New Orleans Piano

Professor Longhair

album cover

The Notes of a Wily Professor

The mighty New Orleans pianist Henry Roeland Byrd (1918-1980), better known as Professor Longhair, had a tireless left hand, an ingratiatingly besieged voice, and the rare ability to get a room going all by himself. That's what Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun discovered when he made a pilgrimage to hear the man called "Fess" in 1949: "We came upon a nightclub—or, rather, a shack—which like an animated cartoon appeared to be expanding and deflating with the pulsations of the beat," Ertegun recalled in producer Jerry Wexler's memoir of the Atlantic years. "Instead of a full band, I saw only a single musician—Professor Longhair—playing these weird wide harmonies, using the piano as both a keyboard and a bass drum."

Ertegun, blown away, recorded Byrd playing his originals backed by a full band in 1949 and 1953. These sessions, collected on this blazing disc, codified the tricks of the piano trade as practiced in the Crescent City—usually a syncopated rumba-style bass line sup- porting wild boogie-woogie meanderings. The Atlantic sides, considered by some historians to be a crucial spark in the development of rock and roll, made Byrd a local legend, though not a star. After a long period of dissolution in the 1960s, when for a time he swept the floors of a record shop, he was rediscovered in the early '70s and embraced by a generation that was just beginning to discover the city's rich rhythm and blues heritage. Byrd began recording again; among his best later works are such electrifying live records as Big Chief.

One of the great entertainers, Fess delighted people with his confident stride style and relentless, rollicking sense of swing. His originals "Tipitina" and "Hey Little Girl" push toward an elation that goes beyond words, a conflagration of boogie and jump blues and his own island-tinged "rum boogie" that is as close to pure groove nirvana as most humans ever get.

Genre: Blues, R&B
Released: 1972, Atlantic
Key Tracks: "Tipitina," "Ball the Wall," "Hey Little Girl," "Mardi Gras in New Orleans"
Catalog Choice: Big Chief
Next Stop: James Booker: New Orleans Piano Wizard Live!
After That: Dr. John: Dr. John's Gumbo
Book Page: 616

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