Professor Longhair’s piano rumba-mambo-barrelhouse-boogie-blues paved the way for generations of New Orleans pianists.
One of “Fess’s” many famous fans, songwriter, pianist, and producer Allen Toussaint hailed him as “our Bach of rock.” Mac Rebennack, aka Dr John, dubbed him the “spiritual root physician to all that came under him”. Paul McCartney has also expressed his admiration for the endearing and idiosyncratic singer-pianist.
“He’s the greatest,” McCartney said. “I love it.”
Professor Longhair, born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa on December 19, 1918, is the subject of “Me Got Fiyo: The Professor Longhair Centennial”, an exhibit at the Capitol Park Museum. Through August 6, this is a condensed version of the exhibit that debuted in August 2018 at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
“Fess is such an important figure,” said Jazz Museum music curator David Kunian. “Obviously in New Orleans music, but also in rock ‘n’ roll. He is not given credit for being one of the ancestors of rock ‘n’ roll, but many pianists have said so. Its influence goes in all sorts of ways not necessarily expected.
The “Me Got Fiyo” exhibit in Baton Rouge includes photos and concert posters as well as text panels that chronicle Byrd’s life and career. There’s also a film of him performing at the 1971 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and a reproduction of Byrd’s bust at Tipitina’s, the concert hall his fans founded in 1977.
The late Michael P. Smith, a prolific columnist of New Orleans music and culture, took many photos of the exhibit. Smith’s images are among Byrd’s most famous takes, including the color exhibit photo of the piano teacher in full stride at the 1977 Jazz Fest.
The exhibit text traces the ups and downs of a difficult life that ended with Byrd’s unexpected death at age 61 in 1980. He had lived in New Orleans since his single mother left Bogalusa then he was 2 months old. His mother, a professional entertainer who traveled with minstrel and vaudeville shows, taught her son to dance and play the many instruments she played.
As a youth, Professor Longhair danced around the French Quarter and performed with ‘spasm’ bands featuring homemade instruments. A six-month stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s exposed him to Caribbean drummers. He mixed their Latin rhythms with the influence of New Orleans pianists Sullivan Rock, Kid Stormy Weather and Tuts Washington.
“With music, you just have to feel it,” Byrd told journalist Peter Stone Brown in 1979. gombo. There is no certainty. It’s just a rock rhythm.
In 1949, Byrd began recording for various labels, including Mercury and Atlantic and local Ron and Watch labels. He released only one national hit, “Bald Head” from the 1950s. In 1959, Ron Records released the definitive version of Byrd’s classic carnival song “Go to the Mardi Gras”.
Raised to musical sainthood in death, Longhair struggled in life.
“Really, no, I didn’t make a living from music,” he told writer Tad Jones in 1976. if there were no concerts, well, I know where my place was, and it was just around the corner with these maps.
Professor Longhair’s resurrection began in 1969, when artist and music fan Hudson Marquez, at the behest of Tulane University’s Dick Allen, tracked the elusive Byrd to a bar on Dryades Street where he distributed cards. Jazz Fest talent scouts Quint Davis and Allison Miner also located him, leading to his festival debut in 1971.
Byrd’s career gradually rebounded. By the end of the decade, with the release of his “Crawfish Fiesta” album and the completion of a documentary film looming, he was ready for even bigger things. His death on January 30, 1980, the day Chicago’s Alligator Records released “Crawfish Fiesta,” ended the greatest success within his reach.
Dr John – the friend and protege considered an ‘invaluable contributor’ to ‘Crawfish Fiesta’ – was among those bereaved.
“By making music spontaneously, Fess created something special,” says Dr. John in his autobiography. “His songs were deeply felt spirituals with a rumba-boogie beat, incantations to the gods jolla-malla-walla.”
‘Me Got Fiyo: The Centenary of Professor Longhair’
9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday; on view until August 6
Capitol Park Museum, 660 N. Fourth St.
$7, adults; $6, students, seniors, military