black or white, local or out-of-town, they all had Longhair's music in common. Just that mambo-rhumba boogie thing.


  1. ^ a b Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues – A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara: Praeger Publishers. p. 108. ISBN 978-0-313-34423-7.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 157. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  3. ^ "Introduction". www.history-of-rock.com. Archived from the original on June 23, 2008. Retrieved June 23, 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Bill Dahl. Professor Longhair at AllMusic
  5. ^ "Almost every musical history contains at least one crucial forebear whose inventions were too bold to translate to a broad audience, but who was nonetheless a profound influence on subsequent generations, and therefore changed the culture at an odd remove—a musician's musician". In the nineteen-forties and fifties, that was Fess's stature. See Amanda Petrusich (May 10, 2018). "The Still-Burning Piano Genius of Professor Longhair". The New Yorker. Retrieved September 9, 2018.
  6. ^ "It's echoed in my songs, whether you could hear it or not – as for the licks themselves, but my heart always have some Professor Lonhair in it, in probably everything I do ..." Allen Toussaint explains (and demonstrates) to Sound Opinions the influence of Professor Longhair on his music, Published at the official YouTube channel of Sound Opinions
  7. ^ for the "most exalted influence" Professor Longhair have had on Dr. John's seminal album Gumbo, see Dr. John’s ‘Gumbo’: A New Orleans Master’s Thesis, a second look album review by Sam Sutherland of December 16, 2018, retrieved December 18, 2018
  8. ^ a b c Oliver, Paul, ed. (1989). The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Blues. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publisher. pp. 280–281. ISBN 0-631-18301-9.
  9. ^ Professor Longhair – Live on the Queen Mary at AllMusic
  10. ^ "Professor Longhair", short biography, Encyclopædia Britannica
  11. ^ In an interview of February 2019, given in view of a forthcoming reissue of a newly-restored version of the Professor Longhair – Live On The Queen Mary album, McCartney recalled how that recording came about: " 'You Gave Me The Answer' – Professor Longhair Special", February 28, 2019 (retrieved on March 6, 2019)
  12. ^ Dr. John (January 6, 2016). "Big Chief with Professor Longhair & The Meters". Archived from the original on December 11, 2021 – via YouTube.
  13. ^ "Fess Up" – Information, excerpts and reviews from the film maker's website
  14. ^ "Professor Longhair – Fess Up (2-DVD Set w 38-page book)". Louisiana Music Factory.
  15. ^ "Dictionary of Louisiana Biography – Dictionary B". Louisiana Historical Association. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  16. ^ "The Interview with Professor Longhair — Fess Up". palfifilms.com.
  17. ^ Miner talked about Professor Lonhair's enormous contribution to R&B and musicians in the 1940s and 50s, in the short documentary "Reverence: A Tribute to Allison Miner" (produced and directed by Amy Nesbitt), saying: "...He developed a style that became the New Orleans sound, and everyone, you know, played it ... the essence of what New Orleans music is, is what Professor Longhair brought to it ...". In that documentary Miner also recalled how the resurrection of Fess's career came about: "...Professor Longhair had not played publicly for over ten years, he just had not played at all, and he came out of retirement for the festival. Quint [Davis, her co-producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival] found him at the one-stop record shop on Rampart Street ... We had four stages then, in the corners of Congress Square, and Fess started playing and everything stopped and everyone went over to the stage where he was ... everything just stopped---and the whole festival moved over to that stage."
  18. ^ See also "Professor Longhair at 100: New Orleans Jazz Fest, new DVD celebrate piano legend's legacy", by Keith Spera, April 28, 2018, The New Orleans Advocate (retrieved September 10, 2018)
  19. ^ Professor Longhair, in the list of BHOF inductees at the Blues Foundation website
  20. ^ Professor Longhair at the Grammy Award website
  21. ^ Professor Longhair at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website
  22. ^ see Hugh Laurie salutes Professor Longhair in PBS special 'Live on the Queen Mary, an article (which includes an interview with Laurie of his long time hero), published on August 3, 2013 in Nola website (retrieved September 11, 2018). That concert was recorded and featured as a PBS special (later on also distributed as a DVD set) under the title: "Hugh Laurie: Live on the Queen Mary" (a clear homage to the seminal live album recorded by Fess at the very same place in March 1975)
  23. ^ When Paul McCartney reissued a remastered version of the "Professor Lonhair: Live on the Queen Mary" album in April 2019, it was Hugh Laurie who was asked to write its foreword. For the full text of that "fascinating and emotional foreword", in which Laurie refers to the ongoing connection and influence Fess has had on his life, including some of the aforementioned anecdotes, see The Big Issue article "Read Hugh Laurie’s tribute to Professor Longhair and ‘Live on the Queen Mary’" of April 5, 2019 (retrieved May 23, 2019)
  24. ^ Tipitina's history original web page, as reflected in the Internet Archive (retrieved October 13, 2018)
  25. ^ Palmer, Robert (1979). A Tale of Two Cities: Memphis Rock and New Orleans Roll. Brooklyn. p. 14.
  26. ^ Stewart 2000, p. 298.
  27. ^ Stewart 2000, p. 297.
  28. ^ Campbell, Michael; Brody, James (2007). Rock and Roll: An Introduction. Schirmer. p. 83. ISBN 0-534-64295-0.
  29. ^ 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. Santa Cruz, California: Moore Music/Timba.com. p. 32. ISBN 1466462302.
  30. ^ Dr. John, quoted by Stewart 2000, p. 297.
  31. ^ Stewart 2000, p. 293.
  32. ^ Stewart 2000, p. 306.
  33. ^ Discogs Professor Longhair – Rock N Roll Gumbo
  34. ^ Professor Longhair discography at AllMusic
  35. ^ Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music. Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-8230-7869-1.