If you're looking for Professor Longhair's lyrics or sheet music, try this new book brought to our attention by C.B. Davis.
Henry Roeland Byrd (a.k.a Professor Longhair) was Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, on December 19, 1918. The Henry Roeland Byrd story is fundamentally the story of an artist who created his own musical world, constantly refining and elaborating a distinctive personal style. It may have been too idosyncratic to ever capture mainstream popularity during Longhair's lifetime, but it was so striking and individual that it ultimately became the definitive standard for New Orleans piano players.
“When he was a child, they didn't have a piano in his house. He and his friends wne tout in the alley and got an old piano that only had a certain number of keys because it was a piano someone had left for the trashman. Most of the keys were broken, and some of the keys didn't have hammers or strings attached to the hammers...How many piano players in their childhood only had eight or ten keys to work with?”
“He progressed not in the general way of the world-he progressed in Professor Longhair's world,” reflects Allen Toussaint. “He didn't seem to have been influenced by the outside world as much as most other people. When Professor Longhair delivered something, it didn't follow any close suit to what the world was into.”
“Fess broke it up everywhere we went - he was as big a hit as Fats Domino was. And I mean literally broke it up. We played Kansas City, and the guy owed us money and wanted to take out the damage Fess had done to the piano by kicking the piano when he played. We wouldn't go for that.”
“But fate apparently dealt Fess a cruel hand aroud that time. He was barred from playing within the New Orleans city limits - one account maintains it was a run-in with the law, while another traces it to a long-running dispute with the local musicians union.”
“There was a factor of not relatin' [to his music] but not because it was old-fashioned,” says Allan Toussaint. “It's not like a whole lot of people were doing his kind of music at one time and then stopped. Through many periods, and I say many because Fess lived through several periods, Fess was always off the beaten path.”
“He did not have a decent piano. That was before New Orleans music and the festival was popular, so there were still overtones of racism and separatism, and there was no place for Byrd. There were no club dates. Once he did come out of retirement, he worked at Tulane University and got some gigs on Bourbon Street.”
“Fess came out and started to play, and it was the one thing that everybody in that audience had in common, that's my theory. Black or white, local or out-of-town, they all had Longhair's music in common, just that mambo-rumba boogie thing. He started to play , and as I was shooting, I looked back from the stage, and everybody from the festival was coming there like lemmings.”
“He didn't let it stop - he didn't let another group from another corner of that area jump in on him. When he stopped playing, there wasn't anybody else playing in the whole festival. They gave up - there wasn't any audience.”
Professor Longhair simply made some of the most captivating music the world has ever known, music that is virtually unrivaled for its pure joyousness. As more people encounter that soothing voice and the sheer verve of his pianistic innovations, they will inevitably be drawn deeper and deeper into the seductive, timeless charms of his music. Because once you learn to rawmp and frolic the Professor Longhair way—
The proceeding was excerpted from the liner notes in the Professor Longhair Anthology (see below).
My Thoughts On Some Longhair CDs.
- Professor Longhair Anthology
This 2 CD set is the one you want for 3 reasons. First, it's from RHINO, and they always do things right. Second, it's got studio tracks on one disc and live tracks on the other. Third, the live version of Big Chief on disc 2 is worth $30 by itself. The first verse is done by another band member. He gets you ready (i.e. he sings the lyrics in a voice you can somewhat understand). Now that you're ready, here comes Fess with the most free-form vocals you'll ever hear. It's Louis Armstrong after 47 shots of espresso. The man can play.
- House Party New Orleans Style-The Lost Sessions
This album is very good and has several tracks not on the other albums shown here. Notably, it has a hilarious song called Cabbage Head.
- Rock N Roll Gumbo
This one's been out longer than all the others, and it seems like the standard. The reviews posted for this one on Amazon are all inspired. I bought it recently and can now say that it is definitely fantastic. It has some songs not on the other albums mentioned here, and the sound quality is excellent. More specific comments will be forthcoming when I have had more time with it.
- Fess' Gumbo
Listen to Fess himself talk about his life and his music. This is really cool. Listening to this will make you really cool. I know. It made me cool.
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