LONGHAIR

longhair

Atlantic SD 7225 – Professor Longhair, “New Orleans Piano” [Blues Originals Vol. 2]

 

Well, I’m going to New Orleans, I wanna see the Mardi Gras When I see the Mardi Gras, I wanna know what Carnival for.

Going down to New Orleans, I got the ticket in my hand,   When I get to New Orleans, I wanna see the Zulu king.

Way down in New Orleans, down on Rampart and Dumaine, Going to make it my standing place, until I see the Zulu Queen.

(“PROFESSOR LONGHAIR”)

 

New Orleans is well known as a jazz- city – even erroneously referred to as the town in which jazz was born. It was one of the major contributors to recorded jazz history due to the movement of musicians North where recording was done – Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago – so that it has gained the major focus of jazz historians. Oddly, since blues is the major point about which jazz revolves, there was little blues recording in the city. Of the sides done by the major companies in New Orleans, the majority were gospel, with only a smattering of blues material recorded. The lack of local talent in is credible – the blues people recorded from other areas, like the McCoys, or the Chatman brothers from the Memphis area – so that Richard “Rabbit” Brown is probably the only “country” blues artist of any note recorded there. Others from the general area recorded elsewhere – Lonnie Johnson recorded in New York and Chicago, and became part of the Texas traditions.

So there was little [straight] blues recording in New Orleans, and seemingly no blues tradition typical of the city as seen from the tip of the iceberg called commercial recording. That this must be an incomplete picture can be seen by the jazz [presence], as well as recollections of musicians that worked in the area. The main instrument involved [seems to have been] the piano, with two basic groupings – the more sophisticated, trained “professors” and the cruder honky-tonk and barrelhouse players. Into the former category one could place Jelly Roll Morton, or Clarence Williams, while “Boogus” (who could only play the black keys), or “Kid Stormy Weather” fit into the latter. With clubs and whorehouses galore, there were many opportunities for work and there was often a great exchange of ideas and techniques.

The more adept players usually ended up in bands, usually a jazz/dance band, while the cruder sorts stayed at home and played the rent parties and barrelhouses. Both strains of pianists remained extant for some time, with people such as Little Brother Montgomery (see Atlantic LP 7227) or Champion Jack Dupree (see Atlantic LP 8255) drawing (in different degrees) on both. One of the pianists who was much influenced by the cruder players was one Professor Longhair.

You may not have heard of Longhair, but he sure can sing and has given me a lot of musical inspiration. Professor Longhair – well playing what we call “fellin’ music”. But he never did get off the ground; always was a local guy. He’s a good songwriter and he a lot of hits out [here], but nothing really national. I was still at school when he was having hit discs. We meet regularly in small clubs in New Orleans.[1]                                                        

                                     Clarence “Frogman” Henry

For many years the name of Professor Longhair had meant a lot to Europeans as the romantic pseudonym, his weird music and tales of his exploits by visiting bluesmen turned him into a legend. Not only were his records great, but he appeared to have influenced the many really well known post-war New Orleans pianists at some stage of their careers. Including Alan Toussaint, Huey [“Piano”] Smith, Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), James Booker, and Fats Domino. To this day, these men venerate Longhair as their true guru and cher maitre, and speak of him with deep love and respect. He was reputed to be ancient, old, bald, only semi-bald, very tall, alive, dead, still on the scene, and retired. At last the collecting world got something definite! He was seen sweeping out a record shop in New Orleans and as a result I got the word that his address was at last known. On April 9, 1970, I flew into New Orleans with my ticket in my hand and a couple of friends, and we teamed up with James LaRocca, a local blues freak who had turned up Longhair. We didn’t see the Mardi Gras, but we got to Rampart Street and there in a decaying house next to a rowdy saloon lived the Professor. We soon learned why he was seen sweeping out a record shop – he was down and out, and very sad, as neglect, frustration, and poor health had taken their toll. The man we met was no longer the big recording artist, but an old man, forgotten by friends, the public, and the music industry. Well, he thought the public had forgotten, the arrival of three Englishmen on his door-step quite shattered him and it was great to see a smile return to his face as we talked about those old records he made.

