Henry Roeland Byrd : "Fess"©2007JCMarion


In Bogalusa, Louisiana, in December of 1918 was born Henry Roeland Byrd to Ella and James. As a young boy Henry soon moved to New Orleans where his mother found work as a piano player. Henry made spare change on the streets of the city as an acrobatic tap dancer. The music bug hit Henry and soon was trying his chops at guitar and then piano. In his twenties, Byrd from time to time came under the tutelage of many of the piano players in the city such as Rock Sullivan, Kid Stormy Weather, Champion Jack Dupree, and Tuts Washington. Besides his music he led a bit of a nomadic life with time in the army, as a cook, in construction, and even as a prize fighter. By the pst war forties he decided to concentrate on his musical opportunities. He organized a small combo and began to get regular bookings in the late nineteen forties.

His bend opened at the Caledonia Inn and soon was bestowed with the nickname "Professor Longhair". The name stuck and Henry Byrd had found his niche. The first notice of the new piano stylist was the very sound of his playing. It was different from most of the other city players. It featured what was called many years before by Jelly Roll Morton as "the Latin tinge". In January of 1950 Byrd now recording for Atlantic recorded the great tune "Mardi Gras In New Orleans" and "She Walks Right In" on # 897 as by Professor Longhair & His New Orleans Boys. By April Star Talent Records of Dallas, Texas, was promoting the Professor as was Mercury Records calling his combo The Blues Jumpers. In April "She Ain't Got No Hair" on Star Talent # 809 becomes a big seller in New Orleans. The flip side "Bye Bye Baby" is also a good seller. In May the tune now called "Bald Head" is released on Mercury # 8175 to good sales, and the legal battle is on. The Mercury side wins out and by September the record is a national R & B hit entering the best seller charts in New York and Philadelphia. The follow up record for Mercury is "Her Mind Is Gone" and "Oh Well " on # 8184 as by Roy Byrd. At the end of the year "Mind" is re-released with "Hadacol Bounce" on the flip side which has good sales for Byrd.

In January of 1951 "Bald Head" on Mercury is still a top R & B seller now gaining popularity on the West Coast. For much of the year Byrd continues to do many club dates in New Orleans and the surrounding area of southern Louisiana. "Hey Little Girl" recorded for Atlantic on # 947 and listed as by Roy Byrd becomes a top seller in the fall of the year. At year's end Federal Records announces that it has signed Byrd to that label. In March of 1952 Federal releases "K.C. Boogie" and "Curly Haired Baby" as by Roy "Bald Head" Byrd on # 12061. By May Byrd follows that record up with "Rockin With Fess" and Gone So Long" on # 12073 for Federal. In October of 1953 Atlantic Records announces that it has signed two New Orleans R & B performers, Tommy Ridgely and Professor Longhair, as Byrd returns to the label after four years.

In February of 1954, Atlantic records Byrd and releases "Tipitina" and "In The Night" on # 1020 as by Professor Longhair & His Blues Scholars. The 'A' side "Tipitina" becomes a big R & B hit leading off in New Orleans and then making national inroads. It is the first time many listeners had heard the unique piano stylings and vocals of Byrd and his influence among musicians began to take hold. By the summer of 1954 Byrd had virtually disappeared from the music scene. There were rumors about health problems, legal troubles, and other speculation. The fact was however that Byrd did not record again until 1957 and then with a West Coast rock 'n roll label Ebb Records. In May of 1957 "No Buts-No Maybes" and "Cry Pretty Baby" is released on # 101. This was followed by "Misery" and "Look What You're Doing To Me" on # 106 a month later. "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" and "Looka No Hair" was released by Ebb on # 121 late in the year, all as by Professor Longhair.

In 1959 Byrd returns to a local label as he records for Ron Records located on Rampart Street in New Orleans. The label issues "Cutting Out" and "If I Only Knew" on Ron # 326. In the trade press Professor Longhair is called the "Dean of the Rock 'n Roll Beat". By 1960 the changing trends in American music took its toll on Byrd and once again he disappeared from the music scene. It wasn't until 1971 that he was "rediscovered" for the newly organized "New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival". He became a top performer at the festival, and after some other difficulties were ironed out, by the late seventies he was a much in demand musician. He began to play at European blues and jazz shows and attracted a whole new audience. He toured the country and got a recording contract with Alligator Records. Just as his album "Crawfish Fiesta" was released Roeland "Roy" Byrd, Professor Longhair passed away in January of 1980 at the age of 62.

As one of the foremost influences of the R & B sound emanating from the crescent city of New Orleans, there are a great many examples of his music reflecting his life and times that are available for listeners the world over. The best starting point is the two cd 40 track recording from Rhino called "Anthology". It covers his history from the early fifties on, and features Byrd with diverse musicians from New Orleans such as Dr. John and Allan Toussaint. Concentrating on Fess Atlantic sides in 1949 to 1953 is "New Orleans Piano" featuring 16 trax from Atlantic. A concise import is "Professor Longhair : 1949" from French Jazz Classics from 2001. "Rock & Roll Gumbo" is from Windham Hill and also features "Gatemouth" Brown and a horn section that was added later than the 1974 original recording date. "Crawfish Fiesta" is from the late 70s on Alligator with 12 trax. An interesting live cd is from 1978 called "Ball The Wall : Live At Tipitinas" for Night Train. "House Party New Orleans Style" is an 1987 release from Rounder with Snooks Eaglin and Ziggy Modeliste. Another Rhino release is "Mardi Gras In Baton Rouge" from 1991, and "Rum And Coke" for Tomato is a cd from 93. More recent releases are "Big Easy Strut" for Fuel 2000 in '02 and Mojo Gumbo" an import from Holland on Blues Factory in '06. As always with a major artist with many cds on hand, look for duplication of songs on the different recordings.

Professor Longhair was a true American original, one whose influence will probably never be accurately measured. But as long as there is a piano handy down at the confluence of the Mississippi and the gulf, Fess will be heard once more.

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