Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd - better known to the world as Professor Longhair or “Fess,” for short - stands as the foremost exponent of New Orleans piano style.
Byrd’s idiosyncratic style is a rhythmic jambalaya reflecting the freewheeling, good-time spirit of the Crescent City. Professor Longhair soaked up influences from close-at-hand sources - barrelhouse boogie-woogie, Caribbean rhythms like the rumba (many of his relatives were West Indian), and the Crescent City’s “second line” parade rhythms - but the way he pieced these elements together is what made his style such a marvel of fluidity and drive. He has been hailed as “the Picasso of keyboard funk” and “the Bach of rock.”
Professor Longhair also served to influence profoundly a generation of New Orleans pianists that came up behind him, many of whom made their mark in the interlocking worlds of rhythm & blues and rock and roll. Some of his more prominent musical heirs include Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John), Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, James Booker and Allen Toussaint.
He was born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and lived in New Orleans from the age of two onward. As a child, he learned how to play on an old piano that had been left in an alley. He seriously began to master the instrument while working at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1937.
After a stint in the service during World War II, he returned to New Orleans and began playing at clubs like the Caledonia, a neighborhood bar just outside the French Quarter. He was called Professor Longhair, the “professor” part being an honorary nickname bestowed on New Orleans piano wizards. He first recorded in 1949 and scored his one and only R&B chart hit with “Bald Head,” released on Mercury Records, a year later. Soon after, he was signed to Atlantic Records and began recording under the aegis of the label’s producer/executives, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.
As a vocalist, Professor Longhair was a classic blues shouter. As a pianist, he was a unique force of nature - or, more accurately, New Orleans. It was a city whose sense of festivity he celebrated with such anthems as “Tipitina” (now the name of the city’s most fabled music club), “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Big Chief.” Longhair remained locally popular as a working musician from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, rarely venturing off his home turf. He abandoned the music business in 1964 to work odd jobs and deal cards for a living. After languishing in obscurity Professor Longhair was rediscovered and enlisted to play at the second New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1971. His comeback included tours of Europe and albums for major labels as a new generation discovered his inimitable “mambo-rumba-boogie” style. All the while he remained the patron saint of Jazzfest, closing out the final show each year until his death in 1980.