Longhair’s real name is Roy Byrd. He was born in Bogalusa, a Klan-dominated town on the Pearl River, on December 19, 1918 and raised in New Orleans, the town he has given his life and music to. As a youth he hustled for tips with a group of friends by forming a little street-corner band playing home-made instruments. “I was doin’ the dancin’, they was doin’ the playin’”[2] Byrd recalls, and this pastime led to a deepening interest in music, especially that of the piano. In his ’teens, Longhair began to hang around the clubs and joints of New Orleans following the pianists. He’d watch and listen, when people like “Kid Stormy Weather”, Robert Bertrand, and Sullivan Rock went to work on the keyboard, he watched and later tried to repeat their performances. He had a natural talent and learning by ear, he began to add to his imitations, gradually developing a style that is still unique and still his own.

People liked what he sang and played, so he took part-time jobs in any club that would hire him. He began to meet other musicians and soon found that he was leading a small band with which he got his first break. In 1949, Dave Bartholomew was the local “king” and one night Longhair dropped in to the Caledonia Inn to listen to him. When Dave’s pianist stepped down for a break, up stepped Longhair asking if he could “sit in”. The crowd went wild over the “new” sound that filled the club as Longhair took over the piano and more people came in off the street to see what was happening! The owner of the club noticed the extra business he was handling, fired Bartholomew and hired Longhair! So Roy Byrd was on his way up and also a nickname. As he and his band looked sharp and had unusually long hair for the time, they were dubbed “Professor Longhair and the Four Hairs Combo” by the Caledonia Inn. The band started out with Byrd on piano, Robert Parker on sax, Walter “Papoose” Nelson on guitar, and “Big Stick” playing drums – the last was later replaced by Al Miller, who also doubled on trumpet. Nelson was a fine guitarist, and he stayed with Longhair pretty much up to the time of his death while still quite young [30] in 1967.

When Jesse Erickson came into town a year later, seeking talent for his Star Talent label, he was steered to this new sensation and in a makeshift studio in the Hi Hat Club, Longhair cut his most popular song, She Ain’t Got No Hair as by Prof. Longhair and his Shuffling Hungarians! Before the record could break, Star Talent was forced out of business for holding non-union sessions, but Longhair’s name got to the important people. William B. Allen, owner of a radio shop in New Orleans and a talent scout, introduced him to the representative for Mercury Records. A session quickly took place in a Canal Street studio and She Ain’t Got No Hair was redone as Bald Head. To avoid potential contractual problems, Professor Longhair became Roy Byrd again and in 1950 his Mercury recording hit the national rhythm and blues charts. Before Mercury could get hold of Longhair again, he had switched to Atlantic following a meeting at Cosimo’s studio with Ahmet Ertegun and some financial disagreements with Mercury. Continuing to record as Roy Byrd or Roland Byrd, Longhair cut several records for Atlantic without repeating his initial success. The main reason appearing to be that he would not go on national tour to promote himself. But his records were big in Louisiana and he was making good money and times were pretty good [for him].

In 1951 he switched to Federal, having some success with Gone So Long, but record-wise things were quiet until 1953 when he rejoined Atlantic. He recorded again for Atlantic with a studio band as Professor Longhair for the first time since 1949 and the first release, Tipitina, was a southern hit. Again, nothing happened afterwards and it was four years before he got on record again. In 1957 he cut several sides for Ebb and in 1959 got a further hit with a local label called Ron. This was the famous Go To The Mardi Gras, which still is played every year in New Orleans during the big carnival. Once more something went wrong and Longhair stayed out of the studio for six years. When he made his locally successful Big Chief for Watch in 1965, it was a last fling and nothing has happened since and the future looks bleak.

