The very first instrument I played was the bottom of my feet, workin' out rhythms, tap dancing. We used to dance up and down Bourbon Street.

Henry Roeland Byrd

Professor Longhair (or just Fess) is the stage name of Henry Roeland Byrd, legendary New Orleans blues pianist. Fess' distinctive boogie-woogie style and heavily percussive bass lines (with a dash of rhumba or mambo) would come to influence the likes of Dr. John, Fats Domino, James Booker and Ed Volker (of the Radiators), as well as the creation of the Creole genre.

Born on December 19, 1918 in Bogalusa, LA but raised in New Orleans, "Roy" started playing (he learned piano from his mother, a pianist, and the local church) on a shoddy piano found in a trash pile that had only 10 or so working keys; he also learned to play the drums. He began playing music as a street performer in the 30s, citing influences like Stormy Weather and Tuts Washington, but earned most of his money shining shoes and selling newspapers. He learned to dance from watching Bill "Bojangles" Robinson; he also had a habit of kicking the piano with his right foot when really getting into his music. After performing next to Champion Jack Dupree, Jack offered Roy a couple singing lessons if he would show Jack some of his piano work. Roy also picked up the principles of boogie from little-known pianist Sullivan Rock. He supplemented his small income by gambling and unorganized boxing; the 135-pound boxer was known as "Whirlwind."

After being discharged from the Army in 1943, he started leading and playing piano in small groups like the Four Hairs Combo and Professor Longhair and his Shuffling Hungarians. His title of "professor" was given in 1947 by Mike Tessitore, the owner of the old Caldonia Inn: "We had long hair in those days and it was almost against the law. Mike said, 'I'm going to keep this band — we'll call you Professor Longhair and the Four Hairs Combo'" (Byrd). After working in Dave Bartholomew's big band in 1949, he started recording for labels Star Talent, Mercury and Atlantic. Sources differ on the reasons (trouble with the law or friction with other local musicians), but in the mid 50s he was banned from playing in New Orleans and disappeared from the scene for several years.

Fess was not seen until around the late 60s, when he was working as a janitor in a record store. However, in 1971 he got the Four Hairs Combo back together for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (he played there every year until his death). After that he was appering in local clubs again, and before long he was performing at festivals in Newport and Chicago, and even went on tours of North America and Europe, headlining at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1973). In 1975, Paul McCartney flew Fess to California to play at a private party on the Queen Mary.

He died in his sleep on January 30, 1980, in New Orleans, just as his popularity had caught up with what it should have been forty years earlier, and on the day that his now most well-known album (Crawfish Fiesta) was released on Alligator. A documentary taped the massive New Orleans jazz funeral at the request of his widow. He was posthumously inducted into the W. C. Handy Blues Hall of Fame on November 16, 1981, and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 15, 1992.

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.

Jerry Wexler, producer of some of Fess' Atlantic recordings (italics mine)

1953: New Orleans Piano — Blues Originals, vol. 2 (Atlantic Jazz)
1974: Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo (Dancing Cat)
1975: Live on the Queen Mary (One Way Records) (recorded live, March 24, 1975; out of print)
1978: Big Chief (Tomato)
1979: The Big Easy (Blue Moon UK) (recorded live, 1949 & 1979 out of print)
1980: Crawfish Fiesta (Alligator Records) (with Dr. John on guitar)
1982: The Last Mardi Gras (Rhino Records) (out of print)
1990: New Orleans Houseparty (Demon Records [import])
1991: Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge (Rhino Records) (recorded live, 1970s: Baton Rouge & Memphis)
1993: Rum and Coke (Tomato) (recorded live, February 3–4, 1978: Tipitina's, New Orleans)
1993: 'Fess — Anthology (Rhino Records)
1994: Live: Like You Like Him (Collectables) (out of print)
1996: Fess' Gumbo (Stony Plain Canada) (includes five interviews)
1997: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans (MIL Multimedia)
1997: Go to the Mardi Gras (Wolf [UK import])
1998: The Complete London Concert (JSP [import]) (recorded live, 1978: the New London Theatre)
1999: Mardi Gras in New Orleans (Aim Records [import])
2000: Professor Longhair's Boogie (Catfish) (out of print)
2001: 1949 (Classics Jazz France)
2001: Byrd's Blues (TKO Collectors)
2002: Big Easy Strut (Fuel 2000 Records)
?: Live in Germany (New Rose)

An entire catalog of his music is available from the Don Williams Music Group.

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