Professor Longhair Biography

Henry Roeland Byrd, 19 December 1918, Bogalusa, Louisiana, USA, d. 30 January 1980, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Byrd grew up in New Orleans where he was part of a novelty dance team in the 30s. He also played piano, accompanying John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson. After wartime service, Byrd gained a residency at the Caldonia club, whose owner christened him Professor Longhair. By now, he had developed a piano style that combined rumba and mambo elements with more standard boogie-woogie and barrelhouse rhythms. Particularly through his most ardent disciple, Dr. John, Longhair has become recognized as the most influential New Orleans R&B pianist since Jelly Roll Morton.

In 1949 Longhair made the first record of his most famous tune, ‘Mardi Gras In New Orleans’, for the Star Talent label, which credited the artist as Professor Longhair And His Shuffling Hungarians. He next recorded ‘Baldhead’ for Mercury Records as Roy Byrd and his Blues Jumpers and the song became a national R&B hit in 1950. Soon there were more singles on Atlantic Records (a new version of ‘Mardi Gras’ and the well-known ‘Tipitina’ in 1953) and Federal. A mild stroke interrupted Longhair’s career in the mid-50s and for some years he performed infrequently apart from at Carnival season when a third version of his topical song, ‘Go To The Mardi Gras’ (1958), received extensive radio play.

Despite recording Earl King’s ‘Big Chief’ in 1964, Longhair was virtually inactive throughout the 60s. He returned to the limelight at the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1971 when, accompanied by Snooks Eaglin, he received standing ovations. (A recording of the concert was finally issued in 1987.) This led to European tours in 1973 and 1975 and to recordings with Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and for Harvest Records. Longhair’s final album, for Alligator Records, was completed shortly before he died of a heart attack in January 1980. In 1991 he was posthumously inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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