Longhair’s strength lay in his songs and a piano style that he describes as a mixture of “rumba, mambo, and calypso.” His voice is hoarse and inclined to crack in the high register, but somehow in can carry a melody and has a tremendous appeal. Musically he is somewhat limited, but his sound is so novel and off-beat that no one really cares! Given a backing of typical New Orleans drummers and sax-men, Longhair is a part of New Orleans music history and his records mean humor and enjoyment, which this album will indicate well. Featuring every number he cut for Atlantic, the tracks are taken from two sessions, one being held in late 1949 and the other in late 1953. The difference in theses sessions is easy to detect for songs from latter have a crisper quality and a heavier beat. Sax solos in the tradition of Fats Domino recordings have also been introduced in keeping with the times.

Among the early cuts are two instrumental examples of the Longhair technique; the Blues Rhumba and Boogie Woogie. Also featured is the original and rather beautiful Mardi Gras in New Orleans with a catchy lyric and some gentle whistling. Then there is good advice in Walk Your Blues Away and the women blues of Hey Now Baby and Willie Mae. The sax work of Robert “Barefootin” Parker and Charles Burbeck aided by the insistent drumming of John Woodrow provide the kind of backing that only New Orleans can produce. From the last date comes an alternate take of Tipitina, one of the great New Orleans blues with a gentle beat and melody and Who’s Been Fooling You, made famous by Big Boy Myles. Ball the Wall is an invitation to fun and In The Night is what it is all about! Thirteen of Longhair’s finest at once is almost too much, but here they are with a hope that your pleasure may save a man from poverty and obscurity. [ed. That’s what happened!]

When we left Longhair, we left with a lot of heartbreak. It is always a bad moment finding a hero in very tough circumstances, but I hope our visit gave him a little hope. He is sill a legend, even after rediscovery, and perhaps the album will bring him the attention he deserves. Down on Rampart Street the juke box still blares, the drums still fight and Longhair waits for another chance, another excellent talent needlessly neglected as a result of the passing of fancies of the music business. Give him a listen; you’ll hear what I mean.

 

MIKE LEADBITTER – 1972                                                                                                                 co-Editor                                                                                                                                            BLUES UNLIMITED                                                                                                                     (with: Peter B. Lowry, contributor)

“Blues Originals” series concept and album production: Pete Lowry (a/k/a Peter B. Lowry)

 

Note: Since this writing, Longhair has come to the attention of Albert Grossman, who I understand is arranging for him to record again. A young New Orleans jazz enthusiast name Quint Davis took Longhair into a studio in Baton Rouge in mid-1971 and made some twenty-two excellent demonstration sides with bass, drums, and guitar backing. The guitarist was the legendary Snooks Eaglin. Longhair was playing and singing at the very top of his power – better than ever. These tapes were heard by Grossman and [members of] The Band in Woodstock.

– Jerry Wexler                                                                                    

Vice President                                                                                                                                    Atlantic Records

 New Orleans Insert

Songs and personnel:

A- Professor Longhair & His Blues Scholars/Roland Byrd/Roy “Baldhead” Byrd:A -Roy Byrd (vo/pno), Lee Allen (ten), Red Tyler (bari), Edgar Blanchard (bs), Earl Palmer (dms).                                                                                                                                                   Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun & Jerry Wexler

B- Roy Byrd (vo/pno). Robert Parker (alt), Al Miller or John Woodrow (dms), Charles Burbeck (ten?), unk (bs).                                                                                                             Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun & Herb Abramson

 

“In The Night” -A                                                                                                                               “Tipitina” -A                                                                                                                                              “Hey Now Baby” –B                                                                                                                            “Walk Your Blues Away” –B                                                                                                                  “Hey Little Girl” -B                                                                                                                            “Willie Mae” -B                                                                                                                             “Professor Longhair Blues” –B

“Ball The Wall” –A                                                                                                                            “Who’s Been Fooling You” -A                                                                                                             “Boogie Woogie” –B                                                                                                                   “Longhair’s Blues-Rhumba” –B                                                                                                       “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” –B                                                                                                         “She Walks Right In” –B

 

[1] Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Soul Music Monthly, No.1 (1967)

[2] “Behind the Sun”, Leadbitter and Broven, BLUES UNLIMITED No. 76, Oct. 1970.

New Orleans Back

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