Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Great Vintage Blues #16: Professor Longhair

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Three years ago this week, the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed just east of New Orleans, breaching its seawalls and flooding 80 percent of the city, killing thousands and dealing a shattering blow to what is arguably the most important city in the development of American music. The rest of that story's probably pretty familiar to most of you so I won't belabor the point, but it seemed appropriate this week to take the G.V.B. series down to the Big Easy and focus on one of its greatest and most influential musicians, pianist Henry Roeland Byrd (1918-1980), best known as Professor Longhair, or just "Fess."

Here's his most famous tune, "Tipitina," which lent its name to a famous New Orleans club:

A street kid with a penchant for cards and gambling, Byrd supposedly got started as a musician after finding a broken piano on the street, dragging it home, and painstakingly repairing it. Given New Orleans' long history as a cultural crossroads, for a long time there was probably no better city in America except maybe New York for an artist to soak in the influences of many different sounds and styles. Byrd's driving and highly individual style on the keyboards drew especially from Caribbean and Latin music, as well as the freewheeling jazz that New Orleans had already made its own when he began recording in the 1940s. (Before he took up the piano full-time, he was in the Army, worked as a cook, and had a brief and disastrous career as a boxer, losing his only fight and, to make things worse, his teeth.) Though he was recognized by other musicians as an innovative groundbreaker early on, his career was remarkably messed-up, considering how much he affected the development of future artists—he was formative on the late-1940s/early-1950s R&B; that would mutate into rock 'n' roll and sweep the nation through guys like Fats Domino and Chubby Checker, and later still re-emerged as funk. Fess only had one hit, "Bald Head," and though his 1950s recording career produced a few indisputable classics like "Tipitina," he eventually sank into obscurity and was forced to work as a janitor in a record store. Rediscovered in the late 1960s, though, he was recognized as the genius he is, and enjoyed his last decade as one of New Orleans music's acknowledged masters.

Here's a short documentary on Professor Longhair— it's narrated in Japanese, but starting about 1:30 in, there's an English interview and a short performance by his protégé, pianist Allen Toussaint, himself a big figure in New Orleans music who lived through the Katrina disaster and returned to the city to record the first album made in New Orleans post-hurricane, The River In Reverse, with Elvis Costello.

Another "Tipitina," this time recorded sometime in the 1970s with the legendary Nawlins funk combo The Meters backing him, as they do on all the rest of the clips in this post.

"Every Day I Have The Blues":

"She Ain't Got No Hair":

"Whole Lotta Loving":

"Hey Little Girl":

"Walk Right In" and "Shake, Rattle & Roll":

Fess' other signature tune, "Big Chief," joined by Dr. John, Earl King, and The Meters:


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